Sport, race and colonialism
Review by Phil Shannon
By Martin Flanagan
Allen & Unwin, 1998
181 pp., $16.95 (pb)
Tom Wills is regarded as "the father of Australian football". Modern Australian Rules owes a lot to this Victorian sporting champion of the mid-19th century, but many elements of the distinctive style of play — the high mark, no off-side rule and the pairing of players across the whole ground — owe much to a traditional game played by the Aborigines with whom Wills had an important but complex relationship.
As Melbourne football journalist and writer Martin Flanagan describes in his semi-biographical re-creation of Wills' life, this member of the colonial establishment was atypical in his acceptance of Aborigines.
In an isolated settlement in south-west Victoria in the 1840s, Wills played with, and spoke the language of, the children of the Djabwurrung tribe.
He captained an "Australian native XI" against the Melbourne Cricket Club in 1866. He coached the Aboriginal cricketers who made the historic tour of England in 1868. He made the high mark and other features of Aboriginal football part of Australian Rules.
Yet Wills was nearly a victim of the settlers' racist land wars against Aboriginal Australia. He survived, through a fortunate absence, the mortal fate of his father and 17 others on their sheep station in central Queensland in 1861. The station was attacked by the local Aboriginal tribe, which had been wrongfully accused and attacked for sheep-stealing.
Wills, bewildered and upset, vowed revenge. But he kept his six-shooters holstered while the colonial authorities in command of the Native Police exacted revenge with a raid that slaughtered 70 blacks.
The Queensland Aborigines who attacked the Wills sheep run were not "the defeated people" that Wills grew up with in Victoria in the 1850s.
The Victorian Aboriginal population had been reduced by 90% by the time Wills left for Rugby school in England in 1850. Whole tribes had been made extinct through shooting, smallpox, syphilis and Aboriginal women made infertile through gonorrhoea. Many Queensland Aboriginal tribes, however, had not been subdued, and Wills returned gratefully to Victoria.
Five years later, however, Wills was coaching the "native XI" in cricket. His forgiveness was atypical of the period.
Wills, a product of the ex-convict bourgeoisie, was sports-obsessed. In London, at the wealthy Rugby school (an army barracks with intellectual pretensions, famous for its ideology of "muscular Christianity"), Wills was captain of the cricket XI. Back in Australia he became star bowler, batter and secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club.
Wills was concerned that the middle class (the only class with the leisure time and money for expensive cricket equipment) should be kept fit for their station in colonial society. This included their imperial responsibilities for waging war in defence of the British empire.
Cricket, he said, equipped them with "a firm heart, a steady hand, a quick eye", learned from "so courageously facing the leather sphere" and thus removing any "fear of the crack of the rifle" from Britain's enemies.
To ensure readiness for manly defence of the empire at all times, Wills proposed that cricketers should be kept fit during the winter months. English rugby was too injurious, especially on hard Australian grounds, so Wills eliminated hacking (kicking an opponent's shins) and scrimmaging, and devised the more open, flowing game of Australian Rules.
In doing so he calling on his knowledge of the Aboriginal game called "marn-grook" ("game-ball") by its indigenous practitioners.
Just as Wills was regarded as one of the finest cricketers in Australia, he went on to achieve distinction in the new code of football, winning Champion of the Colony (the predecessor of AFL's Brownlow medal) three times.
Wills lived for sport and died without it. In retirement, he found the emptiness of his existence unendurable, and plagued by alcohol dependency and visions of phantoms from the traumatic Aboriginal war in Queensland, he committed suicide in 1880, at the young age of 45.
Flanagan, a writer of grace, sensitivity and historical vision, has woven a striking miniature tapestry of biography, sport and Australian history. Against a background of sombre reflections on the crimes of the settlers and the colonial establishment — from the genocidal abuse of Aborigines to the repression of rebels such as Ned Kelly and those at Eureka Stockade — Flanagan imaginatively probes into the complex person of Tom Wills as a member of the colonial elite but with an ambiguous relationship with Aboriginal Australia.
Wills lived for football and cricket but did not let "race" interfere with these passions. "He even played with the blacks", wrote one newspaper in obituary, with a hint of shock and censure. Today's football fans, and proponents of racial acceptance, should be glad he did.