Aboriginal players dominated early Australian cricket, leading them to be the nation’s first touring team. (Supplied: Harrow Discovery Centre)
The story of the First XI Aboriginal cricket team that toured England 150 years ago is a complex story, a landmark occasion marked by controversy.
They were the first Australian sporting team to tour internationally, catapulted to a brief fame before being relegated to relative obscurity.
Made up of Aboriginal stockmen who worked on cattle stations from the Western District of Victoria, the men were introduced to the game of cricket by their station owners.
What began as an entrepreneurial sporting venture, the landmark tour was marked by racism and tragedy.
Within five years of the returning from England many of the Aboriginal players had died.
Warning: The following story and videos contain images of deceased people.
Was this a shameless commercial venture at the expense of Aboriginal players with disastrous consequences? Or was it a landmark occasion in Australian sporting, social and political history?
According to psychiatrist and author Greg de Moore, this was one of the “most amazing” Australian stories.
“For me, it was the single most important cricket team in Australian history because of the team itself and how it was built,” he said.
Mr de Moore spent years researching his book about Australia’s first sporting star Tom Wills, the Aboriginal cricket team’s coach. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
For Indigenous Engagement Specialist at Cricket Australia, Paul Stewart, the tour “paved the way” for future international matches and played a significant role in the formation of Test Cricket between Australia and England 10 years later.
“We as Aboriginal people are proud that we’re the First XI to head over and play in England,” he said.
For others it was more of a “private venture” that formed an an “interesting sidebar” to the Australian cricket story that ultimately failed to make an impact or change.
“What it reveals is opportunity denied because there’s nothing built on it,” cricket historian Bernard Whimpress said.
Dr Whimpress said subsequent racial policies made it difficult to “build on those beginnings” with no Aboriginal players going on to play test cricket.
‘A time of healing in Australian history’
The first Australian sporting team to tour internationally played cricket in Surrey in 1868. (Supplied: Melbourne Cricket Ground)
While much of the impetus for the tour was financial it was more than a “money-grabbing exercise” that exploited the men, according to Mr de Moore.
“But I wouldn’t want to try to pretend overly romantically that there wasn’t an element of money-making involved — clearly there was,” he said.
Initially coached by Tom Wills, considered the greatest cricketer at the time, the players from Jardwadjali, Gunditjmara and Wotjobaluk tribes graced the MCG on Boxing Day 1866.
When the idea of a tour to England was born it was rocked by financial difficulty and arrests, eventually falling apart with Wills replaced by English cricketer Charles Lawrence who then led the team to play their first match in Surrey, England on May 25, 1868.
But it was Wills’ involvement, according to Mr de Moore, that symbolised “one of the great moments of healing in Australian history”.
Five years after Tom Wills’ father was killed in the largest massacre of Europeans by Aboriginals, a retribution which then eventually led to bloody repercussions on a mass scale for the Aborigines, Wills returned to Victoria from Queensland to lead the Aboriginal cricket team.
“It does say that something good can come of tragedy,” Mr de Moore said.
It was more than cricket that left its impact on the English audience.
Part of the 19th century tradition of bringing what was referred to as ‘exotic’ elements to Europe, the Aboriginal team were considered objects of curiosity by some.
Names of the First Australian XI cricket team members were derived from the stations the men worked on. (Supplied: Melbourne Cricket Ground)
The team entertained crowds with boomerang and spear throwing and one team member, Jungunjinanuke, also known as ‘Dick a Dick’, used a club and shield to meet the cricket ball thrown by volunteers.
“The idea of showing what was around in the Empires, to the colonial masters at home,” Dr Whimpress said.
‘The Times’ went so far as to describe them as a “travestie upon cricketing at Lords”.
While Mr de Moore conceded the tour exposed the dark elements of racism and exploitation with the players receiving a form of “zoological curiosity” he said it was a complex story marred by both successes and failures.
