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Posted on 23 May 2019 in Non-Fiction |

ROY HAY Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They did not come from nowhere. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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The high visibility of Aboriginal players in the Australian Football League is well recognised and their skills admired. But as Roy Hay argues in the pithy subtitle of his penetrating new history, they did not come from nowhere.

At the outset I should disclose that Hay and I are long-time colleagues in the Australian Society for Sports History, and that he has generously acknowledged my 1999 book Passport to Nowhere, a history of Aboriginal people in cricket from 1850 to 1939.

Summarising my work, which covered Aboriginal cricketers playing on mission stations, reserves, pastoral properties and in town teams, as well as offering several substantial biographies, I have done so in one word – discontinuity.

I am flattered that Hay has followed a similar model and reached a similar conclusion in his main period of study by showing that the Aboriginal experience in football was also sporadic. With the benefit of the National Library search engine Trove, his research through countless country newspapers is exhaustive, and he has also added important new political dimensions with respect to the extreme control exercised by whites over Aboriginal people’s lives. Social Darwinist assumptions that they were doomed to extinction meant that Aboriginal people suffered abrupt changes from protection to assimilation policies by colonial and state administrations, from authoritarian changes of superintendents on missions and reserves in which they had little say, and by the greed of white farmers taking over land they had been working successfully.

A most important dimension to Hay’s work is his tracking of family descendants of early footballers to reveal connections between sporting success, community leadership and, in some cases, politics. As part of his study he has clocked up thousands of kilometres visiting various former and present Aboriginal missions/reserves/settlements at Coranderrk (Yarra Valley), Framlingham (near Warrnambool), Lake Condah (Western District), Ebenezer (Wimmera), Cummeragunja (River Murray), and Lake Tyers (Gippsland) in Victoria, and Poonindie and Raukkan in South Australia.

In the modern era an explanation for Aboriginal prominence in Australian football is proposed by the argument that it is ‘their game’ and derives from a traditional game known as marngrook. This romantic view holds sway in popular consciousness and is frequently abetted by the press on the basis that there is disagreement among historians. As a member of an Australian Football League history committee, which met at AFL headquarters in August 2014 under the chairmanship of Mike Fitzpatrick, and which included such historians as Geoffrey Blainey, Gillian Hibbins, Rob Hess, Greg de Moore, Jim Main, Col Hutchinson and others, I can assert that we were asked to determine a number of issues among which were the ‘Founders of the Game’ and ‘Aboriginal Origins’ of the sport. On the founders it was decided that five men – Tom Wills, William Hammersley, James Thompson, Thomas ‘Red’ Smith and Jerry Bryant – would be recognised. On ‘Aboriginal Origins’ I seem to remember a committee vote being taken with the result being 15 against, 1 for, and 1 abstention. The result of the vote was not due to malice or prejudice but simply lack of evidence.

Hay, in underlining his purpose in his Preface, writes:

Rather than spending time seeking a link between the games Indigenous people played and the origins of Australian football in Melbourne, it would be much more valuable to develop the stories of those who saw the white men play their strange game and thought ‘We could do that’ and did in the most difficult of circumstances, initially in the missions and stations around the periphery of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. They are the real heroes and their stories should be told. This book is just a taste of the richness that awaits.

Richness certainly unfolds.

The book is structured in four sections: the evidence in Victoria, the players and their stories, the history in South Australia and Western Australia, the origins of Australian Football, and a conclusion.

Coranderrk is the subject of the most intensive study but all stations receive their due, even Ramahyuck, where scarcely any sport was played. Demography is central to Hay’s argument and in his first chapter he sets out the estimated Aboriginal population of Victoria, which fell from 2341 in 1861 to 449 in 1899. Protection legislation was introduced in the colony in 1869 and at the time the highest population for the Coranderrk mission station was 110 and that at Lake Condah was 97. By 1899 Coranderrk still had 84 residents but Framlingham a mere 26. It might be thought that these numbers would not be sufficient to maintain sporting teams, either football or, even earlier, cricket. It is remarkable that they frequently did so, although subsequently there were combinations with town teams, and individual Aboriginal players appeared with white men’s clubs. It is to the author’s credit that he does not terminate these histories at 1900 but follows them well into the 20th century in some instances:

Between the wars the Cummeragunja team was handicapped by the local league because it was just too good. It was the winner of the pennant in 1921 and was excluded from the league as a result. After winning the Western and Moira Riding League five times out of six between 1927 and 1931 [sic], the club was restricted so that no players over the age of 25 were allowed to play for the team.

Discrimination affected individual players as well.

