Towards a new understanding
Australia’s Indigenous people embraced the code of football developed in Melbourne and Victoria in the middle of the nineteenth century and made it their own. This began in the most difficult circumstances as a few remaining Indigenous people found ways of infiltrating and eventually overcoming the manifold barriers to their participation. The game of the invader was mastered by the invaded. They brought knowledge to the game from their own cultural practices and eventually gave it a deeper meaning. They innovated and expressed the game’s potential. What follows is an attempt to develop a new understanding of Australian football’s long and contested Indigenous history.
In the winter 2016 issue of Meanjin, Jenny Hocking and Nell Reidy tried to resuscitate a common popular misconception that Australian rules football had Aboriginal origins. They claimed to have produced new evidence that changes everything, but the single piece of new information they discovered only confirmed something that has been known for some time—that Indigenous games were played in the Western District of Victoria. These games had strong cultural significance, sometimes used as ice breakers when different groups met and held corroborees. Some of them involved women as well as men, and members of different totems played as separate groups or teams.
It would be wonderful if we could show a connection between the Indigenous games of ball and football, marngrook, pando and the others, and the codified game that developed in Melbourne and Victoria in the middle of the nineteenth century.1 In the 34 years since the suggestion was first raised by Jim Poulter, no-one to our knowledge has been able to show anything other than the vaguest similarities between some features of the Indigenous games and what the white men were playing in the 1850s and 1860s.2 The notion of a personal conduit through Tom Wills is not supported in his voluminous correspondence with newspapers and with his family and friends. There is no hint of any borrowing from Indigenous games. None of the tactical and legislative innovations he introduced or suggested in the formative period of the domestic game reflect Indigenous antecedents.
Football as codified in Melbourne in 1859 was only ‘a game of our own’ initially in the sense that it was based on a cherry-picked selection of a very few of the rules of various English public schools, particularly Eton and Rugby, and hence from the outset was not a carbon copy of any one of them. These rules allowed limited handling, but no throwing of the ball, and there was no offside rule.
Hocking and Reidy argue that the Australian game was different from the English games, with the ball kept off the ground to avoid or reduce injury, and that this shows Indigenous influence. What we do know is that the noble art of hacking an opponent’s shins, tripping and holding were the main causes of injury and they were gradually banned by the rules, though of course they did not disappear as a result. In the mid 1860s Wills was still in favour of hacking, which was allowed under Rugby school rules, but he could not convince his peers to allow it. The pattern of the game as played in the 1850s and 1860s bears little resemblance to the modern game of Australian football or how Hocking and Reidy have imagined it. It was a low-scoring, low-level kicking and scrummaging game in which weight and strength were a team’s biggest assets.
Controversy in the early days arose over running with the ball and whether it could be picked up from the ground or only when caught following a kick. In 1866 a compromise was reached and the requirement of bouncing the ball every few steps while running with it was introduced. The idea of jumping high to catch the ball, ‘taking a high mark’, is mentioned only in a single report before the 1870s.3 In 1872 the rules were changed to allow the umpire to stop play and throw the ball in the air. This broke up the interminable, violent scrimmages that were becoming a blight on the game; another step in the evolution of the modern game we know today.
Rather than pointing to closer links between marngrook and Australian football, Hocking and Reidy’s argument simply reveals the gulf between pre- and early-contact Indigenous games and what the white men did. So why has there been such a receptive audience among Indigenous people today for the claim to historical involvement in the Australian game? There is another, much more uncomfortable story to be told, an account that restores Indigenous involvement as a struggle to breach the walls of white Victorian sport by a group of pioneers whose tales remain virtually unknown. We make no claim to be the first to investigate this argument. Several scholars have drawn attention to attempts, some successful, by Indigenous players and teams to break into the white men’s game.4 But we need far more research in this area.
Nobody suggests that Indigenous Australians invented cricket, yet they formed the first Australian team to tour overseas in 1868 and the players concerned were coached by Tom Wills, a year earlier. It does not demean Indigenous players in any way to suggest that they learned the white man’s game and then tried to take part whenever they could. They were largely excluded from involvement because there were so few of them, and they were restricted to remote areas and were subject to the control of protectors and others and barriers imposed by the white cricket clubs and their memberships.5 Indigenous people were being ‘ethnically cleansed’ by settlers, disease, neglect and policy. If they could not protect their country, fundamental to their being, how could the few survivors penetrate the white men’s effective bans on their absorption into settler society? Despite that, a pioneering few managed to work their way into the local code of football and it is these people who should be researched and recognised, as they are the real heroes.