“I think there was genuine interest, curiosity, and threads of humanity that really coursed through that tour,” Mr de Moore said.
The disparaging terms used to describe players slowly shifted to respect and admiration as the “real skill” was acknowledged.
“Gradually they became our Aborigines, our Victorian Aborigines, and they became if you like part of that Victorian culture and you see that change in terminology,” Mr de Moore said.
He said some discussion in the newspapers turned to the use of assigned names for the players and the decimation of the Aboriginal population.
“So, to say that all the reaction, all the perception, all the curiosity was driven by racism would be totally wrong,” Mr de Moore said.
Despite the skill of the players, tragedy was an ever-present theme on tour, with sickness and death accompanying the players for the entirety.
Unamurrimin, also known as ‘H.Jellico’, and Bilvayarrimin, also known as ‘Watty’, died before the tour.
During the tour Bripumyarrimin’s, also known as ‘King Cole’, health deteriorated leading to his eventual death of tuberculosis.
Yellanach known as ‘Johnny’ Cuzens, Arrahmunijarrimun known as ‘Peter’ and Ballrin known as ‘Sundown’ all died within five years of returning.
It was an exposure to a “multitude of elements” that contributed to the death of the players.
“A lifestyle that must have dislocated their sense of who they were, where they fitted in the world, over and above all those factors such as alcohol and infectious diseases,” Mr de Moore said.
“For the Aboriginal team going to London from western Victoria that would be like you and me travelling to Jupiter.”
Unaarrimin was one of the most stand out players and continued to play cricket until a few months before his death, a day after he turned 50. (Supplied: Melbourne Cricket Ground)
Johnny Mullagh tour statistics
- Played 45 matches on the 1868 tour of England
- Bowled 1877 overs, garnering 245 wickets and 831 maidens
- Made 1698 runs at an average of 23.45
- Top score of 94
The 47 matches with 14 wins, 14 losses and 19 draws, Mr Stewart described it as one of the most gruelling of tours.
“I don’t think you could find another team that could do that in that period of time,” he said.
“To achieve what they did is amazing, under the conditions they had to endure.”
‘Extraordinary window of time’
With all their success the team returned home to little fanfare.
After a few matches at the MCG most of the players returned to their stations with the exception of Unaarrimin also known as ‘Johnny Mullagh’ who went on to play for Western Victoria for 20 years and Yellanach who had a brief stint as a cricket player.
“In fact, what happened was that despite this chance for development the opposite happened,” Mr de Moore said.
“There was almost a contraction of Aboriginal men playing cricket.”
Despite travelling all the way to England, the Aboriginal Protection Act, which came into effect a year later regulated the lives of Aboriginal people including restricting their movements.
“Had that Protection Act been in place the tour would not have occurred,” Mr Whimpress said.
It was an “extraordinary window in time” when the tour occurred according to Mr de Moore.
Not all about the baggy green
While there is disagreement about whether or not the tour is the origin of the Australian cricket story it took until the 20th century for three Aboriginal fast bowlers to emerge in the form of Jack Marsh, Albert Henry and Eddie Gilbert — all heavily discriminated against.
While they played state cricket, they never played for Australia.
It wasn’t until 1958 that Faith Thomas, then Jason Gillespie in 1996 played for Australia.
“[The tour] doesn’t actually lead anywhere but it’s important to know it happened,” Mr Whimpress said.
Mr Stewart disagreed and said with two genders playing in three formats the “floodgates” were opening with the likes of Indigenous players D’Arcy Short, Dan Christian, Ash Gardner and Scott Bowland.
“We’re not just going to hang our hat on the baggy green,” he said.
Instead Cricket Australia was focussed on driving participation with the younger age group.
“In getting more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys and girls playing the game,” Mr Stewart said.
Likewise, Mr de Moore believed the tour offered something of “real value” that had taken 150 years to incubate.
“It tells a lot about ourselves and it tells a lot about Aboriginal history,” he said.