From where football came...
"The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played. One makes a ball of possum skin, somewhat elastic, but firm and strong. The players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it and at the same time kicks it with his foot.
"The tallest men have the best chances in this game. Some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it.
"This continues for hours and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise."
THIS is what Richard Thomas, Protector of Aborigines in Victoria (1841) wrote of a game he was eye-witness to. It is believed this game, Marngrook -- a traditional Aboriginal ball game played for millennia in what is now western Victoria -- provided the first lawmakers of football with some of the fundamentals of the game millions know and love as Australian rules football.
However, opinion across the footy-loving Australian public is divided as to Marngrook's contribution to this great game of ours. Aboriginal-Football -- ensconsed in the camp which accepts the Marngrook connection -- presents various works on the subject to help you come to your own conclusion, beginning with academic Jim Poulter's September 2007 paper on the subject (presented below).
Marn-Grook's contextual link to Aussie Rules
Academic, author, historian
HAVING been a student at Scotch College in the 1950s, I had always been fully aware of the reputed origins of Australian Football. It was a matter of proud tradition for the school that in 1858 over three weekends on 7th and 21st of August and 4th of September, Scotch and Melbourne Grammar played a mass game of football at Jolimont Park, the site of where the MCG now stands. The game was played with 40 or more students on each side and was umpired by Tom Wills, who is universally acknowledged as the founder of Australian Football.
Barely 23 at the time of the Scotch-Melbourne Grammar games, Wills was a commanding character and Victoria's first true sporting icon. Born on August 19, 1835, he and his family had settled in Victoria's Western District in 1840, at a time when it was at the very frontier with Aboriginal tribal life. Wills spent the rest of his childhood in the Western District and became inured in tribal ways. Family letters reveal he learned the local Aboriginal language to a level of fluency that was applauded by local tribal people. His demonstration of Aboriginal songs and dances to family guests was so skilled that it was obvious he was closely familiar with tribal culture and practices.
At the age of 14, around early 1850, Tom Wills was sent to Rugby School in England to complete his education. Over the next seven years Tom did not distinguish himself academically nearly as much as on the sporting field. He not only captained the school football and cricket teams, but also played County cricket with such flair with both bat and ball, that he was under the eye of the All England selectors. They were no doubt greatly disappointed to see such a bright new talent return to the Antipodes in 1856, when he was barely 21 years old.
However, in the nearly seven years Tom Wills had been away, life in the colony had changed dramatically. Not only had Victoria achieved self-government in 1851, but by about the same time tribal aboriginal life had also been fully extinguished throughout the colony, save for the arid north-west fringe in the Mallee. Tribal lands therefore virtually no longer existed. Those surviving the dispossession, dispersal and disease had been herded onto Reserves or otherwise lived in poverty on the urban fringes.
This virtual extinguishment of tribal life had also been markedly hastened by the gold rush that began in 1851. By the time of Wills' return at the end of 1856, the gold rush had already made Melbourne the richest city in the British Empire, and had expanded its population to half a million people. Only one obstacle remained in the confirmation of Victoria's burgeoning sense of identity; it had never beaten 'the older colony', New South Wales, at cricket.
Barely a week after stepping off the boat from England in late 1856, Tom Wills' prowess as both a bowler and a batsman was the talk of the colony. He quickly perceived that the fitness of local cricketers was the first factor that needed to be rectified if they were to beat New South Wales. He suggested that the cricketers should be active in the winter by playing football, but that it should be 'a game of our own'. So on July 10, 1858, he wrote a letter published in the sporting magazine Bell\'d5s Life, calling for the establishment of football clubs.
A number of trial games, such as that between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar, generated great public enthusiasm, so on May 19, 1859, Tom Wills convened a meeting at Bryant's Hotel. It was here that the basic rules of Australian football were then drafted by Wills, WJ Hammersly, TH Smith and JB Thompson. After this, Tom Wills plus in particular his cousin Colden Harrison and Thompson, set about marketing the game to the colonial public. Indeed, so cleverly was this done that within three years it become the major spectator attraction in Melbourne and had even spread to other States.
