Monday, 14 May 2018

Mabo and the Native Title Act

This month (May 2018) marks ten years since James Cook University officially named its Townsville campus library the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library, to honour the connection between the university and the man whose determination ultimately altered the foundation of land law in Australia. So I thought I'd post an article I wrote a couple of years ago about Mabo and the Native Title Act, which explains what the now infamous legal battle was all about, and also why the Mabo name will forever be linked with James Cook University.

WARNING: this article contains names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In 1898 a team of scientists sponsored by the University of Cambridge arrived in the Torres Strait with the aim of conducting an extensive anthropological study of its peoples. Almost one hundred years later, this study of native peoples would become an important source of information in a legal case seeking to prove continuity of traditional land ownership that led to the landmark Native Title Act.

The seven-month expedition, which was led by Alfred Cort Haddon, a distinguished natural scientist, focused on the islands of Mer and Mabuiag, and included scholars from the fields of linguistics, medicine and psychology. Data collected included physical descriptions of Islanders and local genealogies, along with information on local customs, languages, art, music, medicine, house construction and land tenure.

The expedition resulted in the publication, between 1901 and 1935, of the Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits. As a complete body of work, the Reports documented in minute detail the life of the Torres Strait Islander people from around the time of the legal annexation of the Torres Strait Islands to Australia in 1879. Importantly, the genealogies recorded by W.H.R. Rivers that were published in Volume Six of the Reports, were used as evidence in the now infamous Mabo land rights case.

The man whose name would become synonymous with Native Title - Eddie Koiki Mabo - was born on Mer (Murray) Island, in the Torres Strait, in 1936. He came to the mainland in 1957 and worked in various industries but it was during the years 1967 to 1975, when he worked as a groundsman and gardener at James Cook University, that he began studying Haddon’s six-volume report on the Torres Strait, in the university library during his lunch breaks. 

At James Cook University Eddie Mabo met and formed friendships with academic staff including Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos, who explained to him that he did not own the land on Murray Island where he had grown up; the Queensland government did.  Mabo was reportedly shocked to discover this, and the revelation set off a chain of events that ultimately altered the foundation of land law in Australia.

After delivering a speech at a land rights conference at James Cook University in 1981, where he spoke about land ownership and land inheritance on Murray Island, Mabo was encouraged to mount a legal challenge over land rights. 

In 1982, Eddie Mabo and four other Torres Strait Islanders - Sam Passi, David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee and James Rice – began their fight for ownership of lands on several islands in the Torres Strait, including Murray Island. The case that became known as “Mabo No. 1” was heard by Justice Martin Moynihan in the Queensland Supreme Court. 

Things did not go altogether smoothly for Eddie Mabo in “Mabo No. 1”, with Justice Moynihan criticising Mabo’s testimony and questioning his credibility. In particular, Justice Moynihan found it difficult to believe that Eddie Mabo could remember in such detail, conversations with his grandfather from boyhood, and wondered how much of Mabo’s knowledge of Murray Island traditions had come from the Cambridge Reports, or indeed from other material that had been published about the Torres Strait, such as Ion Idriess’s novel, Drums of Mer, published in 1933.

In a paper written for the Australian National University in 1993, Jeremy Beckett, an anthropologist who was called as an expert witness in the Mabo case, and who had conducted field work in the Torres Strait Islands between 1958 and 1961, wrote that he visited Murray Island with Eddie Mabo in 1977 and was surprised by his knowledge of the island.

“I was surprised that someone who had left Mer around the age of fifteen and had scarcely been back until his forties knew as much as he did.” 

“Some of it may indeed have come from the Cambridge Reports or from Idriess's novel. But much of it did not. He had, for example, an extensive knowledge of plants, including those used for various dance ornaments and implements, which was not to be found in print. Nor could he have got from books, the vivid, detailed mind picture of the land which he presented to the court.”

Beckett also believed that the genealogy Mabo recounted went back further than could be found in the Cambridge Reports.

