Tag Archives: indigenous

Telling the forgotten stories of Indigenous servicemen in the first world war


Jim McKay, The University of Queensland

Warning: This story contains images of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people who are deceased.


The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who served with Australian forces in the first world war is estimated to be in the range of 1,000-1,200. But the precise figure will never be known, because a number of those who served changed their names and birthplaces when they enrolled to get around racist enlistment practices.

Despite fighting and dying for Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders still weren’t considered citizens upon their return from the war. Many of these veterans were also denied repatriation benefits, and excluded from returned services clubs.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have long sought to gain recognition for the service and sacrifices of their men and women. Some do this by telling stories in their families and local communities about the military careers of their forebears.

These stories often take the form of oral histories. Oral history projects by groups of Aboriginal people have proven valuable for redressing the unrecognised service and racist treatment of their ancestors who served in the Australian Light Horse during the Sinai-Palestine Campaign of 1916-18.




Read more:
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Commemorating the Battle of Beersheba

Although most Australians know little or nothing about the Battle of Beersheba, the Australian government funded its centennial commemoration at Beersheba (now in southern Israel) in October 2017.

One hundred Australian and a few New Zealand military history reenactors attended the joint service as part of a commercial tour, during which they rode in period military outfits along the route of their ancestors.

A group of Aboriginal men and women, who were descended from some of the estimated 100 Aboriginal members of the Australian Light Horse, also participated in the tour. Several had ancestors who were in the “Queensland Black Watch”, a predominantly Aboriginal reinforcement unit.

The group’s participation was enabled by a transnational network of organisations, but the key driver was Rona Tranby Trust, which funds projects to record and preserve Aboriginal oral histories. In 2017, it a group of Aboriginal men and women to complete 11 histories of their ancestors who fought and died in the Sinai-Palestine Campaign.

Like the other reenactors, Aboriginal participants were honouring their ancestors’ courage and sacrifice. But they also wanted to document the neglected stories of their service, and the racial discrimination their forebears experienced.

Here we share, with permission, some of the stories that came from the trip, and from the family history projects the group members continue to work on.

Ricky Morris

Gunditjmara man and retired Army Sergeant Ricky Morris was officially invited to lay a wreath on behalf of all Indigenous veterans at the service in Beersheba. Morris is the 19th of an astonishing 21 men and women Anzacs in his family. He served in a progeny of the Light Horse unit of his grandfather, Frederick Amos Lovett.

Frederick Amos Lovett of the 4th Light Horse Regimen and his grandson Ricky Morris.
Rona Tranby Trust

At a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were neither citizens nor counted in the census, Frederick and his four brothers left the Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission, 300 km west of Melbourne, to sign up.

But their service counted for nothing. Gunditjmara people were subjected to a “second dispossession” when they were forced off Lake Condah under the Soldier Settlement Scheme. The scheme granted land to returning soldiers, but like almost all Aboriginal applicants, the brothers were denied soldier settlement blocks.

Morris is a member of the Victorian Indigenous Veterans Association Remembrance Committee and gives talks at schools about Aboriginal culture and his family. He interviewed two elderly aunts for his family history project, which he described as:

…a unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of those who fought and died for Australia, and the diversity of Australians who put their hands up to answer the call.




Read more:
In remembering Anzac Day, what do we forget?


Mischa Fisher and Elsie Amamoo

Mischa Fisher and her daughter, Elsie Amamoo, undertook the tour to obtain information for a website about Mischa’s grandfather, Frank Fisher.

Trooper Frank Fisher was an Aboriginal serviceman who enlisted in Brisbane on 16 August 1917.
Australian War Memorial

Frank was born into the Wangan and Jagalingou community in the goldmining town of Clermont, 1,000 km north of Brisbane. He was one of 47 men from Barambah Aboriginal Settlement who enlisted in the first world war. While Frank was away, his wife Esme was prevented from accessing his salary. After Frank was discharged, he was again placed under the control of the superintendent at Barambah.

Mischa and Elsie have interviewed Frank’s descendants, and accessed archival footage from the Ration Shed Museum – an Aboriginal heritage, educational and cultural centre. Elsie only recently learned that Frank, who is also the great-grandfather of Olympic 400m champion Cathy Freeman, was a member of the “Black Watch”.

While training for a reenactment of the Light Horse charge at Beersheba, she tearfully told a reporter what the project meant to her:

To me, it feels like I have got a missing piece of the puzzle of who I am […] That’s what it basically means to me: just being able to have that ability to close the gap in terms of my identity and knowing who I am and where I fit in the Australian history, but also within my family as well.