In marketing it as 'a game of our own' Tom Wills and his compatriots first of all appealed to colonial pride and patriotism. They then reinforced this by actively denigrating the game of rugby as a vicious mauling scrum with little skill. Wills and his associates most vociferously condemned the practice of 'hacking' in rugby, which involved players deliberately kicking the shins of opposing players so that they had to retire hurt, not infrequently with a broken leg. Hacking was therefore outlawed in the first rules of the new game in 1859 and within a month tripping was also outlawed. This condemnation, led by Wills and Thompson, was so successful that the public quickly generated a disdain for any form of kicking as un-Australian.
The Wills group was also implacably opposed to the offside rule that prevented free forward movement of the ball, despite some of their anglophile contemporaries arguing strongly in its favour. These proponents of the offside rule scorned the relatively easy kicking of goals as 'cheating' and 'sneaking', but the Wills camp turned it to their favour and the early full-forward position was even named 'goalsneak' as a proud differentiation from the English offside rule.
Despite Wills and his friends successfully generating this public scorn of rugby, which resulted in many derisory letters and articles being published about the English game, the colony of Victoria still tended to fawn on things English. Many saw themselves essentially not as Australians, but as Englishmen born in the Antipodes by accident of birth. Because of Wills' captaincy of the Rugby School team, the easy assumption was made that the Australian game was derived from the English game, and Tom Wills' cousin, Colden Harrison, actively promoted this myth. At the same time, anything aboriginal was almost universally denigrated as 'primitive' or 'uncivilised' so it is easy to see compelling reasons why Wills should remain silent on any connection between the new game and Marn-Grook.
Wills' silence no proof of no connection
TOM WILLS' silence on the origins of the new game, and the absence of documentation from Wills' youth on any connection with Marn-Grook, is taken by some historians as proof that there is indeed no connection between them. On closer examination however, such a conclusion is not necessarily logical. For instance, when Josiah Hammersly later recalled the early discussions on the possible rules of the new game, he stated that "Tom Wills suggested the Rugby rules, but nobody understood them except himself".
This is a mystifyingly self-contradictory statement that surely cannot be correct. If Wills later led the public denigration of rugby, why would he be promoting adoption of those rules? Also, the Rugby School rules for football were essentially little different to other schools at that time and even soccer had not yet evolved as a separate feet only game. The vigorous debates with many favouring an offside rule are proof enough of their familiarity with the rugby game. So what was the reason for their confusion over the so-called 'Rugby' rules Wills sought to introduce? Was he in fact trying to communicate something else? Maybe he had tried to introduce the essential rules of Marn-Grook under the guise of them being Rugby rules. Then, when he saw the inability of the others to comprehend broader scope of the game he had in mind, he just changed tack and plumbed for no offside rule as the key to the situation.
It is no wonder that Tom Wills chose to remain silent on any alternative origins of the game. Surely it was much better to let the myth persist that it was derived from an upper-class English game, if this would ensure its support by the more affluent and influential sections of colonial society. Wills was equally keen though to ensure that the common man had access to the game and his derision of the English game sat well with the general public.
His strategies were patently successful on all fronts and the new game was most rapidly adopted into the fabric of colonial life. So quickly did it take hold of the public imagination, and so good was Tom Wills at this game, that twice he was accorded the Brownlow Medal-like status of 'Champion of the Colony'. His status at football, cricket, shooting, or whatever he chose to turn his hand, truly made him our first Australian sporting icon.
A connection through oral history
FROM my days at Scotch College, I had therefore known about Tom Wills, but from my own family background, I became aware of a vague connection with Tom Wills and the Western District. My own great-great grandfather, John Chivers, had been a pioneer in the Yarra Valley, east of Melbourne, in 1840. The same year, another pioneer, James Dawson, settled at Warrandyte only a couple of miles away from John. Both men were rather apart from the norm in those times in that they both struck up very friendly relations with the local Wurundjeri tribe. Both even went so far as to learn the local language and culture, and their own children grew up immersed in Aboriginal culture.
