William Cooper: a Yorta Yorta Christian and his Bible
(Edited extract from The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History by Meredith Lake – available at www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/bible-australia)
In the aftermath of World War One, Indigenous Christians offered an urgent critique of white Australia’s track record of living out its professed faith. In the north of the continent, massacres continued – most famously at Forrest River, Western Australia, in 1926, and Coniston Station, Northern Territory, in 1928. In the south-east, a ‘Naboth’s Vineyard’ scenario played out again and again, as Indigenous land reserves were turned over to white farmers.
Yorta Yorta man William Cooper grew up in a world shaped by these realities, and spent decades of his adult life challenging its injustice. Cooper had learned to read and write, and converted to Christianity, at Daniel and Janet Matthews’ Maloga mission on the Murray river. As early as 1887, he was appealing to his local member of parliament with biblical arguments for land tenure: ‘As there have been no grants of land made to our tribe … I do trust that you will be successful in securing this small portion of a vast territory which is ours by Divine Right’.
In 1893, Cooper married Agnes Hamilton, one of the exiles from Coranderrk station, and joined the campaign against closing the reserves. When war broke out in 1914 their son Daniel enlisted, only to be killed in Belgium on 20 September 1917. Private Cooper was buried in Perth cemetery, Ypres, under a cross inscribed ‘Father’s Son’.
The bereaved William came to think that Australia did not deserve the loyalty of its Indigenous people: 'the Aboriginal now has no status, no rights, no land … he has no country and nothing to fight for but the privilege of defending the land which was taken from him by the white race without compensation or even kindness'.
Cooper devoted his own life to what he called the ‘uplift’ of ‘the whole dark race’. Paying tribute to the ‘generally unselfish … work of all denominations among the Aboriginal population’, he looked for missionary co-operation. At the same time, he insisted that his own people held the potential to achieve transformation: ‘The Aboriginal must be a partner in his own uplift … he must “work out his own salvation”’ (Philippians 2:12).
Crucially, for Cooper, the Bible helped expose the failures of settler Australia. It was a text that crossed cultural boundaries, that in his hands undermined imperial and nationalist conceits. At the same time, he found in the Bible an affirmation of the inherent equality and dignity of Aboriginal people, of their right to fair treatment, and of their ownership of the land as a God-given heritage. In Cooper’s hands, the Bible sharpened his critique of colonialism and nourished his vision for a more truly Christian community. He called on white politicians as Christians, to live out the principles of their shared Scriptures.
In March 1938, Cooper wrote to Prime Minister Lyons ‘from the standpoint of an educated black who can read the Bible upon which British constitution and custom is founded’:
White men … claimed they had ‘found’ a ‘new’ country – Australia. This country was not new, it was already in possession of and inhabited by millions of blacks, who … owned the country as their God-given heritage.
I marvel at the fact that while the textbook of present civilisation, the Bible, states that God gave the earth to man, the ‘Christian’ interferes with God’s arrangement and stop not even at murder to take that which does not belong to them but belongs to others by right of prior possession and by right of gift from God.
Every shape and form of murder, yes, mass murder, was used against us and laws were passed and still exist, which no human creature can endure. Our food stuffs have been destroyed, poison and guns have done their work, and now white men’s homes have been built on our hunting and camping grounds. Our lives have been wrecked and our happiness ended. Oh! Ye whites!
How much compensation have we had? How much of our land has been paid for? Not one iota. Again we state that we are the original owners of the country. In spite of force, prestige, or anything else you like, morally the land is ours. We have been ejected and despoiled of our God-given right and our inheritance has been forcibly taken from us.
When we learn … the history of the manner in which we have been treated these last 150 years, our confidence in the professed Christian nation – standing for good government, justice and freedom – is sadly shaken.
Are you prepared to admit that, since the Creator said in his Word that all men are of ‘one blood’ we are humans with feelings like yourselves in the eyes of Almighty God, that we can have joys and our sorrows, our likes and our dislikes, that we can feel pain, degradation, and humiliation just as you do? Will you … do your bit to see a great injustice at least mollified by agitating for us to get a fair deal before it is too late?
Cooper’s questions – his challenge to white nationhood – remain significant today. They go to the heart of what it might mean for the Bible to continue to shape the Australian nation.