Michelle and Peta Flynn

Peta Flynn, great niece of Charles Fitzroy Stafford.
Rona Tranby Trust

Sisters Michelle and Peta Flynn are descendants of “Black Kitty”, a Cannemegal/Warmuli girl, who, in 1814, was among the first group of Aboriginal children placed in the Parramatta Native Institution at the age of five.

The sisters have been researching their family history for over 20 years. Their ancestors include the three Stafford brothers, who were in the Light Horse.

At Beersheba, Peta explained her motivation for writing a book about her great uncle, Charles Stafford:

My daughter, niece and nephews will be able to take [the book] into their schools and communities and actually be proud of who we are and where we come from – and ensure our family’s history will not be lost to future generations.




Read more:
Indigenous soldiers remembered: the research behind Black Diggers


Lessons and legacies

The experiences of Ricky Morris, Mischa Fisher, Elsie Amamoo, and Michelle and Peta Flynn show how exploring family histories can generate feelings of solidarity, honour and closure.

Although group members were on a reenactment tour, their emotions were typical of the inward pilgrimages often experienced by genealogical tourists. Past and present family connections were heightened by being there; feelings of sadness, solidarity and pride arose.

At the same time, these stories show the benefits of combining academic, public and vernacular accounts to study silences and absences in the histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The official commemoration at Beersheba will only ever be studied by a handful of specialist scholars, but the family histories of this group will have enduring value for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians alike.The Conversation

Jim McKay, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

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

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Archaeology is unravelling new stories about Indigenous seagoing trade on Australia’s doorstep



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A Motu trading ship with its characteristic crab claw shaped sails. Taken in the period 1903-1904.
Trustees of The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

Chris Urwin, Monash University; Alois Kuaso, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery; Bruno David, Monash University; Henry Auri Arifeae, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, and Robert Skelly, Monash University

It has long been assumed that Indigenous Australia was isolated until Europeans arrived in 1788, except for trade with parts of present day Indonesia beginning at least 300 years ago. But our recent archaeological research hints of at least an extra 2,100 years of connections across the Coral Sea with Papua New Guinea.

Over the past decade, we have conducted research in the Gulf of Papua with local Indigenous communities.

During the excavations, the most common archaeological evidence found in the old village sites was fragments of pottery, which preserve well in tropical environments compared to artefacts made of wood or bone. As peoples of the Gulf of Papua have no known history of pottery making, and the materials are foreign, the discovered pottery sherds are evidence of trade.

This pottery began arriving in the Gulf of Papua some 2,700 years ago, according to carbon dating of charcoal found next to the sherds.




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This means societies with complex seafaring technologies and widespread social connections operated at Australia’s doorstep over 2,500 years prior to colonisation. Entrepreneurial traders were traversing the entire south coast of PNG in sailing ships.

There is also archaeological evidence that suggests early connections between PNG and Australia’s Torres Strait Islands. Fine earthenware pottery dating to 2,600 years ago, similar in form to pottery arriving in the Gulf of Papua around that time, has been found on the island of Pulu. Rock art on the island of Dauan further to the north depicts a ship with a crab claw-shaped sail, closely resembling the ships used by Indigenous traders from PNG.

It is hard to imagine that Australia, the Torres Strait and PNG’s south coast were not connected.

The region termed the ‘Coral Sea Cultural Interaction Sphere’ where archaeology is gradually uncovering evidence of ancient interconnections.
Author provided

An unconventional trade

The trade itself was quite remarkable. When British colonists arrived in Port Moresby (now the capital of PNG) in 1873, some 130 kilometres from the start of the Gulf of Papua to the west, they wrote in astonishment of the industrial scale of pottery production for maritime trade by Indigenous Motu communities.

Each year, Motu women would spend months making thousands of earthenware pots. Meanwhile the men built large trading ships, called lakatoi, by lashing together several dugout hulls. The ships measured 15-20 metres long and had woven sails in the shape of crab claws.

In October and November, Motu men would load the pots into the ships and sail west towards the rainforest swamplands of the Gulf of Papua. The trade on which they embarked was known as hiri. The voyages were perilous, and lives were sometimes lost in the waves.

Rows of Motu pots ready for shipment to the Gulf of Papua. The pots are arranged on a beach situated in today’s Port Moresby region. Taken by Reverend William G Lawes in 1881-1891.
Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

When the men arrived – having sailed up to 400 kilometres along the coast – the Motu were in foreign lands. People living in the Gulf of Papua spoke different languages and had different cultural practices. But they were not treated like foreigners.

