Almanac Book Review – “Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin: A man between two worlds” by Roy Hay.

Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin: A man between two worlds

Roy Hay, Sports and Editorial Services Australia, Bannockburn (Victoria), 2020, pp. x + 265, $29.95 (paper), ISBN (13): 978-0-9946-0194-0.




In 2019 Roy Hay published Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century. It provides information on more than 200 Aboriginal people who played the game in Victoria prior to World War I. In a review published in The Footy Almanac on May 3, 2020, I wrote that its major contribution was its uncovering of Aboriginal agency, of ‘how different generations of Aborigines found in Australian football a way to make their own history in circumstances not of their choosing’.


Hay continues this theme with the release of Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin: A man between two worlds.


Can you please note the phrase, ‘a man between two worlds’, the implications of which will be explored in the latter part of this review? ‘Pompey’ Austin was a champion athlete in 1870s and 1880s Victoria. He was the first Aboriginal man to play for a senior Australian Rules Football team when he turned out for a game with Geelong against Carlton in 1872. He made his name, being widely reported in the press, in athletic (running and jumping) competitions in mainly rural Victoria. He also played cricket, was possibly a boxer, racehorse owner and jockey. Hay maintains that ‘Pompey’ Austin was ‘one of the greatest sporting all-rounders of the century.’


Hay’s object is to rescue ‘Pompey’ Austin from obscurity and to encourage others, especially Aboriginal peoples, to conduct further research on him and other Aboriginal people involved in sport. Hay laments the lack of archival sources concerning the circumstances of ‘Pompey’s’ sporting activities, and life more generally, and being forced to rely on records of colonisers of Australia/Victoria. Hay has assiduously scoured written records and has drawn heavily on the Trove collection of newspapers held by the Australian National Library. While lamenting the lack of resources he then proceeds to produce 336 extensive notes over 27 pages, plus other bibliographic material. Does the man ever sleep?


Information is provided on the broader historical context of the devastation that was wrought on Aboriginal peoples and their almost extinction by colonisers. In 1869, only 62 Aboriginal persons were in the Western District of Victoria. Hay provides details on ‘Pompey’ Austin’s family, his parents, wife, children and grandchildren, his sporting and other activities, his run ins with the law (mainly with stealing horses), a brief stint as an explorer in the Kimberleys in Western Australia and his death. The presentation is enlivened with the reproduction of contemporary photos and paintings of persons and places and other memorabilia.


At a minimum, Hay provides an account of the origins and evolution of a number of sports in Victoria and interactions between Aboriginal people and colonisers in different sporting arenas. He also draws attention to the important role that sport played in rural and regional areas, away from narratives with their traditional focus on events in Melbourne.


Hay says:
“Pompey straddled two very different worlds as they collided in the mid-nineteenth century western Victoria, where the impact on Indigenous people was devastating. His response was to take on the white men literally at their own games and at their own cultural activities and demonstrate by his prowess that he could match them in both.”


In the final chapter Hay examines whether or not he is an ‘appropriate person’ to write about an Aboriginal man; that this is a task best left to Aboriginal people to perform? His basic answer is that anyone can conduct research on anything that interests them, and the test is the ‘usefulness’ or ‘insightfulness’ of such research. In reaching this conclusion he is hopeful that descendants of ‘Pompey’ Austin and other Aboriginal researchers will produce work which will displace the value of his research.


Roy Hay like ‘Pompey Austin’, and the rest of us for that matter, find ourselves trying to ‘straddle two different worlds’, that of Aboriginal peoples and colonisers. Following early decades where the colonisers drove out and killed off Aboriginal people, Australia operated on a system of apartheid where the ‘two worlds’ were separated from each other. It was only in the ‘outer regions’, both geographically and culturally that they intersected or there arose the ‘task’ of straddling. These rules no longer apply. Australia is in the process of trying to reconcile and make meaning of these two worlds.


This is a task that Roy Hay has confronted and mastered in his biography of Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin. Hay has also demonstrated the positive role that sport can play; of why sport is so important. It provides a space where those of us from different worlds can interact and focus on what we have in common rather than that which we think, or are told, divides us. Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin: A man between two worlds is an important book about Australia and the ongoing, neverending quest to give effect to our humanity.




Read more from Roy Hay HERE


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  1. I have just started reading this. Looking forward to it

  2. Kevin Densley says

    I look forward to getting stuck into my copy too, Roy!

  3. Very perceptive review Braham particularly on the appropriation issue.

    The other appropriation issue that you have inadvertently raised is in relation to Roy’s book on Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the 19C in this review is a geographic one..

    The aboriginal mission, Cummerangunja, where Dir Doug Nicholls was raised, is located in NSW albeit on the banks of the Murray River opposite Barmah.

    Looking forward to reading this latest book.

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