In some respects the second part of the book on the players’ stories is the most moving, because the personal is so political. Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin, as the only Aboriginal player to represent a senior Victorian club (Geelong) in the 19th century, has been the subject of some recent scholarship, but other figures receiving chapter-length treatment here are Robert Wandin, Thomas Dunolly, and the King and Lovett families.

Hay pays relatively little attention to Austin’s football and only briefly mentions his single game in the Victorian Football Association against Carlton in 1872 when he appeared in the same team as Tom, Edgar and Horace Wills. However, he gives a much fuller picture of the man as an athlete (professional runner, hurdler, high-jumper), artist, explorer, savant and entertainer. Robert Wandin and Thomas Dunolly were prominent sportsmen and gave evidence to the Inquiry into Coranderrk in 1881 in support of the reinstatement of John Green as superintendent, but their political activism had detrimental effects on their lives. All are emblems of possibility denied. Hay remarks of Austin that he ‘straddled two very different worlds’, which reminds us that such has been the lot of many Aboriginal figures, with Albert Namatjira and David Gulpilil being more recent examples. In the chapter on the Lovett dynasty from the Western District we discover several players who reached the Victorian Football League and AFL level in the 20th and 21st centuries, with Essendon player Nathan Lovett-Murray, a grandson of famous Indigenous leader Sir Douglas Nicholls, enjoying a strong career between 2004 and 2012. Triumphs, however, are hard won. Five Lovett brothers served in the First World War, but any mateship they experienced in the trenches quickly dissipated on their homecoming:

Some of the Lovetts resumed their football careers after the First World War and there is a story told that, when they returned and were refused entry to the Condah Hotel, they left quietly and then returned and smashed every bottle and glass before leaving once again.

At Raukkan (formerly Point McLeay), on the shores of South Australia’s Lake Alexandrina, Hay meets Auntie Dot Shaw, a member of the Rigney family, and finds the culture and history of football at the settlement safe with her. Several hundred kilometres away on the Eyre Peninsula, a visit to what began in 1850 as a bold Anglican village-style mission experiment at Poonindie is now ‘thoroughly depressing’; it was wound up so rapidly in 1894 that only the church building remains. Nevertheless, the ancestors of well-known AFL players such as Gavin Wanganeen and Graham Johncock came from there. The author does not visit all the former missions/stations, but Koonibba (also on Eyre Peninsula) and Point Pearce (Yorke Peninsula) get their due.

Crossing the Nullarbor was a road too far for Hay’s vehicle, but his brief Western Australian chapter opens interestingly with the statement that rugby was the first of the football codes to be taken up in the colony. The 1890s gold rush then brought major migration from Victoria and the adoption of the Victorian game by the Noongar people as well as by whites. The chapter closes with a quote describing the Noongar nation as ‘the most dominant cultural force in the history of Australian Rules football’, and among the players listed with Noongar heritage are Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer, Barry Cable, the Krakouer brothers, Derek Kickett, Nicky Winmar, Des Headland, Michael Johnson, Peter Matera and Lance Franklin.

Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century is a book with many threads. In tying them together Roy Hay broadens the perspective by re-examining the origin of modern sports and the Aboriginal influence on the origins of Australian Rules football. In a humane and graceful work Hay points to the value of deep empirical research and challenges the romantics – the marngrookites – to go beyond myth-making and provide genuine evidence in support of their views. Summarising what he hopes is the value of his book he concludes:

It provides detailed if limited evidence about the capacity of Indigenous people to overcome extraordinary obstacles to become contributors, not just to their own people, but to Australian life, politics, culture and sport. The people who emerge in this book did not see themselves simply as victims of British colonialism, but human beings who were prepared to assert their constructive role in the history of this country. Some of the leaders of the Indigenous movements today are trying to encourage a younger generation to learn from their example. This book may help provide them with a little more ammunition by capitalising on the youngsters’ interest in sport and football in particular. Is it too much of a stretch to say that their relatively recent sporting history is as important in that respect as the long-run traditional knowledge that is the bedrock of their being.

This is a vitally important book of Australian sports history. It deserves to be read by a wide audience and by Aboriginal people in particular, among whom it is hoped historians will emerge to explore a vast range of stories in local communities. Unfortunately it has one major drawback: price.

Published in England by Cambridge Scholars as a chunky hardback, the Australian retail price of $179.95 will deter nearly everyone apart from serious sports historians and university libraries. It is hoped that after the initial short print run is exhausted, Cambridge will either release it as a modestly priced paperback or sell the imprint to an Australian publisher willing to do so.

Roy Hay Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They did not come from nowhere Cambridge Scholars 2019 HB 316pp $179.95

Bernard Whimpress usually writes on sport and his most recent book is a biography, Joe Darling: Cricketer, Farmer, Politician and Family Man (2018).

You can buy Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here.

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