My own great grandfather, Tom Chivers, grew up with Aboriginal children as playmates and established lifelong Aboriginal friendships. He passed many stories down about his childhood experiences that were recounted to me as a child. Tom eventually died in 1942 at age 98, when I was little more than one year old. I do not remember him, but our lives overlapped not just in a temporal sense for that one year, but in metaphoric and spiritual ways as well. Through other members of both my mother's and my father's families, I inherited Tom Chivers' interest and involvement in Aboriginal culture. From an early age an awareness grew, of how inextricably Aboriginal culture was woven into the fabric of our Australian heritage.
This awareness strengthened as I got older, and as I continued to learn from my own Aboriginal friends. Being aware that Tom Wills came from the Western District, I then became aware that in 1844, James Dawson had moved from Warrandyte to the Western District, and again had established close relations with the local tribe, the Gunditjmara. Learning the language of the Gunditjmara had been made somewhat easier for Dawson by the fact that the Wurundjeri and Gunditjmara languages were closely related.
I already knew something of the Gunditjmara, as some of my family had served in the Second World War with Reg and Harry Saunders. I had also got to know Lenny and Banjo Clarke in the 1970s along with other Gunditjmara people from the Lovett and Saunders families. I also became aware of Tom Wills' involvement with the Mara nation people in organising the first Aboriginal cricket team that toured England in 1868. By the late 1970s I had become closely aware of the amazing fighting tradition of the Gunditjmara. In fact they are known universally as the 'Fighting Gunditjmara'.
Not only had the Gunditjmara fought an 18-year war against white settlement in the Western District, but they had also produced every Aboriginal boxing champion in Victoria. Names like Lionel Rose, Harry Hayes, Lachie Austin, Arthur Thomas, Henry Armstrong and Graeme Brook were all Gunditjmara. Many Gunditjmara in fact served in both the first and second World Wars, with Reg Saunders being the only Aboriginal ever to become a commissioned officer in the Australian Army. Add to this, the fact that all of the first Aboriginal cricket team in 1868 were from the Mara nation, which included several Gunditjmara, and you have a proud tradition indeed.
I was so fascinated by this history and heritage, that I decided to make a documentary film, and began doing some further research. Co-incidentally, I became aware of that James Dawson had published a book, Australian Aborigines, in 1881, about his experience with the Gunditjmara from his time of first settlement in the Western District in 1844. The book was compelling reading for me, but what was most compelling, was when I got to a little section on 'Aboriginal Football'. It read as follows:
One of the favourite games is football, in which fifty, or as many as one hundred players, engage at a time. The ball is about the size of an orange and is made of opossum skin, with the fur side outwards. It is filled with pounded charcoal, which gives solidarity without much increase of weight, and is tied hard around with kangaroo tail sinews. The players are divided into two sides and ranged in opposing lines, which are always of a different 'class' -- white cockatoo against black cockatoo, quail against snake, etc.
Each side endeavours to keep possession of the ball, which is tossed a short distance by hand, and then kicked in any direction. The side which kicks it oftenest and furtherest gains the game. The person who sends it highest is considered the best player. And has the honour of burying it in the ground till required next day.
The sport is concluded with a shout of applause and the best player is complimented on his skill. This game, which is somewhat similar to the white man's game of football, is very rough; but as the players are barefoot and naked, they do not hurt each other so much as the white people do; nor is the fact of an aborigine being a good football player considered to entitle him to assist in making laws for the tribe to which he belongs."
Knowing about the Scotch College-Melbourne Grammar game of 1858, the similarity of this first Aussie Rules game to the Aboriginal game witnessed by Dawson, in the time when Tom Wills was a child in the Western District, rang immediate bells with me. Dawson clearly referred to its similarities with the white man's game, but it also had unique differences. The more open nature of the native game, with specific lines of individual opponents matched for height and weight, and an emphasis on kicking the ball long and high or handballing into the open, made it distinctly dissimilar from the mass, mauling marauding scrum played at Rugby School.
