William Cooper (Aboriginal Australian)

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William Cooper
William Cooper.jpg
Inaugural Secretary of the Australian Aborigines League
In office
September 1933 – February 1941
Succeeded byDouglas Nicholls
Personal details
Born(1860-12-18)18 December 1860
Moira, Victoria
Died29 March 1941(1941-03-29) (aged 80)
Mooroopna, Victoria
ProfessionShearer, Fishmonger, Community Leader, Political Activist

William Cooper (18 December 1860 or 1861 – 29 March 1941) was an Australian Aboriginal political activist and community leader; the first to lead a national movement recognised by the Australian Government.[1][2]

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.[3] His family was a small remnant of what Cooper recalled to be a large tribal group, "As a lad I can remember 500 men of my tribe, the Moiras, gathered on one occasion. Now my family is the only relic of the tribe."[4] From there Cooper appears to have been forced by necessity 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.[5] 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. [6]

From there, Cooper's education on the mission was sporadic; there was no requirement for Cooper to attend any school, and he moved to and from the mission freely. In an interview Cooper gave when he was 76, he said he had just seven months’ regular schooling.

Instead of school, Cooper said he spent much of his childhood into his teens working in the household of Sir John O’Shanassy, a pastoralist, Victorian Member of Parliament and one-time Premier of Victoria[7] who owned several stations, including the Moira run (on Cooper's own mother's country). Through these pastoral networks, he travelled much of Australia as a teenager, even seeing "the remains of the Burke and Wills Expedition at Cooper’s Creek" in the remote Lake Eyre Basin.[8]

However, Cooper kept a connection with the missionary Daniel Matthews and, in his 20s, he returned to Maloga, which appear to represent very happy years. In a letter he wrote towards the end of his life to the missionary's youngest daughter, Alma, he recalled Daniel and Janet and the Maloga community in very warm terms:

I often cast my mind back to them, and the dear old place, and at times it brings tears in my eyes when thinking of the glorious hours, days and months, we spent together; the beautiful singing, the picnics, the games. — Your father’s voice still rings in my ears: We never ever had singing like we did at Maloga.[9]

It was at this time that Cooper took a stronger interest in the message of the Bible. In his early 20s, 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.[10]

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."[11]

From 1881, Cooper was educated by Thomas Shadrach James, a polymath Tamil from Mauritius, who had moved to Maloga to become the resident teacher.[12] 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. He was one of eleven signatories to the petition, which was addressed to the Governor of New South Wales. The petition Cooper supported held that local Aborigines:

...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 ... [13]

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."[14]

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, on the basis that 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[15] to the King, who, by this time, was George VI.

Cooper was also effective in securing face-to-face meetings with governments. In 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.[16]

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, and was the first combined interstate protest by Australian Aborigines.[17] He said:

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.[18]

Cooper retired in November 1940 to reside with his wife at Barmah, near Echuca, Victoria; having been made an honorary life member and president of the Australian Aborigines League.[19][20] William Cooper continued protesting the injustice of the Australian treatment of its Indigenous people until his death at Maroopna Base Hospital on 29 March 1941. His funeral was held at the church in Cummeragunja, the service conducted by his nephew Edward Atkinson, and he was buried at the nearby mission cemetery.[21]

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.[22]


William was born to Kitty Cooper, who identified as a Wollithica woman[23] 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 1884 at Maloga; she died in 1889, as did the first of their children, Bartlett; fortunately, their daughter Emma survived.

Four years after his loss, Cooper married Agnes Hamilton, who had grown up at the Coranderrk Mission. Six children were born to them, Daniel, Amy, Gillison, Jessie, Sarah and Lynch. Cooper's experience of loss continued, with Agnes dying in 1910.

Daniel, who was named for his father's mentor, Daniel Matthews, served with the 24th Australian Infantry Battalion and was killed in action at the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge in Belgium, in late 1917. His loss devastated Cooper. When war loomed again, Cooper argued that his people should not fight until they had ‘something to fight for'.[24]

His daughter, Amy Charles became the matron of the first Aboriginal hostel established in Melbourne in 1959.

Lynch Cooper, enjoyed a career as an athlete, winning the 1928 Stawell Gift and in 1929 the world professional sprint championship competition.[25]

At age 65, William married Sarah Nelson, née McCrae, of Wahgunyah and Coranderrk. She supported him in his most prolific years as a community leader, helping to raise his many grandchildren, though they had no children together.

Cooper had many prominent relatives in his wider family including his protege, 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."[26][27]

In a 1997 essay, historian Gary Foley argued that it was "probable that the ironies of the deputation’s visit to the German Consulate were part of the group’s strategy to draw attention to the similarities between what was happening in Germany and how Aborigines were being dealt with in Australia."[28]

The protest has been referred to as "the only private protest against the Germans following Kristallnacht."[29][30] However, this characterisation has been disputed by historian Hilary Rubinstein as a "falsehood" and "not accurate". Rubinstein states there were in fact several other protests against Kristallnacht in Australia, which are "unremembered and unremarked by the Australian Jewish community today" compared with Cooper's actions.[31] The German Consulate did not accept the petition, but Alf Turner, Cooper's grandson, presented the consulate with a replica letter 79 years later.[32]

In 2018 members of the Victorian Jewish community organised a walk on 6 December "in remembrance and appreciation of William Cooper and to reciprocate the march that he led on the German Consulate in Melbourne on the 6th December 1938."[33][34]


In his own lifetime, William Cooper achieved almost none of the goals he had set for himself. The one exception[2] was the creation of Aborigines Sunday, which was observed in Churches across Australia from 1940. It is still commemorated today, but as NAIDOC week.[35]

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 1967 Australian referendum. A record 90.77% voted to support the inclusion of Aboriginal Australians in census counts and to make Indigenous concerns a matter for Federal Government.

