The 20th anniversary of the Mabo ruling, which brought our nation out from a dark period of denial, is a good reason to look at Eddie Mabo’s homeland. Mer or Murray is a tiny island just 4 km² on the far geographical margin of Australia, in the eastern Torres Strait. Before it became famed for legal and political reasons, Mer was renowned for its valiant people and their vibrant, resilient culture. It was admired and feared by the European sailors during the 18th and 19th centuries.

There are direct connections between Mer and the Australian Museum. In 1836, Philip Parker King, a marine explorer and one of the Museum Trustees, visited the island and not for the first time. He brought back to the Australian Museum a collection of about 50 artefacts from the island and wrote the first extended description of the Meriam people and their culture. In 1907 a marine biologist, Charles Hedley and his assistant Allan McCulloch from the Australian Museum, went on a collecting expedition to Mer. They collated snippets of anthropological data and assembled a collection of over a hundred artefacts.

These short passages from King and McCulloch give an impressionistic account of the Meriam people and their Island, as observed by Europeans in the 19th and the early 20th century.

The island ‘is a volcanic hill ... and viewed from … the west, appeared to be largely covered with grass. Trees seemed to be confined to the narrow flat land near the water’s edge, and coconut palms were conspicuous along the beach. By greatly stretching one’s imagination … one can detect in the form of the hill a remote resemblance to a dugong’ (McCulloch).

‘The space between the encircling reefs and the shore is marked out with long rows of piled up stones enclosing larger or smaller quadrangular spaces. These are commonly spoken of as fish traps and are supposed to have been constructed by the earlier inhabitants of the islands with a view to entrapping the fish that entered them at high tide and did not escape before the water fell and left them dry’ (McCulloch).

The north-east side ‘of the island is held sacred by them, and only visited, for the purpose of feasting, or preserving the dead, which they suspend in the sun and never bury’ (King).

The Meriam people ‘are a well formed, athletic race, perfectly distinct from the [people] of Australia. … They doubtless derive their origin from New Guinea, with the natives of which they frequently communicate’. Meriam people subsist ‘during winter months, on turtle and fish; and when those fail, on coca nuts, bananas, and yams, which they cultivate. … They also cultivate the tobacco plant, which they prepare for smoking, by drying’ (King).

The Islanders frequently travelled ‘towards New Guinea ... for the purpose of barter and trade ... to obtain bows and arrows, canoes and feathers. ... Upon a voyage they carry their water in bamboo joints, and cocoa-nut shell’ (King).

‘On Sunday afternoon we would stroll up to the rim of the old crater of Gelam overlooking the central valley of the island in which were most of the native gardens with paths winding here and there between them. To seaward were the fantastic shaped islands of Dauar and Waier while Darnley Island stood up on the horizon. Looking down one saw the native’s houses sheltered in under the thick belt of coconut palms fringing the shore. In the shallow waters of the lagoon one saw dense black shoals of herrings swimming leisurely around or sometimes wildly scattering as a shark dashed into their midst, their every movement easily watched in the clear water’ (McCulloch).

‘To the eastward we could see the almost unbroken line of white foam where the great swell of the Pacific surged on to the outer barrier five miles away, and could hear this distant roar, an everlasting threat against the living wall that barred their progress.’ People ‘imagined the outer reef to be the abode of departed spirits who were forever striving to come back to their home on the land’ (McCulloch).