MAAS Magazine

The man, the stars, the land

Principal Curator Matthew Connell explains Eddie Koiki Mabo’s connection to surveying and the stars.

The star named 'Koiki' below and to the west of Acrux, the bottom of the Southern Cross. Courtesy Geoff Wyatt
The star named ‘Koiki’ (circled) in the Sydney Observatory ‘Name-a-Star’ Catalogue is located below and to the west of Acrux, the bottom of the Southern Cross. Courtesy Geoff Wyatt

When buying a property, it is necessary to have it surveyed to show the exact boundaries of the land and its location in relation to others. The surveyor uses specialised measuring equipment, such as a theodolite and surveyor’s chain, and works from an existing reference point or ‘trig point’ to ensure that all boundary markers are as accurate as possible.

This precise measurement of the land is central to our legal concept of land ownership.

During the 1970s, Eddie Koiki Mabo, a Torres Strait man from the island of Mer (Murray Island), was working as a gardener at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland. He became friends with historians Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos, and in conversation with them discovered that the land he thought he’d owned on Mer belonged to the Crown. Britain had claimed sovereignty of the continent under terra nullius, a doctrine mandating that unoccupied land belonged to no one and could be acquired through occupation, which the British had done since their arrival in 1770.

On 20 May 1982, Eddie and his fellow Meriam (Murray Islanders) brought their case claiming legal ownership of their traditional lands to the High Court of Australia. Eddie drew maps indicating how the land on Mer was distributed among the local families under a system of law-based traditional ownership that predated the arrival of Captain Cook. When the High Court went to Mer, he showed them the boundary markers of his land.

Ten years later, on 3 June 1992, the High Court ruled in favour of the Meriam, officially recognising them as the legal owners of their traditional homelands. Sadly, Eddie had passed away only months before. The Mabo Case, as it came to be known, paved the way for land rights legislation for Indigenous Australians. It was with the help of his hand-drawn map demonstrating native possession of Mer that Eddie was able to challenge the concept of terra nullius.

Working in close collaboration with family representative Gail Mabo and MAAS Program Producer (Indigenous) Marcus Hughes, Sydney Observatory celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Mabo Decision on 3 June 2017 with a showcase in honour of Eddie Koiki Mabo and his contribution to Australian history. It was accompanied by the presentation of the third annual MAAS Mabo Day Address, which was delivered by renowned Indigenous lawyer and copyright specialist Terri Janke.

The Observatory is one of Australia’s most important survey points and so is a fitting site to commemorate this historical occasion. It is the place where the first surveys of the colony in the 1800s are tied into the geographic coordinate system that defines a location’s position on the globe.

As well as Eddie’s important connection to surveying and Indigenous land rights, he also has a place in the night sky. On Mabo Day 2015, MAAS dedicated a star in the Sydney Southern Star Catalogue as a tribute to his legacy. This star, ‘Koiki’, can be found in the Crux constellation, or Southern Cross, but it is also part of a much bigger constellation known by the Meriam as Tagai. Tagai has deep significance to the people of Torres Strait, who have a very close relationship to the night sky. The constellation connects the people of Torres Strait to their land and culture, much like Eddie connects Australia to its history and future aspirations.

The coordinates for the SSSC star Koiki are SSSC 803504 RA 12:12:21.9 Dec-62:57:03.0 Mag: 5.97 Constellation: Crux GSC 8978:5899 SAO 251790.

The ‘Koiki’ star is part of the much larger Tagai constellation, which situates the Southern Cross as the left hand of a warrior holding a spear. Illustration by Filip Bartkowiak

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