The key reason Indigenous players were unable to take part in football in significant numbers from 1860 onwards is demographic. By the 1860s the Indigenous population of Victoria (where what became Australian rules was played) had been reduced to a few thousand and most of these were in the remoter parts of the colony or in reservations under the control of the ‘protectors’.6 If, as recent demographic history suggests, around the time the Europeans arrived there was population pressure in Victoria, then the subsequent destruction of the local nations must have been appalling in its severity. If the careful recalculations by Len Smith and his colleagues are correct then there may have been around 60,000 Indigenous people in the land area of the later colony of Victoria in 1780 and around 650 as calculated in the census in 1901, a decline of nearly 99 per cent.7 What complicates that calculation is the existence of significant numbers of people who were not counted as Aboriginals and did not identify as Aboriginals in any administrative source. The so-called ‘Half Caste Act’ of 1886 that defined non-pure blood Aboriginals as non-Aboriginal and insisted they be removed from the reservations and become ineligible for public support on the eve of the severe depression of the 1890s effectively ‘disappeared’ a significant number of people.8 Such people had every incentive not to identify themselves as Aboriginal.9
Indigenous players force their way into the local game of football
There are many references to Indigenous adults and children playing varieties of football in Victoria and South Australia from the 1860s onwards. The much maligned colonial archive reveals the achievements of early Indigenous football teams and players. It is a history replete with disturbing prejudice, ignorance and lazy misconceptions, but without it the vital history of early Indigenous football would probably never be found. What follows is only a tiny sample.
The Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve or Coranderrk Station was founded in 1863 and is thus contemporary with the origins of Australian football in Melbourne. In the next two decades a successful agricultural enterprise was run at Coranderrk until pressure from local farmers and the passing of the ‘Half-Caste Act’ in 1886 undermined the activities of the Aborigines on the station.10
By 1894 there were at least four teams playing in the Yarra Valley and John Irvine of Yarra Glen presented a trophy for a competition between the Lilydale, Yarra Glen, Healesville and Coranderrk Aboriginal clubs. Coranderrk played intermittently as a club and its members played occasionally for other clubs in the neighbourhood.11 Because of the small numbers of young males on the station, it was impossible to field a full team on a regular basis.
Dick Rowan from Coranderrk played at least one friendly game for South Melbourne against Williamstown in 1892 but was denied permission to play for them again the following year, for fear that might lead to similar requests in future.12 Some years later, after Healesville lost a ‘very important match’ to Yarra Glen, a letter was published in the local paper from ‘Fair Play’ condemning the ‘inhumanity’ of the station manager at Coranderrk, Mr Shaw. Entreaty was of no avail, and the yoke of despotism was enforced by that gentleman, with the result that the Healesville team lost the match through the Coranderrk players not being allowed to take part.13 One man from Coranderrk Station received a tribute in the local paper:
It will come as a surprise, tinged with regret, to local footballers to learn of the death of ‘Teddy’ M’Dougall, late of the Coranderrk Station, which occurred at Lake Tyers recently. As an exponent of our winter pastime, the deceased had few equals, and the services he has rendered Lilydale and Healesville football will not be forgotten for years. He was a very manly player, as his opponents and associates always testified to, and his death removes another of the fast-declining aboriginal race.14
Indigenous players in Gippsland had picked up the knowledge of both football and cricket by 1871 and understood the way the white men played the games.15 Two decades later they were being selected to play for the nearby club, Cuninghame (Lakes Entrance):
Cuninghame, although they have lost one or two good players, have a very strong team, and the eight aboriginals they have understand the game remarkably well. In handball the Lake Tyers men surpass almost all their opponents, and are very fast, as a rule, until the last quarter.16
Roderick McLeod, a Lake Tyers man, was a top-class athlete who won more than £200 in stakes alone. He was a prominent member of the Cuninghame football club until a short time before his death in 1900.17
Due to their scant numbers, finding enough players to field a team representing the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Station would take a little longer. And when they did the local teams, in this case Bairnsdale, didn’t take them seriously at first.18 Yet in the space of a few years the sight of the Lake Tyers men on the field aroused very different feelings for the white men of east Gippsland. They became a team to be reckoned with. Defeat at the hands of a black football team was a sensation when Lake Tyers easily defeated Cuninghame.19 In 1907, at the Bairnsdale football club’s annual meeting they acknowledged the two matches with Lake Tyers from the previous year
were remarkable for the evenness of the play and the thorough sportsmanlike conduct of both teams. Mention was made of the determination of Lake Tyers to fulfil their engagements faced with the necessity of walking eight miles from the mission station to Cuninghame on the mornings of the matches in order to catch the boat to Bairnsdale.20
The Lake Tyers team had their photograph in a Melbourne paper as one of the premier country teams in 1908.21 In 1913, Carlton visited Lakes Entrance on its end of season trip and played the first, but until recently forgotten, game between a VFL team and an Aboriginal station team.22 This match followed several refusals by the Melbourne football authorities to countenance matches against visiting Indigenous teams.
