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




Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere, by Roy Hay, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2019, pp. x + 306, £64.99, ISBN: 978-1-5275-2648-8.


Book by Roy Hay



Review by Braham Dabscheck


The initial rules of that ‘game of our own’ called Australian (Rules) Football were ratified at a meeting held in Melbourne in 1859. It is generally believed that they were adapted from a version of rugby – the Cambridge rules – played in England. In recent decades there have been claims that Australian Football was in fact based on an Aboriginal football game called Marngrook. Under Marngrook a ball is formed from possum skins, kicked high in the air with the instep and players jumping in the air attempting to catch the ball, with the process being repeated, again and again, until players decide to do something else.


In Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century Roy Hay demolishes what he describes as the myth of Australian Football being based on this Aboriginal game. He is unable to find any evidence to support such a proposition. What he does, however, is document in extensive detail the involvement of Aboriginal people, beginning in the 1880s, in the game. Australian Football, and sport more generally, was a major source of agency for Aborigines as they struggled against the racist hegemony which engulfed them from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.


Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century is organised into two sections. The first is the presentation of empirical evidence. Roy Hay has worked his way through the Trove digitisation of newspapers by the Australian National Library to gather evidence of Aboriginal  football players. This material is subdivided into the playing of football and other games – mainly cricket, athletics and boxing – at different settlements/missions in Victoria, leading players and evidence of Aboriginal players in South and Western Australia. In doing so he has a keen eye for the way in which Aboriginal people were subject to the control of the state and both discriminatory and supportive treatment they received from whites. He also provides material on Aboriginal players, especially those “pioneers” who played in the major leagues of the respective states.


Hay uncovers names of more than 200 Aboriginal people who played in Victoria before 1914. Their names, and others who played over the years, are included in an extensive index which may be of interest to those wishing to conduct further research. Hay reveals the slow, ad hoc, evolutionary nature of the involvement of Aboriginal people with Australian Football. He documents their involvement from making up the numbers for a pick-up game, to forming teams of their own, competing in more regular annual competitions, winning premierships in country leagues and star players who found their way into leading leagues.


The second section, the last two chapters, is more thematic and makes a major contribution to sports historiography in Nineteenth Century Australia. Here Hay points to the fluid nature of the playing of football and sport more generally. There were a variety of ball games played in these years, with no formal rules being developed in either Australian Football, rugby or soccer until 1859/1860s. Hay uncovers a version of a game in Scotland which has the closest similarity to that adopted in Melbourne in 1859. With respect to Australian Football, the initial rules were regularly changed to make the game more exciting. In the early decades the game resembled a scrimmage more than the free-flowing game of modern times. Moreover, the “high mark” associated with Marngrook, did not come into the game in these early decades. For Hay this is another reason to dismiss the Marngrook hypothesis.


Hay’s major frustration is that he was unable to find any “voices” from Aboriginal people who played in the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century. It is his hope that future research, drawing on the oral tradition and knowledge of Aboriginal kinship groups, will yield more knowledge on this score. The extent of Hay’s research is most impressive. Not only the extensive material he has extracted from Trove but also a reading of a wide variety of other primary and secondary sources. He has also included 62 photos of various persons, teams and places which enhances the overall quality of his presentation.


Roy Hay’s major contribution is his focus on Aboriginal agency; how different generations of Aboriginal peoples found in Australian Football a way to make their own history in circumstances not of their choosing. Such agency presumably occurred in other sports – the 1868 Aboriginal cricket team that toured England (some of whom also played Australian Football), athletics (pedestrianism) and later Rugby League – the arts and other walks of life.



Braham Dabscheck

Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne


Roy Hay would love to hear from you – with stories. And also, if you would like to purchase the book.


Email Roy Hay HERE.



Read more about Roy’s book (includes purchase details):


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


  1. Thanks for this Braham. One to add to the list. Its a fascinating topic. But as you say the author’s frustration at not being able to find an aboriginal “voice” will always leave a hole in the history of aboriginal footballers to a degree.

Leave a Comment