Book review of William Cooper book by Eve Darian-Smith

The following review can be found on the ANU website.

William Cooper Gentle Warrior: Standing Up for Australian Aborigines and Persecuted Jews by Barbara Miller, 368 pp, Xlibris, 2012, ISBN 9781477155943 (pbk), $29.99.

Barbara Miller’s book William Cooper Gentle Warrior narrates the amazing story of an Aboriginal man’s fight against racial injustice, despite his not having any legal rights and being considered as equivalent to ‘flora and fauna’. Perhaps more extraordinary still, the book narrates Cooper’s willingness to speak out against the Third Reich’s persecution of Jews when most white Australians at the time remained silent or dismissive. Miller does a wonderful service in bringing attention to Cooper’s heroic tale spanning six decades of activism and protest. And in contrast to recent revelations that the Italian Giovanni Palatucci did not save thousands of Jews from death camps under the Third Reich (Poggioloi 2013), there is no doubt that William Cooper was the ‘real thing’. Miller’s moving historical account fills in missing gaps in the story of Indigenous activism within Australia, including her own participation in the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, the book adds a significant new dimension to our understandings of indigenous politics on a global scale both pre and post World War Two. And perhaps most importantly, as discussed below, the account points to the intersections between Australia’s Indigenous and immigration policies or, to put it another way, its internal and external racial strategies. As Miller suggests, these issues are deeply connected. This insight underscores the book’s current relevance in thinking about problems on both internal and external fronts facing Australia – and other countries – in the early decades of the 21st century.

William Cooper was a stoic fighter and determined to speak out against the discriminations of his own people. Despite his family suffering enormous deprivation under white Australia’s colonial policies that included explicit directives of genocide, protectionism and assimilation, Cooper set out at an early age to bring attention to the plight of Australian Aborigines. Born in 1860 in Yorta Yorta country near Echuca on the Murray River, Cooper spent parts of his childhood on Daniel Mathews’ missionary station at Maloga where he was influenced by the churchman’s championing of Aboriginal rights. As a young man he lived at a government run station called Cummeragunga, usually abbreviated to ‘Cummera’. In his later years, at the age of 72, he was forced to leave Cummera and moved to a modest house in Footscray where he emerged as a leader amongst the urban disenfranchised Aboriginal community. There Cooper became increasingly involved in local organisations and political activism fighting for black equality in a white world.

As a founding member of the Australian Aborigines League in 1934, Cooper sought political representation of blacks in state and federal parliament (Attwood and Markus 2004). Acutely aware that Maoris in New Zealand had been granted political representation in parliament since 1867, Cooper demanded that Australian Aborigines be given similar political representation in what was coined a ‘New Deal’. Drafting a petition to the King of England, Cooper managed to obtain nearly 2,000 Aboriginal signatures by 1935 supporting the demand ‘to prevent the extinction of the Aboriginal race’. This was a miraculous accomplishment given his limited financial resources and that signatures were obtained from remote communities across the country (p. 45). This petition also evidenced a growing ‘pan-Aboriginal consciousness’ that spoke of native unity in the face of severe adversity.

Unfortunately, the looming war helped defeat Cooper’s effort to have Britain grant political representation to native peoples, or at least provided the excuse not to pursue it. In 1938 Cooper turned his attention to domestic politics and demanded citizenship rights for blacks. He heavily campaigned against the 150th celebrations of Australia Day, calling the event a Day of Mourning. Cooper, along with fellow activists such as Jack Patten, Doug Nicholls and Bill Ferguson, formed a delegation and presented a petition outlining a 10 point plan to Prime Minister Lyons in Parliament House, Canberra. The government, however, denied the petition on the basis that native peoples were not subjects of Australia but of Britain pursuant to section 51 of the Constitution hence outside the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister. As Miller writes, ‘the Commonwealth Government had no authority to pass legislation at all for Aborigines. It could not therefore pass legislation giving them representation in Federal Parliament’ (p. 61). This point must have been exceptionally hard for Cooper to stomach given that his son had died in World War One fighting with the Australian forces yet could never be recognised as an Australian citizen.