Two mission stations in the Western District of Victoria at Framlingham and Lake Condah had some excellent cricketers, footballers and athletes. It was from Framlingham that Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin erupted into the athletic and football world in Geelong, winning the Easter Gift foot races in 1872 and playing a single game for the Geelong Football Club against Carlton that year. It appears that he was the first and only Aboriginal player to take part in a senior Victorian football game in the nineteenth century.23 On 25 April he played alongside the veteran Tom Wills, who arrived late for the game and played in the forward line. Edgar and Horace, Wills’ brothers, were mentioned among the better players, but Pompey was ridiculed. The match finished in a goalless draw.24 Pompey later played in Ballarat, Cobden and back at Framlingham where his contemporaries played football frequently.25
A report about the mission at Condah notes: ‘They have also a cricket and football club, and at either game they muster strong teams.’26 Later the Lake Condah Aboriginals formed an ‘unbeatable’ football team in 1902, the Darlot Creek Wanderers, which inflicted heavy defeats on teams from Hamilton and Portland.27
At the Ebenezer Mission in the far north-west of Victoria, half-castes did not work because as professional sportsmen they were supported by the cricket and football clubs at Jeparit, according to the manager.28 The Maloga Aboriginal Station on the NSW bank of the Murray River near Echuca was a private operation founded and run by Daniel Matthews and his wife. Matthews was clear that sport was highly deleterious to his charges, especially the younger ones:
For many years I have found cricketing, footballing, foot-racing, and athletic sports generally most injurious to the Aborigines. As a rule, it leads them into fast company, to drink, gambling, and every form of irreligion; and ultimately leaves the men a moral and physical wreck.29
In 1888, following protests by some of the residents of Maloga, a new reserve was set up for the Yorta Yorta people by the NSW government at Cummeragunja near Barmah. Football caught on quickly in the new environment.30 By the 1890s the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Mission team was playing and beating football teams all over northern Victoria.31 Most of southern New South Wales was oriented towards Melbourne and the Cummeragunja lads picked up Victorian rules rather than rugby union. They were able to join the Nathalia District Football Association, going through the 1899 season without losing a game.
One match report of a game against South Bendigo in 1900 draws out the irony of the dying race inflicting a severe defeat on the pillars of the British Empire in Australia: ‘And yet here in Bendigo, the “pivot” of Australia, was to be witnessed the sight of its best team of footballers having rings run round them (and those very literal ones) by the despised and fast dying Aboriginal.’32
They also took on a team from Ballarat, a Victorian rules football stronghold, in 1901, drawing a bigger crowd to the game than a Ballarat Association v Victorian Football League match two weeks later.33 The Ballarat Star’s correspondent, ‘Half Back’, noted that ‘… the visitors’ play was an education to some exponents of the game in Ballarat, especially in their facility in getting rid of the ball. In the language of the showman, there was no waiting or delay.’34
The physicality of the Indigenous players is singled out, something emphasised in Konrad Marshall’s account of the disproportionate representation of Noongar people in Australian football today.35
The Cummeragunja team played on well into the twentieth century, despite increasingly harsh conditions on the reserve that eventually led to one of the first mass protests, the walk-off in 1939. Sir Doug Nicholls, champion footballer, Aboriginal leader and later governor of South Australia, was born on the mission and learned his football there.
