Category Archives: Australian Rules Football

The long and complicated history of Aboriginal involvement in football


Roy Hay, Deakin University

Over the next two weekends, the Australian Football League celebrates the contribution of Indigenous peoples to the history of the game.

At the same time, a new documentary will show how one of the modern Indigenous superstars of the sport, Adam Goodes, was driven from it by prejudice and repeated denigration.

Clearly, Indigenous players have made huge inroads in professional Australian football leagues. In fact, to mark this year’s Indigenous round, the AFL Players Association recently updated its map celebrating the 84 male Indigenous players and 13 female players in the league and showing where they come from.

But in order to understand how we got to this point, it’s important to know the full history of Indigenous involvement in the sport, including the discrimination faced by players like Goodes, and all those who came before him.

Indigenous men playing football in a paddock at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, 1904.
State Library of Victoria, Author provided

The early days on missions and stations

In my latest book, Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century, I examine the long history of Aboriginal involvement in Australian football since the game was codified in the middle of the 19th century. It’s a story of resilience in the face of sometimes overwhelming obstacles to their participation.

By the 1860s, the Indigenous population of Victoria had been drastically reduced to just a few thousand people, due largely to massacres, disease, and the other impacts of European settlement. Most of these people were confined to missions or stations in remote parts of the colony under the control of “protectors.”




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In the second half of the century, the Indigenous inhabitants of these institutions saw the white settlers playing football and sought to take part. They brought skills developed in hunting and their own games like marngrook and joined the white players in football games, first as individuals and then by forming their own teams.

Eventually, the Indigenous teams started taking part in and then winning local leagues. It was a triumph of the human spirit in the face of appalling adversity.

This story can only be told because the deeds of these early generations of Indigenous players were reported in the sports pages of newspapers digitised by the National Library of Australia. Indigenous deeds on the field were being recounted positively, a contrast to the typical media reports of the day focused on “outrages” committed by – or less often, against – our original inhabitants.

Dominating and winning league titles

The numbers of Indigenous players remained small throughout the 19th century and getting leave to compete from the missions and stations was often difficult or inconsistent. Indigenous Australians may have found it slightly easier to break into individual sports like pedestrianism or boxing than team games like cricket and football at the time.

But many Indigenous teams found success. At Coranderrk in the Upper Yarra Valley near Melbourne, Indigenous people from the station began playing regularly in the 1890s, forming a team to compete in local competitions involving three non-Aboriginal teams, Healesville, Lilydale and Yarra Glen.




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Dick Rowan was invited to play with the South Melbourne club in 1892, but when he sought permission to play again the following season, he was refused by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines of Victoria. Their reason: if he was allowed to play, others would wish to follow. The board wanted to keep Indigenous people on the periphery.

In 1911, the Coranderrk team won the local league against white teams for the first time, but could not field a team the following year after several of their players were recruited by other clubs.

Other dominant Indigenous teams of the era included Framlingham, Lake Condah, Lake Tyers and above all Cummeragunja. Cummeragunja had suffered heavy defeats in the late 1880s, but the team eventually became so strong that it won the Western and Moira League five out of six years, and was promptly handicapped. (They were not allowed to field players over the age of 25.) In 1900, they ran rings around a strong Bendigo team and gave a Ballarat team a close game, as well.

The Redgummers, the name given to the team of combined Barmah and Cummeragunja players, 1905.
State Library of New South Wales, Author provided

Lake Tyers in Gippsland followed a similar pattern. After the first world war, the team became the receptacle for Indigenous players moved from other stations and missions around the state and was extremely successful, winning the East Gippsland League in 1934, 1938 and 1939.

Critics will point out that this was only “bush football”, but that was all that was on offer to Indigenous teams. They could not get regular matches against professional Melbourne teams, and Indigenous players were denied opportunities to play in senior leagues owing to racial bias.

