On December 6, 1938, a fierce-gazed Indigenous man from the Murray River began a march from Southampton Street Footscray to make a simple demand for justice at government offices at 419-425 Collins Street, Melbourne. But this wasn’t a protest to defend Aborigines. It was a protest to defend Jews. And it wasn’t against a state government or Federal government. It was the German Government.
The protest was led by William Cooper. And 75 years after the event, it’s now clear that it was the only one of its kind. It’s something that didn’t happen in London, or in Paris or even in New York. It happened in Melbourne, organised by people who weren’t even citizens in their own country.
On that day, towards the end of his life, William Cooper stood up for the Jews of Europe. But as you’ll learn, it was only one of many astounding acts of justice this man made, even in his last years.
Who was William Cooper?
William Cooper was an Aboriginal. An activist. A unionist. A devout, Bible-reading, church-going, hymn-singing Christian.
Through his life, he worked as a shearer, a writer, a public speaker and, by the time he died in 1941, a political leader who could successfully demand a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister. As a man in his 70s, he started Australia’s first indigenous justice movement – the Australian Aborigines’ League. A movement which, long after his own death, would lead to the famous 1967 referendum.
But this was no communist radical. William Cooper was a Christian who believed the best thing that had happened for Australia’s first peoples was the Christian missions. He would argue passionately, often from the Bible, that Aboriginals ought to be treated as equal citizens in this country.
Once you learn where William Cooper came from, and how he came to stand up to injustice, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t heard of him before. But to begin, take a closer look at the day he challenged the Third Reich.
The March Against Tyranny
It was with his friends from the Australian Aborigines’ League that Cooper resolved to stand up to Hitler. It followed the night of “broken glass” on 9–10 November, 1938. In that terrifying 24 hours, Adolf Hitler’s brown shirts, the Sturmabteilung, rampaged through the streets of Germany looting, burning and smashing Jewish stores, buildings and synagogues. In just a few hours, nearly 100 Jews were killed and approximately 30,000 incarcerated in concentration camps.
Across the country, Australians were stunned as they read the stories in their newspapers. But Cooper stood up, gathered his Indigenous friends and family from Fitzory and Footscray, and they walked. Mind you, one of the reasons they walked was they had no money. In fact, Cooper was raising several grandkids in his home, and they didn’t even have electricity or gas. He’d rather spend it on ink, paper and stamps for his work for the Australian Aborigines’ League.
They arrived at the imposing stone building and climbed the stairs. He demanded a meeting with Doctor Drechsler, the General Consul of the Reichs Consulat – to speak against the Nazi mistreatment of Jews that had begun on Kristallnacht a few weeks before. But when they got to the door of the Reichs Consulate, the Nazi administration wouldn’t let them in.
Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the world’s leading Holocaust research centre, says that, indeed, this protest was the only one of it’s kind in the world.
How did this happen? Why was it that – of all minority groups who could have stood up for the Jews in the 1930s – it was an Aboriginal man from one of the smallest tribes who made a stand? What drove this man, who could have been spending his twilight years fishing for Murray Cod in the Barmah Forest, to become a man who meddled in matters of state? What gave him the temerity to speak against the German Reich?
A Safe Place Amongst the Reeds
William Cooper could stand up for a persecuted people, because, as a boy, he had been greatly inspired by an older man, named Daniel Matthews, who had once stood up to save his people.
William was born by the banks of the Murray River in 1860. His mother, Kitty, was a traditional Wallithica women who made first contact with white settlers and lived in the Moira Forest. The people here, the Moitheriban, were known as the “reed people” by neighbouring tribes. Kitty spoke a dialect of Yorta-Yorta and it was his mother tongue too. His father was a man called James Cooper. There had been safe years – but that was changing. Stories of the black hunts are still discussed by the local people today in Cummeragunga and Echuca. But it was disease, alcoholism and depriving the local people of food sources that threatened their existence. Even liberal-minded white Australians thought there was nothing to be done, except to “smooth the pillow of a dying race.” — Daisy Bates
A certain Daniel Matthews, however, thought differently.
Daniel was no bookish clergyman. Daniel was a strapping six-foot-something outdoors man, well known for swimming the Murray River in flood – and enjoying it.
