Almanac Book Review: Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere  by Roy Hay

Almanac Book Review – Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere  by Roy Hay




One of the great moments in footy for me was Michael Long’s scintillating, and brilliant charge through the centre of the MCG to sensationally kick the first goal of the 1993 Grand Final against Carlton. 


As one, to a deafening roar from the crowd, the Essendon supporters rose,  not only to cheer the audacity of this inspirational act of individual football skill  but to acknowledge a feat by this great indigenous player that was over a hundred years in its making,  was nerve tingling to say the least.


Today, we stand in awe of the many indigenous footballers gracing our footy fields; to marvel at their amazing skills, and the unique abilities they bring to the game, and of course, to our culture. 


Incredibly, between 1906 and 1980 only 18 aboriginal players had played VFL football at the highest level, a surprising fact I’d assumed to be much higher. Since then the number has escalated and exploded as evidenced by the number of indigenous footballers playing AFL footy in 2019.


But what do we really know about the early beginnings of indigenous involvement in the game?


For example, can you name the first and only aboriginal player  to play  a senior Victorian football game in the 19th century? 


I can tell you he only played one game, and that was for Geelong in 1872. And, it’s not who the AFL claim it to be either!


The  answer to this question is one of many considered in Roy Hay’s new and captivating book, Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2PA, UK, 2019. ISBN: 9781527526488 Hardback, A5, 315 pages, illustrated. RRP £64.99. 


The book is a compelling rich, historical account that examines the fascinating evidence and intriguing insights of indigenous, as well as European, participation and development in the game since mid 19th century, to the game as we now know it today.


It is also a story of the plight of aboriginal life mainly in Victoria at the time; with all its prejudices, racism, and bigotedness, illustrated clearly for all to see, and unfortunately  still continues today.


Roy Hay states, his book “attempts to answer a series of simple questions that may have highly complex answers” (p271).


For example, what part, if any,  did indigenous people play in the development of the game of football during the first half of the 19th century, that was codified in Melbourne in 1859?


And, did marngrook, or any other aboriginal games in fact have any influence on the game’s development and origins of the code as is so often claimed?


Life on the settlements was harsh and strict, and sport was usually the only means by which indigenous people could escape these conditions, and even in some circumstances earn some money.


Watching the games and sports the white Europeans were playing, saw the indigenous people quickly learn the basics  of these activities, applying their natural athletic skills to wondrous levels.


There are many accounts within the book of incredible deeds and exploits performed by  aboriginals in cricket and football teams, as well as in the track and field arena, with perhaps the greatest of them all being Albert “Pompey” Austin. One admires and wonders at their unfailing tenacity to overcome the deliberately enforced hurdles placed before them due to their colour and culture to succeed as they did. 


As it is, this story can only be told from a white European perspective, not perfect suggests Hay but a story is there to be told anyway. 


As the primary sources for his research arise from the newspapers and government reports of the time, the bias or inferences contained within these sources generally have been perpetuated over time, and  in some cases, mythologised.  These, Hay suggests, may not adequately reflect any comprehensive understandings or sufficiently explain what actually was occurring  at the time. As Hay points out, this aspect was an important issue he needed to take into account when compiling this story from the sources  available to him for his research.  


Consequently, some of the beliefs developed about the origins of our game have become entrenched over time and they may not be what they seem. 


As such, Hay dispels them as myths explaining them away with plausible explanations and reasonings.


A good example is the fairly recent claim that football as we know it today developed from marngrook, an aboriginal activity Tom Wills supposedly watched being played in the Western District of Victoria, and later adapted by him as a basis for the development of the game, is not as clear cut as it has been made out to be as Hay explains in the book.


This book itself is a most remarkable journey Roy Hay has embarked upon. For a Scottish academic, now living in Australia to tell this unique story of aboriginal participation in footy is really quite  a remarkable feat in itself. 


The question I asked myself reading the book, and  for that matter, one the author himself asks, why Roy Hay?  Well, why indeed?


This book, he suggests, need not to have been written by him; rather,  it should be written by an indigenous person as seen through  aboriginal eyes, and from their perspective, telling their story of the role the indigenous population had in the development and history of the game. 


In time it will happen believes Roy Hay.


Roy Hay’s book is a most comprehensive, articulate and intelligent book that tells the unfolding story of indigenous participation in Australian rules football in a most precise and fulfilling manner that is a joy to read.


This is a fantastic book and long awaited for in its field!


Check out details for a special deal to purchase a copy of the book below.


Colin Ritchie



Roy Hay, Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2PA, UK, 2019. ISBN: 9781527526488 Hardback, A5, 315 pages, illustrated. RRP £64.99.


It is CSP’s Book of the Month for July 2019 and is available from the website below for £32.50 including postage or c. $59.09 (straight rate of exchange calculation as at 3 July 2019)


Use promotion code: BOMJUL19 <


The postage for a single copy of the book is £6.50 GBP, orders for 8 or more copies please order at or[email protected] where CSP offers discounted delivery.



Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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About Colin Ritchie

Retired teacher who enjoys following the Bombers, listening to music especially Bob Dylan, reading, and swimming.


  1. Thanks, Colin. I’m speechless.


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