By the time the case reached the High Court of Australia, at its core was the question of whether the Murray Islanders (Meriam people) had a system of land ownership that predated the arrival of Europeans, and if they did, whether that system still existed. It was not enough to prove that the plaintiffs and their descendants had been in continuous occupation of the islands, but that a system of governance of ownership had existed “from time immemorial” and had been maintained into the present day.
L-R: Dave Passi, Eddie Mabo, Bryan Keon-Cohen, James Rice, outside the Queensland Supreme Court, 1989.
Photo: Courtesy of National Film and Sound Archive.

Although three of the plaintiffs (including Eddie Mabo) did notlive to see the outcome of their ten year battle, in June 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled in favour of Mabo in Mabo and Others v. State of Queensland (No. 2) (1992), resulting in the Native Title Act 1993.

In recognising the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their islands in the eastern Torres Strait, the High Court also held that native title existed for all indigenous people in Australia prior to James Cook’s expedition in 1770, and prior to the establishment of the British Colony of New South Wales in 1788. 

The Native Title Act destroyed the 200 year-old doctrine of terra nullius (meaning land belonging to no-one) by which Australia had been colonised.

This article is copyright Trisha Fielding, 2016.

Sources & Further Reading:
  • Burke, Paul, Law's Anthropology: from ethnography to expert testimony in native title, Australian National University EPress, Canberra, 2011.
  • Herle, Anita and Rouse, Sandra, (eds.) Cambridge and the Torres Strait: centenary essays on the 1898 Anthropological Expedition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998.
  • Sanders, W., (ed.), Mabo and Native Title: Origins and Institutional Implications, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, Canberra, Research Monograph No. 7, 1994.
  • Loos, Noel, Edward Koiki Mabo: his life and struggle for land rights, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2013.
  • Haddon, Alfred C., Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1901-1935.
  • Museum of Australian Democracy:
  • For 1981 speech made at JCU, see
  • Mabo - The Native Title Revolution (website):

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Mysterious Matron Varley

Sometimes in the course of researching history I find myself trying to write about a person who is difficult to like, and as such, presents a genuine challenge to me as a writer. A person whose life was a mysterious puzzle of lies and fanciful fabrications, punctuated by apparent acts of selflessness. So goes the story of Lucie Varley, a North Queensland nurse and midwife, lauded by many as a highly skilled nurse and valued community member, but clearly also a woman capable of great subterfuge and deceit, and possibly, even criminal acts. There are far more questions than answers about this woman's life story, but what you'll be left with after reading this post is a nagging feeling of unease, after all, don't nurses and midwives historically sit squarely among the most respected, revered, even saintly of female professions?

During the 1910s and 1920s, Lucie Varley worked as a private nurse and midwife at Malanda, Mareeba and Kureen, in the Atherton Tablelands region of far north Queensland. In 1920 Lucie (supposedly with her husband) purchased the late Dr Kortum's house in Hope Street, Cooktown and ran the St. Helen's Private Hospital and Sanitorium.

Advertisement from Cairns Post, 11 November 1921.

By the mid-1920s she was running the Pacific Resort Hotel at Yorkey's Knob, near Cairns. By this time she was Mrs L'Estrange, though she was still better known as Matron Varley. Lucie and her husband appear to have bought up a large parcel of land at Yorkey's Knob, subdivided some of it for residential blocks, and then built the hotel, which they ran for many years. Electoral rolls in the 1930s place the couple in Cairns. Varley Street in Yorkey's Knob, is named after Matron Varley.

Lucie is said to have been instrumental in getting a state school for the tiny settlement of Kureen, was at one time Secretary of the Barron River Progress Association, and a staunch supporter of the Cairns branch of the Royal Life Saving Society. Of her time in Malanda, someone under the pen name of 'Old Hand', wrote to the Cairns Post in 1920:
"She is deserving of the highest praise for all that she has done, and, indeed, is still doing. Nothing was too hard for this noble woman to undertake. I have met her at 3am on almost impassable roads, riding all alone to give relief to some poor sufferer. The first three years of her residence here the work which she got through was appalling, but she never shirked her duty, and in the early days she did all this free of all charge."  
In 1929 Matron Varley performed CPR on a man who had collapsed from a suspected heart attack in shallow water on the beach near her hotel. Along with another bystander, Matron Varley worked for over an hour to try and revive the man, unfortunately without success. On the face of it, she sounds like a remarkable woman. But this is where the facts end and something akin to fiction takes over.

