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Sydney James Cook (1937–1983)

by Sitarani Kerin

This article was published:

Sydney Cook with Andrew and Rosemary Duguid

Sydney Cook with Andrew and Rosemary Duguid

SA Museum, AA79

Sydney James Cook (1937–1983), state ward and union organiser, was found abandoned in October 1937 near Cook, a township on the transcontinental railway on Mirning (Mirniny) Country, South Australia. A witness reported that he was found wrapped in a bag at the back door of the newly established Bush Church Aid Society (BCA) Memorial Hospital soon after his birth. A search was mounted for his parents, but they were not found, and no local Aboriginal people had any knowledge of them. He was named for the BCA’s first organising missionary, Sydney James Kirkby, and the township of Cook. In later life, Sydney, seemingly blaming the BCA for his abandonment, recounted a narrative in which his frightened mother, confronted by a group of white people, including BCA members, left him behind in the sand when he was a few months old.

Until the age of four, Sydney lived with BCA workers at hospitals at Cook and Penong. In 1941 an Aboriginal couple who may have been his parents appeared at Ooldea mission; however, the authorities doubted their legitimacy and were concerned about the poor conditions prevailing at the mission so did not send him there. Instead, he was sent to live with the Rev. Eric Constable, a BCA worker, and his wife in Adelaide. He commenced school at King’s College, Adelaide, in 1943. When the Constables moved to Melbourne the following year, the BCA transferred him to Colebrook Home, an institution for Aboriginal children run by the United Aborigines’ Mission. However, as an Aboriginal ward of the state, all decisions regarding his future resided with the South Australian Aborigines Protection Board (APB), and the APB determined that he should continue his ‘distinctly favourable’ (SRSA GRG 52/1/80/1943) education at King’s. In order to provide ‘a definite home instead of periodic changes in his place of residence’ (SRSA GRG 52/1/80/1943), the APB member Charles Duguid agreed to take him into his Adelaide home.

Charles and his wife Phyllis were well-known campaigners for Aboriginal rights. They believed that ‘given equal opportunities … Aboriginal children were … in every way the equal of white children’ (People 1951, 43), leading many observers to view Sydney’s place in their home as a kind of experiment—a chance for them to prove their point. They vigorously denied this and claimed that Sydney, who was known as Sydney Duguid for the duration of his stay, was treated the same as their own children. Sydney grew to think of them as his parents, calling them ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad;’ yet, despite being legally authorised to adopt him, they never did.

Sydney Duguid’s school reports describe a child who was so desperate for ‘affection, attention and appreciation’ (SRSA GRG 52/1/80/1943) that conflict often ensued. Rather than reading this as a response to his unsettled home life and experience of racism, his teachers construed it as a sign of low intelligence, and frequently complained about his unreliability, carelessness, and roughness in play. Seeking help with their young charge, the Duguids engaged a psychologist, to test his intelligence. According to her, Sydney’s ingenuity and ability to deal with practical situations were above average, but his ‘understanding of social and moral obligations’ was ‘below average’ (NLA MS 5068). She concluded that he probably found it difficult to ‘adjust to complicated civilised standards’ because he did ‘not understand their necessity’ (NLA MS 5068). No one seems to have noticed that so-called civilised standards were all that Sydney had ever known.

Life in Adelaide was difficult for Sydney due to racialised expectations of him based on his dark skin colour and Aboriginality. A family holiday to Ernabella mission when he was eight enabled him to spend time with Aboriginal people and, according to Charles, he returned to Adelaide much happier knowing that he was ‘not … the only brown boy’ in the world (Duguid 1946, 16). However, Charles was conscious ‘that Sydney was missing much knowledge and learning that no white parents could give him’ (Duguid 1946, 16).

Sydney’s behaviour and grades deteriorated each year that he was at King’s College and he was expelled in May 1948. Charles accused the headmaster of racism—he was convinced that ‘colour [was] at the bottom of all this trouble’ (NLA MS 5068)—but Sydney was not readmitted. When Sydney’s ostensible ‘defiance’ began upsetting the family home, Charles sought to have him re-homed with ‘older boys of his own colour who [could] control him’ (SRSA GRG 52/1/86/1948). The APB agreed that he should be ‘returned to live amongst his own people’ (SRSA GRG 52/1/86/1948), but an appropriate domicile in South Australia that would allow the Duguids to have ongoing contact with him could not be found. Instead, in 1950, at age twelve, Sydney was sent over 1,400 miles (2,250 km) away to Roper River mission at Ngukurr in the Northern Territory.

Born and raised in the era of assimilation—a policy and program that aimed to move Aboriginal people into white society, often by forcibly removing children from their families—Sydney was seen by some observers as a test case. Given his connections to the Duguids, if he could not live in white society, then how could any other Aboriginal person? The Northern Territory administration was especially keen to see his assimilation succeed.