But there was a further connection. I also realised that I had heard about this native game before, through my grandfather. He had told me how as an eight-year-old, my great-grandfather, Tom Chivers, and his father, John, had attended an inter-tribal corroboree at Pound Bend in Warrandyte in 1852. The corroboree went for two weeks with all sorts of games and celebrations, including this spectacular game of native football that involved players leaping high in the air to catch the ball. My grandfather told me that these athletic displays were met with much excitement and cheering from onlooking natives, settlers, and gold panners, who sat around the hillsides of this amphitheatre-like venue.
I immediately intensified my research of other pioneer accounts of Aboriginal games. I quickly uncovered not only documentary confirmation of the inter-tribal corroboree attended by my great grandfather in 1852, but also another description of Marn-Grook by the Aboriginal Protector, William Thomas, who had also attended this very same corroboree at Warrandyte.
The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played," wrote Thomas. "One makes a ball of opossum skin, or the like, of good size, somewhat elastic, but firm and strong. It is given to the foremost player or some other one of mark who is chosen to commence the game.
He does not throw it as a white man might do, but drops it and at the same time kicks it with his foot, using the instep for the purpose. It is thrown high in the air, and there is a rush to secure it -- such a rush as is seen commonly at football matches among our own people.
The tallest men, and those who are able to spring to a great height, have the best chances in this game. Some of them will leap as high as five feet or more from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it again; and again a scramble ensues. This continues for hours, and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise."
Here again, the similarities with Australian Rules were even more compelling. Rather than the ball being hacked along the ground in a rolling scrum as in rugby, the ball was constantly being kicked high into the open, and then pursued again. Clearly implied, was that catching the ball from a kick enabled the player to take his kick without being tackled. Most compelling of all though, was the way in which players leapt high on each other's backs to catch the ball. Intrigued, I checked the glossaries of language that both Dawson and Brough-Smyth included in their books. Sure enough, the Aboriginal word for catch was 'mumarkee' or, when abbreviated, was similar to the English word 'mark'.
In fact, Tom Wills even put the word mark in inverted commas in the original drafting of the rules in 1859 to signify a different meaning to any previous usage. The relevant rule stated: 6. Any player catching the ball directly from boot may call "mark". He then has a free kick. No players from the opposite side being allowed to come into the spot marked.
Clearly the rule meant the word 'mark' to signify a catch, just as was the practice in Marn-Grook. The second part of the rule however clearly signifies a marking of the ground where the free kick is taken, and this has prompted many historians to reject the connection with Marn-Grook. Many explanations have been offered as to why in Australian Rules we refer to a catch as a 'mark', but to me none of them wash. Of all the various definitions of the word 'mark' in the dictionary, none refer to catching.
And perhaps mark is not the only Aboriginal word in common usage as a football term.
The word 'barracking' is one entirely peculiar to Australian football and which has caused considerable speculation as to its origins. This includes the fanciful story that the children in a Melbourne orphanage, which had been converted from an army barracks, used to make a fearful din, or that an Army team had very noisy supporters from the barracks. I cannot help but ponder what Army this was in colonial Victoria. On the other hand, I have been told that the word 'barek' or 'barak' is also an Aboriginal word meaning 'cheering'.
It is intensely interesting that on either side of this argument there is only oral history for such definitions of the word, but when faced with the choice, many historians prefer to see the Aboriginal origin of the word as 'unlikely'.
Context of Wills' life just as important
THE similarities between Marn-Grook and Australian Rules are also dismissed by historians as 'coincidental', but if we examine the context of Tom Wills' early life, it is perhaps not so coincidental after all.
