Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Bain Attwood is an experienced historian who currently occupies a Chair of History at Monash University. The professor knows what he is writing about. In 2010, his book Possession: Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History won the Ernest Scott Prize for the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand or colonial history. A fellow reviewer, a most distinguished scholar, called his book ‘a remarkable biography of a remarkable man’. So, why do I feel that there is a fuzzy focus, that there is more coverage of activities that the man was involved in than there is of Cooper himself. The question I presume to ask is, what defines a biography? Is this book ‘an aboriginal life story’?
Nobody would deny that the book has been thoroughly researched, that the contents reveal a deeply reflective author, and that what Attwood has written is of prize-winning dimensions. Its coverage is comprehensive. The study opens with a thoroughly fascinating prologue. Attwood explains why biography ‘in its traditional mode, might not be an appropriate genre for telling the story of an Aboriginal person like Cooper’ (xiv). He opts for the argument that Aboriginal History does not mean the story of ‘the destruction, dispossession and degradation of this country’s Indigenous people’ (xv) but of a successful adaptation of one race to another. For Bain Attwood, ‘scholars should try to explain Aboriginal acts and responses in the terms that Aboriginal people themselves understood them’ (xv). Finally, in explanation, he clarifies that his book does not deny the contribution of oral tradition in making sense of past events and agrees that insights into historical consciousness can be gained in ways that traditionalists would condemn as unscholarly.
Part 1: Beginnings recounts Cooper’s birth and heritage. He makes the important points that space and place have more relevance in indigenous thinking than time of birth, and second, that when a man believes he was born is of more relevance than his actual date of birth. (The book is a repository of diverting facts and ideas). Early contact with white people and the indigenes’ attempt to absorb whites into their culture makes reading this account a pleasant experience, while Cooper’s interaction with Daniel and Janet Matthews, missionaries, and his early life on the mission station Maloga completes a large part of this section. The book moves to two chapters, called Conversion and Crisis at Maloga respectively, following Cooper’s experiences of growing up in a standard biographical form. Characters like Thomas Shadrach James and events such as the Maloga Petition, challenges to authority and deteriorating relations with white settlers, help form an event-packed chapter of much interest to readers. Cooper’s conversion to Christianity is of minor interest by comparison.
The final chapter of Part 1: Cumeroogunga details the disputes that saw Maloga dismembered, the resignation of key figures, and the Cooper family freed from the clutches of a recriminatory New South Wales Aboriginal Protection Board. There is sufficient William Cooper in Part 1 to justify the title ‘an aboriginal life story’.
Part 2 deals with the story of petitioning the king and the formation of the Australian Aborigines’ League, the latter a loose gathering of likeminded people under Cooper as honorary secretary. The year was 1935 or 1936. ‘The lack of opportunities Cooper had suffered in his life and the resulting paucity of resources he had at his disposal’ (117) made forming a leadership group with Helen Baillie and Arthur Burdeu absolutely essential. Cooper’s organisation was by 1935 destroyed by government inaction.
The remainder of the book is involved with the issues of race and rights, the latter concept blunted by confusion over the rights of various aboriginal organisations and the perceived rights of the aboriginal people. It is a large, depressing section devoted to unrest – a Petition and Day of Mourning, the Cumeroogunga Walk-Off to name but two. Throughout, Cooper repeatedly appeals to governments, but his actions are ineffectual.
It is Part 2 that raises my concern that the book’s title may be misleading.
However, by ignoring the question hanging over the title, readers can look forward to an entertaining and comprehensive, meticulously researched and carefully documented, book of original thought that I found thoroughly refreshing.
By Bain Attwood
The Miegunyah Press/University of Melbourne
$34.99; 296 pp