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22 April, 2021

JCU Honours Dr Mabo

JAMES Cook University (JCU) this week awarded Eddie Koiki Mabo a posthumous Honorary Doctorate as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations.

By Peter McCullagh

Gail Mabo and JCU Chancellor Bill Tweddell PHOTO: Bethany Keats

Dr Mabo has received the posthumous honour in recognition of his outstanding service and distinguished public campaign to improve the rights and wellbeing of his people, and his legacy through the existence of Native Title and land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

  “Dr Mabo was a most significant and nation-changing man,”  

“Dr Mabo was a most significant and nation-changing man,” JCU Chancellor Bill Tweddell said.

“He had a long association with James Cook University, its staff and its students from the mid-1960s until his death in 1992.

“I was privileged to know Dr Mabo myself during my time studying and working at JCU from 1968 to 1975.

“In 2008 the library on our Bebegu Yumba campus in Townsville was named in his honour.

“I’m delighted to formally recognise his important role in reshaping the legal landscape of Australia as part of our 50th anniversary celebrations with an Honorary Doctorate of the University,” he said.

Gail Mabo was honoured to accept the doctorate on behalf of her late father at an event in Townsville on Monday Night.

“He’d have a lot to say [about receiving the honorary doctorate] because he was a man who was passionate about many things. So, if he was here, he would be telling you how Indigenous people should be moving forward and how they could better themselves in many, many factors.”

JCU Chancellor Bill Tweddell paid tribute to Mabo and the time he spent with the university working as a gardener and researching native title in the university library.

 “He was a teacher, and he was a world changer. He was a listener. He had that special human gift, when you were talking to him you were the only person in the world that existed because he had that focus.”

  “Eddie Mabo is part of James Cook University. This is the university of Eddie Mabo. All around you are trees and plants that he tended lovingly and expertly and could tell people all about,  

“Eddie Mabo is part of James Cook University. This is the university of Eddie Mabo. All around you are trees and plants that he tended lovingly and expertly and could tell people all about,” Mr Tweddell said.

While working at JCU, Eddie Mabo used his lunch breaks to conduct research in the Library that would later support his legal challenge over land rights. In particular, he studied the six-volume Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, which documented the life of the Torres Strait Islander people from around 1879, when the Torres Strait Islands were legally annexed to Australia.

Mabo’s ground-breaking research and campaign lead to the High Court overturning the legal doctrine of terra nullius which define land which was supposedly ‘uninhabited’ as liable for government seizure, thus opening the way for the recognition of Native Title.

Mabo’s legacy lives strong today. Since his passing in January 1992 at the age of 55, Mabo has forever stamped himself as a giant Australian.

His daughter Gail captured the true JCU essence of Eddie Mabo and his place within the walls and grounds of the North’s leading university.

“[I want JCU students to know] that he was a great man.

“He planted most of these trees in this space. And, you know what?

“He still walks here. And I always say, if you want to know something, ask him.

“He’ll guide you. He’s here. You don’t have to see him spiritually, as in the physical sense, you can ask for him and he will guide you. And my dad’s big enough that he guides lots of people. And I like to share him.”

James Cook University also recognised a further 23 people with Honorary Doctorates at their ceremony on Monday night.

Full list of Honorary Doctorate recipients:

