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A biography of William Cooper, Australia

Updated on July 22, 2016

Early life

William Cooper was an Aboriginal leader and political activist in Australia. He was born on 18th December in the year 1861 (Cooper 1940). He was born in the Joti-Jota territory found at the intersection of the Goulburn and the Murray rivers. He was the fifth of the eight mixed caste children of James Cooper and Kitty Lewis. His father, James Cooper, worked as a laborer.

The Cooper family along with Maria; Kitty’s mother, settled at the Mologa Mission. This mission was founded by Daniel Mathews in the year 1874 (Cato 1976). William was among the several workers retained by the station managers of Ulupna and Moira by force. He was then sent to Melbourne to work in the home of Sir John O’Shanassy to work as a coachman. While there, he worked for his employers as a handyman and as a shearer for much of his life (Markus 1988). This was because of the requirement by the nearby government-run Cumeroogunga Aboriginal Station and the Maloga Mission that able-bodied men should earn salaries to support the people who depend on them (Attwood and Markus 2004).

Initially, William Cooper had decided to stay in Maloga, saying that there wasn’t a better place than Maloga, however, after a few years, Cooper, together with his two brothers; Jack and Bob, shifted to another mission station known as Warangesda, located approximately 240 kilometers north. This mission station had been founded in 1880 by John Gribble, another missionary. He later returned to Maloga in 1884. It is at this time that he chose to emulate his brother in converting to Christianity. One day after service, he told Daniel Mathews that he wanted to give his heart to God (Cato 1976). This was also the year that he decided to get married.


He was the last to convert to Christianity among his family members; he then settled at Maloga in the year 1884. While at Maloga, he married Annie Clarendon Murri on 17th June. She was also a Joti-Jota mixed caste who was also orphaned. He sired two children with her. However, one child died soon after. She passed on in the year 1889 and was survived by one of her two children. After her death, he went on to marry Agnes Hamilton on the 31st of March, 1893 at the Nathalia Methodist parsonage. Agnes was a quarter-caste who was born at Swan Hill and raised at the Coranderrk Aboriginal station located near Melbourne. They had a daughter; Amy, later known as Mrs. Henry Charles. Amy later went on to become the matron of the pioneer Aboriginal hostel founded in Melbourne.

They also had a son was known as Dan, who died in the First World War, another of their sons, known as Lynch, became a professional runner. He won the Stawell Gift in 1928 and also won the World Sprint in 1929. Agnes died in 1910. In total, he had six children with his second wife (Cato 1976). He married his third wife, Mrs. Sarah Nelson on 4th August 1928. Mrs. Nelson was of Coranderrk and Wahgunya. He left the station in 1933 so that he could be eligible for the pension. Cooper and his wife settled in Melbourne. During this time, they rented several houses in Yarraville and Footscray. They lived as part of a small, poor Aboriginal community of approximately one hundred people. Most of these Aboriginals met in the inner city suburbs like Fitzroy after they ran away from the reserves operated by the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines like the Cumeroogunga reserve (Horner 1974). He became committed to his people’s cause for the next seven years. He was actively involved in championing for Aboriginal rights until the year 1940 when his health could not allow it anymore. This was when he decided to return to his country together with his wife. Shortly afterward, he died on 29th March 1941. He was laid to rest at Cumeroogunga.

A photo of William Cooper


Campaign for Aboriginal rights

In all aspects, William Cooper was similar to Aboriginal political leaders of the 1930s. He stood out from the people who planned the Coranderrk protests in the 1880s, which was the pioneer officially planned Australian Aboriginal political campaigns (VAAL 1985). His hegemony as a spokesman did not have any customary undertones. It was based on his wide historical experience gained because of his interaction with the general community during his work and life. His political work was shaped by his mission education. His mentor, Daniel Mathews, held that Aborigines had genuine claims on the government and that they had been robbed (Clark 1972). Mathew’s evangelical work gave Cooper new ways of protesting (Harris 1994). This is because he held that Christianity gave a prophetic view of history. A view of the opening of historical time, this guarantees salvation for the oppressed (Gribble 1932).

Cooper pressed on the claims of citizenship rights by Aborigines (Goodall 1982). The granting of these rights held a very important place in his mind; he was of the view that it should have generated enough attention (Horner 1994). Petitioning the government was a dominant political technique in the British colonies (Taffe 2009), Cooper’s scheme of petitioning the government was deep rooted than just petitioning the British Government (Australian Dictionary of Biography). He contemplated appealing to one of the successors of Queen Victoria (Attwood 1999). He was inspired by the successful Maori petition of the crown which resulted in the creation of four Maori seats in the parliament of New Zealand (Perkins 2008). Therefore, he also advocated for representation in the federal government. Regarding the petition, he considered it the duty of every Aborigine to sign it (Australian Abo Call 1938).


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