There were a few exceptions, including Doug Nicholls from Cummeragunja, who was later knighted and became governor of South Australia. He rhapsodised about playing the game:

Once on the football field, I forget everything else. I’m playing football. I never take my eyes off that ball. My aim is not only to beat my opponent, but also to serve my side. I realise that in football as in other things, it’s team-work that tells.




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Indigenous players didn’t invent Australian rules but did make it their own


My aim in writing this book was to show how the history of the game could be rewritten to better reflect Indigenous contributions and experiences by using newspapers and other materials of the day as a basis, even the much maligned “colonial record”. This may assist Indigenous peoples to tell the story from their perspective about what happened to their ancestors and their more recent history.

As the Wiradjuri historian Lawrence Bamblett argues, this could have a positive impact on the sport and help counter the racism and discrimination that Indigenous peoples still face both on and off the field.

…broadening the discourse will bring representations of Aborigines in the writing about sport more closely into line with the richer lived experiences of individuals, and this in itself combats racism.

My hope is that some young Indigenous people with an interest in football will take up this story and tell it from their unique perspective.The Conversation

Roy Hay, Honorary Fellow, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Indigenous players didn’t invent Australian rules but did make it their own



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Indigenous children depicted in an etching playing the game of marngrook, which some have claimed inspired the game of Australian rules.
Wikimedia Commons

Roy Hay, Deakin University

It would be wonderful if there was a connection between the Indigenous games of ball and football – like marngrook and pando – and the codified game now known as Australian rules. But, despite several attempts since the suggestion was first raised, no-one 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.

The notion of a personal conduit through Tom Wills, the only one of Australian rules football’s founders with the slightest connection with Indigenous games from those years, was advanced and amplified later. But it is not supported by any evidence in Wills’ quite extensive writing, nor by the innovations he introduced into the game or sought to bring about.

The current revival of the idea of Indigenous influence on football’s origins diverts attention from another, much more uncomfortable and largely untold story about Indigenous relationships to football in the second half of the 19th century.

Indigenous people who played their traditional games, particularly in regional areas, saw or interacted with the white men at football. They would probably have been involved in it very quickly if they had been allowed to do so. But since they were effectively kept out, they formed their own teams and played with each other, or tried to break into local activities or competitions when they could.

This story can be partially gleaned from evidence already available in the colonial archive. It returns a better explanation of why some Indigenous people today believe the game had a history in which their predecessors were deeply involved to whatever extent they could be – given their scarce numbers in Victoria, and the locations on the periphery of the colony where they were effectively confined.

It is more powerful, more persuasive and more noble. On the eve of this year’s AFL Indigenous Round, it has potential to give an indication that those people who tried to break into the white men’s game before 1900 are the real heroes – not Wills.

Did football borrow from Indigenous games?

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 very few of the rules of various English public schools, particularly Eton and Rugby.

It was a very simplified form, with only ten rules in 1859. These rules allowed limited handling, but no throwing of the ball, and there was no offside rule.

Tom Wills was one of the pioneers of Australian rules football.
Wikimedia Commons

Nothing in Wills’ voluminous correspondence with the newspapers and with his family and friends offers the slightest hint of any borrowing from Indigenous games. Nor, more importantly, do any of the tactical and legislative innovations he introduced or suggested in the formative period of the domestic game.

The pattern of the game as played in the 1850s and 1860s bears little resemblance to the modern game of Australian football. It was a very low-scoring, low-level kicking and scrummaging game. Weight and strength counted for more than any ability to jump or initially to run with the ball.

Positional play and carrying the ball came in before long, and Wills was involved in pioneering both. But these were not features of marngrook.

In 2016, Jenny Hocking and Nell Reidy wrote the Australian game was different from the English games. The ball was kept off the ground to avoid or reduce injury – and this shows Indigenous influence, they claimed.

The noble art of hacking an opponent’s shins, tripping and holding were the main causes of injury. These were gradually banned by the rules, though 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.

Far from any of the Hocking and Reidy argument pointing to closer links between marngrook and Australian football, it simply reveals the gulf between pre- and early-contact Indigenous games and what the white men did.

