William Cooper Went Down… Way Down To the German Consulate!

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This article appeared in Gesher November 2014


An Original Interpretation of Why a Yorta Yorta Translation of a Classic Passover Song May Have Inspired a 77-Year-old Aboriginal Elder to Protest… To Save Jewish Lives!


For the past 15 years, I have immersed myself in reconciliation with Australia’s First Nations – and in the process, lived in Echuca and Shepparton, studying Aboriginal culture and befriending many Elders. So imagine my surprise when I discovered a variation of the very Exodus theme of Let My People Go (Exodus 5:1) in a Yorta Yorta song of the oldest living cultures in the world – the Aboriginal people of the Shepparton/Echuca/Barmah Forest region, in what we call today northern Victoria/southern New South Wales! Consider whether the following lyrics could possibly represent the calling for a Moses-type figure in this Indigenous community, who could lead the Yorta Yorta mob as they escaped across the River Murray1 to a hopefully-safer jurisdiction – and not be “drowned out” by repressive policies and “cruel taskmasters” of the ironically-named “Aboriginal Protection Board?” The translation of this little Yorta Yorta song began with the words…

Moses stretched his hand out on the Reed Sea,

Waters rolled back together!

And Mister Pharaoh’s armies drowned in the sea – Hallelujah!

Further, could Jewish leaders like Mark Leibler AC at Reconciliation Australia and the late Ron Castan co-founder of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and the Koori Heritage Trust have taken on these roles simply to do a Mitzvah (good deed) of Social Justice – or is there a much deeper connection to seriously consider between Jews and Aboriginals? Finally, were the teachings of all Christian Missionaries always as bad as the ill-reputed Government Policy on “Half-castes”, “Quadroons” and a “White Australia” – or could the founding missionaries of Maloga Mission, the late Daniel and Janet Matthews, have in fact been earlier role-models of Righteous Gentiles?

Amongst my other propositions of a unique blend of overlapping culture, Creation narratives (one wonders if the famous snake in Genesis 3:2-4 that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden could have been the one-and-the-same Rainbow Serpent in Aboriginal Creation folklore?), our shared history of genocide and racial discrimination, connectedness to land, comparative appreciation of storytelling (Midrash), coming-of-age rituals, respect for Elders and the contrasting concepts of “Sorry Business” and “sitting Shiva” (inaugural seven days Jews mourn their immediate relatives, commencing immediately after the burial), this article will endeavour to demonstrate that there is plenty to contemplate when wondering about the Jewish involvement in Aboriginal causes; let alone the famous Aboriginal intervention on 6th December 1938 outside 419 Collins Street at Melbourne’s then-German Reich’s Consulate.2 But I will not attempt to conclusively resolve these considerations; rather, I strive to pass on the Talking Stick3 to respectfully begin a conversation…

Shepparton Jewry/Aboriginal Involvement in Interfaith Dialogue

Uncle Colin Walker, 79-year-old Elder of the Koori Court and residentCustodian of Cummeragunja (“Cummera”) NSW today, has distinct memories as a teenager of finally getting some work as a fruit picker with Shepparton Jewish community’s Silverstein/Hayat family – whose orchards supported local factories including Ardmona and SPC. Uncle Col notes that “most pastoralists wouldn’t hire Aboriginal kids”… but the Silverstein’s “not only employed us, but gave us equal pay to what them Whitefellas got”. The Walker family knew about Jews before this work though, as their Elders had been schooled at “Cummera”, and before that at Maloga, under the tutelage of Missionary Daniel Matthews and his hired school teacher, a Mr T S James. Matthews believed the lesson to draw of the Hebrews from the Bible was particularly applicable to the yearnings of this Tribe also. According to historians Attwood and Marcus, “Matthews encouraged the Yorta Yorta to identify with the Jews of the Bible. He did so both through teachings, especially from the Old Testament, and his music, which included hymns and spirituals such as ‘There is a happy land, Far, far away’ ”4 . Further, “the historical narratives of the Bible, especially the Book of Exodus, encouraged them to envision themselves in terms akin to the persecuted and suffering Israelites.”

