Almanac Footy History: An aboriginal game? by Roy Hay

Good friend and Almanac member, well known historian Roy Hay, has recently published a book about the history of aboriginal involvement in football since the 19th century.


The following is an article that appeared in an abridged format in The Conversation last week introducing readers to the story behind the beginnings of aboriginal involvement in football since the mid 19th century.


An Aboriginal game?


Over the last weekend the Australian Football League celebrated the contribution of Aboriginal people to the story of the game. At the same time a new documentary shows how one of the modern Indigenous superstars of the game, Adam Goodes, was driven from it by prejudice and repeated denigration. Yet today Aboriginal people are over-represented in Australian football in relation to their share of the population of this country. How can we make sense of these contradictions and how did this come about?


A new book examines the long history of Aboriginal involvement in football since the game was codified in the middle of the nineteenth century. This is a story of courage, persistence and resilience in the face of sometimes overwhelming obstacles to their participation. By the 1860s the Indigenous population of Victoria had been reduced by settlers, disease, neglect and policy to a few thousand and most of these were in the remoter parts of the colony or in missions or stations under the control of the “protectors”.


In the second half of the century the survivors saw the white men playing their game and forced their way into it from the missions and stations, first as individuals, then forming teams and eventually taking part in and then winning local leagues. It was a triumph of the human spirit in the face of appalling adversity.


Raukkan team at Narrung 1886


This story can only be told because the deeds of these early generations of Indigenous players were reported in the sports pages of contemporary newspapers now digitised in the National Library of Australia’s wonderful Trove collection. For once, Indigenous deeds on the field were recounted, sometimes positively, when otherwise it was only ‘outrages’ by, or less often against, our original inhabitants that were reported. Aboriginal numbers were small and getting leave to compete from the missions and stations was often difficult and/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 Coranderrk in the Upper Yarra Valley near Melbourne, people from the station began playing regularly in the 1890s, forming a team to compete in local competitions involving Healesville, Lilydale and Yarra Glen. Dick Rowan was invited to play with the South Melbourne club in 1892, but when he sought permission to join the club for the following season he was refused by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines of Victoria. They said if they gave Rowan permission everyone else would want to follow him. In 1911, the Coranderrk team won the local league for the first time but could not field a team the following year as several of their players were recruited by other clubs.


Coranderrk Football


A similar story can be told for Framlingham, Lake Condah, Lake Tyers and above all Cummeragunja, where after suffering heavy defeats in the late 1880s, the team eventually became so strong that it won the Western and Moira League five times out of six, and was promptly handicapped because it was so good. They were not allowed to field players over the age of 25! In 1900 they ran rings around a strong Bendigo team and ran a Ballarat team close as well.


Lake Tyers in Gippsland followed a similar pattern before the First World War, but thereafter it became the receptacle for Indigenous people moved from other stations and missions around the state. As a result, there were sufficient young men of football playing age to form an extremely successful team, which won the East Gippsland League in 1934, 1938 and 1939.


Lake Tyers Aboriginal Team 1908


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 Melbourne teams, while individuals were not selected as a consequence of racial bias. There were a few exceptions, including Doug, later Sir Douglas, Nicholls from Cummeragunja, who later 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”.|||anyWords|||notWords|||requestHandler|||dateFrom=1935-06-01|||dateTo=1935-06-01|||l-advtitle=875|||sortby


My aim in writing this book was to show how the history of the game could be rewritten from contemporary sources, even the much maligned ‘colonial record’, the newspapers and other material of the day which tells about Indigenous people and their constructive responses to what happened to them after the European invasion. As Lawrence Bamblett argues: 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. Straight-line stories: representations and indigenous Australian identities in sports discourses


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



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  1. Keiran Croker says

    Thanks. I’ll look forward to reading this book.

  2. Dallas & Judi says

    Really fascinating history.

  3. Rod Oaten says

    Looking forward to getting a copy and having a good read.

  4. citrus bob says

    Thank you Roy
    I look forward to getting this book and using here in Mildura with my indigenous brothers and sisters and in doing so I ask people to have a look at a painting by Blandowski circa 1850 of indigenous youths playing footy on the banks of the Murray. Sorry that should read “MarnGrook”.
    There is still much to tell.

  5. There is indeed, Bob. I hope some your Indigenous brothers will pick up the trail and tell it from their perspective. Now to that Blandowski etching. Who says this is what became Australian football? That was not codified till later, so the reference point cannot be the Australian game. More likely close to the sort of keepy uppy the Scots and Irish had been doing for generations. When you get the book have a look at the description of the game they were playing at Glasgow University ‘and in Scotland generally’ in the 1820s onwards. It is described at length on page 245. That seems to have more of the hallmarks of what Tom Wills and his colleagues were planning. When they said ‘a game of our own’ this meant that it was not a carbon copy of any of the European games, but their own cherry-picked selection.
    But I hope people will concentrate on what happened after 1860, which is what the book is all about. There is a huge mass of material in the digitised newspapers and I have only scraped the surface.

  6. Thanks for this, Roy.
    I look forward to reading the book.

  7. Dr Rocket says

    Good work Roy!

    A very important work.

    Just wondering where it can be purchased in Australia?

  8. Readings in Carlton took a couple. Santo Caruso, formerly Melbourne Sports Books but now in Adelaide had one. Beyond that there is the Book Depository, but its price is ridiculous, as are Amazon and their Australian arm. We are having a launch at the MCC Library on 8 July. There is an eBook but it too is expensive. All I can suggest is trying to get your local library to order it through their suppliers who are all alerted to the book and should be able to get it quite quickly. I am am trying to persuade CSP to bring out an inexpensive paperback for the Australian market, so far with complete lack of success.
    Meantime if you log on to the link in the first paragraph of the article it will take you to the CSP website and if you hit View Extract you will get the prelims and the first 20 pages of the book which will give you little more of an idea of its contents.

  9. Many thanks for all of the above information, Roy. Will be very interested in this book.

  10. Rodney Gillett says

    Thanks Roy.

    And congratulations on doing this monumental research.
    I went in and read the extract.

    I’ll follow up on your suggestions.

    Have a successful launch!

  11. Book launch details. It will happen at the MCC Library on Monday 8 July at 12.30 pm. It is part of Melbourne’s Rare Book Week and at the current RRP it will be a rare book. If I have any of the ones I bought at author’s discount, I will have them for sale on the day at the lowest price possible.
    Greg de Moore, Col Hutchinson and possibly Rob Hess will be there to talk about the book and kindred matters, so it should be a pleasant occasion. Ring MCC Library on 03-9657-8876 if you are able to attend.

  12. Those of you who expressed an interest in the book but found the price beyond them may be tempted by a 60% discount on the RRP for July only. The cost of the book including UK postage is £32.50. You have to log in to the Cambridge Scholars Publishing website and add the promotional code BOMJUL19 at check out which will get you this price. At a straight rate of exchange calculation this works out at approximately $59.09. This is the link that will take you to the relevant page.

  13. Those of you who expressed an interest in the book when the hardback appeared earlier this year may be keener on the paperback edition which has just been published. If you like to email me at [email protected] or [email protected] I can supply you with the details.

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