William Cooper (Aboriginal Australian)

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William Cooper

William Cooper (18 December 1860 or 1861 – 29 March 1941) was an Australian Aboriginal political activist and community leader.[1]

Early life[edit]

William Cooper was born in Yorta Yorta territory around the intersection of the Murray and Goulburn Rivers in Victoria, Australia on 18 December 1860.[2] Cooper appears to have been forced to work for a variety of pastoral employers, even as a child.

On 4 August 1874, William Cooper, along with his mother, Kitty, his brother Bobby and other relatives arrived at Maloga, an Aboriginal Mission on the Murray, run by Daniel and Janet Matthews. Three days later, Matthews was struck by William’s quick progress in literacy, and noted the following in his diary:

"6 Aug. Maloga. 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." [3]

Cooper came and went from the mission freely, learning and working as it suited. In his 20s, he seems to have taken a great interest in the message of the Bible. Following a church service in January, 1884, Cooper approached Daniel Matthews and said "I must give my heart to God…." He was the last of his brothers and sisters to become a Christian.[4]

The faith community seems to have nourished Cooper for a life of activism. "Matthews' evangelical work provided Cooper and other Yorta Yorta with powerful way of understanding and protesting against their plight, and so helped equip them to fight for equality."[5]

From 1881, Cooper was educated by Thomas Shadrach James, a highly educated Tamil from Mauritius, who had moved to Maloga to become the resident teacher.[6] Cooper read widely, learning of the indigenous rights movements in North America and New Zealand.

Campaign for Aboriginal Rights[edit]

Cooper's long campaign for Aboriginal rights, especially land rights, began with the Maloga Petition in 1887. One of eleven signatories, it was addressed to the Governor of New South Wales. The petition held that Aborigines of the district, "should be granted sections of land not less than 100 acres per family in fee simple or else at a small nominal rental annually with the option of purchase at such prices as shall be deemed reasonable for them under the circumstances, always bearing in mind that the Aborigines were the former occupiers of the land. Such a provision would enable them to earn their own livelihood..." [7]

For most of his adult life, Cooper lived and worked in missions such as Maloga and Warangesda. He also found work as a "shearer, drover, horse-breaker and general rural labourer in Queensland, South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria."[8]

Well into his 70s, when he discovered he was ineligible for the pension if he remained on an Aboriginal reserve, Cooper moved to Footscray in western Melbourne in 1933. Here he found his calling as an activist, an organiser, and a relentless letter-writer.

At first this was in an individual capacity. But by 1935 Cooper had helped establish the Australian Aborigines League. As its secretary, Cooper circulated a petition seeking direct representation in parliament, enfranchisement and land rights. Knowing that, while not technically Australian citizens, all Aborigines and Islanders were British subjects, he made up his mind to petition King George V. Over several years, he and his team collected 1814 signatures, despite active obstruction from the national and state governments of the day. He appears to have been helped in his cause by some missionaries, such as Rev E. R. B. Gribble in 1933. The text of the distributed petition, which was also published in The Herald (Melbourne) on 15 September 1933, was as follows:

“Whereas it was not only a moral duty, but also a strict injunction included in the commission issued to those who came to people Australia that the original occupants and we, their heirs and successors, should be adequately cared for; and whereas the terms of the commission have not been adhered to, in that (a) our lands have been expropriated by your Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth, (b) legal status is denied to us by your Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth; and whereas all petitions made in our behalf to your Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth have failed: your petitioners therefore humbly pray that your Majesty will intervene in our behalf and through the instrument of your Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth grant to our people representation in~ the Federal Parliament, either in the person of one of our own blood or by a white man known to have studied our needs and to be in sympathy with our race.”

The petition was received by the Commonwealth Government in August 1937. However, by February 1938, it was clear that the Cabinet led by Joseph Lyons had decided that it should not be submitted[9] to the King, who, by this time, was George VI.

