what happened that day in 1938 in Australia? A fire, not lit by arsons but by the Australian Government in 1949, burnt the pre-1939 records of the German Consulate in Melbourne.[i] News reports of the 1938 event lay buried in archives for decades. What happened was hidden from our eyes. But when researchers unearthed it, the reverberations were felt as far away as Israel. It catapulted a humble Aboriginal man into the limelight, making him a hero, and it linked the hearts of Jews and Aborigines.
Let’s reconstruct it as best we can. It was Tuesday 6 December 1938. The German Consulate was at 419-425 Collins Street, in the heart of the Melbourne CBD. Collins Street was one of the most desired addresses in the city, and its Victorian architecture was imposing. World War 2 had not yet been declared. An elderly white-haired Aboriginal gentleman with a bushy white moustache named William Cooper made an appointment to see consular officials on 6 December at 11.30 am. However, he was just a name at that point. No doubt the Consulate would have seen the article in the The Argus newspaper on Saturday 3 December alerting them that this appointment was not so routine. The paper revealed that a deputation from the Australian Aborigines’ League (AAL) would meet with the German Consul to protest the “cruel persecution” of Jewish people and ask that they convey it to their government.
Perhaps it was a startled guard who first raised the alarm. A large group of Aborigines was fast approaching. It looked like a mob, not a deputation of two or three. They didn’t appear to have any weapons, but they were striding with purpose and getting closer. Would they try to overrun the Consulate? Bust their way inside? Damage any property? Perhaps their dark skin itself was threatening enough with Nazi Germany’s theories of the supremacy of the white race.
The tension mounted. Gruff voices. Commands. Keep them out! Lock the door! We can’t meet with a rowdy mob! No telling what might happen. Don’t take any chances!
If the Consulate had not been located in a peaceful country like Australia, would warning shots have been fired over their heads – or worse?
By now, William Cooper and the AAL were close enough that the fierce determination in their eyes could be seen. This was the only protest march the AAL ever embarked on, and it was for Jewish people in faraway Europe, not for themselves, even though they were not citizens in their own land. Having lived under racism and discrimination in Australia, they felt empathy with another persecuted group. They were cut to the core by what happened to the Jewish people and wanted it to stop. They wanted to stand up and do whatever was in their power to stop the death and persecution of Jews.
Perhaps the Aborigines were simply met with silence and locked doors that day. Closed hearts; closed minds. Or maybe they received curt orders and shouts to disperse. Maybe William Cooper knocked on the door to no avail. Did he push the AAL’s protest letter under the door or did a security guard receive it? The letter has not survived, but its contents contained the AAL resolution recorded in The Argus:
“At a meeting of the Australian Aborigines' League, a resolution was passed voicing, on behalf of the aborigines of Australia, a strong protest against "the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi Government of Germany, and asking that this persecution be brought to an end."
A deputation of aborigines who are members of the league will wait on the German Consul on Tuesday at 11.30 a.m. to present the resolution and ask him to convey it to his Government.”[ii]
Early that morning, they had gathered at William and his wife Sarah’s Footscray home. Today it has been renovated in the style of heritage houses that dated back to the 1880s by new owners. They would like to see it made into a museum as a tribute to William Cooper’s stand. It has a white picket fence, heritage iron lacework under the roof and over the verandah and a small garden in front with green bushes. Its wooden walls are painted yellow ochre with darker yellow ochre window frames. White lace curtains decorate the front windows. It is like a spruced-up step back in time. Amazing that when William Cooper lived here, he could not afford lighting or heating. He had no gas or electricity. He wrote numerous letters to politicians and newspapers by candlelight, sitting up in bed trying to keep warm in the very cold Melbourne winters. He gathered driftwood to keep a fire burning when he could.
William formed the Australian Aborigines’ League in 1932, formalising its structure in 1935. It became the first national organisation for Indigenous people and still exists today under the name of the Aborigines Advancement League. The earliest Aboriginal organisation in Australia was set up in 1924 by Charles Fred Maynard and called the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association (AAPA). Active only until 1927 due to police harassment and internal divisions, it was, nevertheless, a notable achievement.[iii]
The Cooper home was the venue for many of the meetings of the AAL, warming themselves in winter over hot soup and sitting close to a fire as they met in the front room of the house. Candles flickered on the mantelpiece. People like Lynch Cooper, William’s son, Thomas James, Shadrach James, Doug Nicholls, Margaret Tucker, Bill and Eric Onus, Caleb and Anne Morgan and white supporters Arthur Burdeau and Helen Baillee were the regulars William and Sarah hosted. These were among the people who likely marched with William that morning to the German Consulate although the AAL did not keep a list of names of those there that day. William would also walk to meeting places as he could not afford a car or public transport. He saved his pension money for stamps for his innumerable letters. But he was a proud man and did not complain.
