William Cooper, Gentle Warrior

Captivating and filled with insights, this work is a literary beacon of light that dispels the darkness of racial and social discrimination.


coverIn this book, you will be taken back to a significant time in Australian history wherein a brilliant and dignified Aboriginal man WILLIAM COOPER bravely challenged the norms of his country.

This Yorta Yorta man brought change and fought for the human rights of several groups of people who were victims of persecution. Inspiring and moving, this book will stir a sense of humanitarian awareness within the hearts, minds and spirits of its readers.

Captivating and filled with insights, this work is a literary beacon of light that dispels the darkness of racial and social discrimination.


This book is primarily about a pioneering Aboriginal Christian man called William Cooper of the Yorta Yorta tribe of the Murray River in south-east Australia. But it is also a little about me as a white woman married into an Aboriginal family and living in the north east of Australia, thousands of kilometres away. It is also part history as William lived and breathed the history of his people and worked for their “uplift” as he called it. His sense of justice was also reflected in his strong support of the Jewish people, leading the only known private protest in the world against Kristallnacht—the Night of the Broken Glass—when Jewish people in Germany and Austria were killed and their homes, business and synagogues attacked by Nazis in 1938.

As I began to research William’s life, I found many similarities in our journeys. Like William, throughout my life I have immersed myself in working for justice for the Aboriginal people, and am also actively involved with standing with Israel and her people. I quickly became fascinated with his inspiring story because of these similarities.

My husband Norman and I were privileged to meet William’s family, in December 2011 in, of all places, Israel. In this meeting, his grandson Alf (better known as Uncle Boydie) Turner, Kevin Russell, William’s great grandson, and other family members had travelled to Israel to be at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum where William was honoured for his stand at Kristallnacht.

It is my honour to share his story with you.

There are some incidents that are recounted in both Chapter 14 about Evian and Chapter 16 about William Cooper as these two stories were running parallel and I wanted these chapters to be able to stand on their own for study purposes for students or simply for those interested. Also, on 21 August 1940, William wrote to Mrs Norman, a friend saying that he is approaching 80 years of age on 18 December next. This means he reached his 80th birthday before passing away in March 1941. His family, aware of this letter, maintain his birthdate is 1860 not 1861 as most other commentaries record.

About the Author

Barbara Miller
Barbara Miller

Barbara Miller is married to Norman, an Aboriginal Australian. She has a son, Michael. They live in Cairns, North Queensland, Australia.She is a pastor, mediator, psychologist and teacher and has had a keen interest in working for Aboriginal advancement since1970. She was instrumental in the movement of the Mapoon Aboriginal people back to their land in 1974.

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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.

Eve Darian-Smith, PhD LLB,
Professor and Departmental Chair Global & International Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara California, USA

Link to Review on ANU

This book adds to the history of Aboriginal people in Australia and in particular tells the story of one man, William Cooper, who not only fought for his own people but stood up for the Jewish people who were being persecuted by Hitler. I recommend this book as important reading for all Australians to learn about the depth of the struggle for Aboriginal people in Australia and the collective leadership who were prepared to continue to fight for the rights of Aboriginal people. It documents the legacy of leaders like William Cooper who hand down the baton to the next generation to continue the struggle.

Dr Esme Bamblett
CEO, Victorian Aborigines Advancement League,
Melbourne, October 2012

A powerful book has been written by Barbara Miller, a book that doesn’t shy away from the difficult issues of the time, a book that should be read by all.It’s the story of how one person can make a difference and teach us about humanity, the story of “WILLIAM COOPER: GENTLE WARRIOR, Standing Up for Australian Aborigines and Persecuted Jews.”Thank you Barbara Miller, you have brought the story of the Aboriginal People and William Cooper into our home and into our hearts. Your own personal journey is remarkable and brave, and you tell my story, the story of the Jewish people with great understanding and compassion. I thank your husband Pastor Norman, who together with you has made such a difference through your enormous devotion and energy.My parents arrived in Australia in January 1939, refugees from Nazi Europe. Their exhaustive attempt to get visas for my mother’s German family failed (see Evian Conference in the book) and 29 members of the family were killed in the Shoah, the Nazi Holocaust.My mother had a little mantra which she would keep on repeating to me “Do you know how lucky we are to be alive”, till one day I heard her say this in front of my 15 year old daughter , and I realised that her feeling of guilt, which had passed onto me, was being perpetuated. I still see her in my lounge room as I said” Mum, do you realise what you have been saying to me for so many years? Please stop, you are not right, we are entitled to be alive, we all are entitled to be alive. Blame the perpetrators, and the bystanders.” Mum never used those words again.And in the words of Eddie Mabo ;”Persist and keep fighting the fight. If you give up, they win. So don’t give up.” Eddie Mabo