Originally from Cornwall, Daniel come out to the colonies as a teenager with his seafaring dad. Captain John Matthews had enjoyed his own adventure with overcoming racism. He’d once made a small fortune in the slave trade, but, like the author of Amazing Grace, had given it up after becoming a Christian.
So when Daniel started noticing the mistreatment of Australia’s dark-skinned men, women and children, he started writing letters to politicians and newspapers. But he didn’t stop there. After he fell in love with a beautiful preacher’s daughter, Janet, he made up his mind to give up the land he owned on a bend in the Murray, and create a safe place for local Aboriginals. They would create a mission together. A place where he would share the best of all he had – his knowledge, his skills and his precious Bible. That place was called Maloga.
A Place of Rescue
One of the first young men to walk onto the mission was a lad called Bobby Cooper and his brother, William. They were given a challenge straight away, to read and write the alphabet. William mastered it in two days – then started teaching Bobby. William came and went as he pleased, working for nearby station owners, probably for rations. But he often returned.
He was magnetically attracted to Daniel’s wonderful songs. And to his Bible stories of Jesus and of Israel. Especially about the Exodus – a story all about a God who cares for a downtrodden people, a people who have lost their land, and now suffer under a tyrannical king. One night, ten years after his first visit, Cooper approached Daniel Matthews and said “I must give my heart to God….” He was the last of his brothers and sisters to become Christian.
It wasn’t long before William Cooper would, like a new Moses, begin standing up to those in power to demand justice. He saw his first representation to government being made, at age 21, in a Petition for Land. It was signed by 42 Aboriginal Men from Maloga and eventually secured a reserve of land to be set aside ‘For the use of Aborigines’ of 1800 acres by 1883. By 1889 this became what we know today as Cummeragunja. From then on, William Cooper was fearless as he faced state and national authority. It began with the Maloga Petition on the 20th of July 1887. Shortly after, he wrote to a politician exacting the request of land, explaining that it was “ours by Divine right.”
But braver things were to come. What would keep him going all those years? The answer could be a song – one that is still sung today in Yorta Yorta speaking communities around the Murray-Darling.
Bura Fera – a song for fighters
Outside a house in Deniliquin, it’s a hot spring day and two young voices can be heard singing a song with the words “Bura Fera”.
These little girls didn’t know it, but they’re singing a song in the Yorta Yorta language. The place they learnt it, is from the smash-hit independent film, The Sapphires. A rollicking story about some young women from Cummeragunja who form a singing troupe to perform to the soldiers in Vietnam. But the story of where it came from is even more adventurous.
The original song is called “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army.” A song, written by black Americans, whilst they were still slaves, before the American Civil War. The story in the words goes back 4,000 years, to the Exodus event. The original lyric was composed by Miriam, the sister of Moses, as she saw the great Red Sea close in on Pharaoh’s Army. “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army”, is an African American’s recollection of this turning point in history. It’s a celebration of how Moses stood up to Pharaoh, and trusted his God as the chariots came to destroy the rescued people of Israel. Clearly, to people in slavery – who had lost their land, this was a powerful story that they wanted for themselves.
Yet how did it come to the Bangerang people? It was brought to Australia in 1886 by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an ensemble of African American choristers who, had come from Nashville Tennessee to tour the East Coast of Australia, and happened to performed to the Aboriginal community at Maloga, including, it seems, William Cooper. These little girls in Deniliquin had learnt the song from their ancestors on the Murray, helped along by a movie with catchy soundtrack.
The Fisk Jubilee singers were formed by the students of the first Black university in the former Confederacy. Built around the barracks of the Union soldiers who had liberated them in 1865, Fisk University had originally been funded by the American Missionary Society. But in the depression that followed the end of the Civil War, they soon ran out of money. George White had the notion that they could tour their choral ensemble to raise money. Within a few short years, they were the darlings of the palaces of Europe, from Potsdam to Windsor Castle. And, for the first time, the world heard the arresting sound of the Negro spiritual.