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 honour 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 honour 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.[26]

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."[26]

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.[36][37] 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.[38]

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.[39]

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.[40]
  • 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.[40]
  • 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.[40]

In 2012 Cooper's grandson, Uncle Alf (Boydie) Turner, led a re-enactment of the march by Cooper and his friends. The German consul-general in Melbourne finally accepted a copy of Cooper's protest letter.[41][42] Also a cantata is being composed to commemorate both "William Cooper’s courage and the 1938 pogrom."[41][43]

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.[44]

In June 2018, the Australian Electoral Commission renamed the federal Division of Batman to Division of Cooper in Cooper's honour.[45]


  1. ^ https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2016/06/30/timeline-beginning-naidoc-week-till-now
  2. ^ a b Barwick, Diane (1981). "Cooper, William (1861–1941)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. 8. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Letter from William Cooper, Secretary, Australian Aborigines’ League, to Isaac Selby, 1 February 1937 qutoted by Attwood, Bain. Thinking Black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines' League. Aboriginal Studies Press. Kindle Edition.
  5. ^ Cato, Nancy, "Matthews, Daniel (1837–1902)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 30 November 2019
  6. ^ Cato, p. 51.
  7. ^ Ingham, S. M., "O'Shanassy, Sir John (1818–1883)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 30 November 2019
  8. ^ Herald, 7 August 1937, Clive Turnbull, ‘Aborigines Petition the King’ quoted in Attwood, Bain. Thinking Black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines' League . Aboriginal Studies Press. Kindle Edition.
  9. ^ William Cooper to Mrs W. A. Norman, 30 July 1940 quoted in Attwood, Bain. Thinking Black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines' League. Aboriginal Studies Press. Kindle Edition.
  10. ^ Cato, Nancy (1976) "Mister Maloga, Daniel Matthews and his Mission, Murray River, 1864–1902" St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press P167
  11. ^ "Introduction" in Attwood and Markus.
  12. ^ See: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/james-thomas-shadrach-10610
  13. ^ Attwood & Markus, p. 27.
  14. ^ Attwood & Markus, p. 3.
  15. ^ Attwood & Markus, "Introduction"
  16. ^ Bain Attwood, "The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights: A Documentary History" Allen & Unwin (1999) p18
  17. ^ [1]
  18. ^ William Cooper, on the Day of Mourning, quoted in The First Australians, Hetti Perkins, 2008, six-part TV series.
  19. ^ "Aborigines' League Founder Retires". The Age. 29 November 1940. p. 8. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  20. ^ "PERSONAL". The Argus. 21 February 1941. p. 4. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  21. ^ https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/rendition/nla.news-article190996358.txt
  22. ^ "White myths shattered". The Canberra Times. 19 November 1988. p. 24. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
  23. ^ Cato, Nancy, Mister Maloga : Daniel Matthews and his mission, Murray River, 1864–1902 (1976) p86
  24. ^ https://discoveringanzacs.naa.gov.au/browse/person/127202
  25. ^ "WORLD'S SPRINT CHAMPION". Weekly Times (3205). Victoria, Australia. 2 March 1929. p. 66. Retrieved 11 August 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  26. ^ a b c Aboriginal leader honored in Israel, Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), 28 April 2009.
  27. ^ "The Aboriginal hero who stood up to Hitler". Retrieved 10 November 2018.
  28. ^ Foley, Gary. "Australia and the Holocaust: A Koori Perspective" (PDF). The Koori History Website. Retrieved 15 September 2019.
  29. ^ National Indigenous Times, "Holocaust museum to honour William Cooper", 5 August 2010, p. 5.
  30. ^ Shindler, Colin (8 November 2018). "Kristallnacht: The first step on the road to Auschwitz". www.thejc.com. Retrieved 10 November 2018.
  31. ^ Hilary Rubinstein (19 December 2018). "Kristallnacht: "White Australia Stood Silent" (Not)". J-Wire. Retrieved 16 January 2019.
  32. ^ Dobson, Mahalia; Tuffield, Rhiannon (10 November 2018). "William Cooper — the Aboriginal elder who led an anti-Nazi protest in 1938". ABC News. Retrieved 10 November 2018.
  33. ^ "Walking Together - Remembering William Cooper - Recommitting to His Legacy". Walking Together. Retrieved 30 September 2019.
  34. ^ Australian Jewish Democratic Society. "Walking Together - Rememberin William Cooper - Recommitting to His Legacy". Retrieved 30 September 2019.
  35. ^ 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
  36. ^ http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/news.aspx/138896
  37. ^ http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1337267/Indigenous-anti-Nazi-protests-recognised
  38. ^ http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/about/institute/resistance_during_holocaust.asp
  39. ^ [2] Victoria Opens William Cooper Justice Centre.
  40. ^ a b c WIlliam Cooper's great-grandson walks the walk, J-Wire, 28 November 2010, accessed 3 December 2010
  41. ^ a b "Kristallnacht and the  Righteous Australian aboriginal William Cooper". J-Wire. 9 November 2018. Retrieved 10 November 2018.
  42. ^ "William Cooper — the Aboriginal elder who led an anti-Nazi protest in 1938". ABC News. 10 November 2018. Retrieved 10 November 2018.
  43. ^ Alon Trigger (20 June 2018), Kristallnacht Cantata promo Full Version, retrieved 10 November 2018
  44. ^ "Bulldogs share in NAIDOC spirit". westernbulldogs.com.au. Western Bulldogs. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
  45. ^ "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.