Land Bilong Islanders: Murray Island law
The clip begins with a black-and-white photograph of the Murray Island Courthouse taken in November 1898. The plaintiffs’ lawyers discuss the importance of some of the cases heard by the Murray Island court. The clip includes a traditional dance by a group of Murray Island women and the Queensland Supreme Court ending its proceedings on Murray Island. Summary by Liz McNiven.
The Murray Island Court, guided by the customary laws of the local Indigenous peoples, often heard cases regarding land boundaries and family inheritances. The plaintiffs’ lawyers review records from past cases and discuss the rules governing traditional land ownership as evidence that customary law survived beyond Queensland’s annexation of Murray Island.
The traditional dance by a group of women, towards the end of the clip, emphasises the Murray Island peoples’ maintenance of their cultural practices.
Land Bilong Islanders synopsis
Land Bilong Islanders covers the Supreme Court of Queensland proceedings in which Justice Moynihan considered issues of fact in the Mabo v Queensland case, ahead of the High Court of Australia’s 1992 decision. The court enquires into the laws and customs that govern the Murray Island peoples’ land boundaries and ownership of property, and travels to Murray Island to visit sites of significance to the case.
After four months of hearings, the Supreme Court of Queensland adjourns. The film concludes with the statement, ’Once Justice Moynihan determines the facts of the case the High Court of Australia will consider whether [Murray Island plaintiffs] James Rice, Father Dave Passi and Eddie Mabo are the legal owners of land on Murray Island’.
Land Bilong Islanders curator's notes
Land Bilong Islanders records a case in the Supreme Court of Queensland that led to one of the most important events in Australian legal history. The three plaintiffs Eddie Mabo, James Rice and Father Dave Passi aim to prove the existence of their customary property rights over Murray Island in the Torres Strait, under Australian law. Justice Moynihan of the Supreme Court of Queensland is determining the issues of fact in the Mabo case before it is decided by the High Court of Australia.
The documentary includes an extensive interview with ABC Law Report presenter Jon Faine and Professor Garth Nettheim from the Aboriginal Law Centre at the University of New South Wales. The interview provides historic context and outlines the concept of legal pluralism underpinning the plaintiffs’ case.
Land Bilong Islanders features historic film as audiovisual evidence of the continuity of the Murray Island peoples’ traditional practices. We see contemporary islanders performing the same dance recorded on film by AC Haddon, almost 100 years earlier in 1898 (see Torres Strait Islanders, 1898).
Land Bilong Islanders holds extreme cultural significance for the peoples of Murray Island and to their fellow Australians. It documents the landmark hearings that led to the historic 1992 Mabo decision in which the High Court of Australia ruled that the legal doctrine of terra nullius (‘land belonging to no one’) should not have been applied to Australia.
Notes by Liz McNiven