Alf Turner or Uncle Boydie, William Cooper’s grandson, about ten years old at the time, lived with William and Sarah. He may have been in the room when the AAL passed its resolution, making him a living link to this historic event. The resolution and decision to march probably took place at the Cooper’s Footscray home, the headquarters of the AAL. Some Aborigines walked a long way to get there but, leaders in their own right, they were drawn by William’s charisma, his passion, his character and his dignified statue. There was nothing in it for William personally except meeting his need to stand up for what was right and make a difference. William probably moved the motion as he was an avid reader of newspapers and tried to keep up with news in Australia and overseas. It was approved. There would have been a passionate discussion as William told them that the Nazis had murdered 91 Jews, smashed the windows of numerous synagogues and Jewish businesses, set synagogues ablaze and arrested thousands of Jews who they sent to concentration camps. There would have been outrage mixed with tears.
The horror of what took place stirred them to action. What could they do – a small and powerless group themselves? William first learned about using petitions to lobby government from Daniel Mathews, the missionary at Maloga, where William first learned the alphabet. Also, he’d had some experience as a union organiser while working as an itinerant labourer. Amazingly he had been a coachman for a parliamentarian at the tender age of seven years old, and no doubt heard a thing or two while carrying Mr O’Shanassy around with his horse and buggy. Was it William’s idea to march or walk to the German Consulate and hand-deliver their letter of protest? Highly likely as they started out from William and Sarah’s home.
Early on the morning of the 6 December, they gathered at 73 Southampton St, Footscray. William was secretary of the AAL, and he had the letter ready. Dressed in his suit, he donned his hat which covered his white hair, rallied the troops, and set off. He was 77 years old and not in good health, but he steadfastly led the 12 km walk to the German Consulate. In the December heat, he would have used a hanky to wipe away the sweat. Had his brother-in-law, Thomas James, the Tamil from Mauritius been with William, he may have offered some words of advice. Thomas became a teacher at Maloga mission and married William’s sister Ada. He later became the spiritual leader at Cummergunja reserve, the people moving there from Maloga. Thomas and Ada’s son Shadrach was a supporter and advisor to William also. William’s wife Sarah, with long brown wavy hair and beautiful brown eyes, was probably at his side too.
What would have struck a casual observer was how respectably dressed the group was with the men in their suits, ties and hats. William would have worn his vest as well. He was a tall man and somewhat overweight. The women wore their best dresses and hats and clutched their handbags. Most of the group were elderly, but they were not going to let age or health deter them for their long walk from the leafy suburbs, past houses with Victorian architecture, to this rich city with its skyscrapers. During the 1880s, when William was in his twenties, Melbourne was the richest city in the world, built on the gold that came from Ballarat and Bendigo. It was also built on the prized wool of the sheep that overran Aboriginal land, forcing Aborigines into poverty.
Picture William Cooper (centre) and the Australian Aborigines’ League, 1930s.
The AAL or the League as they were often called were mostly the proud Yorta Yorta people from the area around the junction of the Murray and Goulburn Rivers. Tired of the control of white managers on Cummeragunja reserve, they moved to Melbourne and worked for the betterment or “uplift” as William called it, of their people. Mission educated, they were a powerful force.
As they walked in their suits and long-sleeved dresses that day, they were walking in the hottest summer (1938-39) that has ever been recorded in Australia. Seventy-one people died in bushfires in rural Victoria on 13 January 1939.[iv] We don’t know if they carried water or needed to stop and rest on the way. A large group of Aborigines would not have had many options. No coffee shop stops. Maybe they stopped in a park and sat on the grass or a bench after finding a tap to quench their thirst. They may have wet hankies to cool their faces.
