Lousy Little Sixpence: 'Send a petition to the King'
The clip begins with historical footage of King Burraga who speaks about equal rights and justice for Aboriginal people. William Cooper, an Aboriginal elder, begins the fight for rights by having a petition signed, with the intention of delivering it to the King. Summary by Romaine Moreton.
Lousy Little Sixpence has an historical place in Indigenous film as an educational piece that preserves the life stories of many Indigenous people – now elders – who were procured by the missions to enter the workforce and become servants to wealthy white families.
The issue of stolen wages is ongoing – the withheld wages earned by those indentured Indigenous workers, who contributed to the Australian economy without any financial reward, remains unaddressed to this day. So this is an important film that offers a background to the present struggle for the very generations depicted in this film to receive the wages that were supposedly held in trust for them. In December 2006, a Senate Committee inquiry recommended that 'Indigenous claimants are fully compensated for monies withheld from them’. It further noted, 'The committee is concerned that establishing a national inquiry or a Royal Commission into stolen wages will not directly resolve the stolen wages issue and will only delay actions taken by state and territory governments to address these issues. The advanced age and ill-health of many potential claimants means that the expeditious resolution of claims must be a priority. It is time to resolve this issue’.
It is quite incredible to listen to the testimonies of Indigenous elders born in the early 1900s – their reflections and personal accounts of what it meant to be administered by the Aborigines Protection Board, removed from their families and sent to work in cities. The work of Jack Patten is documented in this film, and his participation in the establishment of the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), which was invested in dismantling the Aborigines Protection Board, as well as fighting for and attaining citizen’s rights for all Indigenous peoples.
Lousy Little Sixpence is an influential film in highlighting the injustice of withheld wages, and the fight for the rightful payment to be made to Indigenous peoples of that generation or their families.
Lousy Little Sixpence synopsis
A documentary using historical footage and interviews with Indigenous people who belonged to the generation that were forced into unpaid servitude by the Australian government. The title refers to the amount of pocket money the indentured workers were supposed to be given – but never received – while their wages were managed by their 'employers’, on behalf of the Aborigines Protection Board.
Notes by Romaine Moreton
This clip shows Indigenous activism in the 1930s represented by the campaign to send petitions to the King of England seeking rights such as representation in the Australian Parliament. Burraga, a Thirroul Elder, announces a plan for a New South Wales petition. Next, over images of newspaper clippings about conditions on NSW reserves, the narrator states that Indigenous people were starting to organise. The clip then focuses on a petition organised by William Cooper and finally presented to the Australian Government after six years of campaigning.
Educational value points
- The strategy of sending a petition to the King of England rested on the culturally derived belief that the King could and would intervene to help Indigenous people because of the obligation incurred when their land was taken without compensation and vested in the Crown during British colonisation. The petition strategy was promoted in the 1930s by the Yorta Yorta leader William Cooper (1861–1941) and taken up by Burraga, an Elder from the Gandangara people.
- The rise in Indigenous activism in NSW was the result of actions by the NSW Aborigines Protection Board (APB), the most devastating of which was the closure of the independent reserves. These dated from the 1860s when some Indigenous communities had gained the use of some of their country for farming, hunting and collecting food. In what is now known as the second dispossession, the reserves were closed and the land made available to white farmers.
- Although Cooper’s petition also called for the right to vote and for land rights, its main focus was the separate and direct representation of Indigenous people in the Australian Parliament. Both Cooper and Burraga felt that an Indigenous representative in the federal parliament was vital, given that government policy was decided without consulting Indigenous communities and that state government administration of Indigenous affairs had led to worsening conditions.
- The petition strategy failed. Cooper launched the petition to the King in September 1933 and although it had been signed by 1,814 people by 1938, the Australian Government refused to send it to the King when it was submitted. Believing that only Indigenous people should sign the petition and seeing it as a means of galvanising them into political action, Cooper had travelled to reserves throughout NSW to collect signatures over a six-year period.
- Cooper’s own political activism had been galvanised when he was expelled from the Cumeroogunga Reserve near Moama after protesting against the seizure of family farming blocks on the Reserve by the ADB in about 1908. In the early to mid-1930s he founded the Australian Aborigines’ League to campaign against discrimination and the denial of human rights and to work for reforms that would give Indigenous people the chance for advancement.
- Burraga became politicised after the Gandangara people were evicted by the ADB in the 1920s from St Joseph’s farm, an independent reserve in the Burragorang Valley in NSW. Moving to Sydney, he joined the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association and started making speeches advocating Indigenous rights at the Sydney Markets and in the Domain.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
This clip starts approximately 31 minutes into the documentary.
We see old footage of ‘Australian Royalty Pleads For His People’.
Burraga It quite amuses me to hear people saying ‘I don’t like the black man,’ but he’s damn glad to live in the black man’s country all the same. I am calling a corroboree of all the natives of New South Wales to send a petition to the King in an endeavour to improve our condition. All the black man wants is representation in Federal Parliament. There is also plenty fish in the river for us all and land to grow all we want. 150 years ago, the Aboriginals owned Australia and today, he demands more than the white man’s charity. He wants the right to live.
We see clippings from old newspapers.
Narrator For the first time, the newspapers supported them and their voices began to be heard. All over the country, Aborigines and Whites were reading and hearing about the conditions on the New South Wales Reserves. Aborigines began to organise. In 1932, an Aboriginal elder, William Cooper, came to Melbourne to start the Aborigines League. The aims of the League were to get equal rights for Aborigines. William Cooper had started a petition to the King of England and he travelled to reserves throughout the state asking Aborigines to sign it.
An Aboriginal woman is being interviewed outside.
Aboriginal woman He’d come up here and talk to the people and tell them they had rights and they should press for it. He asked to have a Member of Parliament, Aboriginal member so that Aborigines could go to that member and talk with him where they couldn’t relate to a white person because they knew that he’d just, you know, scrap it all and forget about it. All the petitions they ever had were put into the waste-paper basket. He worked really hard and went around getting names, and I believe it would cover so many miles, all the names – it was that long.
Narrator After six frustrating years of campaigning, William Cooper presented the petition to the Federal Government in Canberra.