Tom Wills was born on August 19, 1835, and his family settled in the Western District in 1839 when he was still only four-years-old. The Western District was at that time was very much a frontier. Several Aboriginal tribes, most particularly the Gunditjmara, were still involved in the Eumerella War against white settlement. Tom Wills, therefore, grew up in a period when tribal culture was still intact in the Western District. Tribal Aboriginal children were his playmates, he learnt their language and culture, and participated in their games. They too participated in his games.
One of the most universally popular Aboriginal children's games was 'Pando' or 'Bidi', where a group of children, both boys and girls, formed a circle. An older child with a ball, made either of bulrush roots, a possum skin stuffed with charcoal, or an inflated kangaroo bladder, would move to the centre and kick it straight up, in the same way that adult games were started. All the children would rush in to leap and catch the ball. The successful child would be applauded with cries of 'mumarkee'. He or she would then wait in the centre for the circle of children to move out, before kicking the ball in the air again.
Sometimes though the circle would be abandoned and two groups would form to play 'kick-to-kick' in exactly the same way it is still played today by children all over Australia. This fact was recorded by the William Blandowski expedition into Northern Victoria in 1857, which was then the last remaining frontier of tribal life in Victoria. Blandowski records that:
"The ball is made out of Typha (bulrush) roots; it is not thrown or hit with a bat, but is kicked up in the air with the foot. Aim of the game: never let the ball hit the ground."
Based on Blandowski's observations and instructions, an engraving was subsequently made of the idyllic tribal scene near present day Merbein and in it are six children in two groups, clearly playing kick-to-kick footy. This of course does not prove a direct connection between tribal and modern Aussie Rules, but it again shows what countless settlers observed, including Tom Wills, and the contextual influence that this must have exerted.
Just like today, these tribal children's games of kick-to-kick encapsulated the fundamental skills of the adult football game. However, Marn-Grook could not be formally played until the age of initiation, at about 12 years, but like the children's games it was open to women as well as men. It would have been a sad day for Tom when he was sent to school in Melbourne at age 11, before he and his friends became eligible to join in the adult game. However, he would nonetheless have had time for this in vacation periods, before being sent to England at age 14 to complete his education.
The conclusion by some historians that because there is no documentary evidence of Tom Wills being exposed to such games, this therefore proves that there was none, is just arrant nonsense. It is tantamount to saying that Wills spent the first 14 years of his life locked in his bedroom and saw nothing of indigenous tribal life and culture. How then did he learn their language, songs and dances? Even though Victorian life changed dramatically in the six years he was absent, Tom Wills did not forget or forsake his connections with the Aboriginal community, or this context to his upbringing in the frontier days of the Western district.
Traffic not all one way
AS mentioned, the traffic between Tom and his childhood friends had not been all one way. Many of his Aboriginal playmates learned to play the strange English game of cricket with him. Little did they realise they would become so proficient at the game, that some 20 years later in 1868, Tom Wills would coach and organise an Aboriginal cricket team to tour England. They subsequently went down in history as the first Australian team to beat the Poms at cricket. Strangely however, it is the white side of 1877 that is more celebrated, even though they were the second Australian team to achieve this feat.
Is this involvement of Tom Wills in promoting cricket by Aboriginals also to be dismissed as not germane to the origins of Australian football? Or should it more readily be seen as proof of his exposure to Aboriginal influences in his formative years? Is it not reasonable to assume that, at the very least, these influences percolated into Tom Wills' thinking about the creation of such a unique game? It is after all so different to European versions, but so compellingly similar to the indigenous game.
In discounting these links to Marn-Grook, historians have also pointed out that no Aboriginal players are recorded as being involved in the early decades of the Australian game. Again, the answer is contextual. My grandfather told me that settlers and miners were witness to the game of Marn-Grook played at Warrandyte in 1852, where gold had first been discovered in Victoria. Many of the miners moved to the goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo before moving back to Melbourne as the gold rush dwindled out after Eureka.