William would no doubt have done his reconnaissance and scouted out the location of the Consulate and the best route to get there on foot. As they got nearer, their excitement would have mounted, heats pounding, butterflies in the stomach, determination mounting. Their walk escalated into a march. Their pace stepped up. They rounded the corner from Market Street into 419-425 Collins Street to the AMP[v] building which housed the Consulate. They looked up at this imposing ten-story brown building with its arched entrance, carvings on each side of the door and a semi-circular balcony above the arch. Its walls were variously built of brick, reinforced concrete or terra cotta partition blocks. The builders clad its brick walls with pink granite at the base.[vi] A large green leafy tree stood sentinel at the front of the building. The Germans slammed the door shut as they approached. It was a brick wall in more ways than one.
Old AMP Building Collins St Melbourne with a Side View of Market St, Home of German Consulate in 1938 (photo David Jack)
William had to think quickly. He would have knocked politely but loudly and firmly on the door. Possibly called out that he had an appointment. Was he met with silence or threats to disperse? The Argus briefly covers what happened under the heading “Deputation Not Admitted:”
“A deputation from the Australian Aborigines’ League, which visited the German Consulate yesterday, with the intention of conveying to the Consul (Dr R. W. Drechsler) a resolution condemning the persecution of Jews and Christians in Germany, was refused admittance.
A letter requesting Dr Drechsler to forward the resolution to his Government was left at the Consulate. The resolution voiced, ‘on behalf of the aborigines of Australia, a strong protest at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi Government of Germany, and asks that this persecution be brought to an end’.” [vii]
There is a suggestion in this press article that the AAL would be attending an immigration conference the following night and Saturday run by the Council for Civil Liberties. This meeting may have been looking at a possible influx of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution in Europe. Interestingly, Jewish organisations, as well as churches, trade unions and migrant groups, would be attending showing that William Cooper was meeting with Jewish people at the time. The Argus goes on to state:
“Delegates will attend the immigration conference called by the Council for Civil Liberties at the Assembly Hall tomorrow night and on Saturday from four Protestant Churches, six foreign communities, several Jewish and non-Jewish organisations, and six trade unions. Lieut-Colonel White MHR will deliver an address on Saturday night. The sessions will be open to the public.”
It is also interesting in that Lieut-Colonel White spoke at this meeting. He was Minister for Trade and Customs in Prime Minister Joseph Lyons’ government. In July 1938, he represented Australia at a conference at Evian, France, to discuss the crisis of Jewish refugees from Nazism. He came out with the infamous statement, "As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration". However, Australia agreed to accept 15,000 refugees over three years. White recorded his concerns over Australia’s support for the Munich Agreement in his diary. He wrote, “I think we should hang our heads that we did not stand up to the bully of Europe ... It may yet mean peace, but at what price?"[viii] He called for Australia to prepare for war and introduce conscription.[ix]
This news report shows it is highly likely William Cooper knew just how serious the situation in Nazi Germany and Europe was for Jewish people. His knowledge was not just from newspaper reports of Kristallnacht but from meeting with politicians and key community groups of the day, including Jewish.
What thoughts ran through William Cooper’s mind as they made their way back through the streets? What did he say to the others? Perhaps he wondered if their stand that day might somehow pierce the darkness of this evil regime in Germany. How many world leaders knew that Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass in Germany, Austria and Sudetenland was only the start of an attempt to wipe Jewish people off the face of the earth, or at least wipe them off the map of Europe – genocide. Somehow, deep in his spirit, William Cooper may have had an inkling. He certainly knew the signs were not good.
It might have seemed a waste of time. Some might have regarded it as an insignificant event. No doubt the Consulate would have cabled the Nazi government of Adolph Hitler reporting the event, but officials have not been able to find any record of it in Germany.[x] However, this story is still changing lives today. The stand of William Cooper and the AAL is still inspiring people today to speak up and take action; not to stand by silently and allow persecution to rear its ugly head.
William had read in the newspaper about Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass 9-10 November 1938 and was horrified that action on behalf of national governments was so limited. He could not stand by. He waited and watched for an uproar over the treatment of Jews and not finding it, took matters into his own hands with a willing AAL who were also incensed. A little more than three weeks after the event, he acted.
