Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1938 - Day of Mourning and Protest
by Andrew Markus
John Patten reads resolution (SLNSW).

I n the 1930s Aborigines had no place in the world of white Australians. They were viewed as primitives, relics of the Stone Age, their human potential determined by racial admixture, and they were classified in legislation as ‘full-blood,’ ‘half-caste,’ ‘quadroon,’ and ‘less than quadroon.’ It was believed that those of predominantly ‘Aboriginal blood’ would die out, their fate captured in the title of Daisy Bates's 1938 book The Passing of the Aborigines.

Unlike other Australians, any person classified as Aboriginal could be denied basic human rights. While their position in law varied under different State jurisdictions, an Aboriginal person controlled ‘under the Act’ could be deprived of freedom of movement and association, forced to live on a reserve, have their children removed, and be denied choice of employment and control over wages. How often this happened depended on which region or State they lived in, and the attitude of the white person—a reserve manager, a police constable, an official of the Aborigines Protection Board—who chanced to be in authority over their lives.

Discrimination did not stop Aboriginal people from campaigning for change. At the local level, there were various forms of resistance, including walk-outs and strikes, while in the States where freedom allowed, organisations were formed with broad agendas. The longest running was the Australian Aborigines League, beginning in Melbourne in 1933 under the leadership of William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta elder.

Day of Mourning, 1938 (SLNSW).
Over several years Cooper and those working with him attempted to influence government, their demands including an end to insanitary living conditions, provision of educational opportunities, and the granting of secure title to reserve lands. His appeals emphasised the potential of his people who had ‘suffered unspeakable horrors since the coming of the white race.’ Other political leaders included William Harris in Western Australia and Frederick Maynard, William Ferguson, Jack Patten, and Pearl Gibbs in New South Wales.

Despairing at the lack of response, in November 1937 Cooper suggested that a conference and ‘Day of Mourning and Protest’ be held, to coincide with the sesquicentennial celebrations of British settlement in Sydney on 26 January 1938. The protest, to which only ‘Aborigines and Persons of Aboriginal Blood’ were invited, was organised by the Aborigines Progressive Association headed by Jack Patten and William Ferguson. An estimated one hundred people attended, including William Cooper, Margaret Tucker, and Doug Nicholls, who drove from Melbourne. Patten stated that the purpose of the meeting was ‘to bring home to the white people the frightful conditions in which the native Aborigines … live,’ while Ferguson lamented that ‘we have been waiting all our lives for the white people … to better our conditions but we have waited in vain.’

The resolution adopted by the conference stated:

WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whiteman during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, and we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.

For those willing to look, the protest held a mirror to white Australia and, with hindsight, was an important milestone in the history of Aboriginal activism; however, no immediate change resulted. At the end of January, a deputation led by Patten and Ferguson secured a meeting with Prime Minister Lyons and John McEwen, the minister responsible for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Demands included Federal control under a ministry of Aboriginal affairs and an advisory board with Aboriginal membership. The deputation was dismissed on the ground that the Commonwealth lacked constitutional power to act.

In early February, at a meeting of the Housewives’ Progressive Association, Pearl Gibbs challenged her listeners: ‘You white people awoke on Anniversary Day with a feeling of pride at what you had done … but did you not think of the Aborigine’s broken hearts, and that for them it was a day of mourning?’


left arrow 1937: William Cooper's Petition
1946: The Pilbara Pastoral Workers’ Strike right arrow