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Robert Joel (Joe) Cooper (1860–1936)

by F. H. Bauer and J. B. Bauer

This article was published:

Robert Joel Cooper (1860-1936), by unknown photographer

Robert Joel Cooper (1860-1936), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24313631

Robert Joel (Joe) Cooper (1860-1936), buffalo hunter, was born on 29 February 1860 at Fairview, near Riverton, South Australia, son of George Cooper, farmer, and his wife Harriett, née Peverett. Sometime between 1878 and 1881, with a brother George Henry (Harry), he overlanded horses to the Northern Territory and for several years engaged in timber-getting and buffalo shooting on the Cobourg Peninsula and adjacent areas.

In May 1893 the brothers were among those who, despite hostile Aborigines, made an exploratory foray into Melville Island with E. O. Robinson, the pastoral lessee. They found thousands of buffalo and Cooper, as Robinson's manager, set up camp there in 1895; in June he was speared in the shoulder, but managed to abduct four Tiwi Aboriginals, including two women, before escaping to the mainland. Cooper treated his captives kindly and learned their language. In 1905 he returned with them and twenty Port Essington Aborigines to Melville Island. By sending the Melville islanders ashore first to establish contact he was able to land unopposed and become the first European settler since Fort Dundas was abandoned in 1828. He stayed for ten years, taking upwards of 1000 buffalo a year for their hides and horns, cutting cyprus pine and fishing for trepang. He shipped his products to Darwin in his lugger, Buffalo. His 'wife' Alice, a Port Essington Aborigine, bore him three children, two daughters who predeceased him and a son Reuben (c.1898-c.1941) who was educated in Adelaide and became a well-known sportsman. Returning to Melville Island in May 1915 Reuben later established a sawmilling business at Mountnorris Bay, Cobourg Peninsula. He was drowned in the Alligator River while trying to raise a sunken lugger.

Cooper was a large man, slow and sparing of speech, temperate, intelligent and courageous. Protective of his own interests, he managed to divert Father Gsell's attention to Bathurst Island for a mission site in 1911, but proved a good neighbour. He befriended the Commonwealth administrator, J. A. Gilruth, and Professor W. Baldwin Spencer; Spencer stayed with Cooper in 1911 and 1912 while studying the Aboriginals, as did the German physical anthropologist, H. Klaatsch, in 1906. Enjoying the confidence and respect of the local people whom he treated fairly but firmly, Cooper was appointed honorary sub-protector of Aborigines in 1911. Mainland Aboriginals addicted to alcohol or opium were placed in his care. Inspector T. J. Becket noted, 'a year or two on Melville Island works wonders in the regeneration of these aboriginal decadents'.

In November 1914, however, a sawmiller Sam Green complained of Cooper's cruelty towards the Aboriginals and of the intimidating practices of his armed 'bodyguard' of Port Essington 'boys'. In view of the impending inquiry, and the Melville Island lease having changed hands, Cooper resigned his sub-protectorship next March. By order of the Department of External Affairs the Port Essington Aboriginals were returned to the mainland by December and Cooper, although largely exonerated, followed them in 1916. He became associated with several pastoral leases at the Top End and in 1921 was trepanging in Trepang Bay. A legend in his own time, the patriarchal 'Jokupper' became known as 'The king of Melville Island'. He lived at Port Bremer for a while and by 1933 was in Darwin where he died on 7 August 1936.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Spencer, Wanderings in Wild Australia (Lond, 1928)
  • W. E. Harney, North of 23° (Syd, 1946)
  • E. Hill, The Territory (Syd, 1951)
  • D. W. Lockwood, The Front Door: Darwin 1869-1969 (Adel, 1968)
  • Northern Territory, Annual Reports, 1913, 1915
  • People (Sydney), 14 Mar 1962
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 2 Oct 1978
  • Northern Territory newsclippings, 1893-95 (State Records of South Australia)
  • A3 item NT 16/245 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

F. H. Bauer and J. B. Bauer, 'Cooper, Robert Joel (Joe) (1860–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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