Sir Albert Maori Kiki, who became the Deputy Prime Minister of PNG, grew up in the Gulf of Papua in the 1930s. He described the arrival of the Motu in his memoirs:

The trade was not conducted like common barter […] the declarations of friendship that went with it were as important as the exchange of goods itself […] Motu people did not carry their pots to the market, but each went straight to the house of his trade relation, with whom his family had been trading for years and perhaps generations.

In exchange for their pots, the Motu were given rainforest hardwood logs from which to make new canoes, and tonnes of sago starch (a staple plant food for many people in Southeast Asia and across the island of New Guinea).

The Motu would stay in Gulf villages for months, waiting for the wind to change to carry them back home.

Quantity overtakes quality

Pottery has been traded into the Gulf of Papua for 2,700 years, but the trade grew larger in scale about 500 years ago. Archaeological sites of the past 500 years have much larger quantities of pottery than those before them. The pottery itself is highly standardised and either plain or sparsely decorated, in contrast with older sherds that often feature ornate designs.

In the past 500 years it seems that pottery makers valued quantity over quality: as greater quantities of pottery were traded into the Gulf of Papua, labour-intensive decorations gradually disappeared.

Fragments of a decorated earthenware bowl dating to within the past 500 years. Found in an excavation at Orokolo Bay (Gulf of Papua, PNG) in 2015.
Photographs by Steve Morton (Monash University)

We think this is when the hiri trade between the Motu and rainforest villages of the Gulf of Papua began in earnest.

The coming decades promise further findings that will help unravel the forgotten shared history of PNG and Indigenous Australia across the Torres Strait. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Indigenous Australia was not isolated from the rest of the world.The Conversation

Chris Urwin, Researcher, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Monash University; Alois Kuaso, Deputy Director for Science Research and Consultancy Division at the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery; Bruno David, Professor, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Monash University; Henry Auri Arifeae, Cultural Coordinator, Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, and Robert Skelly, Archaeologist, Monash University

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


Alcohol brewed from trees and other fermented drinks in Australia’s Indigenous history



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A sample of the Eucalyptus giunnii plant, sometimes called a cider gum for its ability to produce an alcoholic drink without human intervention.
Shutterstock/Modest Things

Vladimir Jiranek, University of Adelaide

There is no doubt that Europeans brought a culture of brewing and consuming alcohol during their early migration and colonisation of Australia.

But there is also evidence that Aboriginal people were already aware of fermentation processes to make beverages, in much the same way that many other cultures around the world have done for millennia.




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For example, social anthropologist Maggie Brady’s 2008 and 2014 work pulls together early European accounts of some Aboriginal practices. They involved the collection and production of sugar-rich solutions and extracts followed by an “incubation” to allow fermentation to occur.

I’m interested to know more about the nature, composition, flavour and aroma of the materials used in any Aboriginal fermentations, as well as the microbiology involved.

When members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (owners of the Trawtha Makuminya reserve) heard about this project, they kindly invited my research group to examine and sample Eucalyptus gunnii trees on their reserve.

A drink from sap

The Eucalyptus gunnii trees originate from the Central Highlands of Tasmania at about 1,000 metres above sea level. Perhaps the easiest material to use from these trees is the sap.

Dotted around frost hollows in poorly drained soils, prone to extreme cold, attack from animals and insect borers – presumably for the sugary bonanza they represent in their environment – the trees appear to cling to existence.

One subspecies (divaricata) is listed as endangered, and is apparently suffering the effects of climate change and grazing.

In the past, Aboriginal people tapped the trees to allow the sap, resembling maple syrup, to collect in hollows in the bark or at the base of the tree. Ever-present yeast would ferment the liquid to an alcoholic, cider-like beverage that the local Aboriginal people referred to as Way-a-linah.

The cider gums

The practice was adopted by the European settlers, such that when the species was described in 1844 for the first time by the British botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker it was already known as the cider tree or cider gum.

In the absence of any detailed investigation of cider gum sap and the indigenous microflora inevitably associated with it, work was initiated late in 2016 to collect samples for analysis and yeast isolation.

Considering the remoteness of the trees, it was hoped they would yield novel strains of known yeasts, if not new species. Over the course of two field trips to central Tasmania, some 20 trees scattered across three large reserve areas were sampled.

Given their endangered status, no tapping was performed, nor was any required given pre-existing flows via fissures in the bark or holes produced by boring insects.