Josie Lacey OAM
Life Member of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry Sydney,
October 23, 2012

As the CEO of the Aboriginal organisation servicing the very suburbs where Uncle William Cooper spent his Melbourne years as an activist for our people, I am proud to always try my best to promote his legacy to this day – with the annual William Cooper Cup in NAIDOC Week, the William Cooper Walk, hosting a Gala Dinner in his name – and even accompanying Uncle Boydie and family to Israel in 2010 in Uncle William’s honour. After nominating him successfully for the Inaugural Victorian Indigenous Honour Roll, I am so pleased to see this wonderful book Barbara has written continue to tell the story of this hero of our people. Well Done Barbara!

Colleen Marion
Gathering Place Health Service Ltd,
October 2012,
Maidstone, Victoria

This book is more than just the story of one man’s life. It extends to his influence on political and social activism in Australia, taking the story on after his death to the 1967 Referendum that finally accepted that Aborigines are citizens of this nation, to the watershed Mabo High Court decision on indigenous land rights, and the Rudd Apology for the ‘Stolen Generations’.It is a book that includes the author’s own involvement in the struggles and action on behalf of indigenous Australians. Barbara knows her subject and has thoroughly researched the story, including the lots of details of who was involved and what was done in many places. Sometimes the detail gets in the way of the storyline, and the structure is rather loose causing much to be repeated.But this is a very significant book that reveals so much that is unknown by most of the nation, and is a real challenge to all of us.

John Blacket
Khesed Indigenous Ministries, Khesed Education and Khesed Productions, Jan 2013


As the proud grandson of Uncle William Cooper, I am honoured to have been asked by my friend Barbara Miller to write a few words in a Foreword to this publication you are now holding.

Pastors Norman and Barbara Miller have demonstrated continuous support in putting the name of my grandfather, William Cooper, out there in the world. I appreciate that Pastors Norman and Barbara specially flew back to Israel in December 2010 to support the legacy of my grandfather when he was honoured at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

On reading the draft of this book, I am pleased that Barbara has so carefully researched and painstakingly recorded so many details of my grandfather’s life, and not just his political activism. She has also given you an appreciation of his personal side – what the man was really like with whom I lived from when I was a baby growing up to be a 9-year-old boy. My recollections of Grandfather was he was a quiet man until it came to the plight of his people – then he would speak up, their plight was constantly on his mind and he wouldn’t talk much about anything else except the injustices his people suffered, and constantly endured.
Grandfathers’ activism helped me realise that there is a greater purpose for us than just to exist for one’s own life: a just and righteous act of unselfishness, a continuing fight against oppression and that he enacted one of Australia’s greatest examples of living for that greater purpose.

In 1938, he was still very frustrated with the way in which things were progressing about the rights of his people, but once again this quiet man found time for others. He focused his attention on something that sickened him deeply and was very much at the heart of the matter of his own people and their persecution.
Grandfather had followed the constant newspaper reports about Germany under the rule of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party since 1933, but after the reports of the Krystallnacht atrocities in November 1938 – he could see that the singling out of the Jewish people in Europe for extermination was clearly Hitler’s intent.
Grandfather could sadly recognise that same affliction of fear, desperation, bewilderment and a sense of hopelessness which the Jewish people now faced in Europe. Jewish leaders called on the world to do something to stop the atrocities.

When many countries around the world would not act … he did. After waiting a few weeks, when there was still no serious reaction from world leaders, Grandfather organised and led a delegation himself to protest at the German Consulate in Melbourne.

On December 6th 1938, walking from his Footscray home, they marched on the Consulate in South Melbourne, together with other Aboriginal people, to convey a Resolution “condemning the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany” and asking “for this persecution to be brought to an end”.

I am proud to be the grandson of William Cooper, of this wonderful man and have tried to follow in his footsteps in the pursuit of a fair-go. He was much loved, especially by his family and it is my hope that this book inspires you, the reader, as much as his family continues to be inspired and motivated by his legacy.

