ERNESTINE Bonita Mabo AO (1943 – November 26, 2018), was an Australian educator and activist for Aboriginal Australians, Torres Strait Islanders, and Australian South Sea Islanders who passed away yesterday.
She was the widow of legendary Torres Strait land activist Eddie Mabo.
Bonita Mabo was born in Halifax, Queensland and was an Australian South Sea Islander of Ni-Vanuatu descent whose ancestors were ‘blackbirded’ to work in the sugar cane industry in Queensland. Her grandfather was blackbirded from Tanna in Vanuatu.
On May 31, 2018, a star was named in her honour at the Sydney Observatory, during the visit of the NSW Judicial Commission’s Ngara Yura Program to the Observatory. Her daughter Ms Gail Mabo was present, since Bonita was ill. Another star, Koiki, had been named in memory of Eddie Koiki Mabo in 2015 on the 23rd anniversary of the Mabo decision.
She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia on Australia Day 2013
On November 17, 2018, James Cook University conferred upon Bonita Mabo an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the community at a private ceremony held in Brisbane.
Bonita Mabo died in Brisbane on November 26, 2018.
Below is an interview she did in the The National Indigenous Times in 2012 with Editor Stephen Hagan.
SH: Who’s your mob Aunty Bonita?
I was born in Ingham in north Queensland. My people (Neehows) are from the Malanbarra Clan from Palm Island on my mother’s side.
My Dad can trace his people to Tanna Island in Vanuatu.
My Grandmother had seven daughters and they all lived together with their family in the gully in Halifax.
SH: What can you tell me of your school years.
All us kids went to Halifax State School. I really liked maths and history and got on well with all the teachers. Back in those days we never had racism at school or at least I never experienced any.
What I can remember is walking three kilometres from our home to school along the road and sometimes we’d take a short cut and cross over the railway line. Us kids enjoyed the long walk, talking and enjoying the bush around us.
SH: Did you go to high school.
No I never went to High School. Only people who had money went to High School in my time. I went – like most of the other Aboriginal kids around 13 and 14 – went off to work for white people washing and polishing their floors.
SH: When did you meet Eddie.
I was quite young back in 1958 when I first met Eddie. He came to Halifax for a wedding when my cousin married his cousin.
After the wedding he went back to cutting cane up near Innisfail.
It wasn’t long after when we met at another wedding. When my cousin and me were going to the hall, Eddie and his mates were hanging out the pub window calling out to us. We kept walking … I saw him later at the wedding.
He made a big impression on me.
I eventually married Eddie a year after I met him, in 1959, and together we raised ten children: Eddie Jnr, Maria Jessie, Bethal, Gail, Mal, Malita, Celuia, Mario, Wannee and Ezra.
SH: What are your earliest memories of life with Eddie.
He worked long and hard and was prepared to follow the work wherever it was. I seemed to be having children at different places he worked.
But what was clear with Eddie was that it was important for his kids to know his culture and learn the dance.
He seemed to have a passion about culture and often spoke about the need – even though he was far away from his Island – to teach the culture and not lose it.
SH: When did Eddie get involved in Indigenous organisations.
Eddie was always on about doing the right thing and making a difference. When we finally settled in Townsville he learnt a lot from his work mates on the waterfront. He used a lot of those actions from those friends to drive him on to achieving things like setting up the legal service, the housing company and of course the Black Community School.
It got to the stage when I used to say to myself ‘here we go again – he’s home and all he wants to do is talk politics’. It was like Eddie couldn’t get enough of politics.
It was like there weren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things he wanted to do.
He also loved reading books about his people and was curious about what other people, anthropologists and those people, were saying. He was hungry for knowledge and read and spoke to as many people as he could.
SH: When did Eddie start on his crusade to fight for title to his land on Murray Island.
In the 1970s when Eddie was working as a gardener at James Cook University and doing his studies he had a conversation with Dr Noel Loos and Professor Henry Reynolds who told him that he didn’t have rights to his land on Murray Island in the eyes of the white man and according to their laws.
Eddie was so wild with what they said that he started to read more about why they would say that.
I think it was around 1981 at a Native Title Conference at James Cook University when he made a speech about his land back on Murray Island that he met a lawyer who wanted to do a test case to see how it would go in court.
SH: Did many of his Torres Strait Island relatives and friends in Townsville at the time supported Eddie in his case.
No, not really. They didn’t really understand what he was on about and many of them didn’t really want to get into the politics of the case.
He did have one strong supporter in Donald Whaleboat who was behind him all the way.
It made me sad to see that his people didn’t support Eddie or show an interest in his case. I’m sure he would’ve loved to have sat down and gone into the details with them and perhaps their contribution would have encouraged him.
SH: Did it affect him that he wasn’t getting the level of support he thought he should have.