Implications for history
The interpretation developed here may help explain why to this day Indigenous people believe that Australian football is their game, not because they invented it or contributed to its origins, but because they forced their way into it, despite all the obstacles, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Particularly in regional and remote areas, they had more success in doing so either as individuals or by forming teams to compete. Sometimes they monopolised the game in their locality and the word spread about their capacity to play and beat the white men at their own game. Between the wars the Cummeragunja team was handicapped by the local league because it was just too good. After winning the Western Region and Moira League competition five times out of six between 1926 and 1931, the club was restricted so that no players over 25 were allowed to play for the team.36
The evidence of the extent of Aboriginal involvement in Australian football in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is there in the colonial archive waiting to be fully researched and understood. They have a claim to the game by virtue of participation at grassroots level. Some of the skills they had honed long before the white men arrived were used to develop different ways of playing the game: speed at ground level, rapid hand movement and brilliant hand–eye and foot–eye coordination, plus physical play, as well as high marking.
The oral tradition has always had difficulty with precise chronology, so modern-day Indigenous people relying on the stories handed down through the generations find it very hard to pin down when key developments occurred. It is not unreasonable to conclude that it was in the second half of the nineteenth century that Indigenous Australians began the prolonged process of infiltrating the white man’s game of football. They did so with great difficulty because the gatekeepers of the game resisted fiercely and because Aboriginal numbers were so small and they were confined to rural and remote areas.
The evidence cited here represents an absolute lower bound of Indigenous involvement in football between 1860 and 1900. We now have some names to follow up and the possibility of finding more. We have not addressed questions of meaning for the Indigenous communities involved. That is the essence of the research project outlined by Sean Gorman and his colleagues. We are not sure how far the stories Aboriginal people tell themselves today will be able to reveal these meanings as they existed in the second half of the nineteenth century, but it would be fascinating and almost certainly highly relevant and empowering if they could. •
- Some Indigenous games did involve keepings-off and throwing, or had running and passing without kicking. Ken Edwards insists that Aboriginal games should be considered in their own right and as part of an Indigenous culture in all its varieties, not simply as possible progenitors of a code of football that evolved in Victoria in the 1850s and 1860s. Ken Edwards, ‘Traditional games of a timeless land: Play cultures in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 2, 2009, pp. 32–43.
- Trevor Ruddell, ‘The marn grook story: A documentary history of Aboriginal ball games of south-east Australia in literature’, Sporting Traditions, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 19–37.
- Trevor Ruddell, ‘Who invented the high mark?’, MCC Library Factsheet, 17 July 2016, p. 2.
- See for example, David Thompson, ‘Indigenous Sportsmen and Women: Football’, in Dave Nadel and Graeme Ryan (eds), Sport in Victoria: A History, Ryan Publishing, Melbourne, 2015, pp. 131–2; Barry Judd, ‘Australian Rules Football as Aboriginal Cultural Artifact’, Canadian Journal of Native Studies, vol. 25, no. 1 (2005), pp. 215–37; Barry Judd, On the Boundary Line: Colonial Identity in Football, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2008; Martin Flanagan, ‘Portraits of past and present Koonibba Roosters players reveals sporting lineage’, Age, 30 July 2016, Sport, p. 41.
- Bernard Whimpress, Passport to Nowhere: Aborigines in Australian Cricket, 1850–1939, Walla Walla Press, Sydney, 1999.’
- John Green, general inspector of the central board appointed to watch over the interests of the Aboriginals in Victoria, estimated that there were 1834 Aboriginals in Victoria on 31 May 1869 and he had names for 1514 of them (Sixth Report of the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines, Melbourne, 1869, p. 18).
- Len Smith, Janet McCalman, Ian Anderson et al., ‘Fractional identities: The political arithmetic of Aboriginal Victorians’, in Per Axelsson and Peter Sköl (eds), Indigenous Peoples and Demography: The Complex Relationship between Identity and Statistics, Berghahn, New York and Oxford, 2014 edition, pp. 15–32.
