Mabo Day commemorates the anniversary of the historic Mabo Decision when on 3 June 1992 the High Court of Australia approved Eddie Koiki Mabo’s petition to grant ownership of his native Mer Island (Murray Island), in the Torres Strait, to the local inhabitants, rejecting the legal doctrine of terra nullius (no one’s land) applied by the British government when they claimed Australia for the crown. British explorers and colonists used three separate principles when claiming and occupying territories. One was outright military conquest. The second was by treaty (although treaties were usually backed up by armies). The third was terra nullius which was applied to uninhabited regions, or when the new arrivals determined that the indigenous population were not “civilized” enough to own land and sign treaties. I am not a big fan of any of these principles, but terra nullius is clearly based on racism and ignorance. Not all indigenous peoples on discovery by Europeans had laws of land ownership, but ALL had rules concerning land rights. Mabo, with aid of legal counsel, was able to demonstrate that Mer Island had always had a traditional system of laws regarding land rights (and had occupied those lands continuously since colonial times), and therefore terra nullius did not apply. The court agreed. This action has set the cat among the pigeons throughout Australia with regard to aboriginal land rights. Mabo Day is an official holiday in Queensland and the Torres Strait islands, but since the 10th anniversary in 2002 there have been efforts to make it a national Australian holiday.
The Torres Strait islands lie in a navigable channel between the tip of Cape York in Queensland and the southern coast of the island of New Guinea. There are 274 islands in the group of which 14 are inhabited. Most of the islands are now governed from Queensland, and a few that lie close to the New Guinea mainland fall under the jurisdiction of the Western Province of Papua New Guinea. It was at Possession Island (now Darnley Island or Erub Island) in the eastern region of the islands that Lieutenant James Cook first claimed British sovereignty over the eastern part of Australia in 1770.
Torres Strait Islanders are genetically and culturally distinct from aborigines of the Australian mainland. They are Melanesians, related to the peoples of Papua New Guinea. On European arrival their subsistence base was farming and fishing primarily, with the turtle occupying a key role in daily and ceremonial cooking. For centuries they were the dominant culture of the region with a certain amount of interchange between both the Australian mainland and New Guinea. Upon European colonization and the introduction of Christianity via missions there was a major upheaval in the culture. Eddie Mabo’s victory was a great step forward in recognizing not only indigenous rights, but in the intrinsic value of Torres Island culture.
Eddie Mabo died of cancer before the verdict was handed down, worn down by 10 years of struggle. But his daughter wrote:
“It was a shock when he won because most people didn’t think we would win. It was unheard of for a single person to change the whole history of a nation and for Dad to do that it was an awakening call to Australia to say ‘it’s time to right a wrong’ and embrace indigenous people.”
“For me, Dad’s legacy is that through strength of culture and commitment you can achieve anything. People who are fighting for their own native title have to believe in themselves and their culture because that is what will help them succeed.”
“His strength was that he knew who he was as a man, where he was from and that the fight he was doing was right. He always knew the land was his.”
“I was sitting in a car breastfeeding my six month old son, who was born the day before I buried my dad, when I heard on the radio we had won the case. I started crying and thinking that if my father was alive he would be dancing. I then heard the sound of thunder and said to my son ‘hear that, he is dancing.’”
Torres Strait Island cooking has absorbed diverse elements from Europe and Asia, but still retains its individuality. This recipe stems from a 2004 foodie event in Melbourne entitled Eating the City, in which an extraordinary medley of ethnic groups from all over the city came together to represent their cultures with food. This dish, a puffy noodle concoction, was served by Torres Strait Elder Ella Pitt who has lived on the mainland since being evacuated from her island (Darnley Island or Erub, near Mer) during the Japanese bombing of Darwin in WW II. You can use these noodles to accompany a main dish, or sweeten them for a dessert. Golden syrup is a British favorite which can be found online in the U.S. These do not keep well, so halve the recipe if necessary.
Sabi Sabi Domboy
1 lb (450 g) plain flour
8 oz (225 g) self-raising flour
1 ½ cups (400 ml) coconut cream
Salt to taste
Fill a large saucepan with water and bring to the boil. The saucepan should be large enough to accommodate the pasta without going off the boil too long. If you do not have a large enough one, cook them in two batches.
Mix the two flours together and add enough cold water to make an elastic dough like pasta dough. Mix and knead well for at least 5 minutes.
Roll the dough flat until it is a ¼ inch (6 mm) thick.
Break the dough into little pieces (domboys), the size of small flat pasta. Uniformity is not important. Think of classic Southern chicken and dumplings.
Add the domboys all at once to the boiling water.
When the domboys begin to float to the top of the water, drain immediately.
Combine the domboys and coconut cream in the same pot, bring slowly to the boil. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally so the domboys don’t stick or burn. Add a little more coconut cream if needed.
Serve with fish, or as a dessert with golden syrup.