Day of Mourning 1938

Australia Between The Wars

Sesquicentenary Celebrations 1938

Elaborate celebrations were held in Sydney on Australia Day, 26 January 1938, to mark the 150th anniversary of British settlement in Australia. The official events included an elaborate re-enactment of the landing of Governor Arthur Phillip at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788, visits by foreign warships and processions of floats symbolising Australia’s march to nationhood. There was also a fly-past by a Royal Air Force Squadron, military parades in Centennial Park, a Pioneers’ Ball at Sydney Town Hall and fireworks on Sydney Harbour.
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The great procession of historical floats through the streets of Sydney on Australia Day, 26 January 1938, Sydney Mail, February 1938.

Aboriginal Australians were confined to a small and demeaning role in this pageantry. Over twenty Aboriginal men were brought in from outback reserves to play the part of the natives who saw Phillip’s arrival. They were kept under guard in Sydney until the re-enactment so that they would have no contact with any Aboriginal protesters.

Apart from such roles, the celebration organisers saw no place for Aboriginal Australians in this pageant of national self-congratulation. However, an Aboriginal protest movement had emerged in Australia and its leaders seized the occasion to work for change.

The Emergence of the Protest Movement

The Aboriginal protest held during the sesqui-centennial celebrations was a high point for protest movements that had been developing for fourteen years. In Sydney, the first Aboriginal protest organisation, the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association (AAPA), had held its first meetings in 1924. It was led by Fred Maynard and it aimed to raise awareness of the Aboriginal struggle for rights. The AAPA was forced to abandon its work in 1927 due to harassment by New South Wales police.

In the late 1920s, a Western Australian Aboriginal farmer, William Harris, formed a union for Aboriginal rights. The organisation demanded legal equality and the right for Aboriginal people to live their own way of life.

William Cooper

In 1932, William Cooper formed the Australian Aborigines League in Melbourne. In 1933, he organised a petition to King George V calling for rights for Aboriginal people. Cooper called for a national Department of Native Affairs, and Aboriginal representatives on state advisory councils on Aboriginal Affairs. He also wanted an Aboriginal representative in federal parliament. In October 1937, Cooper presented the petition with 2000 signatures, asking that it be given to the King. The federal government told Cooper that such changes would be unconstitutional. Wishing to avoid embarrassment over its treatment of Aboriginal people, the government did not forward the petition to England.
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Australia Day 1938 showing part of the re-enactment of Captain Phillip's landing 150 years earlier. Palms and grass trees were planted for the occasion. Thousands of spectators stood behind the performers, while offshore was a replica of an eighteenth-century warship.

Discrimination During the Depression

During the 1930s Depression, the plight of Aboriginal people became even worse as a result of the policies of state governments. In New South Wales many Aboriginal families lost the family endowment payments they had been receiving for a few years. Aboriginal unemployed were denied access to relief work, and the Protection Board used police to force people back into the reserves so that they could not receive the dole. By the late 1930s, the reserves and managed stations were seriously overcrowded.
Also during the 1930s, the practice of removing children from Aboriginal families reached its height. State governments claimed they were protecting these children from abuse or neglect. However,
before any non-Aboriginal children could be removed from their families, neglect or abuse had to be proved in a court. To remove Aboriginal children, governments did not have to prove that they were at risk. In fact, many of the children who were removed from their families suffered abuse in the foster homes and institutions in which they were placed.

Protest Amid Celebration - The Aborigines’ Progressive Association

At Dubbo in New South Wales in 1937, William Ferguson, an Aboriginal shearer, formed the Aborigines’ Progressive Association (APA), which campaigned for citizenship. In the same year, the APA was also able to force a state inquiry into the administration of
Aboriginal affairs in New South Wales

Organising the Day of Mourning

Also in 1937, William Cooper proposed that Aboriginal people should observe the 150th anniversary of British colonisation of Australia as a Day of Mourning. William Ferguson and the President of the APA, J.T. Patten, supported Cooper’s idea, and together they organised the protest. They produced a manifesto called ‘Aborigines Claim Citizenship Rights’. The manifesto criticised the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act and the powers of the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board and called for freedom, justice and land for Aboriginal people. It pointed out that 26 January 1938 was the anniversary of the beginning of 150 years of Aboriginal suffering.
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A group outside the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the Aboriginal Day of Mourning. William Ferguson stands on the far left and Jack Patten on the far right.

The Day of Mourning Committee held its own Australia Day meeting in the Australian Hall in Sydney. The meeting condemned the way that Aboriginal people had been mistreated and called for
equality and full freedom for Aboriginal Australians. The meeting received little press coverage compared with that of the sesquicentenary celebrations.

The Beginnings of Change

A few days later, an Aboriginal delegation presented the Australian Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, with a program for equality and a Commonwealth takeover of Aboriginal affairs. Due at least partly to
the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, little real interest in Aboriginal issues was shown by Australian governments for several years. However, support for Aboriginal rights came from both the left of Australian politics and from churches. In January 1939, William Cooper wrote to the National
Missionary Council of Australia to enlist their support in promoting an annual Day of Mourning. In 1940, the Sunday preceding the Australia Day holiday became the first of these annual protest days.

The Aboriginal protest campaigns of the 1930s forged powerful partnerships. The Day of Mourning became a symbol of the impact of European settlement on Aboriginal communities. It signified Aboriginal political organisation and the long struggle for Aboriginal rights. The formation of the Australian Aborigines League in 1934 brought together inspirational activists like William Cooper and Pearl Gibbs.

Pearl Gibbs, 1901–1983
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Pearl Gibbs in 1954. Her life's work was aimed at bringing an end to racial discrimination, particularly when it was directed towards young Aboriginal women.

Like other Aboriginal people of her generation, Pearl Gibbs learned about discrimination when she was a small child. When her mother tried to take her to school in Cowra, New South Wales, she was denied entry because she was not white.

In 1917, when she was 16 years old, Pearl was sent to Sydney to work as a cook. There she met many other Aboriginal girls who were denied their basic rights and freedoms because of racial discrimination. In the 1930s she organised strikes, boycott and protests in her campaign to achieve equality for Aboriginal people.

William Cooper, 1861–1941

William Cooper was a well-respected spokesman for the Yorta Yorta people on the Cummeragunja Reserve. At 72 years of age, he was forced to leave his land because he had been drawing attention to the poor reserve conditions. In his new home at Footscray, Melbourne, he continued to be an advocate for the Cummeragunja community and, in 1932, established the Australian Aborigines League. This organisation paved the way for the activists of the future.

William Cooper campaigned for social justice and racial equality and continually fought to raise the awareness of the broader Australian society of the injustice Aboriginal people faced on a daily basis.

Margaret Tucker, 1904–1996
William Cooper (left), his second cousin, Margaret Tucker (second from left), and other family members, in 1936

Margaret Tucker spent her early childhood on the Cummeragunja Reserve. When she was 13 years old she was taken from her mother and sent to the Cootamundra Girls Training School to be taught the skills necessary for employment as a domestic servant. In her nine years of employment under the supervision of the Aboriginal Protection Board she was paid a total of £80, which was a little over the average yearly income for a white woman similarly employed.

Margaret Tucker became politically active in the 1930s through her involvement in the Australian Aborigines League, started by her cousin William Cooper. In the decades that followed she was a founding member of numerous organisations fighting for social justice for indigenous Australians.