The petition’s failure in 1938 to be even considered by the Australian government underlined the political reality at the time. Under the Constitution native peoples could not be considered citizens of the land they had occupied for thousands of years, unlike the British, Irish, and other immigrants who had been coming across the seas for the past 150 years.1 This explicit denial of legal recognition of Aboriginal peoples correlated with the country’s white Australia policy which sought to keep Australia ‘an outpost of the British race’ as expressed by Prime Minister John Curtin during World War Two. The denial of citizenship rights was a terrible blow to Cooper and the burgeoning pan-Aboriginal movement. Despite this setback, or perhaps because of this setback, Cooper aggressively protested Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, which occurred in Germany in November 1938 and left approximately 30,000 Jews incarcerated, over 1,000 synagogues destroyed, and at least 90 people dead. William Cooper led a delegation of the Australian Aborigines 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, and asks that this persecution be brought to an end’. On 7 December 1938, The Argus newspaper reported that the Consulate refused the delegation admission.

What inspired Cooper to speak out in defense of Jewish refugees? Why, despite decades of setbacks in terms of fighting for Aboriginal rights, did Cooper rally the energy to speak out on behalf of European minorities? An answer is offered in Cooper’s letter to the Minister of the Interior, written nine days after being refused admission at the German Consulate:

‘We feel that while we are all indignant over Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, we are getting the same treatment here and we would like this fact duly considered…I would like to emphasis that what we are asking for the aboriginal born in Australia is already available to Chinese, Japanese, or other alien(s) if they happen to be born here’ (cited p. 212).

In other words, Cooper saw parallels between black and white racial oppression that others could or would not see and in desperation sought to broadcast his observation.2 It should be noted that Cooper’s public denunciation stands in stark contrast to the outcome of the Evian conference in July earlier that year. At this international meeting, Australian representative Mr TW White made it clear that Australia would not respond to the German crisis and accept Jewish refugees stating that ‘As we [Australia] have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one…’ (cited p. 184).

Barbara Miller’s account of William Cooper and these turbulent years of emerging Aboriginal activism in the 1920s and 1930s is truly fascinating and offers what I see as three important insights. First, apart from reminding the reader of the commitment and agency of Indigenous leaders dedicated to fighting the deeply racist policies of the period, Miller’s narrative is a welcome reminder that black activism started well before the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s. In short, contrary to popular belief, the Australian black movement did not start with the 1962 amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, 1967 Referendum, or 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra and related black mobilisation centered in Sydney’s suburb of Redfern. Rather, the civil rights movement in Australia was prefigured by earlier campaigns and protests that had long historical connections to British and United States anti-slavery movements. As Miller notes, William Cooper grew up on the Maloga mission in the 1870s to the sound of negro spirituals and the abolition rhetoric of Daniel Mathews. Moreover, the grandson of William Wilberforce, who is largely credited with ending slavery in Britain, spent some time living in Australia in the 1880s and is presumed to have had a relationship with Cooper’s mother and fathered some of his siblings (p. 25, 29, 69). Miller’s account brings to light elements of these startling overlapping histories of racial oppression and minority resistance within British settler societies.

Secondly, William Cooper Gentle Warrior underscores the global influences on domestic Indigenous politics in Australia. While the book is ostensibly about Cooper’s activism prior to his death in 1941, equal time is spent on Indigenous politics in the post World War Two era. In this period Miller points to the increasing international pressures that were brought to bear through such organisations and activists as the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, and the South African anti-Apartheid movement that together helped to dismantle the white Australia policy. For instance, the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) launched a huge media campaign to seek constitutional reform in the 1960s that would allow the federal government to legislate on behalf of Aborigines. In a FCAA meeting in Canberra in 1964 there were many Aboriginal delegates present as well as over 40 observers from the embassies of the United States, Canada, Soviet Union, Indonesia, Brazil, Burma and the Irish Republic (p. 93). The FCAA, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the United States, had learnt to aggressively seek international oversight over oppressive national policies. Specifically, these organisations turned to the laws of other countries as well as the collective authority of the United Nations as leverage for domestic legislative reform (see Darian-Smith 2012).