Uncle Boydie (Alfred Turner)
Mooroopna, Victoria
October 2012


Foreword #2

I have had both the honor and the privilege of walking with the Millers(Norman and Barbara) for over a decade now. But it was in the year 2010 when I first heard of the discovery that Barbara had made in finding a thin thread connecting not only an Aboriginal leader but an Australian with the Jewish people at a time when they were experiencing their worst nightmare – the Holocaust (1939 – 1945).In the words of Prophet Jeremiah it appears that “seventy – years are over” (Jeremiah 29 : 10) and now, only now also we have a document that bears testimony of the courageous acts of a certain man – an Aboriginal man, from the far – side of the globe, who acted on his conscience and his convictions. And so in 1938, one man armed with nothing else but his conscience and his convictions, more than seventy years ago decides to confront the evil of his day and time – racism.

“Racism” in the late 1930’s and in the early 1940’s took a very different form and forces of darkness began to surround and target one particular people group more than others – the Jews. Others too were targeted like the Gypsies etc but they were in the minority. Though the Jews have been persecuted throughout the centuries, what was happening in Christian Europe during this era was not only unthinkable but downright unacceptable. History maintains that when the toll was tallied in 1945 some six million Jews, including 1.5 million children had been systematically murdered by those who were from the Third Reich, Germany – a crusade led by one man Adolf Hitler. History calls this cruelest atrocity of all time the Holocaust.

Using unfounded false theories that the Jews had originated from “an inferior race” and armed with a vision to repopulate Europe first and eventually the world with “Aryans” – a superior race, all of Germany came against the Jewish people, not just in Poland but all of Europe. At a time when the media cannot report what is happening on the one side of the world (West) to the other side of the world (East), unlike CNN and BBC today, still somehow as this evil news from one continent called Europe reached the shores of yet another continent – Australia, an Aboriginal man aged 77 decides to let his stand be known and his voice be heard.

Perhaps as someone born with the Aboriginal community in Australia he readily understood and recognized this evil force called “Anti – Semitism” (racism) that parades in different names during different times. He too must have felt the pain of what it is like to be discriminated and derogated to a status less than human. The mistreatment of his own people prepared him for this moment.

The Holy Bible tells us of yet another “Gentle Warrior” who appears in the pages of 1 Samuel 17 whose name was David. Standing before King Saul he recounts how he had successfully vanquished a lion and a bear and that now he is ready to take on something bigger – Goliath standing nine – feet tall. So too was William Cooper – having taken on that same evil head on in the land he was born and raised, he then takes on a battle on the international stage. And so the story goes on to say that on 6 December 1938, William Cooper walked up to the German Consulate in Melbourne, Australia and registered his demand.

At a time when men were afraid to let their voices be heard and to be seen publicly, a lone voice coming from the far end of the earth was not only credible but hero-worthy.

His role in 1938 forever connects his people with the Jewish people and his nation with the Jewish nation – Israel. Israel’s Yad Vashem made his act of courage public in December 2010.

Rev. Dr. George Annadorai
October 22, 2012 Singapore



Acknowledgements 13
Foreword by Alf Turner (Uncle Boydie) 15
Foreword by Rev Dr George Annadorai 17
Preface 19
Chapter 1 – Cooper’s Early Years 21
Chapter 2 – Maloga and Cummeragunja 34
Chapter 3 – The Struggle for Equality and the Australian Aborigines League 43
Chapter 4 – Who was William Cooper the Man? 66
Chapter 5 – VAAL, the Cairns League and FCAATSI 78
Chapter 6 – The 1967 Referendum 90
Chapter 7 – How I got interested in William Cooper 103
Chapter 8 – William’s Dream of Land Rights Finally Realized, at least in the Northern Territory 123
Chapter 9 – White Australia Policy as Foundation of our Nation and Social Darwinism 138
Chapter 10 – Eugenics, Stolen Children and Black Armbands 149
Chapter 11 – Evian: Australia Closes the Door on Jewish Refugees from Nazism 179
Chapter 12 – William’s Letters about Aborigines That Refer to Jews 205
Chapter 13 – William Cooper and AAL Protest Kristallnacht at German Consulate 216
Chapter 14 – Australians Apologize for Evian 232
Chapter 15 – Recent Honouring of William Cooper in Australia 263
Chapter 16 – First Indigenous Australian Honoured at Yad Vashem in Israel 276
Chapter 17 – More Honouring of William and Connecting with His Family and Country 300
Chapter 18 – Conclusion 338
Epilogue 347
References 349
Appendices 359


William Cooper March Event and Book Launch