Many other settlers and pioneers also saw the tribal game and it was indelibly impressed in the minds of whoever witnessed it. It is therefore irrelevant that no Aboriginals were recorded as having played in the early decades of Australian Football. This is surely more a sign of the endemic racism of those times, and even by the 1930s Doug Nichols was still being subjected to such attitudes. Nonetheless by 1859, Marn-Grook would have already permeated the minds of enough ordinary Australians to ensure its influence on the development of our national game in Victoria.
If this contextual argument has any merit, one would anticipate that if Marn-Grook was only a regional game played by Aboriginals in Victoria, the development of the code would have been restricted to that State. Conversely, if Marn-Grook was an Australia-wide indigenous game, one could anticipate that the same contextual influences would act to facilitate its Australia-wide adoption. Obviously, Australian Football was adopted like wildfire across Australia, except principally in Sydney which, as the founding colony, remained wedded to rugby. However, in other States the take-up rate was amazingly quick. For instance, in Adelaide the first Australian Football club was formed in 1860.
So with this in mind I sought further evidence on the existence of Marn-Grook in other parts of Australia. Ultimately, I uncovered pioneer references to tribal football, predating Australian Rules, in every Australian State and Territory. It was truly a national game for thousands of years before being codified in 1859 by Tom Wills. The following for instance is a description by P. Beveridge, a pioneer of the Riverina area in New South Wales, where Australian Football has always been strong:
"Ball playing is another game to which they are exceedingly partial. They make it much more boisterous and noisy than are the wrestling bouts, although it results in much fewer serious mishaps. The women participate in the game as well as the men. We have seen as many as two hundred -- including sexes -- engaged in it at one time.
"The ball is composed of old opossum skins, tightly rolled up, and covered over with a fresh and strong piece of skin, nice and firmly sewn together with opossum tail sinews. Before they begin to play they arrange sides, each side having a captain, whose place it is to guide his often times unruly squad.
"When all is in order, a Lyoore starts off with the ball in her hand. She walks a little way out from her own side, and toward that of her opponents, drops the ball with seeming carelessness, but 'ere it has time to reach the ground, she gives a dexterous, and by no means gentle kick, which correctly aimed, sends the ball spinning high into the air. Thereupon the fun begins in downright earnest. Such screaming, jumping and frothing at the mouth, we are certain was never seen at any other game outside the walls of Bedlam; and then again such intermingling of bronze limbs, nude and glossy; or such outre grouping was never yet beheld under any circumstances other than those attendant on an Aboriginal ball match.
"They have not any goal to which the ball has to be driven, the whole of the play is merely to keep the ball in motion, and to prevent its coming to the ground; whilst the struggles of the game consist in trying which side can retain the ball longest in possession. Those holding the ball throw it from one to another, and it is during such flights that the opposing side vigorously run and jump with a view to its capture. As the eyes of the players are never by any chance bent on the ground, tumbles during a game are numerous, and in many cases indecorous enough, more especially when (one) goes down, and so becoming a stumbling block, over which a dozen or more come tumbling in a heap. These incidents, however, add mirth to the game, without creating the least ill temper.
"These games are frequently kept up from noon until dark, and even at that late hour they are given up with reluctance. The many laughable incidents which occur during these games, provide ample matter for consideration round the camp fire, besides affording abundant opportunity for boasting, to which they are addicted pretty much, old and young."
As previously stated the visual impact of the game on European observers was vivid and lasting, with Beveridge in effect stating that this was the experience of a lifetime. But note again also, the stunning similarities with even modern Australian Football, in his description: "The whole of the play is merely to keep the ball in motion, and to prevent its coming to the ground; whilst the struggles of the game consist in trying which side can retain the ball longest in possession". Like Marn-Grook, the traditions of Australian football has been to speedily move the ball by hand or foot, to catch it spectacularly in flight, and retain possession for your side without restriction on the direction of movement.