- Smith, McCalman, Anderson et al., ‘Fractional identities’, pp. 19–22. The Victorian Aborigines Protection Act 1886 was described as ‘a measure for merging the half-castes among the general population of the colony’.
- In 1899 only 449 Aborigines and half-castes under certificates were to be found in the six remaining stations and depots (35th Report of the Board …, 1899, p. 3).
- According to Giordano Nanni and Andrea James, Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2013, only 17 men and 14 women remained at Coranderrk in 1893, but the 35th Report of the Board put the total number at 84 in 1899. Since not all of them were young men of football-playing age, it was probably impossible to field a football team in regular competition. Coranderrk had the largest population of any of the stations in 1899.
- ‘Football’, Age, 7 May 1894, p. 3.
- ‘Williamstown v South Melbourne’, Argus, 27 June 1892, p. 10; ‘Snap Shots’, Sportsman, 28 June 1892, p. 6.
- Healesville and Yarra Glen Guardian, 22 September 1899, p. 3.
- Healesville and Yarra Glen Guardian, 6 February 1904, p. 2.
- Gippsland Times, 21 February 1871, p. 4.
- Bairnsdale Advertiser and Tambo and Omeo Chronicle, 10 July 1897, p. 2.
- ‘An Aboriginal Athlete’, Maffra Spectator, Monday 8 January 1900, p. 3.
- Bairnsdale Advertiser, 28 July 1900, p. 2.
- Bairnsdale Advertiser, 6 September 1904, p. 3.
- Bairnsdale Advertiser, 20 April 1907, p. 2.
- ‘Lake Tyers Aboriginal football team, football in towns and country: Some premier teams’, Weekly Times, Melbourne, 10 October 1908, p. 25, photo by A.W. Burman.
- Athas Zafiris, ‘Revealed: The forgotten first match between a VFL team and an Aboriginal football
team’, Shoot Farken, 25 May 2017, <http://www.shootfarken.com.au/forgotten-first-match-between-vfl-team-aboriginal-football-team-lake-tyers-carlton/>.
- Trevor Ruddell, ‘Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin: The first Aborigine to play senior football’, in Peter Burke and June Senyard (eds), Behind the Play: Football in Australia, Maribyrnong Press, Melbourne, 2008, pp. 89–105.
- This is possibly the only time that Pompey Austin and Tom Wills met.
- Weekly Times, Melbourne, quoting from the Warrnambool Examiner, 4 August 1877, p. 5.
- Leader, Melbourne, 9 June 1883, p. 11.
- Noel Learmonth, Four Towns and a Survey, Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1970, p. 26; ‘Football’, Portland Guardian, 9 June 1902, p. 2; ‘Evening Football’, 29 May 1903, p. 3; ‘Condah v Darlot Creek Wanderers’, Hamilton Spectator, 16 June 1903, p. 4; ‘Hamilton v Darlot Creek Wanderers’, 15 July 1902, p. 4; ‘Hamilton v Darlot Creek Wanderers’, 24 June 1902, p. 4.
- H.P. Bogisch, 38th Report of the Board …, 1902, p. 13.
- Daniel Matthews, ‘Seventeenth Report of the Maloga Mission to the Aborigines of Australia’, North Melbourne Advertiser, 28 July 1893, p. 4.
- ‘Football’, by Veteran, Riverine Herald, 13 June 1892, p. 2.
- Athas Zafiris, ‘Cummeragunja: The Aboriginal football team that opened the eyes of White Australia’,
Shoot Farken, 26 May 2016,<http://www.shootfarken.com.au/cummeragunja-Aboriginal-football-team-that-opened-the-eyes-of-white-australia/>.
- Aboriginal footballers’, by Rambler, Bendigo Independent, 25 July 1900, p. 3.
- Zafiris, ‘Cummeragunja’, citing Ballarat Star. The attendance at the game was put at 6000 to 7000 (Argus, 3 June 1901, p. 7).
- Half-Back, ‘The football season’, Ballarat Star, 7 June 1901, p. 1.
- Konrad Marshall, ‘The Noongar warriors’ Age, Weekend, 2 July 2016, pp. 10–14, <http://digitaledition.theage.com.au/olive/ode/ageweb2/>.
- Zafiris, ‘Cummeragunja’.
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