He had spent time as a boy at the Maloga mission run by Daniel and Janet Mathews with stories of the slavery and persecution of the Jews in Egypt and their exodus from there to the Promised Land. William could see the parallels with that of his people and felt a bond because of it. The words of Negro spirituals he heard on Maloga mission rung in his ears. Songs of slavery and redemption. He loved to join in the singing, and it stirred hope in him. One of those songs included the lyrics:
“Go down Moses Way down in Egypt land, tell all Pharaohs to Let My People Go!
When Israel was in Egypt land... Let My People Go! Oppressed so hard they could not stand ... Let My People Go!
So, God sayeth: 'Go down, Moses Way down in Egypt land, tell all Pharaohs to Let My People Go!'…”[xi]
There was something heroic and inspirational about the stories of the patriarchs and prophets of Israel that Daniel Mathews, the missionary, told William Cooper about. The black slaves in the USA were looking for a leader like Moses to lead them out of slavery. Who would lead Australian Aborigines to freedom? William saw them dying around him of starvation and disease. Children were taken away from their families by police to work for a pittance, and the girls sent back home when they became pregnant to their bosses.
A Wolithica man of the Yorta Yorta Nation, William Cooper was born in 1860 on the banks of the Murray River near Echuca and grew up living a tribal life with his mother Kitty Lewis and seven siblings, the Atkinsons and Coopers, in the bush. The Murray River was a natural border between New South Wales and Victoria. It was less than 100 years since the British landed at what is now Sydney with convicts who overflowed the jails of Britain, some transported for life for stealing a loaf of bread. It was even more recent when the settlers spread onto Kitty’s land, that of the proud Yorta Yorta people. Kitty was born pre-white settlement of her territory and was probably shocked to see these strange white people trampling over her peoples’ land. Daniel and Janet Mathews opened the Maloga mission to protect Aborigines from the ravages of settlement as it spread.
Daniel’s criticism of the treatment of Aborigines made him the enemy of local pastoralists who resented the loss of cheap sex and near-free labour the Aborigines provided. Daniel was strongly opposed to slavery. His father was Captain John Mathews of St Ives England who transported slaves from West Africa to the sugar plantations of the West Indies in the 1830s. On one of these voyages, Captain Mathews saw the ghostly figure of a man pointing to a certain latitude and longitude on the map in his ship’s chart house. Shocked, he tried to ignore it but felt impelled to sail to that location. When he arrived, he was even more amazed to see a man who looked just like the figure he’d seen in his chart house, adrift on a raft. He was lost at sea with no hope of rescue but had prayed all night that G-d would save him. After heartfelt conversations with the man he rescued, Mathews became a Christian and refused to carry more slaves, losing his job.
Maloga mission began on 26 July 1874. Daniel and Janet Mathews had tried to bring the plight of Aboriginal people to the attention of the community by talking to Members of Parliament, church leaders and writing to the media but all their attempts seemed to fall on deaf ears. It seemed many members of the community just wanted Aborigines to die out and the problem to go away. The Mathews decided they had to do something themselves, so Daniel and Janet built a schoolhouse at Maloga that formed the basis of the mission.
As part of his stand for the Aborigines, Daniel got a reputation for physical and moral courage, going into the station hands and sawyers’ camps to rescue Aboriginal girls and take them back to Maloga. Some of these girls, at the ages of eleven or twelve, had babies fathered by the men at the camps, and Daniel was often physically assaulted or threatened with firearms.[xii]
One of the first arrivals at Maloga was Lizzie Atkinson, William Cooper's sister who arrived on 26 July 1874. She was about 14 years old and had a child Frankie, about two years old. Daniel Mathews persuaded her and another 14-year-old Aboriginal girl, Sarah with her 15-month-old son Herbert, to come, on the grounds they were in moral and physical danger and needed care. The girls were living at Bama Mills where white men in the camp had used them.
Lizzie, Sarah Walker, Old Gracie, and Louisa at a Mia-mia. (Image courtesy of Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Alick Jackomos Collection (N3743.32)
About a week later after their arrival, on 3 August, Daniel decided to go and pick up Lizzie's mother, Kitty, after requests from Lizzie and Sarah. For many years, the sound of Sankey hymns and Negro spirituals wafted over the waters of the Murray River. A revival broke out at Maloga in January 1884 as some of the Aborigines returned from the Lakes. William came to Daniel after the service and said, “I must give my heart to G-d….”[xiii] William was the last of his brothers and sisters to be converted.