Why the claim for involvement?

Several scholars have drawn attention to attempts, some successful, by Indigenous players and teams to break into the white men’s games.

Nobody suggests Indigenous Australians invented cricket, yet they formed the first Australian team to tour overseas in 1868 – and Wills coached the players involved a year earlier. It does not demean Indigenous players in any way to suggest 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. They were restricted to remote areas. And they were subject to the control of the “protectors” and others, and the barriers imposed by the white cricket clubs and their memberships.

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. It is these people who should be researched and recognised: they are the real heroes.

The key reason Indigenous players were unable to take part in football in significant numbers from 1860 onwards is primarily demographic. By the 1860s, the Indigenous population of Victoria (where what became Australian rules was played) had been reduced to a few thousand. Most were in the remoter parts of the colony or in reservations under the control of the “protectors”.

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 careful recalculations are correct, there may have been around 60,000 Indigenous people in the land area of the later colony of Victoria in 1780, but only around 650 as calculated in the census in 1901. This is a decline of nearly 99%.

What complicates that calculation is the existence of significant numbers of people who were not counted as Aboriginal and did not identify as Aboriginal in any administrative source.

The so-called Half Caste Act of 1886 defined non-pure-blood Aborigines as non-Aboriginal and insisted they be removed from the reservations and become ineligible for public support on the eve of the great depression of the 1890s. This effectively “disappeared” a significant number of people. Such people had every incentive not to identify themselves as Aboriginal.

The AFL will pay tribute to Indigenous Australians’ involvement in football this weekend.
AAP/Dan Peled

What does this all mean?

Our interpretation may help explain why, to this day, Indigenous people believe 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 19th 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 word spread about their capacity to play and beat the white men at their own game.

The Bendigo Independent reported a game in 1900 between an all-Indigenous and an all-white team as:

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.

Indigenous Australians’ claim to the game of Australian football comes by virtue of participation at grassroots level in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the skills they had honed long before the white men arrived could be used to develop different ways of playing the game: speed at ground level, rapid hand movement and brilliant hand–eye and foot–eye co-ordination, 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, then, to conclude it was in the second half of the 19th century that Indigenous Australians began the prolonged process of infiltrating the white man’s game of football and, most importantly, making it their own.


The ConversationThis piece was co-authored by Athas Zafiris, a freelance researcher and publisher of football and popular culture website Shoot Farken.

Roy Hay, Honorary Fellow, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Did Indigenous warriors influence the development of Australian rules football?



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In a painting such as Warriors of New South Wales, 1813, we can easily imagine a group of men ready to take to the football field.
Australian War Memorial

Robert Pascoe, Victoria University and Gerardo Papalia, La Trobe University

There are aspects of Australian rules football that never fail to puzzle the uninitiated. The Conversation

The game has its straight up and down plays – the long-kicking and high-marking that seem to give the contest a sense of order and clarity of purpose. But then there are the moments of pure anarchy, as the ball falls to the ground, players knock it forward or sideways, and a quick handball or a short, driving kick produces an unexpected result.

Adam Goodes playing in 2010.
Paul MIller/AAP

Other rules of the engagement are baffling to the untrained eye. There are no referees with a send-off power, merely umpires; there is no offside rule; the pitch dimensions vary from one ground to another; and the language of the commentators and the fans (the “barrackers”) is unusually martial.

Formed in the 1850s frontier contact zone, Australian football owes more to the experience of warfare between British settlers and Indigenous Australians than is usually recognised.

These rules were written on a wet Tuesday afternoon in Bryant’s Hotel in May 1859 by four young British men delegated with that task by the new Melbourne Football Club.

The city of Melbourne, destined to become a leading hub of the British Empire, was still young, but already a series of straight lines intersecting at right angles etched across what had been open Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung land only a generation before. Australian football would become the product of this frontier contact zone.

The four founders of the game spent most of their lives within these overlapping and shifting domains, seeking to negotiate their troubled subjectivities in the frontier.

