Eddie Koiki Mabo will forever be associated with native title and the land rights movement, but he could not have achieved as much as he did without the support of his wife, Ernestine Bonita Mabo (known as Netta to friends and family). Koiki indicated that his political knowledge and involvement came in part from his discussions with Bonita, as her initial resistance to political movements such as the Communist and Labor Parties prompted him to talk through the issues with her, but her willingness to listen and prompt him to rethink his opinions helped him to work through his thoughts on the matter. Bonita Mabo was involved in most of Koiki’s endeavours in some capacity. Koiki noted that, “she … became very supportive in whatever schemes I was involved in. She was there all the time; and I could rely on her to help me prepare towards whatever we were doing” (Loos and Mabo, 1996, p. 132). In his Mabo Lecture in 2013, Bryan Keon-Cohen noted that Bonita’s contribution was “second to none.”
Bonita was one of the key figures in the Black Community School, and was a leader within the community in her own right. After Koiki’s death, Bonita continued to be a guiding light in the community, advocating towards education and human rights. Her contributions to the rights of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander peoples lead to her being appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2013, and conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by James Cook University in 2018.
Bonita was born Ernestine Bonita Nehow and grew up in a South Sea Islander community known as “The Gardens”, near Halifax in North Queensland. Her family is of South Sea Islander decent, her grandfather having come from Tanna Island (now part of Vanuatu) as part of the “blackbirding” of the 19th century.
Bonita met Eddie Koiki Mabo. He attended a wedding in her community and they talked. He asked to walk her home but she declined, saying he was too drunk. They kept in contact with letters while Koiki worked on the railway in western Queensland.
On 10th October 1959, Bonita married Eddie Koiki Mabo in Ingham, North Queensland, at the Methodist Church.
They lived for a time at Jardine Valley, with Bonita working as a domestic hand at the station and Koiki working on the railway. After falling pregnant with their first child, Eddie Junior, she spent some time living between Ingham and western Queensland.
The Mabo family moved to Townsville, where they raised their family. They had seven children and adopted three others in Islander tradition, raising 10 children.
Bonita co-founded the first Black Community School in Australia, working as a teaching aide for a part-time wage and donating more time to administration and support work. For a time, when Koiki left his position as a gardener at James Cook University to volunteer full-time at the school, Bonita’s part-time wage supported the Mabo family.
Bonita and Koiki spent some time on Mer Island, spending time between the island and Townsville.
Bonita and Koiki completed a bookkeeping course in Townsville with a view to opening a shop on Mer. Bonita assisted and supported Koiki as the Mabo case worked through the courts.
On 21 January, 1992, Bonita lost her husband to cancer. Koiki stipulated in his diary “how his property should be distributed and how his wife, Netta should be respected” (Mabo and Loos, 1996, p. 172).
Five months after losing Koiki, Bonita and three of her children (Eddie Jnr, Mal and Jessie) drove 3,000 kilometres south to hear the outcome of the Mabo case. On the way, they received news that the case was found in favour of the plaintiffs – they had won.
In November, 1992, Bonita accepted a Human Rights Medal on behalf of Eddie Koiki Mabo, along with the other plaintiffs (or their representatives) in the Mabo case.
Bonita attended the naming of the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library as the guest of honour.
Bonita Mabo was portrayed by Deborah Mailman in the movie Mabo, directed by Rachel Perkins and produced by Darren Dale and Miranda Dear of Blackfella Films.
Officer of the Order of Australia
On 26 January, 2013, Bonita is appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia “For distinguished service to the Indigenous community and to human rights as an advocate for the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander peoples” (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, n.d.).
May 31, 2018
On 31 May 2018, during a visit to the Sydney Observatory by the New South Wales judicial commission’s Ngara Yura Program, a star was named in honour of Bonita Mabo. Her daughter, Gail Mabo, attended in Bonita’s place as she was unwell. The star, named “Bonita” (SSC 803544, Dec –63° 01’ 14.1”), is located in the Constellation of Crux (Marks, 2018), which forms part of the Tagai constellation of the Torres Strait Islander culture.
November 17, 2018
Bonita Mabo AO honoured by James Cook University
Bonita Mabo AO, remembered as the “Mother of Native Title”, receives an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from JCU, a week before she passes. The Doctorate recognises Bonita’s outstanding contributions to education and human rights. The Doctorate was awarded at a private ceremony, given Dr Mabo’s failing health.
November 26, 2018
Dr Ernestine Bonita Mabo AO died on 26 November, 2018, after a battle with ill health.
December 6, 2018
Bonita was laid to rest in a State Funeral in Townsville.
At the funeral, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk stated: “Bonita’s story is powerful. It’ll be told and retold as a beacon to generations to follow her lead” (Queensland Government, 2018).