An Aboriginal Life Story: William Cooper fought for rights of First Nations people

William Cooper on Nicholson Street, Footscray, undated. Picture: Esmay Mann Collection
William Cooper on Nicholson Street, Footscray, undated. Picture: Esmay Mann Collection

The strength of research and writing in the vital area of Aboriginal history, much of it coming from the universities, continues to impress and awe serious readers of Australian history. I described Henry Reynolds and Nick Clements's recent book, reviewed in these pages a few weeks ago, as a masterpiece. This book is also in that class, though very different in kind.

Where Reynolds and Clements were writing about warfare and heroic Indigenous fighters, Bain Attwood writes of a hero in a different era and context. His book, too, is ultimately as sad as it is uplifting. Again the lack of sources would stifle a writer of less ingenuity and skill. This story cannot be told, historians in the past would have said - the sources are just not there.

To carry out the vital work of letting readers know the true nobility, achievement and perseverance of central characters in the Indigenous story, historians of the calibre of these writers need long years of researching, attempting, thinking and redefining approaches. Bringing imagination, empathy and a critical spirit to the task, they satisfy the most sceptical reader of the likely truth of the story they tell.

William Cooper grew up around the Murray River area of north-eastern Victoria and southern New South Wales. Living on two separate reserves over his long apprenticeship to knowledge and leadership, he came under the strong influence of Christian missionaries.

Cooper developed a religious faith and certainty which would be his guide for the rest of his long life. He read the Bible assiduously, enjoyed the fellowship of the Christian communities in which he participated, and enjoyed Gospel and hymn-singing with great relish.

He also had a steely-eyed understanding of the injustices done to his race since the first moments of the European invasion. With an unshakeable faith in British justice and decency, and with his strong religious convictions, Cooper spent long years appealing to the authorities, on the reserves, in parliament and in government that his people deserved compensation, dignity, land and opportunity.

A man without much education, but assisted by those who could see the strength of his arguments and positions, he petitioned, wrote, campaigned and spoke with force and passion for change. Most readers will find it heart-breaking that his letters, arguments and passion were usually ignored.

With considerable innocence and, as it transpired, a misplaced faith, William Cooper determined to petition the King, George V, to assist in righting the wrongs his people endured. There is some suggestion, according to Bain Attwood, that Melbourne's Archbishop Mannix might have assisted Cooper in drawing up the petition. Cooper was, after all, fighting for minority rights for which Mannix might have been most sympathetic.

The petition, once drawn up, was circulated widely among Aboriginal people in the states and territories. The work of gaining signatures was long and difficult but Cooper and his helpers persevered, believing that as the King, originally, had enjoined those who obeyed and revered him, to live in peace and amity with the First Australians, his successor, now King, would want to implement the original determination.

It was signed by more than 2000 people, but Cooper could not despatch it himself. He sent it to the prime minister, Joseph Lyons, for transmittal to the King. The government had no intention, whatsoever, of allowing that to happen. Bain Attwood speculates that, eventually, it was binned. It took William Cooper long years to understand that this was the fate of his, one might say, fantasy.

That small story illustrates the sadness of this book. Attwood describes so many other actions like this one, all of them futile. But there is so much more to this story than failure. William Cooper was a man of great dignity, physically and mentally. In many illustrations in the book the reader never sees Cooper except formally dressed, holding himself with an almost regal bearing.

His faith in the God of whom he had learnt as a boy and young man never wavered. His faith in the goodness and decency of the people with whom he mixed and for whom he worked, never wavered either.

There was tragedy in Cooper's long life. He buried two wives and watched too many of those he loved die. His first-born son, Daniel, was killed at Ypres in the Great War. With dignity, William Cooper wrote to John McEwen, Minister for the Interior in 1939: "I am the father of a soldier who gave his life for his King on the battlefield."

In recalling this fine Australian, Bain Attwood has rendered his nation a service. The research is prodigious, the argument clearly presented, engaging and with ruthless logic. Readers will see the Australian tragedy clearly and convincingly. They will learn to love and admire this indefatigable fighter.

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This story An unstoppable fighter to admire first appeared on The Canberra Times.