Thirdly, and this is what I see as truly innovative in this historical account, are the parallels and connections William Cooper made over 80 years ago between Australia’s policies toward immigrant refugees and its policies toward its domestic native communities. As Miller provocatively notes, ‘The White Australia Policy is usually thought of in terms of immigration but it also affected policy towards Aborigines. Why go to all that trouble to keep “coloured” races out of Australia and then have a growing group of mixed race within your own borders?’ (p. 150). This line of argument resists conventional sensibilities and offers an insightful historical lesson. So often indigenous politics – and indigenous studies in general – are contained within national borders and classified as domestic issues. But as I have argued elsewhere, a country’s policies toward its native peoples, and the place of those native peoples within the national polity, are constantly refracted through that country’s larger relationship with the rest of the world (Darian-Smith 2013). No nation-state operates as an island, no matter how often and determinedly the island rhetoric is mobilised. Hence immigration policies, and the acceptance of refugees into Australia (ie German Jews in the 1930s, Vietnamese in the 1970s, or ‘boat people’ in the 2010s) cannot be disentangled from domestic histories of anxiety about Aborigines and their relationship to mainstream society. However, analysts and academics of both indigenous and immigrant issues seem curiously determined to keep these arenas separated.

Barbara Miller’s William Cooper Gentle Warrior is a brave and wonderful book that should be read by all those interested in Australia’s recent history. It leaves me asking many questions about the past and future of Indigenous politics and more tangentially the interrelationship between native and immigrant laws and policies. Today in Australia, the island rhetoric has become a mantra that plays to a conservative political agenda and xenophobic sentiments. Perhaps not coincidently, the rising hysteria about ‘boat people’ comes at a time when one fifth of Australia is under Aboriginal ownership, and more and more Indigenous communities are capitalising on their mineral resources in what Marcia Langton has called a ‘quiet revolution’ (Langton 2013). A troubling question raised in my mind is the possible connection between on the one hand the heavy-handed militarisation of the Northern Territory Intervention that clamps down on Aboriginal rights, and on the other hand the increasingly shrill demands for patrolling the nation’s island borders and incarcerating its refugees. Both internal and external policies reinforce white paternalism and racial superiority, and underscore white elites’ inability to fully embrace cultural and religious diversity.


Attwood, Bain and Andrew Markus 2004, Thinking Black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines’ League, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.

Darian-Smith, Eve 2012, ‘Re-reading W.E.B. Du Bois: the global dimensions of the US civil rights struggle’, Journal of Global History 7(3): 485–505.

— 2013, Laws and Societies in Global Contexts: Contemporary Approaches, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Langton, Marcia 2013, Boyer Lectures 2012: The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resource Boom. ABC Books, Harper Collins Publishers, Australia.

Poggioli, Sylvia 2013, ‘World War II researchers say “Italian Schindler” was a myth’, <> (accessed 10 August 2013).

Washburn, Kevin K 2009, ‘Felix Cohen, Anti-Semitism and American Indian Law’ Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 09–03.

Eve Darian-Smith

University of California, Santa Barbara

1 This statement needs qualification. Before 1901 all inhabitants of colonial Australia, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, were considered British citizens. However, with Federation in 1901 Aboriginal peoples were declared to remain British, not Australian citizens.

2 Drawing parallels between the plight of native peoples and Jews was not unique to William Cooper and one can see a similar move in the work of Felix Cohen, a Jew advocating for Native American rights (see Washburn 2009), and in the activism of black scholar WEB Du Bois and other pan-African organisations (see Darian-Smith 2012).

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