Bain Attwood

As momentum builds for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, it is timely to reflect on the career of William Cooper. A Yorta Yorta elder and founding secretary of the Australian Aborigines’ League, Cooper gathered support for Indigenous representation in parliament and for voting and land rights during the interwar years. Historian Bain Attwood’s new book tells Cooper’s story but resists the biographical impulse that would separate the man from his social milieux. In today’s episode, Professor Emerita Penny Russell reads her review of Attwood’s portrait of this remarkable man, whose eloquence has left only a scant textual record. What survives reveals a figure ‘always driven by a profound vision of justice and moral uplift’.

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The name of Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper shines bright in the history of Aboriginal activism in Australia between the two world wars. It is linked with the formation of the Australian Aborigines’ League, of which he was the founding secretary; the Day of Mourning on the anniversary of white settlement in 1938; and a petition intended for George V, signed by almost 2,000 Aboriginal people and demanding Aboriginal representation in parliament. This last was perhaps Cooper’s most cherished project. He spent years gathering signatures and waiting for the most opportune moment to present it; his disappointment at the indifferent response of the Australian government darkened his final years.

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Bain Attwood’s Empire and the Making of Native Title is a welcome contribution to the field. Like many good historians of sovereignty and native title in Australia and New Zealand, Attwood stresses the importance of contingency and complexity in the first decades of British settlement on both sides of the Tasman Sea. His early chapters focus on the local and imperial contexts that shaped Crown approaches to Indigenous title in New South Wales, Port Phillip, and South Australia. The rest of the book provides a forensic account of the lead-up to and aftermath of the British assumption of sovereignty in New Zealand, and its shifting ramifications for legal arguments about Māori land title.

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The 1967 Referendum, or When the Aborigines Didn’t Get the Vote by Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus with Dale Edwards and Kath Schilling

by
November 1997, no. 196

This eccentric, laborious book is designed to correct what most of us think about the 1967 Referendum. The popular belief – the authors call it a myth – is that the Australian people then voted to acknowledge citizenship by giving Aborigines the vote, and that this was a Commonwealth thrust towards, crucial, deeper involvement in Aboriginal affairs.

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Some of Australia’s most cogent historical analyses grow out of particular social moments: the close of World War II, the accession (and dismissal) of the Whitlam government, the bicentennial celebrations and protests of 1988. The High Court’s Mabo decision of June 1992 is just such a moment and it is no surprise to find another book which focuses on the aftermath of that landmark decision. Interestingly, In the Age of Mabo is also just as strongly the product of a certain time and political space: the 1991–96 prime ministership of Paul Keating. It is this framework which gives this varied collection of essays its sense of historical occasion; it is also this political underpinning which renders at least one of the contributions nearly obsolete.

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