It was pretty difficult on him at first as he felt the only people he could talk with were Dr Loos and Professor Reynolds and of course, whether we liked it or not, he talked about it all the time at home with me and the kids.
The thing that really affected Eddie and also me … was when he went back home for meetings with his community on Murray Island. I clearly remember the Mayor saying for him not to bring that southern nonsense up to the Island with him.
I also remember him ordering Eddie out of the community meetings. And of course I followed him out of the community meeting with other supporters.
It was strange when Eddie passed on and we went back to the Island, the same Mayor came up to me and asked me to share his ideas with him. He said he wanted to use his ideas on his community to improve it.
I told him straight away that I wouldn’t share it with him and I will take those views Eddie shared with me to my grave.
SH: Where were you back in 1992 when the Mabo decision was being handed down in the High Court in Canberra?
I got a call from those wonderful lawyers – me and my family owe them the world for their hard work for so long and who stuck with Eddie all those years with his case – and they told me that I should make my way to Canberra as the decision was going to be handed down in a couple of days.
You know I went to every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island organisation in Townsville and asked them for some petrol money to get to Canberra and not one of them helped out.
They reckon they didn’t have money for that kind of thing. Now a lot of them are benefitting from Eddie’s case and of Native Title generally.
It really made me so upset that after knocking on all their doors and talking to the head people that not one single organisation could give me a dollar. Not even five dollars.
I knew they had money but none of them really supported Eddie or his court case except for a couple of close family members and friends of ours and the other claimants (David Passi and James Rice representing the Meriam People).
SH: So how did you get to Canberra.
I rang my son Mal in Cairns and asked him how his car was going. He said it was in the garage getting some repairs done. I told him about the phone call from his father’s case in Canberra and he got the car out of the garage and came straight to Townsville.
We drove to Sarina and picked up another couple of my daughters and we drove and drove and were on the outskirts of Sydney when we got word that Eddie had won at the High Court on June 3.
SH: What did you do to celebrate.
We decided we wouldn’t drive on to Canberra and instead pulled over at a shopping centre and bought some sandwiches and cups of tea.
We all shared some private moments reflecting on Eddie’s case and congratulated him on his success in our own way and then got in the car and drove back to Gail’s place in northern New South Wales where we had a shower and a bit of a rest.
Mal and the other kids made a big banner of the win and put it on the side of the car where it stayed all the way back to Townsville.
SH: Did you get any other assistance with the travel expenses.
The most disappointing part about the Mabo case is that we never got a cent off anyone – it wasn’t through lack of trying … and it wasn’t that I was asking for airfares – it was only for petrol money to get to Canberra and back for me and the kids.
Eddie and the good spirits must have been looking over us on that long trip as we only had enough petrol and food money between us to return home. If we’d had a flat tyre we wouldn’t have been able to have it fixed up … that’s how broke we were.
And to think that High Court decision has made such a big difference to many of our people’s lives. Many of them have made a comfortable living from the Mabo case.
Here I am today, sick with poor eye sight and haven’t got two bob to rub together.
SH: On reflection today what are the positives and negatives to come out of the Mabo judgement.
The positives would have to be that it got our people now identifying with the tribe they are connected with. Before Mabo I don’t recall anyone talking about the tribe they came from or on whose land they were on.
Everyone’s doing acknowledgements and welcome to country and even the politicians are doing the same. None of that happened before the Mabo case.
Now everyone’s out there doing the research and gaining pride about their people’s country.
The negatives would be that Native Title – that came from Mabo – has split families up. It seems to me that the spirit of Mabo – what Eddie was aiming for; of being able to claim title to his land – has gone to the bad side where people think there is a lot of money to be made from native title and will exclude certain families so they can have most of that money they believe is out there.
It was never about money for Eddie … it was about gaining title to what is rightfully his as handed down through the generations.
It really saddens me to see so much fighting go on over boundaries … a couple of metres here and a couple of metres there. Many of the people would have no idea where their boundary was if it wasn’t for white anthropologists telling them. How sad is that?
SH: What do you wish for in the future.
My eyesight is failing me now and I’ve got other health conditions … but having said that I’m happy with the 20th anniversary celebration of the High Court decision and I will take part in them as much as possible with my health.
But after the celebrations I’d like to take it easy and just be with my children and grandchildren.
On the 10th of June (2012) the ABC is showing the film ‘Mabo’ [directed by Rachel Perkins and starring Jimi Bani as Eddie and Deborah Mailman as Bonita] and I’m excited about being a part of the making of the movie.
I guess there will be more interviews after the movie comes out – which I really don’t like doing these days.
And then last week I was flown down to Sydney to the Museum where they gave me a preview of a Madame Tussaud’s wax statue of Eddie and it scared me.
After all these years of living without this strong proud man I was suddenly face to face with a wax statue that looked scarily like Eddie.
I loved him so much and seeing him eye to eye on that day brought tears to my eyes.