Cooper was also effective in securing face-to-face meetings with governments. 1935, he was part of 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, or, perhaps more accurately, ignored them. By the late 1930s his activities were actively monitored. In December 1937, Cooper received a visit from a detective acting on behalf of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch.[10] Seeing the failure of using democratic means, Cooper's Australian Aborigines League joined forces with Jack Patten and William Ferguson from the Aborigines Progressive Association to shame white Australia. They arranged a Day of Mourning to commemorate the sesquicentenary of colonisation, on Australia Day, 1938. The event, which was watched by journalists and police, was held in Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, was the first combined, interstate protest by Australian Aborigines.[11] On that he stood to say: "Now is our chance to have things altered. We must fight our very hardest in this cause. I know we could proudly hold our own with others if given the chance. We should all work in cooperation for the progress of Aborigines throughout the Commonwealth."[12]

Cooper retired in November 1940 to reside with his wife at Barmah, near Echuca, Victoria and was made an honorary life member and president of the Australian Aborigines League.[13][14] William Cooper continued protesting the injustice of the Australian treatment of its Indigenous people until his death on 29 March 1941. His major success was the establishment of a National Aborigines Day, first celebrated in 1940.[1]

Cooper's life and work are the subject of a book entitled Blood from a Stone - William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines League, written by Andrew Markus and published by Allen & Unwin in 1988.[15]


William was born to Kitty Cooper, who identified as a Wollithica woman[16] and spoke Yorta Yorta; and to James Cooper a white labourer. His early years were spent in and around Moira Station - Moitherban country.

Cooper married Annie Clarendon Murri in 1881; she died in 1889, as did the first of their children, Bartlett, their daughter Emma survived. Six more were born of his second marriage, to Agnes Hamilton; they were Daniel (who served and died with the AIF), Amy, Gillison, Jessie, Sarah (known as Sally, later Sally Russell) and Lynch. Agnes died in 1910.

His daughter Amy Charles was the matron of the first Aboriginal hostel established in Melbourne in 1959. Lynch Cooper, was an athlete who won the 1928 Stawell Gift and the 1929 World Sprint.

At age 65, William married Sarah Nelson, née McCrae, of Wahgunyah and Coranderrk. There were no children.

He has many prominent relatives. These include the church planter and Governor of South Australia, Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls and the educator Thomas Shadrach James.

Protest against Kristallnacht[edit]

On 6 December 1938, several weeks after Kristallnacht in Germany, 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."[17] The protest has been referred to as "the only private protest against the Germans following Kristallnacht."[18] The German Consulate did not accept the petition.


In his own lifetime, William Cooper achieved almost none of the goals he had set for himself. The one exception[1] was the creation of Aborigines Sunday, which was observed in Churches across Australia from 1940. It is still commemorated today, but as NAIDOC week.[19]

However, many of his initiatives have gained recognition long after his death.

His influence extended to the next generation of Aboriginal activists through his nephew and protégé Douglas Nicholls. Pastor Doug, as he was frequently known, was a founding member of Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, whose greatest achievement was successfully lobbying to change racist elements of the Australian Constitution via plebiscite. This campaign was a complete success, resulting in Australian referendum, 1967.

The existence of Cummeragunja, which is still a living Aboriginal community today, and belongs to the Indigenous people through the Aboriginal Lands Council of NSW, may also be attributed to the work of William Cooper. The Maloga Petition which Cooper had signed and supported in his early years resulted in the Government allocating 1800 acres of land for Aboriginal use. This land was just upstream from Maloga, and became known as Cummeragunja. Additional grants of land were made in 1900 bring Cummera, as it is also known, up to its total of size of 2965 acres.

In more recent years, Cooper's legacy has been appreciated by the Jewish community. In 2002, a plaque was unveiled at the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne in honor of “the Aboriginal people for their actions protesting against the persecution of Jews by the Nazi Government of Germany in 1938.” The story of the protest is featured in the Jewish Holocaust Centre's permanent museum.

On 6 December 2008, in connection with the 70th anniversary of the protest against Kristallnacht, Cooper's grandson, Alfred "Boydie" Turner, was presented with a certificate from the Israeli Ambassador stating that 70 Australian trees were to be planted in Israel in honor of William Cooper. The ceremony, held at the State Parliament in Melbourne, was attended by several dozen members of the Yorta Yorta tribe as well as Victorian Premier John Brumby, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, lawmakers, diplomats and Jewish leaders.[17]

On 28 April 2009, five trees were planted at the Forest of the Martyrs near Jerusalem at a ceremony in Israel attended by Turner and about 12 members of William Cooper’s extended family as well as a number of Jewish leaders. On the same day, a ceremony at the Aborigines Advancement League in Melbourne was held to honour Cooper's "brave stance against the oppression of the Jews."[17]