The presence of exposed runs readily attracted insects and supported a microbial population evident from the distinct vinegar-like aroma detected as one approaches the trees.

About 130 samples of sap droplets on the trees or larger volumes from pools, bark and soil were collected.

Natural sugars

Compositional analysis revealed sugars such as glucose, fructose and maltose as well as several organic acids and alcohol (ethanol). Across the samples there were clearly differences in the extent to which they had already fermented.

Thus sugar contents ranged from trace to several hundred grams per litre, while ethanol ranged between 0-6% alcohol by volume. By comparison, a full strength beer or cider contains about 5% alcohol.

Clearly the indigenous microflora are capable of producing an alcoholic beverage without needing human encouragement.

Extraction of DNA from relevant samples, followed by sequence-based attempts to identify the fungal species present (yeast is a micro fungi) revealed a highly variable and complex microbial population with between 10% and 90% of all sequence fragments failing to align with a known fungal genome.

In some cases these unknowns will have arisen out of sequencing issues or limitations in online fungal genome sequence databases. But new species or genera of yeast are possible and at least new strains of known yeast are highly likely. Certainly the uniqueness and isolation of the source sites would suggest this.

Since the above sequencing approach only recovers DNA, effectively telling us what was in the samples, parallel efforts sought to recover living yeast by traditional microbiological culture methods. To date we have preserved a small subset only, but even this represents about 1,500 individual isolates.

All are undergoing sequence-based identification. It’s noteworthy that the typical beer/wine/baking yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is virtually absent, while so-called non-Saccharomyces species such as Hanseniaspora osmophilia and H. valbyensis predominate.

Previously isolated examples of H. osmophila have been linked to high sugar environments (e.g. dried grapes) and are able to produce ferments with up to 11.6% alcohol, well within the level anticipated in fermented cider gum sap.

Low temperatures

Interesting properties have already been observed including good growth at low temperatures – lower than is tolerated by non-Saccharomyces that are already sold for wine fermentation. Such cold tolerance makes sense given the very harsh winters that are common where cider gums are found.




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We are also looking to identify all recovered isolates. In some cases this has only been possible to a genus level – perhaps implying new species. In other cases no definitive identification could be made, suggesting entirely new species.

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The Conversation

As our work progresses we will publish our findings and report back to the Aboriginal communities that have supported the study. We have also begun to extend the study to other substrates as well as the anthropological and cultural significance of these unique fermentation practices.

Vladimir Jiranek, Professor in Oenology, University of Adelaide

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


The violent collectors who gathered Indigenous artefacts for the Queensland Museum



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Aboriginal protectors Walter Roth and Archibald Meston between them collected over 700 objects for the Queensland Museum.
State Library of Queensland

Gemmia Burden, The University of Queensland

Europeans collected a huge number of Aboriginal artefacts during the colonisation of Australia. These include weapons, bags, toys, clothing, canoes, tools, ceremonial items, and ancestral human remains. Many institutions that hold these items are repatriating them to Aboriginal people. While repatriation is important, what often goes unrecognised is the crucial part that collectors played in the violent dispossession of First Nations people.

My research is on the Queensland Museum’s collecting networks. Formed in 1862, the museum amassed a significant collection of Aboriginal artefacts over the following 60 years. Despite countless, undocumented interactions between makers, owners, collectors and curators, many of which were no doubt benevolent, frontier violence was a crucial aspect of the museum’s collecting.

Instances of grave robbing and body snatching as methods of collecting are not specific to Queensland. Many institutions in Australia and abroad have problematic acquisition histories, particularly in relation to the study of remains.

Activists have been agitating for the return of cultural materials for decades, and museums across Australia, including the Queensland Museum, have developed repatriation programs and policies. It works closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to prioritise the return of ancestral remains and sacred objects. But much material collected through violent means is still held in its collection.

While there is no evidence of the museum being directly involved in frontier killings, the use of the police, protectors, missionaries and frontier doctors as the dominant network of collectors implicates the museum as a passive beneficiary of dispossession.

In a response to The Conversation, the Queensland Museum said: “We believe these are important stories to be told and understood, and we recognise past hurts and are actively working to address these issues.

“Queensland Museum Network acknowledges that between the 1870s and 1970s, a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ancestral Remains, Burial Goods and Secret and/or Sacred Objects were acquired without consent or due regard to traditional lore and custom.”