Totemic rules that governed Aboriginal society
THE universality of Marn-Grook was achieved in large part because the totemic rules governing social structure in Aboriginal society were embedded in the game. That is, all tribes have a similar totemic structure in that they are divided into two halves termed as 'moieties'. These two halves are then divided again into halves called 'skin groups', of which there were a basic four in all tribes. These skin groups could be further divided into totals of eight or even 16 skin group sub-categories, but the basic four categories were nonetheless consistent across Australia. Each of these four skin groups had a particular structural relationship to each of the three others, with these primary relationships being paternal, maternal, and marital. Each skin group was symbolised by a specific animal or bird totem. These moiety and skin group divisions were conceptualised in terms of four, two fours, or four fours and this sometimes led to the erroneous perception by settlers that Aboriginal people could not count past four.
At inter-tribal corroborees, Marn-Grook would not be played tribe against tribe, but moiety against moiety. On assembling to play, the tribes would merge together and be divided into the two moiety groups, commonly represented by pairings such as Black Cockatoo and White Cockatoo in the Mara nation of western Victoria, or Eagle and Crow in the Kulin nation of the Port Phillip area. Players would first be opposed strictly in accordance with the skin group totem to which one's present or future marital partner belonged. The opposing skin groups in the Mara nation were for instance Python versus Pelican, and Quail versus Tiger Snake.
These opposing marital skin groups were colloquially known as 'cousin classes' and so in structural tribal terms your opponent was always a 'cousin', but not necessarily by kinship. This also gave rise to another false belief by some settlers and anthropologists that Aboriginals had to marry their cousins. However, you could not play against just any 'tribe cousin'. To make it fair, players had to match each other before the game in terms of age, height, weight, and gender.
This preparation for the game would have seemed like just aimless socialising to European observers, but it served a vital function of social cohesion within and between tribes. Finally though, by midday the game would begin. There were no goals in the indigenous game and the winning side as well as the best player, had to be decided by consensus. At sunset, proceedings would be called to a halt and the two 'captains' would meet, no doubt surrounded by a noisy throng. Neither would claim victory, but simply compliment the play of the other side, along the lines:
"Black Cockatoo played a good game today.
"White Cockatoo played a good game too.
"Black Cockatoo played a good-good game.
"White Cockatoo played a good-good game too."
At this point one of two things would happen. First, if one side agreed that the other side played a really good-good game, the matter would conclude there with considerable cheering by the winning side and congratulations by the losing side. If however there was no agreement as to who had won, the sides would play again the next day and continue until a winner was agreed.
Regardless of whether or not the winner was agreed, the discussion would then move to who was the best player on the day. Many compliments would be passed and many players mentioned in despatches, but ultimately the winner was agreed by who had not just the most possessions, but also the best value for possessions. That is, the player who got the ball most, kicked it highest and longest, and took the most marks. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
There is even an eerie resemblance in the practice of playing over several days, to the original game between Scotch and Melbourne Grammar, which was played over three weekends. The difference however was that in the new game the winner was to be decided by the scoring of goals, which did not exist in the traditional game. An academic view has been put forward that the concept of goals is a metaphor for property ownership and that the presence of an offside rule, like in rugby and soccer, represents the extreme emphasis placed on the protection of property in Western society. It has been theorised that the absence of an offside rule in Australian Football represents our movement to a more liberal, open and egalitarian society, and is a reflection of these more liberal social forces prevailing in Victoria in the mid-19th century.
I find this proposition somewhat esoteric, and would suggest that a more practical theory is that many settlers observed the indigenous game, were thoroughly impressed by what they saw and, either consciously or unconsciously, sought to preserve these free-flowing and spectacular features in our national game. Goals were added simply as a means of arbitrarily determining the winner.
It is rather noteworthy, that although Aboriginal teams quickly embraced the idea of goals as a more efficient way of determining the winner, the players were rather more reluctant to embrace the idea of goal umpires arbitrating the accuracy of goal kicking. They preferred instead to maintain something of their traditional approach by stopping the game after a shot on goal, having a discussion on the merits of the kick and coming to a consensus as to whether it was a goal or point.