Mr Graham Jackson: Doctor of the University

Ms Valerie Alberts: Honorary Doctor of Letters

Mr Eddie Koiki Mabo (deceased): Honorary Doctor of the University

Mr William (Bill) Mitchell OAM: Honorary Doctor of Laws

Emeritus Professor David Yellowlees: Honorary Doctor of Science

Mr Bernard Singleton: Honorary Doctor of Letters

Mr Darryl Murgha: Honorary Doctor of Letters

Miss Edna Shaw (deceased): Honorary Doctor of Letters

Mr Sean Dorney AM: Honorary Doctor of Letters

Commissioner Katarina Carroll APM: Honorary Doctor of Letters

Mr Laurie Bragge: Honorary Doctor of Letters

Emeritus Professor Peter Coaldrake AO: Honorary Doctor of the University

Professor Tony Bacic: Honorary Doctor of Science

Professor Ian Young AO: Honorary Doctor of Engineering
Honoris Causa

Dr Peter Isdale AM: Honorary Doctor of Science

Mr Victor Steffensen: Honorary Doctor of Science

Dr Denis Lennox: Honorary Doctor of Medicine

Associate Professor Judith Trevan-Hawke: Honorary Doctor
of Science

Professor Dennis Pashen: Honorary Doctor of Medicine

Dr Richard Harris SC OAM: Honorary Doctor of Medicine

Mr James Birrell (deceased): Honorary Doctor of Letters

Ms Gillian Bird PSM: Honorary Doctor of the University

Mrs Margaret Roderick (deceased): Honorary Doctor of the University

Dr Len Rutledge: Honorary Doctor of Letters


Read the full acceptance speech given by Gail Mabo:

I’m honoured to be his daughter, to have accepted his doctorate in his name.

He’d have a lot to say [about receiving the honorary doctorate] because he was a man who was passionate about many things. So, if he was here, he would be telling you how Indigenous people should be moving forward and how they could better themselves in many, many factors. For me, Dad, he wouldn’t change too many things, but he would just direct people in the right way to move forward together.

It’s fantastic [to receive the award] because they’ve got this great library that’s named after him too. So, for me, one of the things is just all those little things that came along the way has just ended something that is fantastic as a 50th celebration of JCU and I’m glad he could be a part of that.

[I want JCU students to know] that he was a great man. He planted most of these trees in this space. And, you know what? He still walks here. And I always say, if you want to know something, ask him. He’ll guide you. He’s here. You don’t have to see him spiritually, as in the physical sense, you can ask for him and he will guide you. And my dad’s big enough that he guides lots of people. And I like to share him.

Firstly, he was the gardener. He was known as Eddie the Gardener. ‘Cause one of the graduates last night came up and said to me, he said, ‘I met your dad when he was the gardener.

Then I saw him on television and went like that’s Eddie the Gardener!” And I went like, Yup, that was my dad! But at the end of the day, he was someone that, if you came across him, he would stop.

You would have a great conversation with him and you would go along going, ‘wow I didn’t know that’. He would inform you of many things. ‘Cause one of the things, most of the guys who came across him as the gardener, he would teach them the traditional planting methods that we would use in the Torres Strait.

And they go like, wow ok so that’s how you do it. So, little things. And it was just through those conversations you learnt a hell of a lot in a very short period of time because he had the gift of the gab to tell you many things in that moment. And people find that golden moments.

So for me, the university, the gardens, people are drawn here because it’s that whole thing of like, there’s a lot of ex students who have memories of that man.

And the younger students who are coming through now just see the name on the building. If they’re law students, then they find out why the building is named after him, but a lot of students walk past the plaque and the name and just thinking it’s the library until they realise and come into the building and find out a bit more that what he did, and how significant, the change of the name from the library to the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library was.

And so, for me, it’s a great connection to this space for my dad. 


Read JCU's Chancellor Bill Tweddell's speech:

Eddie was, you’ve just heard his daughter talk about him as a gardener, and of course to her he was much more than that. Eddie was a gardener but he was a teacher. And he was a world changer. He was a listener. He had that special human gift, when you were talking to him you were the only person in the world that existed because he had that focus.

So he was a seminal influence.

Those of us who knew him, I guess knew him through other things more than what later on changed the course of our history for the better but we knew him as a warm-hearted and loving man, and it’s marvellous, actually, to be able to recognise him not just for what he achieved, which is enormous, but also as a man because he was a terrific person. I have to say he lives on in his daughter too, she’s a chip off the old block.

He’s always been a part of our fabric. He’s a person of whom we’re enormously proud. One of our iconic buildings, the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library as it is now, the place where I had my first full time job, in fact, is what is now the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library.

He’s just so much of us. Eddie Mabo Mabo is part of James Cook University. This is the university of Eddie Mabo. All around you are trees and plants that he tended lovingly and expertly and could tell people all about.

So, really, it was an idea that germinated pretty early in the piece that one of the people who should be placed in front and centre in our 50th year was Eddie Koiki Mabo. Coronavirus made it hard to do that last year, of course, but last night, the very last night of our 50th birthday, we were able to honour him at a ceremony and we were delighted that Gail could be there to receive his bonnet and his testamur as a doctor of our university.

 


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