In 1927, Smith's Weekly, a sensationalist Sydney tabloid newspaper, reported the 'life history' of Matron Varley, in which she claims to have been married to two bigamous husbands, the first of which, she was tricked into marrying when she was just 16. The full article can be accessed here, on Trove.

An excerpt from Smith's Weekly, 26 March 1927.

Much of Matron Varley's account appears to be a complete fabrication. A fanciful account of having been sent to Canada by her parents to visit an 'uncle' who later turned out to be her father, of having been seduced by a man on a ship into marrying him at the next port of call, and of having moved to New Zealand with him only to find that he already had a wife in America. In her own words, Lucie told how she became involved in nursing:
"I entered the University of Melbourne, where I secured the degree of Bachelor of Arts. But owing to ill health I was not able to continue my studies. Later I took charge of my brother-in-law's private hospital, and I have followed the profession of nurse ever since in most of the States. I was in charge of a hospital in northern N. S. Wales, when I was sent for from Brisbane, as my second husband was supposed to be dying there. I went, and he recovered. Promising to turn over a new leaf, he persuaded me to return, to him, and I did so. Then we came to North Queensland, and I have lived there ever since." 

Lucie claimed to have been born in Canada in 1883 (and she may have genuinely believed this), but was actually born in Victoria, in 1878. She gives her first husband's name as Sir Oliver Carleton, however, newspaper reports of the 1899 bigamy trial of Lucie's husband gives his name as William Charleston. The marriage of Lucie Marcella Tetu and William Charleston is listed in the Victorian registry of marriages for 1899. See here for an account of the Bigamy trial. In the Smith's Weekly article she is portrayed as a helpless victim, however during Charleston's trial Lucie defiantly admitted that she knew he was already married to someone else when she married him. 

At some point she married a man named William Varley (who may have in fact been William Charleston using another surname) and they moved to North Queensland. In this article she also claims that "while she was matron of a private hospital in North Queensland", she nursed a returned soldier - Graham L'Estrange - back to health, and after he had recovered, they were married.

Her marriage to Graham L'Estrange was registered in 1917. How is it then possible that when she left Malanda in 1920, the community threw a farewell, "valedictory" party, in her honour, with her husband William Varley in attendance with her? In responding to the toasts and well-wishes, William mentioned that he and Lucie were moving to Cooktown to settle down, after having sold their Malanda interests. 

In 1922 the Cairns Post reported that Nurse Varley had inherited "a considerable fortune" upon the death of her uncle in Canada and that she was selling her Cooktown hospital and leaving for Canada "at the earliest opportunity". In fact, Lucie only went as far as Yorkey's Knob, where she put the money to good use, buying up land and building a hotel. 

Whilst conducting her hotel, she appears to have continued her nursing and midwifery in some capacity, and in late 1930, Matron Varley faced court after allegedly performing an abortion on a woman, though the case was eventually dismissed. In 1938 she was arrested again on suspicion of having committed an offence. Lucie died in Brisbane in 1962, by which time she had yet another surname. She had long outlived Graham L'Estrange, who died in 1942.

So many questions remain. Why did she tell Smith's Weekly such a convoluted story? Granted, her first husband was convicted of bigamy, but there is no evidence to suggest her second husband (Varley) was also guilty of the same crime. Why did she say she had been born in Canada? And why lie about her age? What happened to William Varley? And was he actually her first husband, William Charleston? 

In many years of research I have yet to come across such a fascinating and mysterious person - a serial liar in a saintly guise.

Selected Sources:

  • The Age, 20 October 1899, 'A Bigamist and His Wives'.
  • Smith's Weekly, 26 March 1927, 'Married to two bigamous husbands'.
  • Cairns Post, 13 September 1920, 'Nurse Varley'
  • Cairns Post, 13 January 1922, 'Nurse's Windfall'.
  • Northern Herald (Cairns), 29 September 1920, 'Malanda Valedictory to Nurse Varley'
  • Queensland Births, Deaths & Marriages index
  • Victoria Births, Deaths & Marriages index
  • Electoral Records,
  • Register of Midwifery Nurses, held by Queensland State Archives