Letters to the editor | September 11, 2017

An answer for Dennis on the early days of football

MARTIN Flanagan published an article in The Age in 2008, criticising Gillian Hibbins’ assessment that no convincing evidence had been produced in support of the idea that Melbourne Football Club rules were influenced by Indigenous games such as marngrook.

In the subsequent debate on Flanagan’s blog, “Dennis from Dimboola” asked why people in the Wimmera might believe that football was an Aboriginal game.

As he said:

“What prevents me from accepting the academic view is this: Maurice Marks from Dimboola was the only Aboriginal player in the Wimmera league of the late ’60s and people used to say, ‘he ought to be good, it’s their game’ and I don’t recall anyone ever challenging it – even though we were in the guts of Wills’ territory, Edenhope’s half an hour away, we’re among old men whose fathers knew Wills personally and it’s hardly an atmosphere of racial generosity. Yet, when the game these white blokes live for is attributed to blackfellas, it goes unchallenged.

“So where did the good people of the Wimmera pick up that baseless rumour? It certainly wasn’t from Martin Flanagan. Did they read it in their paper? Apparently not as the historians say there’s no evidence.

“I’m not expecting any Dead Sea Scrolls to turn up and resolve it so the ‘historically accurate’ version will prevail lest we’re ditching science, but that ‘accurate’ view has got some gaping holes in it. Perhaps those same historians can now turn their attention to why so many people would choose to believe such a thing when there’s no obvious grounds to do so.”

I thought then that Dennis deserved an answer but at the time, I could not offer one. Now I can.

I have been researching the early history of football in Victoria for some time. It has become clear to me that there is an untold story.

Aboriginal people from the Ebenezer Moravian Mission learned the game there and played for Dimboola, Jeparit and Antwerp in local competitions in the second half of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century.

There were very few of them and so they took part as individuals because it was much more difficult to form full teams to play on a regular basis. They often were the star players and some of them were paid for playing both football and cricket.

‘Half-castes’ from the mission did not work because as professional sportsmen they were supported by the cricket and football clubs at Jeparit, according to the manager, H.P.Bogisch in 1902 (Reference: H.P. Bogisch, 38th Report of the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines, Melbourne, 1902, page 13). 

The good folk of the Wimmera could and did read about Aboriginal players in their local papers. Some of these folks played with and against them in 1892.

The Horsham Times wrote on June 3, 1892: “Out of the 20 men picked to represent the Horsham club in their match against Dimboola on Wednesday, only 11 men turned up. These with two more and a boy picked up at the railway station (making in all 14) journeyed to Dimboola, where they were faced by a full team, including some Aboriginals who played splendidly.” 

The Horsham Times wrote on June 10, 1892: “On Wednesday afternoon the Horsham Federals journeyed to Dimboola and played the local club in one of the rounds for the Meredith Trophy. The Feds took a very strong team, the only absentees being J. Smith and Davey, while a large number of supporters accompanied them. Recognising the strength of their opponents, Dimboola put their best 20 on the field, included in which were three of the Aboriginals from the Mission Station, who played a smart game.” 

In the first match of the season in the Dimboola-Gerang-Antwerp-Tarranyurk competition in 1914, the Dimboola Banner and Wimmera and Mallee Advertiser wrote on June 9, 1914 that: “Antwerp opened with the four Aboriginals on the ball in the second term, and they started off with some good open work, and playing to each other had Dim on the defensive for a time … [The Aboriginals] were prominent for their side and were responsible for Antwerp getting in front.”

Pelham Cameron, who died in August 1932 at 79, the son of a Wimmera squatter, was a star footballer, cricketer and rower in his youth in Dimboola (Reference: Richard Broome, Aboriginal Victorians: A History since 1800, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005, pp. 200 & 210, citing Herald, Melbourne, 11 August 1932; Muswellbrook Chronicle, 23 August 1932, page 3). 

So despite their tiny numbers by this time and their locations around the periphery of Victoria, Aboriginal footballers had forced their way into the white men’s game and showed that they could more than hold their own.

This may be why people in the Wimmera believe that the game had a growing Indigenous influence, not because they invented the game or the white men copied marngrook, but because local Aboriginals managed to take it up and eventually take it over in some places.

I wonder if Dennis is still around and whether he would like to get in touch with me via the Wimmera Mail-Times.

I will be in Horsham on September 13 and 14 seeking more evidence in support of the story briefly told above.

Roy Hay, Bannockburn

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