Tom Wills – what happens now?


Tom Wills



Over the weekend, the ABC posted on its website an article titled ‘Research Discovery Suggests AFL Pioneer Tom Wills Participated in Massacres of Indigenous People’. Russell Jackson’s article is based on a report found in the Chicago Tribune in 1895 in which writer ‘G’ uses quotes attributed to Wills that he was a member of a party that hunted down and slaughtered hundreds of Aboriginals in reprisal for the murder of his father and others in outback Queensland, in 1861, a few years after Wills co-wrote the first rules of what would become Australian Football.


My purpose is not to critique or debate the veracity of Jackson’s article, or to clear or destroy Wills’ reputation.


But what happens now? What do we do with this?


What does the AFL do?




Hope the story gets lost in the Grand Final week noise?  Prays that  a commercial media organisation with a larger audience doesn’t run with it?


Something, perhaps? Gil declares ‘we’re looking into it’, then hands the investigation over to the Integrity Department.


Or he may go full throttle the other way.


Wills might be cancelled. Edited from Australian sporting history. Removed from the Australian Football Hall of Fame; his statue quietly taken down from outside the Members at the MCG.


Stain gone.


Premier Andrews may weigh in, labelling Wills as ‘that person’, as he did Margaret Court.


Or can the allegations against Wills be handled altogether differently?


I ask this with trepidation. Is it my place – white, middle-aged, male – to ask?


There are far more qualified people to ponder this – elders, community leaders, descendants.


Like all nations, we’re on a journey to somewhere.


In our current form we are young, still learning our identity, evolving, hopefully heading towards reconciliation, equality, treaty.


Revisionist history, with its fresh perspectives, knowledge and understanding, is crucial to this journey.


But, we need to be prepared for what we learn because a lot of it is painful.


Can we accept who we are, and what has gone before us, without eliminating those who have failed, or discarding those who think and live differently? If not, how do we avoid becoming fractured, hysterical and polarised?


History is the story of the human condition. There’s no magic to it. It’s as simple and complicated, beautiful and tragic, peaceful and violent as that.


Will we reach a point as a nation where we can sit with both the good and the bad and understand, if not be comfortable, with who we are? And instead of taking down Tom Wills’ statue, could another plaque be attached to its base, explaining his role in the Frontier Wars, if indeed, he had one?



To read other articles about Tom Wills on The Footy Almanac click here.



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  1. Thanks for raising this Andrew. I think your last 2 paras are particularly appropriate and nuanced.
    One of my pet peeves is judging the past by the standards of today. As a behaviouralist I think we are all fundamentally shaped by the times and our family and social environment.
    I read Jackson’s article and I have read Greg De Moore’s biography of Tom Wills. I found it riveting. One of the great books where Australian sporting and cultural history meet. I’m not an academic historian but a lasting impression from Greg’s book was how much Tom (for all his many weaknesses) was accepting of indigenous people given the horror he had seen first hand and the trauma from the death of his father and work colleagues.
    An obvious example was his fostering of indigenous cricketers in the western districts of Victoria culminating in the celebrated tour of England in 1868. Was Tom in it for a quid? Undoubtedly – but whose motives are entirely pure – and he had done plenty of leg work earlier on with no promise of reward.
    Was Wills a SNAG? Far from it. But in the context of the times – let alone his personal experience – he was amazingly forgiving.
    This was my Twitter comment to Hamish Neal and Russel Jackson when his ABC story was linked:
    “So his father & station hands were killed while he was in town getting supplies. And he got angry & MAYBE took revenge. Hands up all those who wouldn’t want revenge? Brutal times with blacks protecting land & whites seeking opportunity. Move on. Not news.”
    Was it reasonable for Russell to note the historical find – however flimsy and inconclusive? Yes. What does it say about Wills and the historical origins of white settlement and black resistance that any thoughtful person didn’t already know? Nothing.
    Wills personal demons and alcoholism undoubtedly haunted him to an early impoverished grave. But his unique experience as a gifted sportsman and English posh school education enabled him to carve Australian football out of rugby, soccer, marngrook and the wide open space of 1850’s Australia.
    Move on. Nothing to see here. Just fodder for both political extremes.
    Maybe Tom’s Demons will be laid to rest on Saturday.

