‘William Cooper: An Aboriginal Life Story’ by Bain Attwood

2021, 204 p. plus notes

Unfortunately, I think that Australians may be more aware of African American political activists than they are of Indigenous Australian ones. William Cooper is now commemorated by an electoral district and a statue in Shepparton, but neither of these capture Cooper’s contribution to Australian history – in fact, in some ways they do a disservice to it. William Cooper’s attempt to have designated Aboriginal representation in Parliament never eventuated to this day, and the Shepparton statue commemorates an event which was only tangentially connected with his lifetime of Indigenous activism. The resolute, handsome face that stares out from the cover of Bain Attwood’s book William Cooper: An Aboriginal Life Story should be instantly recognizable to us, but it is not.

William Cooper was a Yorta Yorta man, born on the junction of the Murray and Goulburn Rivers in northern Victoria. His date of birth -sometime around 1860- is inexact, but as Attwood points out, the actual date was largely immaterial compared with the significance given to the place of someone’s birth, their family and kinship group and totem. Nor was his paternity particularly relevant. Attwood claims that that the Yorta Yorta, like other groups, tried to establish a reciprocal kin relationship with the white invaders of their country, by encouraging sexual relationships between their women members and whitefellas (p.5). Thus, several of Cooper’s siblings adopted the surname of Atkinson, for John Olbury Atkinson who worked on the nearby Moira run as overseer, while other siblings (including Cooper) adopted Cooper as their surname, perhaps for Edward Cooper – or maybe not. This meant that Cooper was “half-caste”, a distinction which he himself vehemently rejected, but which came to have ramifications as Aboriginal Mission policy changed over time. He was taken as a child to Melbourne in 1867 by the leaseholder of the Moira station, politician John O’Shanassy, and appeared to have lived with him in his Camberwell mansion Tara Estate- or maybe he worked for O’Shanassy in his New Imperial Hotel in Elizabeth – it’s not really clear. In any event, he returned to the Moira estate on his own Country as a teenager, and learned horse-breaking and pastoral skills that he drew on for the rest of his working life.

It was around 1874 when ‘Billy’ Cooper first approached the Maloga mission, established by Daniel and Janet Matthews on land selected by the Matthews brothers on the Barmah sandhills on a bend of the river Murray. This land had been traditional ceremonial grounds, and was formerly part of the Moira station – a source of later conflict. He moved there largely for the safety of his mother and younger siblings, but he himself moved away to work on surrounding pastoral stations. In 1881 the Matthews were joined by Thomas Shadrach James, from Mauritius, who worked as a teacher there and later married Cooper’s sister Ada. Cooper returned to Maloga more or less permanently from 1882, and two years later, he converted to Christianity, part of a wave of conversions amongst Indigenous men at Maloga at this time. The influence of the Matthews and Thomas James on Cooper’s political mindset was fundamental. Through their preaching, and drawing largely on the Old Testament and hymns, they gave him a framework that held that all people were God’s children and thus potentially equal, and that salvation was promised in the future for the oppressed. (p. 38) Shortly after his conversion, Cooper married Annie Murrie, but she died suddenly of respiratory illness after having two children. He remarried 21year old Agnes Hamilton in 1893 and over the next seventeen years she was to have seven children, six of whom survived infancy. However, the Maloga mission fell victim to the priorities and policies of the Aborigines Protection Association NSW which comprised white clergymen, philanthropists and leading parliamentarians under the patronage of the governor himself. Maloga was stripped bare, and incorporated into Cumeroogunga Mission, which is better known today. After initial problems, Cumeroogunga boasted 60 buildings by 1908, with three streets, gravel footpaths, a church, a meeting house, a school, a dispensary, storerooms and many outbuilding. With over 300 people, it was the largest Aboriginal reserve in NSW. But Cooper left the Mission in 1909 after conflict and controversy over the refusal to grant land blocks arose yet again, and following Agnes’ death from tuberculosis. Further deaths followed, including his eldest daughter in August 1913, his eldest son Daniel at Ypres during WWI, and several years later, Jessie the eldest daughter from his marriage with Agnes died of peritonitis after giving birth. In 1928 he married for a third time, to Sarah McRae (daughter of the artist Tommy McCrae). Cooper was to live to a ripe old age, but the reality of the foreshortened Aboriginal life expectancy, meant that he was surrounded by family deaths. In 1933 he and Sarah decided to move to Melbourne and embarked on a new phase of his activism as a seventy-year old.