Interestingly, another descendant of the family, Uncle Col’s sister Aunty Walda, together with her late husband, Uncle Reg Blow, spent many years supporting the activities of Jewish and other faithbased communities, and is Vice-President of the Women’s Interfaith Network. Last year, on 21st September 2013, UN International Day of Peace, Aunty Walda presided over an exciting interfaith gathering following a celebratory Havdalah (Sabbath end) at Rabbi Dovid Gutnick’s Orthodox East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation. Dear Uncle Reg was intrigued by Torah and Jewish thought, particularly the mystical Books of Kabbalah, and spent countless conversations with this writer, sharing and learning from our respective heritages. In fact, Uncle Reg actively encouraged this very study of comparisons between our cultures, has lectured at Limmud Oz, conducted a Smoking Ceremony at my son’s Bar Mitzvah…and performed a Didgeridoo/Shofar educational and spiritual ritual together with St Kilda Synagogue’s Rabbi Yaakov Glasman. The late Uncle Reg was the first ever Aboriginal head of an Interfaith Organisation, C.O.M.M.O.N. – the Centre of Melbourne Multifaith and Others Network.

Shared Values and Customs – and Shared Experience of Racism

Judaism and Aboriginality share many values in common – and I note we each are required not to exploit the land; curiously for some – for example -– Jews are strictly forbidden from destroying fruit trees – even if they have been won in a war! We may each use what we need – but not more than we need – we are custodians of the Earth, it is on loan for us to look after – and we should take that responsibility very seriously. One of our communities even regularly Acknowledge Country formally, and Welcome others on to Country; the other community says prayers for their Land even from the Southern Hemisphere, facing towards it – and won’t eat its fruits every Seventh Year. In fact, this year Jews give their Land an opportunity to lie fallow and regenerate. It is crucial to translate Social Justice obligations correctly; the Hebrew of which is poorly translated often as Tikun Olam. However Tikun means repairing/healing and Olam is the word for world/ universe…so this Sabbatical Year is truly Tikun Olam – letting the world heal and repair! Assimilation remains a challenge for the leaders of each group, and sadly, a shared experience of genocide and discrimination means that Aboriginal and Jewish communities can well-empathise with the racism felt by the other, unfortunately still to this day. Uncle William Cooper – Social Justice Par Excellence Over the last 12 years, I have personally become fascinated with the stories of Aboriginal Elder and activist, Uncle William Cooper (1860- 1941). What could possibly have possessed him to not only lead a national political movement demanding justice for Aboriginal people, lead the first “Australia Day protest” in Sydney on the sesquicentenary of Colonisation, the first circulation of a Petition to the King about Aboriginal rights, but then also to remarkably lead the Australian Aborigines League in protest against oppressive treatment of German and Austrian Jews – after reading about Krystallnacht in The Argus on 11 November 1938? According to the world-famous Holocaust Centre in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, “no other public protest by a private organisation is recorded from anywhere in the world…definitely not from Indigenous or non-Indigenous communities in Australia”6 ! When the Cooper family travelled to Israel to plant Australian tree saplings in Martyr’s Forest to honour him, why did they bring water and earth from Barmah Lake and Forest to blend with Israel’s soil? Could the explanation be in an Aboriginal song called “Ngarra Burra Ferra”?

Ngarra Burra Ferra – An Aboriginal Song with Judeo-Christian Roots?

Research done by Stephen Atkinson (whose father, Aboriginal Pastor Denis Atkinson, leads an Elder’s choir that continue to sing it) and Matthew Busby Andrews7 , friends of Cooper’s grandson, Uncle Boydie Turner, has further demonstrated that Burra Ferra (as it is known by many) is a Gospel song the Yorta Yorta have been singing since the winter of 1885, and it is still sung today. According to Dr Heather Bowe, a distinguished linguist from Monash University who, together with Yorta Yorta’s Lois Peeler, the Director of Worawa Aboriginal College and Sharon Atkinson, has analysed the lyrics, the entire song is based on a Negro Spiritual, with the title “Burra Ferra” literally meaning “Boss (Mister) Pharaoh” .