After they arrived in Melbourne in 1886, the African American had a sellout run, and by August they were making their way to Sydney. After they performed at a hall in Echuca, Daniel Matthews managed to persuade them to come and sing to the Indigenous community at Maloga.
The Aboriginal families there initially gave the strangers a chilly reception. Perhaps they had learnt to be wary of newcomers. But once the visitors opened their mouths to sing everything changed. We know they sang Steal Away and other songs of freedom. But one song made such a deep impression that it’s still being sung. In fact, Yorta-Yorta speakers are, today, the only people in the world who are known to still sing it. And that song is “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army”. The song, that is sung in Yorta Yorta, known as “Bura Fera”, or “Burra Ferra” – which literally means ‘Boss Pharaoh’.
Womeriga Moses nyinin wala wala yapunei yeiputj nowra/narrwa bura fera yumina yala yala nowra bura fera yumina yala yala nowra bura fera yumina, burra ferra yumina bura fera yumina yala yala
In the history of Australia, this must be one of the most splendid threads. A Hebrew song about the Jews escaping Pharaohs oppressive regime, is taken up by African slaves in America. As they find the freedom they sang and prayed for during the American Civil War, they start sharing the song with the world. Then, these emancipated slaves from America, share it with a community of Aborigines in Australia called Maloga. A place of safety and freedom that had been created by the son of a repentant slave trader. The song meant so much to these people, they translated it into their own language and now, today, it has become a song that Aboriginal children sing happily while playing.
But it wasn’t a play song for William Cooper. When he formed the Australian Aborigines League as an older man, we know that the song was sung at fundraising meetings in the 1930s. Perhaps, they also sang that song as they marched towards Collins Street. What better inspiration than a song about defeating a tyrant Pharaoh by trusting in God. Even if, like Moses, they failed at first.
William Cooper raised seven children, including a boy he named after Daniel Matthews, who fought and died with the ANZACs in Europe. He raised several grandchildren too, one of whom, Uncle Boydie, is now in his 80s and carrying on his grandfather’s work.
Cooper loved the bush, but on his retirement, felt that God was calling him to the city, to begin his greatest work – for Indigenous justice. The Australian Aborigines League would become the very first national-profile pressure group for Aboriginal People. He mentored promising Indigenous leaders, like the renowned Northcote player, Doug Nicholls, who later became Pastor Doug of the Gore Street church, and later still, became Sir Doug Nicholls, the Governor of South Australia.
By learning to fearlessly speak in the face of power, William Cooper was able to get the attention of any newspaper, church leader or politician in the country. In 1934, he began the first broad-base Aboriginal petition, collecting 1,814 signatures from as far away as Palm Island, which was addressed to the King George V. He was later able to demand an audience with Prime Minster Lyons. Experiencing frustration with the political system, he then turned to the churches. Through his friendship with Canon John Needham of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, he was able to persuade the churches to set aside a Sunday to pray for Aboriginal welfare, justice and understanding of the Gospel of Jesus. The same Gospel that had given him so much confidence in future justice – whether he saw it in his life or not.
The fact is, William Cooper hardly saw any signs of advancement for Indigenous peoples. He honestly feared that his people may be completely wiped out – and he told the King as much in his petition. That petition never made it to the King. It was thwarted by advice in the Attorney General’s office and, tragically, has never been found. His demands for land were met – then taken away. There was no sign that Indigenous people would ever be recognised as citizens either. He had many heartbreaks and disappointments but longed for heaven and for the justice of God’s Kingdom.
William Cooper was a man totally devoted to his Lord, Jesus Christ. And, increasingly, he’s being acknowledged by Aboriginals, Jews, Christians, unionists and politicians as one of the truly great leaders in Australian history. Although he didn’t see change in his life, many of the breakthroughs that have happened for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in the last 50 years, can be traced back to his work. It was his protege, Pastor Doug, who first brokered the initiative of a referendum with Prime Minister Menzies and later Gorton. And the support he got from the churches for Aboriginal Sunday still lives on, although these days, it’s given a week, named after the committee that organises it – the National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee, or NAIDOC.
William Cooper, like Moses, didn’t live to see his people established in peace and harmony. But both men trusted in God’s promises that an eternal day of justice and blessing would come.