Defining Moments in Australian History: William Cooper advocates for First Nations rights

By AG Staff 3 October 2023
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1936: Yorta Yorta Elder William Cooper leads the formation of the Australian Aborigines’ League.

William Cooper was born in 1861 in Yorta Yorta country near the confluence of the Murray and Goulburn rivers, close to the New South Wales–Victoria border.

The Yorta Yorta people had inhabited the area for thousands of years but following European settlement were dispossessed of their traditional lands. Their population soon fell by 85 per cent due to disease and violence.

The Yorta Yorta, including Cooper, eked out an existence on the edges of white settlement and in 1874 were relocated to the Maloga Mission on the NSW side of the Murray River. The Maloga community clashed with the mission’s founder over his authoritarian administration and in 1889 the Yorta Yorta moved 5km upstream to the new Cummeragunja Mission.

Cooper spent most of the next 44 years there working as a shearer and handyman for pastoralists. He’d had a few months formal schooling as a child but attended adult literacy classes and became a member of the Australian Workers’ Union.

Being politically active, Cooper represented northern Victoria and western NSW First Nations communities who were ineligible for government aid during the 1920s drought and Great Depression of the 1930s. Through family connections and political acumen he became a spokesman for the Yorta Yorta in battles for land justice with the NSW government.

Because his residency on the reserve made him ineligible for an age pension, Cooper moved in 1933, aged 72, to Melbourne. He made his home in Footscray, which became a centre for other Cummeragunja exiles such as Margaret Tucker, Shadrach James and Cooper’s grandnephew, Doug Nicholls. This group formed the nucleus of the Australian Aborigines’ League (AAL), created to lobby state and federal governments on behalf of First Nations people.

Although the AAL was constituted in 1936, Cooper had made representations to government on behalf of an informal group of the same name some years before. Notably, Cooper had been gathering signatures from September 1933 for a petition to King George V seeking Aboriginal representation in federal Parliament.

“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 caredfor. Instead, our lands have been expropriated,” Cooper’s petition argued.

However, despite nearly 2000 signatures, the Commonwealth formally refused in February 1938 to forward the petition to King George VI, who had ascended the throne by then.

That year, celebrations were planned across Australia to mark the sesquicentenary of the arrival of the British. In response Cooper, as part of the AAL – along with Bill Ferguson and the newly-formed NSW based Aborigine’s Progressive Association (APA) he’d helped found – organised a Day of Mourning for 26 January to draw attention to the decimation of Indigenous populations since the arrival of Europeans.

A few days later, AAL and APA members led a delegation to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons calling for federal control of Aboriginal affairs. Their entreaties were not acted on. But the powerful symbolic gesture of the Day of Mourning, the petition to the King, and formation of the AAL have inspired generations of activists working for justice for First Nations peoples.

Cooper was concerned not only with the plight of his own people, but discrimination faced by other oppressed populations. In 1938 after Kristallnacht, when Jewish people had been targeted in widespread rioting and looting across Germany, Cooper led a march to the German consulate in Melbourne to condemn the “cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government in Germany”. German officials refused to take the written condemnation offered, but the protest is widely regarded as unique internationally.

Cooper’s sort of political activism continued among the Yorta Yorta. Settlement of the 1992 Mabo case ultimately led to the Native Title Act, and in 1994 the Yorta Yorta became one of the first Indigenous groups to make a native title claim.

Although eventually dismissed by the High Court, the case created key precedents on how the court system would interpret evidence required to prove native title. In 2004 the Victorian government entered into a cooperative management agreement with the Yorta Yorta over public lands that formed part of their original native title claim area.

William Cooper advocates for First Nations rights’ forms part of the National Museum of Australia’s Defining Moments in Australian History project.