Womraka Moses yenyen wala

Wala yepun yeiputj

Mara burra ferra yoomina yala

When Brother Moses stretched his hand out on the Reed Sea,

Waters rolled back together!

And Mister Pharaoh’s armies drowned in the sea! Hallelujah!

Back in July 1874, the Maloga Mission near Echuca had been founded and supervised by Missionary Daniel Matthews, and his diary records note that he had met the Fisk Jubilee Singers whilst leading an Evangelistic mission in Brighton, on Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne. Matthews heard these singers and invited them “to go up river and sing”. Down the generations, Peeler and her siblings had learnt Burra Ferra from their esteemed mother, the late Aunty Geraldine Briggs OA (1910-2005), and traditional grandmother, Nanny Yarmak Theresa Middleton Clements. It was her Nanny Yarmak who was originally taught Burra Ferra on the banks of the Murray River, translating it into Yorta Yorta, written down by the teacher Thomas Shadrach James. A visiting troupe of African-Americans, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, performed Brother Moses around Australia in 1885, some of whom were emancipated slaves from the American Civil War era, on a world tour to raise funds for America’s first Black University, which is still going in Nashville Tennessee. From that point on, the Mission began passionately singing “Burra Ferra!” or “Brother Moses” – for an enslaved Indigenous people – themselves! Thus the Yorta Yorta have been singing it for almost 130 years – and one of the people who I believe learnt it was a smart, educated and impressive 25-year-old man called William Cooper!

But the song Cooper learnt was not just a 19th Century slave song. In fact, it is one of the oldest, continually sung, “living” songs in the world – sung by both Jewish communities and Christian churches, who know it as the “Song of the Sea”, or by some as “Miriam’s Song” – about her brother Moses! I can see perfectly why this song would have meant so much to the Yorta Yorta mob! Like the Children of Israel, they prayed for their land, had been forced to labour hard without wages and endured cruel overseers. Their situation looked hopeless – authorities had absolute power over them. The Yorta Yorta longed to again enjoy the connectedness, spirit and natural prosperity of the Barmah Forest and the Murray Flats – truly, their own “land flowing with Milk and Honey”!

Could An Influential Song Learnt in 1885 Still Inspire Activism in 1938?

With this great story of liberation firing his imagination, is it any wonder that Uncle William Cooper, even five decades on in his late seventies, was a man with a special sensitivity to the experience, spirit and destiny of the Jews? There is no firm evidence that he personally ever knew a single Jew, though some suggest that the 53-year-old Cooper or his peers also picked or packed peaches and pears for the legendary Jewish fruit growers in Shepparton who lived there from 19139 . But when Cooper and his Aboriginal Advancement League marched on the German Reich’s’ Consulate in Collins Street on Tuesday 6th December 1938, he clearly empathised with the Jewish story of liberation from slavery. Intriguingly, Uncle William was a prolific letter-writer to Government parliamentarians and officials, and he too often turned a religious phrase in his correspondence – to equate his mob with the ancient Israelites. The author of “William Cooper – Gentle Warrior”, Barbara Miller, with her Christian viewpoint, and this writer, with my Jewish perspective, have discussed this invoking of a “Moses”-figure of leadership, and wonder whether that mantle doesn’t sit with Cooper himself? Miller in fact concluded her great volume with the words “I think of the great Jewish leader Moses as he stood on Mt Nebo in present day Jordan and looked at the Promised Land which he was prevented from entering…William Cooper was a national Australian Aboriginal leader. He too had a vision of the future to which he was leading his people. He too led his people on a difficult journey of disappointment and setbacks. He too was not there to see his dreams come true, though most of what he worked for has been achieved in succeeding generations” 10 So I ask! Could a translated song, Burra Ferra, in fact have been the very source of inspiration – way back in 1885 to young William Cooper, helping him realise that he needed to be the “Moses” – and lead his people to their “Promised Land”? No wonder his leadership some fifty three years later also led to a protest in 1938 at Melbourne’s German Consulate to try to save the lives of another oppressed mob! And so, invoking my best Gospel tone, I say: “Go Down, William”!