Mabo’s Early Years: 1930s-1960s


Eddie Koiki Mabo was a Meriam man of the Piadaram clan. He was born and raised in the village of Las, on Mer Island (also known as Murray Island), and even though he had to leave the island in his teens, he always regarded Mer as his home. He was the biological son of Robert Zezou Sambo and Annie Poipe Mabo, but on his mother’s death he was adopted, in traditional Mer custom, by his maternal uncle, Benny Mabo, becoming heir to the Mabo family lands on Mer according to the traditional customs of the island. He was exiled from the island for a time after a youthful indiscretion, and picked up work in mainland Queensland on boats and the railways. During this time he began to be involved in unions and other politically active organisations. He met his future wife, Bonita, while working near Ingham and they married soon afterwards, eventually settling in Townsville.


June 29, 1936

Edward Koiki Sambo was born on Mer, the 5th child of Robert Zezou Sambo and Annie Poipe Mabo. His mother died shortly after, and his father, in line with Islander custom, arranged for Koiki to be adopted by Benny and Maiga Mabo, who were Koiki’s maternal uncle and aunt.


Koiki realised his love of learning early in life and was captivated by Meriam culture. While living on Mer, he became fluent in Meriam, Torres Strait Creole and English. Koiki’s teacher and private tutor, Bob Miles, noticed his learning potential early on and offered encouragement. Koiki taught the Meriam language to Miles, while learning English in return. Koiki learned more than just language from Miles – he learned how to understand mainland culture, and how to navigate both cultures, both worlds. While living on Mer, Koiki worked as an interpreter and a teacher’s aide.

Duaur and Mer Islands in the Torres Straits © Image provided by Trevor Graham, Yarra Bank Films.


Robert (Bob) Miles
Robert (Bob) Miles. Photo courtesy of Joan Miles. © Image provided by Trevor Graham, Yarra Bank Films.


When Eddie was 16 years old he was exiled from Mer (on 2 February 1956) by the Murray Islands Court for drinking alcohol, which went against the community government’s bylaws. At the time there was already a mainland community of Torres Strait Islanders who had migrated following the collapse of the local economy after World War Two. The island economy – based on pearling and fishing for trochus and beche de mer – was no longer sustainable. Koiki worked for a time as a deckhand and a diver on a trochus boat (the Adiana) in the Torres Strait before moving further south and getting work on the railways.

Many Islanders had migrated to the Queensland towns of Cairns, Innisfail, Mackay, Halifax, Ingham and Townsville, so Koiki was able to live and work amongst those from his homeland community whilst in northern Queensland.


Pearling boat with men standing on the deck
Pearling Boat used in the pearling industry, Queensland, 1953-57. Benny Mabo worked on this boat.​ © Mabo Family Collection.


Koiki was a union representative for Torres Strait Islanders on the Townsville-Mount Isa rail reconstruction project, and was later the Islander representative on the Trades and Labour Council. He served as secretary of the Aborigines Advancement League (Queensland), and during the 1967 “YES” Referendum campaign, he assisted in organising the Inter-Racial Seminar, “We the Australians: What is to Follow the Referendum?”


Torres Strait Islander workmen laying railway tracks in 1973
Torres Strait Islander workers constructing railway for transporting nickel ore from Greenvale to Yabulu, Queensland, 1973. Photograph: Wolfgang Sievers, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-161678237


While working on the railways in 1958, Koiki met Ernestine Bonita Nehow (Bonita) at a wedding in Ingham. They exchanged letters for some months while he was working in west Queensland, and they married 10 October 1959. They moved to Townsville in 1962 with their first child, Eddie Junior. Koiki worked as a deck hand on the Lalor, but felt the Townsville Harbour Board was persecuting him for his political activism and left to work at James Cook University.

Between 1960 and 1972, Koiki and Bonita had seven children and adopted three more, raising 10 children as their own.


Man and woman in summer clothing, sitting on concrete steps in front of a building.
Koiki and Bonita Mabo, Jardine Valley ca. 1961 © Mabo Family Collection. Image courtesy of Yarra Bank Films

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Eddie Koiki Mabo: History in the Making Copyright © by James Cook University Library. All Rights Reserved.