Here Cooper set in train the actions for which he is best known today. He established the Australian Aborigines’ League around 1934, an organization which is often confused with the Aborigines Advancement League (of Victoria) which was formed in 1957. He was supported in this by several white supporters. The first was English-born fervent Christian and self-described “Christian communist” (p. 119), Helen Baillie, who had connections with many other Christian humanitarian networks involved in missionary work among Aboriginal people. The second was Arthur Burdeu, another fervent Christian, but wary of left-wing influences subverting Aboriginal organizations. Like Cooper, he was a strong Labor man; they had both lost family members in the Great War, and they lived relatively close to each other. He was appointed president of the Australian Aborigines’ League, even though by its constitution, full membership was only open to Aboriginal people. This raises the inevitable question of whether the League remained the voice of Cooper and other Aboriginal members, and whether the letters in Cooper’s name (generally composed by Burdeu) represented his views. By looking at the way that Cooper and Burdeu worked together, Attwood concludes that the letters in Cooper’s name by and large did represent his views, although formal statements were generally Burdeu’s work (p. 132). Cooper was joined by fellow Indigenous campaigners Shadrach James (his nephew) Anna and Caleb Morgan, Margaret Tucker, George Patten and and Doug Nicholls.

So what were Cooper’s views? Throughout all his activism – right from his time at Maloga- he drew on his Christian belief that as the first people of the land, created by God, and as British subjects, they had a rightful claim on the land, and on the government. However, ‘equal rights’ or ‘citizenship rights’ as distinct from Indigenous rights, were conditional in the sense that they rested on the capacity of their people to exercise them – not so much an entitlement as something that had to be earned (p.134). He framed this in different ways at different times.

At a time when Aboriginal people’s difference was deemed to be the cause of their plight and constituted the grounds upon which they were denied the rights and privileges enjoyed by British subjects, they emphasised their common nature with their fellow Australians and demanded the same rights as Australian citizens had. But in pressing these claims they often made reference to their difference, though the differences they had in mind were primarily rooted in their people’s history rather than culture (or civilisation) and race (or biology). Most often, Cooper and the members of his organisation invoked the fact that they were the descendants of this county’s first peoples and that the British Crown had given them an undertaking to protect them.

p.203, 204

This was exemplified in the petition that he drew up in 1933, prior to the establishment of the Australian Aborigines’ League but promoted and submitted under its auspices. It is not surprising that Cooper should turn to a petition as an instrument of persuasion. Indigenous people in Australia and across the empire, tended to look to the King/Queen as the source of power, rather than the local government, and had turned to petitions as their means of communicating with them. This petition, addressed to King George V argued that the commission issued to “those who came to people Australia” included a strict injunction that the original inhabitants and their heirs and successors should be adequately cared for. Given that the terms of the commission had not been adhered to, in that their lands were expropriated by the King’s Government and legal status was denied by the King’s Government in the Commonwealth, they prayed that the King would intervene to prevent the extinction of the Aboriginal race, give better conditions for all, and grant them power to propose a member of parliament “in the person of our own blood or white man known to have studied our needs and to be in sympathy with our race, to represent us in the Federal Parliament”. (p. 103) Actually, this was a watering-down of Cooper’s lifelong call for parliamentary representation, prompted probably by his white advisors, because he believed that white men could not “think black” and therefore they needed an Aboriginal representative in Parliament. The petition was signed by over 1800 Aboriginal people – no small feat when access to missions and permission to circulate the petition had to be sought over and over again. It was held back for some two years until after a meeting of all the administrators of Aboriginal affairs in Australia in mid 1937. It was only when this meeting failed to deliver any outcomes that the petition was finally submitted to the Australian government. However, it fell largely on deaf ears. Although Prime Minister Joseph Lyons expressed his sympathy, the petition was dismissed by the secretary of the Department of the Interior, J. A. Carrodus and was never submitted to the King. I found myself angered by such a supercilious dismissal, and the words of the Uluru Statement “the torment of our powerlessness” spring to mind.

Asking did not work: perhaps protest would. After witnessing a ceremony in Melbourne on 24 January 1937 to celebrate John Batman’s founding of Melbourne, Cooper realized that the imminent 150th anniversary celebrations in Sydney on 26th January 1938 would be of the same triumphalist tenor. Drawing on his Biblical schema of epochs and days – of Judgement and Restitution, Mourning and Hope, and eventual Deliverance, Cooper proposed “a day of mourning” to be held simultaneously with the sesquicentennial celebrations. The original idea was his, but the proceedings themselves, held at the Australian Hall, were dominated by Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten of the Aborigines Progressive Association. Cooper, Nicholls and Tucker attended, driven to Sydney by Helen Baillie in her little car, but did not play a prominent part.

Although Cooper lived in Melbourne, he and many of the League’s members retained their emotional connection to Cumeroogunga. He continued to appeal to NSW government to provide Aboriginal people with land and capital so that they could develop the land for their communities and become self-sufficient- something he had urged since his Maloga days. He urged that the services provided on reserves should be put into the hands of Aboriginal people themselves, and that regulations should ensure that no resident could be expelled from a reserve without an open enquiry. In June 1937, contrary to the wishes of the Aboriginal people, Arthur McQuiggan had been appointed as manager of Cumeroogunga, despite repeated complaints about his violence as superintendent of Kinchela Aboriginal Boys Home. Some people made preparations to leave, but were prevented from doing so by the police on the basis of “quarantine” regulations. Cooper submitted another petition signed at Cumeroogunga to the government, but this had no effect. On 26 January 1939 Jack Patten, born and bred at Cumeroogunga, returned there and addressed a gathering of the people in the church two days later, urging them to “walk off”, before they were prevented from leaving again. Cooper and Burdeu were rather ambivalent about this direct action. The League had long had a preference for representations, appeals, petitions and public meetings, and Cooper and Burdeu were apprehensive that Patten’s methods would alienate the League’s white supporters. In the end, it was socialists, communists and Labor supporters in Melbourne who backed what they saw as a “strike” at Cumeroogunga, providing moral and material support for the people who had walked off. But after nine months of hardship, the protest achieved nothing, and there was a tailing-off in the League’s activity, exacerbated by Cooper’s decline in health.