At Roper River (Ngukurr), Sydney lived with the Alawa man Silas Roberts and his family and quickly made friends with boys his age. In 1951 Charles visited him at the mission, and in 1952 Sydney spent seven weeks with the Duguid family in Adelaide. Beyond that all contact was by correspondence. In 1953 Sydney wrote to Charles of his desire to ‘go away and work on one of the stations … called Nutwood Downs’ (NAA A452/1). Charles contacted (Sir) Paul Hasluck, minister for the interior, who initiated a series of enquiries that resulted in Sydney’s employment at the station in 1954.

After Sydney had worked at Nutwood for three years, learning both the cattle and engineering side of station work, Charles sought to have him exempted from the Aboriginals Ordinance so that he could receive a ‘wage worthy of his hire’ (NAA A452/1). However, Sydney did not want this, writing: ‘Dear Dad … I do wish you would not write to Native Affairs about being like white man’s way, like have rights. Just forget about that please. I have been pushed around [too] much I am getting sick of it’ (NLA MS 5068). Sydney did not want to be treated differently from his peers or to receive special treatment and the department agreed: it rejected Charles’s request to have him exempted.

At this time Sydney was trying to obtain permission to marry local Warndarrang woman, Ruth Mangguraya Camfoo. Ten years his senior, Ruth had been married to Tex Camfoo and was the mother of four children. When the new Welfare Ordinance came into operation in 1957, Sydney, as an Aboriginal person of full descent, was declared a ward. As such he needed permission to marry Ruth, who was also a ward. The authorities considered the match unsuitable, and he was forcibly moved to Darwin (Garramilla). Undeterred, Sydney wrote to Charles: 'I wish you would let me marry Ruth because I love her' (NLA MS 5068). From 1958 Sydney and Ruth lived together at Beswick Creek (Barunga, also known as Bamyili), 50 miles (80 km) from Katherine. When an amendment to the Welfare Ordinance made permission to marry redundant, they travelled to Darwin (Garramilla), and married at the registry office on 25 February 1960.

In April 1960 Sydney was sentenced to four months gaol for assaulting Ruth. Following his release, he completed a patrol assistant’s training course, later working at Beswick (Wugularr) and Katherine. In the early 1960s he played the role of the ‘witch doctor’ in Cecil Holmes’s television film I, The Aboriginal, based on the autobiography of Waipuldanya (Phillip Roberts), an Alawa man from Roper River (Ngukurr), as told to Douglas Lockwood. The book covered Waipuldanya’s traditional upbringing and training as a medical assistant at Darwin Hospital.

Sydney’s appointment in January the following year as a union organiser for the North Australian Workers’ Union made headlines around the country. At the time he was an executive member of both the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights and Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. In July 1965 he lost his union position to Dexter Daniels, a childhood friend from Roper River (Ngukurr). Afterwards he disappeared from the historical record, except for the knowledge that he spent time at Alice Springs (Mparntwe). He died of cardiac arrest at Bamyili, Northern Territory, on 19 May 1983, survived by Ruth and two daughters, Vivien Lee and Rosie.

The size of Sydney’s Welfare Branch file is testimony to the extensive ‘particular and personal attention’ (NAA F1)—surveillance and control—he endured in the Northern Territory. Although denied agency for much of his life, he was able to exert some control as an adult, pursuing a range of diverse opportunities as they arose. His story complicates historical understandings of assimilation as a one-way journey out of Aboriginality and into white society.


Rani Kerin is a European woman. She was living on Dja Dja Wurrung Country when she wrote this article.

Research edited by Kiera Donnelly

Select Bibliography

  • Duguid, Charles. Ernabella Re-visited: The Diary of a Pilgrimage. Sydney: Presbyterian Board of Missions, 1946
  • Kerin, Rani. ‘Sydney James Cook/Duguid and the Importance of “Being Aboriginal.”’ Aboriginal History 29 (2005): 46–63
  • Kerin, Rani. Doctor Do-Good: Charles Duguid and Aboriginal Advancement, 1930s–1970s. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011
  • National Archives of Australia. A452/1, 1957/2566
  • National Archives of Australia. F1, 1955/820
  • National Library of Australia. MS 5068, Papers of Charles Duguid
  • People. ‘Dr Duguid—Champion of the Dark-Skinned Underdog.’ 14 February 1951, 43
  • State Records of South Australia. GRG 52/1/80/1943
  • State Records of South Australia. GRG 52/1/86/1948
  • Tribune (Sydney). ‘A Fighter for His People.’ 27 January 1965, 3

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sitarani Kerin, 'Cook, Sydney James (1937–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 22 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sydney Cook with Andrew and Rosemary Duguid

Sydney Cook with Andrew and Rosemary Duguid

SA Museum, AA79

More images


Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Duguid, Sydney James

Cook, South Australia, Australia


19 May, 1983 (aged ~ 46)
Bamyili, Northern Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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