William Cooper helped plan the first Day of Mourning, in protest at Australia’s treatment of its first peoples. This famous historical image was taken on January 26 1938, Australia Hall, Sydney.
NATIONAL: He is not well-known in world history, but he really should be. CHRIS MUNRO* recounts the extraordinary life of William Cooper.
Throughout world history, every now and then, an individual rises above the parapet to become truly extraordinary.
Some of these individuals achieve remarkable things while others use their leadership to commit hideous wrongs. But good or bad, one thing they all share is a gifted ability to lead the masses.
Think Castro, Hitler, Khan, Ho Chi Minh, Zedong, Gandhi, Luthuli, Mandela, Luther King jr.
Noble, wicked, gifted or just plain fortunate, it doesn’t really matter. These leaders all share a particular skill-set that can’t be taught and can’t be bought… you’re just born with it.
At home here in Australia our history books are flush with our own inspirational leaders and revolutionaries too, though the majority of the population would never have heard of them.
Pemulwuy, Yagan, Tunnerminnerwait, Maulboyheenner, Musquito, Tedbury, Windradyne, Jandamarra…the list goes on and on.
These Aboriginal leaders were perhaps not history’s tenants by choice, and in nearly every case, their names are lionised for fighting and killing the invading English.
They became renowned freedom fighters – perhaps the noblest cause of them all.
These men were brave, that’s not disputed, but in many ways their jobs were arguably easier than those that would follow.
Aboriginal leaders like Yorta Yorta man William Cooper.
Now Cooper’s a man that had it really tough.
Unlike those fighters that preceded him, the task facing Cooper wasn’t quite as clear-cut as ‘kill or be killed.’ The game had changed and by Cooper’s time, in the mid 1800s, it was now a tactical dogfight against a wily conqueror.
What Cooper managed to achieve however, in extraordinary circumstances, makes him perhaps one of this country’s most outstanding leaders.
Born around the intersection of the Murray and Goulburn Rivers in Victoria, Cooper and his family were eventually herded onto Maloga Aboriginal Mission, which was being run at the time by Daniel and Janet Matthews.
The Mission’s creator Daniel Matthews was a renowned champion of the non-tribal Aboriginal people around the Echuca, Moama region, and lobbied agitated relentlessly for increased Aboriginal rights.
Such was Matthews agitation, he eventually became the target of an equally relentless smear campaign in the late 1800s. He wouldn’t flinch though, and one of his last acts was securing land for Aboriginal people in South Australia.
Matthews made bitter enemies in government’s across southern Australia, and it’s perhaps in his dogged determination that a young ‘Billy’ Cooper took stock and followed suit.
Daniel Matthews was a stickler for numeracy and literacy, but what he found in Billy Cooper was something of a prodigy.
Arriving at Maloga on August 4, 1874, as a young Illiterate boy, Cooper was soon forced to learn the white man’s ways.
His progress was simply remarkable.
Matthews wrote of Cooper: “The boy, Billy Cooper, shows great aptitude for learning. He has acquired a knowledge of the Alphabet, capital and small letters, in three days and then taught Bobby – capitals only – in one day.”
Billy then attended adult reading classes and went to read widely of Aboriginal land rights in New Zealand and North America.
Cooper’s first act of defiance would later be known as the 1881, ‘Maloga Petition.’
It’s a mere tit-bit in the annals of Australian history, but for my mind at least, its perhaps one the most important political agitations in this country’s history.
It’s the very first Aboriginal demand for land rights in Australia as compensation for stolen land.
It was signed by 11 men from the Mission and delivered to the Governor of Victoria. Cooper called for 100 acres to be handed back to each Aboriginal family on the Mission.
It eloquently read in part; ‘We, the men of our several tribes, are desirous of honesty maintaining our young and infirm, who are in many cases the subjects of extreme want and semi-starvation; and we believe we could, in a few years, support ourselves by our own industry were a sufficient area of land granted to us to cultivate and raise stock.’
It went on to state; ‘All the land within our tribal boundaries has been taken possession of by the government and white settlers. Our hunting grounds are used for sheep pasture and the game reduced, and in many places exterminated, rendering our means of subsidence extremely precarious and often reducing us and our wives and children, to beggary.’
By anyone’s standards the Maloga Petition was light years ahead of its time. It’s interesting to note too, that black land rights legislation, albeit vastly different to that proposed by Cooper, didn’t come into effect until 1976 up in the Northern Territory.
Needless to say, Cooper’s petition fell on deaf ears, and was of course rejected by the authorities.
Nonetheless, Cooper’s political life had begun, and aware of the extraordinary treatment being meted out to his people of the reserves and missions of New South Wales and Victoria, he dedicated his life to Aboriginal rights.
Living for a spell at places like Cummergunja on the Murray River and Warangesda Mission in Wiradjuri country, Cooper eventually established the Australian Aborigines League in 1935.
As its secretary, Cooper circulated a petition seeking direct representation in parliament, enfranchisement and further land rights. He collected 1814 signatures, this despite active obstruction from the national and state governments of the day.
In 1935, he led the first Aboriginal deputation to a Commonwealth minister and in 1938, the first deputation to the Prime Minister. The government of the day rejected his requests.
With frustration mounting, Cooper was forced into shaming the Australian government. Together with Jack Patten and William Ferguson, developed the Aborigines Progressive Association.
This partnership culminated in the now famous ‘Day of Mourning’ on Australia Day 1938. This day of protest took place in Melbourne, but was mirrored across the country by Aborigines in other states.
It’s up for debate whether Cooper would be proud of it or not, but we have him to thank for the annual NAIDOC week just gone. Not so much a time of protest and agitation anymore, but perhaps more a celebration of our culture and who we’ve become.
Sadly these days William Cooper is perhaps best remembered beyond Australian shores, and bizarrely enough, in Jewish circles.
In 1938 Cooper led a delegation of the Australian Aboriginal League to the German Consulate in Melbourne to deliver a petition, which condemned the “Cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany.”
It was in response to an event labeled kristallnacht or Night Of Broken Glass, in which Jewish people were targeted in violent attacks that saw 91 dead and many thousands more herded into camps by the Nazis.
Cooper has since been remembered and celebrated overseas for his heroic stand against an oppressive regime, knowing all to well what that felt like.On 5 October 2010, the William Cooper Justice Centre was opened in Melbourne. The newly developed court complex was named in honour of Cooper’s efforts as a rights campaigner.
Cooper’s battle was not with the spear, but with the pen. And whilst the Cooper name is seldom mentioned in the same breath as Luther King, Mandela or Garvey, it really should be.
For Aboriginal people, there’s no historical leader more important, more impacting and more trailblazing than William ‘Billy’ Cooper.
*Chris Munro is a Gamilaroi man and NSWALC employee.