By now WWII was in train. Cooper had lost his son in World War I, and he was disillusioned by the failure of the Government to grant citizenship to the thousands of Aboriginal men who had enlisted in the AIF after World War I. He pointed out that Aboriginal men had ‘no status [and] no rights’ and ‘no country and nothing to fight for but the privilege of defending the land which was taken from him by the white race without compensation’. (p. 197) This was not necessarily a popular stance.

It is ironic that the only monument to William Cooper (presently) is the one in Shepparton, funded by Jewish philanthropists through Gandel Philanthropy. The monument depicts him holding a petition defending the human rights of Jewish people in response to Kristallnaucht, “The Night of Broken Glass” which he presented to the German Consulate in December 1938. The petition served an Indigenous purpose as well: it stated “Like the Jews, our people have suffered much cruelty, exploitation and misunderstanding as a minority at the hands of another race”. This fleeting act, which has captured and been embraced the (white) public imagination, tends to overlook the fact that several left-wing groups, churchmen, pacifists and civil libertarians had already raised their voices against the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Consistent with Attwood’s claim that this is a minor part of Cooper’s contribution, he spends only four pages on this petition, although he expands in further detail in the footnotes. I think that it says much about white Australia and its unease with Aboriginal activism, that Cooper should be commemorated for this one act of solidarity with an overseas injustice, rather than his activism against injustice here in Australia over many decades.

Attwood started his book by pointing out that, especially in relation to Cooper’s childhood, documentary sources are thin. Cooper was an eloquent speaker, but he found writing a struggle, and often turned to his white supporters to undertake this task. Moreover, members of Cooper’s family have their own stories about him, which differ in places from the stories Attwood is telling. He points out that a biographical approach can misrepresent the life of an Indigenous man or woman by casting them as exceptional.

Make no mistake: I believe Cooper was a remarkable man. But the political work for which he is best remembered was the product of a broad network of family, kin and community, and the outcome of a historical experience that he and his fellows had in common and shared with each other.

p. xiv

The book has many black-and-white photographs throughout the text, courtesy of Cooper’s family, and they emphasize both Cooper’s striking bearing but also his embeddedness amongst other activists. Attwood is writing within the academic discipline of history, and this tone pervades the book, with an essay-like introduction and conclusion, a cautious use of “I” and rather stilted cross-references in parentheses to different parts of the book. I sense a reserve in Attwood’s writing.

I’m sure that Attwood did not intend it this way, but I found the book ultimately depressing. William Cooper worked all his life for Aboriginal rights, but had little to show for it. His optimism that if only people knew; if only the King knew, then things would change- was sadly misplaced. He had a faith in white Australia that was not reciprocated. There are, of course, many resonances today. I hear shades of William Cooper in Noel Pearson, who shares his suspicion of ‘the left’ and Christianity, particularly in the linguistic and schematic framing of injustice in biblical terms. Cooper’s faith in white Australia echoes in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the call for a Voice has resonances of his call for parliamentary representation. Hopefully this time – at last- white Australia will recognize the generosity of what is being offered and finally fulfill William Cooper’s expectations.

Rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

2 responses to “‘William Cooper: An Aboriginal Life Story’ by Bain Attwood

  1. Cooper is certainly not forgotten by the Jewish community in Melbourne. On the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1988, I went to a commemoration and the speaker, Justice Marcus Einfeld then President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, spoke about William Cooper and how that petition was the only protest made in Australia. I’d never heard of him till then.
    It seems to me that the whole business of statuary in Melbourne has been hijacked by contemporary artists wanting public money spent on their modernist but often obscure efforts, while those wanting to honour people in sculpture argue over representation and diversity until everyone gives up in frustration.
    A statue, made in a person’s likeness, is way of remembering. Just a week or so ago, I saw a man and a child looking at the bust of Alan Marshall that’s outside the Sandringham library. I overheard the father saying that he didn’t know who Marshall was, and I could tell from his accent that he was a migrant, so I explained. I told him Marshall’s story of triumph over adversity and how my generation all read his book, ‘I Can Jump Puddles’ when we were at school. He was very interested and said he would try to find a copy of the book to read to his kids.
    I was really pleased to hear that there are plans to have statues of three Victorian women in Melbourne, but you can almost guarantee that the achievements of significant women will play second-fiddle to identity politics…

  2. Pingback: To the Library and then a barra to die for… With a power outage to round off the day… | Neil's Commonplace Book

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