William prayed, 'Thank the Lord for saving all our family. The Lord bless our mother'."[xiv] Kitty became a Christian in March 1884 due to the efforts of her eight children, but she did not leave the old people's camp. She died about a year later.
Coaxed into the mission as a boy, William, called Billy, learned to read and write quickly and taught his brother Bobby. Billy was tall and slim with a shock of black wavy hair and brown eyes. He loved to ride his horse; loved the freedom to gallop bareback over this beautiful country. He was at home hunting and fishing, but he was now walking in two worlds. Kitty would spend time with her children at the mission during the day but would not sleep at the mission, preferring her bush humpy. William’s father was a labourer named Cooper and, travelling in search of work, was not around much and was not involved with the mission. The land was part of the "Moira" or "beautiful" country of lakes, lagoons, and swamps. There were red gum forests and fertile alluvial flats, the country teeming with fish, birdlife, kangaroo, emu, and possum.
Cooper’s International Perspective
William was someone who had an international perspective. As isolated as he was as an Indigenous person of Australia with few rights in his own land, insufficient finances to travel overseas, no passport, no position of importance and little political clout, he still managed to make his voice heard. Not only that, it reverberated around the world. Family think he may have gone to New Zealand at one stage, but it may have been possible for Australians to go there without a passport at that time.
He took a keen interest in the plight of Indigenous people around the world. Communications and news media then aren’t what they are today, but he took an interest to find out what was happening in the world and intervene where he could. He wrote letters in support of the rights of Indigenous groups in other nations like New Zealand, and he even wrote in support of American Negros.
NSW Aborigines Protest Kristallnacht Also
William Ferguson and Jack Patten founded the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) in 1937. Inspired by the idea of William Cooper, Jack Patten and William Ferguson held a conference at Australia Hall in Sydney on 26 January 1938 marking the 150th anniversary of European settlement in Australia as a Day of Mourning. The devastating treatment of Aborigines was not a cause for celebration. Others who attended were Pastor Doug Nicholls, Pearl Gibbs, Tom Foster, Jack Kinchela, Margaret Tucker and Geraldine Briggs with white supporter Helen Baille who drove William Cooper to Sydney from Melbourne. It was a historic event and has inspired future generations. The controversy over celebrating Australia Day on 26 January each year continues with many Indigenous people calling it Invasion Day or Survival Day.
However, it is little-known that the APA supported the AAL re protesting the persecution of Jews at Kristallnacht. A news report in the Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate (1 December 1938) reported that the Dubbo branch of the APA (which William Ferguson led) sent a telegram to the Australian Aborigines’ League supporting its action in protesting to the German Consulate about the treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany.
Chapter One – Destroyed by Fire and Hidden for Decades
[i] Letter from Dr Michael Witter, German Ambassador to Australia, Canberra to Abe Schwarz 13.04.10
[ii] “Aborigines Protest” The Argus Saturday 3 December 1938 P7
[iii] Maynard, John Fred Maynard and the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA): One God, One Aim, One destiny http://press files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p72631/pdf/article0115.pdf
[iv] Marohasy, Jennifer (2019) March 12 Hottest Summer in Australia was 1938/1939 https://jennifermarohasy.com/2019/03/hottest-summer/
[v] Australian Mutual Provident Society
[vii] “Deputation Not Admitted” The The Argus 7 December 1938 P3
[viii] Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life – Volume I, p. 237 in Rickard, John (2002). "White, Sir Thomas Walter (1888–1957)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University
[ix] Rickard, John (2002). "White, Sir Thomas Walter (1888–1957)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University
[x] Letter from Dr Michael Witter, German Ambassador to Australia, Canberra to Abe Schwarz 13.04.10
[xi] https://genius.com/Louis-armstrong-go-down-moses-lyrics; Paul Robeson - Go Down Moses (Let My People Go) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3OjHIhLCDs
[xii] Cato, Nancy (1976) Mister Maloga, Daniel Matthews and his Mission, Murray River, 1864-1902 St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press P9
[xiii] Cato, Nancy (1976) Mister Maloga, Daniel Matthews and his Mission, Murray River, 1864-1902 St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press P167
[xiv] Clark, Mavis Thorpe (1972) Pastor Doug: The Story of Sir Douglas Nicholls, Aboriginal Leader, Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, P19