On the Aboriginal Moses

Matt Busby Andrews tells the story of William Cooper, an anti-Nazi march, and the origins of NAIDOC.



Matt Busby Andrews tells the story of William Cooper, an anti-Nazi march, and the origins of NAIDOC.


1938 is really the year that William Cooper fully blossomed at the age of 78. It was the year that begins with him celebrating the Day of Mourning on the sesquicentenary of the founding of Australia, and flipping the celebration into a day of reflection on what Indigenous people had lost.

As he’s organising the Day of Mourning, he’s writing to the churches across Australia asking them to set aside the Sunday before Australia Day as a day of prayer for Indigenous people – to pray for their welfare, for the gospel, and for justice, and to preach sermons. This is the banging of the village drum across Australia.

Then, at the other end of 1938, we find William Cooper drawing together his Australian Aborigines League and setting off on a walk from Footscray to 419 Collins Street in the city. I’ve done this walk. 10 kilometres is hard on the knees when you’re my age, I hate to think what it’s like when you’re 78. And William Cooper does that to confront a government. But it’s not the British government or the Australian government or the Victorian government; it’s the German government. And he’s there to confront Dr Dreschler [the consul-general] about the Reich’s mistreatment of the Jews following Kristallnacht. Yad Vashem, which is the research centre in Jerusalem, says that this event has no parallel in the world. It didn’t happen in Paris or London or New York; it happened in Melbourne, led by people who, in one respect, weren’t even citizens in their own country.

One of the great mysteries about this man, William Cooper, is why he peaked so high, so late in life. He was a shearer; he was a big physical man like Daniel Matthews, and he was like Daniel Matthews in a lot of ways. I know his grandson, Uncle Boydie; he tells me about how they were very serious on reading the Bible every day, and a very pious, quiet, gentle man – except when it was a serious topic, then the voice rises up and he takes control. William Cooper named his first son Daniel. He loved Daniel Matthews, and was heartbroken when his own son died on the Western Front in the First World War.

William Cooper is a man who Indigenous activists today might find a little hard to fit in their imagination, because he was quite strong on British justice; he frequently appealed to it. And he was a very devout Christian. But he used the Christian concepts in his day to activate and energise his justice movement. He very much saw himself as like the people of Israel, their land of milk and honey taken from them; and that if they trust in this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that it will be returned.

I went to a meeting recently in Melbourne at a synagogue. They called him “the Aboriginal Moses” – and in many ways he was. And the way that he continued his story was substantially through the churches, especially in creating Aborigines Day, the Sunday before Australia Day – which later, in the 50s, was moved to June/July. So we actually still celebrate that day he set up today, only we call it NAIDOC, named for the National Aborigines [and] Islanders Day Organising Committee.