This plaque, from Possession Island off the tip of Cape York, commemorated Captain James Cook’s claiming of the “whole eastern coast of Australia from the Latitude of 38 degrees south” (from near Melbourne north to Cape York) in the name of the British king.
The British believed that Australia was terra nullius (empty land) whereas, in fact, human habitation of the Australian continent is estimated to have begun around 65,000 to 70,000 years ago. People migrated by land bridges and short sea-crossings from what is now South-East Asia. These first inhabitants were the ancestors of modern Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal Australian culture is one of the oldest continual civilisations on earth – human habitation of the Australian continent is estimated to have begun around 65,000 years ago.
The first recorded European sighting of the Australian mainland is attributed to the Dutch. The first ship to chart the Australian coast was the Duyfken captained by Willem Janszoon in 1606. The Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines during the 17th century and named the island continent “New Holland“.
Next, William Dampier, an English explorer and privateer, landed on the north-west coast of New Holland in 1688 and again in 1699 on a return trip.
Then in 1770, Captain James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Great Britain. Cook named the tiny island off the tip of Cape York Possession Island on 22 August 1770.
In 1992 Mer (or Murray) Islander Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo began a fight to change Australian laws because he believed the land belonged to the Torres Strait Islanders who had lived there for thousands of years. The Mabo case ran in the High Court of Australia for over ten years.
On 3 June 1992, the High Court ruled that “terra nullius” should never have been applied to Australia. The “Mabo ruling” found that the Mer people had owned their land prior to annexation by Britain.
Native title is the legal recognition that some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to, and interest in, certain land because of their traditional laws and customs.