Land Bilong Islanders: Terra nullius

Land Bilong Islanders: Terra nullius
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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Professor Garth Nettheim presents historic background to the Murray Island case accompanied by footage of the Torres Strait Islands. Summary by Liz McNiven.

Terra nullius is used in law to refer to land belonging to no one. The Mabo case eventually overturned the concept of terra nullius as having applied to Australia.

Historic footage and re-creations represent Indigenous peoples from the past and the arrival of the British in 1788.


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

Production company:
Yarra Bank Films
Sharon Connolly
Trevor Graham
Trevor Graham
Martin Friedel, The people of Murray Island, Torres Strait Islands Media Association (TSIMA)
Produced with assistance from the Australian Film Commission and Film Victoria. Produced in association with ABC TV and Channel 4.