  2. Paddy Grindlay says

    De Moore writes that Wills wanted retribution. With his research so extensive, I was half-expecting to find some reported evidence reading his book. Yes we can’t judge the past on future ideals seamlessly. But it’s still mightily significant. I felt sick reading that Wills had rode down a man wearing one of his jackets, and had thus ’emptied the whole six barrels of [his] revolver into him’.
    Football has got a significant amount from Marn Grook in it, whether Wills’ game originates entirely from Rugby School or had elements of Marn Grook in it from the beginning. It doesn’t matter, because it does now. This revelation sets up a discussion on football being stolen as well, like the land we live on. A cultural artifact removed by colonisation, used by a man who killed Aborigines and called good for eons after. Football will now be linked to genocide – and always has been, in a way. But this is unchangeable history, and was always true, like as not. I feel defeated as Wills seemed like a man who had elements of reconciliation and decent humanity at heart, as least as we see it defined now. Maybe football was a last bastion, a symbol of black and white history, togetherness that tried to ward off colonisation, racism, colonialism etc. Not effectively, obviously, but it made an effort! It could be still, nowadays, but history cannot be ignored and it’s pretty evident in this case. Wills still captained an Indigenous team of cricketers after this, but that doesn’t make up for murder, regardless of it being retributive or not. It’s a conversation Aus football hasn’t had to deal with quite as much, and now will have to deal with. The game is now looked at through a different light, because of where it came from.
    So where does the discussion start…I think you’re onto something Andy.
    “Will we reach a point as a nation where we can sit with both the good and the bad and understand, if not be comfortable, with who we are? And instead of taking down Tom Wills’ statue, could another plaque be attached to its base, explaining his role in the Frontier Wars, if indeed, he had one?”
    I like the suggestion here best. Without Wills, we wouldn’t have this game. Without Wills, those people would not have been butchered. Both stories are true. To say it is not news, and move onto the current action is, I think, misunderstanding the point.

  3. Wow, this is a doozy. Clearly the AFL have to own it. I agree, this occurred in an age of Frontier Wars, so context and perspective are layers to weigh in, but they’ll undoubtedly be a faction who’ll argue otherwise. I can see this erupting into a firestorm.

  4. More likely two factions. But don’t doubt for a moment that there’ll be more than enough ‘weighing in’ for everybody.

  5. Here are the difficulties with which I am grappling: “quotes attributed to Wills”, “Chicago Tribune 1895”.
    I am not doubting that T Wills was capable of committing such an atrocity in an act of vengeance, but I would be hesitant to be part of a Wills cancellation movement on the basis of this evidence.

  6. Messy one. No point condemning Tom Wills using the values of 2021. Let’s look at this in a nuanced way.

    We’re aware of the case here with a massacre of men, women & children, followed by further slaughter of those deemed the perpetrators: violence begets violence. This was a time where the consensus of civilisation, discovery, preceded a concept like Terra Nullius. The European invaders were clear there were people on this land but they weren’t considered the equal of white Europeans. Thus dispossession, genocide were acceptable for the Europeans as they brought their Christian values to these new lands. The Spanish, French, Dutch, British were all complicit in this approach to empire building.

    We are aware of Wills father being killed, along with many who would not have been capable of protecting themselves. It’s a pretty unpleasant setting. Tom Wills actions were very much in keeping with the values of the time. However he also showed himself capable of moving beyond those values. His work with, his support of, and promotion of Indigenous cricketers shows a level of respect phenomenal for this time. Whilst he clearly accepted the brutality of the Australian frontier as part of ‘civilising’, discovering, he also was a leader in reconciling aspects of White/Black Australia. Wills is not a one dimensional character. As the French philosopher Alain Badiou says: “one always divides into two.”

    Truth telling is important for Australia as we move into our future, truth telling lets us know where we’ve come from. If there is proven erroneous behavior from Tom Wills , or any other figure from our history, we call it out, but there are people who want to trot out the ‘cancel culture’ for something that may have happened is not a nuanced approach to a complex issue


  7. A powerful and compelling article by Martin Flanagan.
    Russell Jackson and the ABC (predictably) took a tiny part of the Chicago Times 1895 belated fantasy to fit their left wing “cancel culture” agenda. Anyone who read Greg De Moore’s extensively researched biography knew Tom didn’t fit into any simplistic narrative. He was a man who suffered trauma; rose above it but never beyond it.

  8. In my opinion, the four articles about Tom Wills that I have read recently represent a new low in Australian journalism. I don’t say that lightly. I say it because there has either been appalling ignorance about the events surrounding the Cullin-la-ringo massacre or a wilful attempt to conceal key facts. The most significant fact is to do with who was murdered. The ABC article talks about Horatio Wills and 18 other settlers. One Conversation article only mentions Horatio Wills; the other talks about Horatio Wills and 18 other “pastoralists”. Who were these pastoralists? There were 3 women (one of them 19yo), 3 younger children and 2 babies. Why were they murdered? Because a squatter unrelated to them had earlier killed an Aboriginal man or men in the same general area. Who murdered them? At least 50 men who had gathered at their camp. How were they murdered? By being repeatedly struck with nulla nullas. Why were Horatios party unable to defend themselves? Some apparently were armed with hand guns but Horatio Wills had locked the rifles away because he believed that he could humour any “hostile blacks”. What happened later? At least two posses went out and killed many Aboriginal people. Is there any wonder that Wills rode with the first posse? Who wouldn’t? Is there any evidence that Wills killed any Aboriginal people? None I have seen, but he may well have. Want to read more? Search Cullin-la-ringo massacre in Wikipedia. BTW, the Maria massacre of shipwreck victims on the Coorong coast in 1841 had a greater toll (25 men, women and children).

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