In August 2010 it was reported that the Yad VaShem Holocaust museum in Israel announced they would honour Cooper for his protests against the behavior towards Jews on Kristallnacht. Yad Vashem was considering plans to endow a small garden at its entrance in Cooper's honor. Cooper's name was submitted for recognition when it was discovered that Cooper's rally was the only private protest against Germany in the wake of Kristallnacht.[20][21] Ultimately it was decided instead to name the Chair of Resistance Studies at the Research arm of Yad Vashem in his honour, and a plaque attesting to this sits on Level 2 of the Administration and Research Building.[22]

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 an indigenous rights campaigner.[23]

In December 2010, there were three commemorative events:

  • Cooper's great-grandson, Kevin Russell re-enacted the walk from Cooper’s home, meeting up with Cooper’s grandson Uncle Boydie at Federation Square.[24]
  • Cooper was honoured in Israel by the creation of an Academic Chair in his honour to support resistance and research of World Holocaust Studies. A professorship attached to this Academic Chair is valued at $1,000,000.[24]
  • A Tribute was held at Yad Vashem World Holocaust Memorial, with the family as invited guests. The Australian/Israel Leadership Forum hosted an associated Gala Dinner to be attended by Kevin Rudd, Julie Bishop and another 17 Ministers including the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.[24]

Additionally, the William Cooper Cup is an annual trophy awarded to the winner of an Australian rules football match between the Aboriginal All-Stars and Victoria Police at Whitten Oval in Footscray.[25]

In June 2018, the Australian Electoral Commission renamed the federal Division of Batman to Division of Cooper in Cooper's honour.[26]


  1. ^ a b c Barwick, Diane (1981). "Cooper, William (1861–1941)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. 8. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 10 January 2018. 
  2. ^ In a letter to Mrs W A Norman in August 1940, Cooper wrote, "I will be 80 years of age on 18th December" - see Document 98 in Attwood and Markus. He died in 1941. On his death certificate, Cooper's date of birth is recorded as 18 December 1861. It is up to the historians to decide which is more accurate, Cooper himself or the author of the death certificate.
  3. ^ Cato, p. 51.
  4. ^ Cato, Nancy (1976) "Mister Maloga, Daniel Matthews and his Mission, Murray River, 1864-1902" St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press P167
  5. ^ "Introduction" in Attwood and Markus.
  6. ^ See: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/james-thomas-shadrach-10610
  7. ^ Attwood & Markus, p. 27.
  8. ^ Attwood & Markus, p. 3.
  9. ^ Attwood & Markus, "Introduction"
  10. ^ Bain Attwood, "The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights: A Documentary History" Allen & Unwin (1999) p18
  11. ^ http://www.dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/day_of_mourning_1938
  12. ^ William Cooper, on the Day of Mourning, quoted in The First Australians Hetti Perkins, 2008, Six-part TV series.
  13. ^ "Aborigines' League Founder Retires". The Age. 1940-11-29. p. 8. Retrieved 2015-11-30. 
  14. ^ "PERSONAL". The Argus. 1941-02-21. p. 4. Retrieved 2015-11-30. 
  15. ^ "White myths shattered". The Canberra Times. 1988-11-19. p. 24. Retrieved 2015-11-30. 
  16. ^ Cato, Nancy, Mister Maloga : Daniel Matthews and his mission, Murray River, 1864-1902 (1976) p86
  17. ^ a b c Aboriginal leader honored in Israel, Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), 28 April 2009.
  18. ^ National Indigenous Times, "Holocaust museum to honour William Cooper", 5 August 2010, p. 5.
  19. ^ http://www.dpc.vic.gov.au/index.php/aboriginal-affairs/projects-and-programs/leadership/victorian-indigenous-honour-roll/victorian-indigenous-honour-roll-2011-inductees/william-cooper-1861-1941
  20. ^ http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/news.aspx/138896
  21. ^ http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1337267/Indigenous-anti-Nazi-protests-recognised
  22. ^ http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/about/institute/resistance_during_holocaust.asp
  23. ^ [1] Victoria Opens William Cooper Justice Centre.
  24. ^ a b c WIlliam Cooper's great grandson walks the walk, J-Wire, 28 November 2010, accessed 3 December 2010
  25. ^ "Bulldogs share in NAIDOC spirit". westernbulldogs.com.au. Western Bulldogs. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  26. ^ "Names and boundaries of federal electoral divisions in Victoria decided". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 20 June 2018. 


  • Attwood, B. & Markus, A. (2004) Thinking Black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines’ League, Aboriginal Studies Press: Canberra.
  • Cato, N. (1993) Mister Maloga, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Queensland.