Illustration of the new Exhibition Building at Bowen Park, 1891.
State Library of Queensland

Dispossessing and collecting

In the 1870s, police Sub-Inspector Alexander Douglas, noted for his role in violent dispersals of Aboriginal people, sent the Queensland Museum ancestral remains and burial goods. These had been stolen during punitive raids on Aboriginal people in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The following decade, Francis Lyons, a “pioneer resident of Cairns”, offered the museum mummified remains he had stolen during a retributive attack on Aboriginal people. In his accompanying correspondence he wrote:

They abandoned everything except the [remains] … and it was not until after a long and desperate chase, and when their lives were in imminent danger that the[y] … dropped it.

In many instances cultural items – mostly weapons and bags – were purchased from Aboriginal people. The museum issued its collectors with tobacco for payment, itself pointing to the power imbalance of frontier currency. Yet as both Lyons and Douglas’s cases show, items were also removed after Aboriginal people were forcibly dispossessed from their country, taken from the surface, and at times stolen following raids.

Inside Queensland’s first natural history museum, 1872, showing Aboriginal artefacts and images on the back wall.
State Library of Queensland

Some ancestral remains held by the museum were plundered from grave sites. Remains were dug up, stolen from caves, burial trees, and bags, depending on regional customs.

While these practices may have sat outside the bounds of European expectations of death and burial, the plunderers were acutely aware of the damage they were inflicting. One correspondent informed the museum in 1880 that exhuming the remains of a recently deceased man was “too much like desecrating unless it was in the interest of science”. The idea of contributing to scientific knowledge was used to justify these actions.

Remains were also plundered from massacre sites, often decades after the event, as well as former mission sites, and sent to the museum with the sanctioning of the police and protectors.

Remains were also taken from regional hospitals, at times with the approval of the Chief Protector, the government agent responsible for Aboriginal people. Rogue doctors stole others from post-mortem rooms. In 1885, for example, the remains of South Sea Island labourers were sent from the Polynesian hospital in Mackay with specific instructions to “make them look a little ancient”.

Empire and science

The emergence of racial science in the mid-19th century, combined with the British Empire’s expansion, drove the desire for Aboriginal artefacts. Objects were collected as anything from curiosities to scientific specimens, tendentiously used to “prove” European superiority.

With an interest in the “science of man”, the Queensland Museum’s curatorial staff maintained a network of collectors across the colony through relationships forged with (predominantly) men in remote locations. They included missionaries, journalists, station managers, doctors and public servants. A 1911 request targeted these networks, stating that “every effort” must be made in “acquiring those symbols of the life of the original Australian inhabitants whose rites, ceremonies, customs and traditions are becoming obsolete and being entirely lost to us”.

Plate from The Evolution of Culture, Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, 1906, Plate XII.

However, the most profitable collectors were the government agents regulating Aboriginal people’s lives. For example, from the 1870s, the police channelled material and information to the museum. The Native Police officers became particularly important contributors.

The museum exploited their violent methods of colonial policing and practices of “dispersal” – a euphemism for massacre – and the police themselves noted this role. Following his dismissal from the force, and five years after leading an attack on Aborignal people at Creen Creek, former Native Police officer William Armit wrote of ethnographic collecting that “no one can be more fortunately situated for such work than the Native Police officers”.

The passing of the 1897 Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act also led to increases in the museum’s acquisitions. Protectors, such as Northern and later Chief Protector Walter Roth and Southern Protector Archibald Meston, were active collectors. They became two of the museum’s largest donors with upwards of 700 items between them, both acquiring material through their official duties.

Collecting as violence

Apart from benefiting from the spoils of colonial violence, the act of collecting itself can be seen as violent. Structural violence – the social, cultural, legal, economic and political structures that marginalise groups – does not only cause physical harm, it also inflicts damage on the mind and spirit.

Collectors knew that taking ancestral remains from burial places would cause harm. Indeed one collector noted: “I feel repugnance to hurt their feelings willingly.” While procurement may have been void of direct violence, waiting for an old man to die in order to send his body to the museum, as in one case in 1915, was a malevolent act of indirect violence.

Taking materials from country also served Europeans in claiming possession, both emotional and physical, of the land. By removing Aboriginal people and culture, the invaders were writing their own narratives of ownership over the land. As settler colonies were built on the dispossession of Indigenous people, the removal of cultural materials became part of the appropriation of land.

The ConversationWhile repatriating Aboriginal cultural materials is undeniably important, we must also acknowledge the histories behind their collection. This is an important part of the repatriation process itself.

Gemmia Burden, Faculty Post-Thesis Fellow, Honorary Research Fellow in History, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland

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


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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