Tommy Wills, who grew up in western Victoria, was the son of a settler implicated in ethnic cleansing against Indigenous Australians who would later lose his life in a conflict with the Gayiri people in central Queensland. James Boyne Thompson left Melbourne for country Victoria, slipped down the social ladder, did time in gaol, and died young. William Hammersley abandoned a wife and four children in England, married again in Melbourne, and died young without seeing his estranged family again. Thomas Henry Smith is remembered for his peppery temper, but fell from view soon after helping write the rules.

In short, the quartet who drafted the rules of this new “most manly and amusing game” were misfits from British society who were seeking new lives, or a refuge away from the dictates of convention, on the frontier.

Sydney Swans’ Lewis Jetta performs a dance in front of the crowd in 2015.
David Moir/AAP

If we re-assess the historical sources, many features of the “Game of Our Own” reflect the all too familiar story of European colonisation. There were certain consistent themes in the appropriation of native lands and resources by the British, French and other colonising powers in modern imperialism.

One is the collision between ways of delineating – or striating – newly conquered land with straight property lines against indigenous land uses that understood property in more open and communal – or “smooth” – terms. The new football code similarly involved delineations across the “smooth” spaces of Melbourne’s parks and gardens.

The colonisers made attempts to embody Indigenous “qualities” of physical prowess to increase and justify their power and dominance over the colonised. Australia’s imperial newcomers often sought to “go native”, to appropriate what they saw as the Indigenous faculty for becoming spiritual or animalistic, which was their way of interpellating the Aboriginal “Other”.

For instance, in swimming they adopted what became known as the Australian Crawl. In running they borrowed the idea of the crouch start. Elements of the Indigenous ball game usually called Marngrook – such as high marking — made their way into Australian rules football.

Indigenous chalkings and native decoration

European settlers observed Indigenous warriors chalking themselves in vivid colours and stripes for battle and copied this in their guernseys. We argue that the predominantly European colonial football teams adopted totemic plants (such as Mayblooms, Fuschias) and animals (such as swans) in their nomenclature as manifestations of this prowess.

Football players were bedizened in costumes that spoke either of Empire (the white) or native decoration (hooped guernseys).

When we look at paintings such as John Heaviside Clark’s Warriors of New South Wales, 1813, we can easily imagine a group of men ready to take to the football field. They are showing their spirit in their gestures; they are banded together for a common purpose.

The full-sized Warriors of New South Wales, 1813, by John Heaviside Clark.
Australian War Memorial

Not surprisingly, Indigenous men took up Australian football on the Victorian reservations where they were exiled from 1869 onwards, and as early as 1872 a Framlingham resident, Pompey Austin, was selected to play for Geelong.

These martial features of Australian football should not surprise us. After all, a bloody war between the colonisers and the Indigenous was in the living memory of the players and their barrackers.

That war is now distant to us, and has earned the sobriquet the Frontier Wars. Between the 1830s and the 1850s hundreds of Indigenous warriors and dozens of British settlers were killed across south-east Australia. Echoes of that conflict recur in the national code of football.

For Aboriginal Australians, even in parts of the continent dominated by Rugby League, this is their code of preference. They feel such a strong connection to the game that an explanation such as the one we have provided is demanded.

And then there is the ongoing puzzle of the 2015 season – the booing of Adam Goodes, a champion of the game and an Australian of the Year. Goodes wanted to remind the game’s devotees that it contained at its heart an Indigenous element. 95 per cent of the commentariat agreed with him; 75 per cent of the instant experts on social media did not. Those who booed said they were not “racist”.

Historians of the game would beg to differ.

A detailed version of this argument can be found in Robert Pascoe & Gerardo Papalia (2016) A Most Manly and Amusing Game’: Australian Football and the Frontier Wars, Postcolonial Studies, 19:3, 270-290.

Robert Pascoe, Dean Laureate and Professor of History, Victoria University and Gerardo Papalia, Honorary research Fellow in Italian Studies, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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