The Gaelic connection
THESE understandings that I have developed about the traditional game, come from an amalgamation of oral and documentary sources garnered over a lifetime, and when in the early 1980s I first proposed the idea that the roots of our game lay in Aboriginal football, many people responded with positive interest. Some however, openly scoffed at the idea and immediately proposed a counter explanation. Aboriginals had simply copied the white man's game after they had seen it. Besides, they argued, even if our game did not derive from rugby, then surely it must have derived from Gaelic football. The similarities between Aussie Rules and Gaelic football were, after all, pretty compelling.
With this in mind, I corresponded with the Gaelic Athletic Association and did a bit more research. They advised me that there was no record whatsoever in Ireland, of Gaelic Football predating Aussie Rules. In fact, Gaelic football had only been codified in 1883. Much of the impetus for the development of Gaelic football however, was that the English had tried to promote the development of rugby in Ireland after its codification in 1871, resulting in a Rugby Union being set up in Ireland in 1874.
There was of course record of a traditional rough and tumble village game of football in Ireland, the most distinctive feature of which was the preference to kick the ball as high as possible in the air. It was also noted in the games of football played on the Australian goldfields in the mid 1850s, how the Irish miners habitually kicked the ball high. Even today the description of such a kick is that it was 'up and down the mine shaft'.
The timing of the development of Gaelic football therefore makes it seem likely that some Australian Irish, who had returned home after the gold rush period, assisted in the development and codification of Gaelic Football, at least in part motivated by the introduction of the English game of rugby. I have still to identify the specific characters that may have been involved, but it nonetheless remains a logical proposition. Instead of Aussie Rules being derived from Gaelic Football then, it seems more likely that Gaelic football had some of its roots in Marn-Grook. It is therefore also a far more likely scenario that the high kicking feature of the Australian Rules game was actively reinforced by the penchant of Irish footballers for doing the same.
It is interesting that so many football historians state that there is 'no proof' as to the Aboriginal origins of Australian Rules, because they seem to be requiring a different standard of proof for their own proposition. No proof in European terms means 'no written proof'. Such arguments are effectively requiring a culture with an oral tradition to conform to an impossible standard of a written history. This of course begs the question as to whether these historians have actually gone out into the field and sought oral history. If you don't believe, you don't look, and if you don't look, you don't find. But it is there, and it has enabled me to piece together the rules and traditions of the Marn-Grook game.
However, the denial of the Aboriginal origins of Australian Rules by some historians also involves a second double standard. They ask where the proof is of the Aboriginal origins to Australian Football, but put the shoe on the other foot: Where is the proof of the English origins to our game? There is not a shred of documentary evidence linking the game to England. Our game was codified in 1859, Soccer in 1863, Rugby in 1871, and Gaelic Football in 1883. All that is known is that Tom Wills captained the Rugby School football team in the mid-1850s, and it is conveniently ignored that he despised the game. The context of Tom Wills' frontier childhood is ignored as if he grew up in a vacuum.
This is, of course, a traditional trick of Western scientific thinking: Decontextualise your subject then propose a null hypothesis. That is, you must assume there is no difference unless you can prove that there is, with weighable and measurable factors. This is vaunted as an 'objective' process, but its flaw is that it may only just be reinforcing conventional ideas.
Context is compelling in this issue. Not just the context of Tom Wills' upbringing and the context of first contact history, but the innate skill of Aboriginal players and their affinity for this game is also deeply persuasive. As is the fact that the numeric representation of Aboriginals in our national game is about 10 times greater than their proportion in the population. The context of oral history is also compelling. Ask any Aboriginal about the origins of Australian Football and they will happily tell you.
What I am firmly putting here is that these contextual factors are just too great to be ignored. We should reverse the onus and accept the indigenous origins to our game, unless somebody can clearly prove otherwise. Make the null hypothesis work in the other direction!
There is also compelling spiritual and metaphoric reasons for this as well. In tribal times, Marn-Grook was a major social institution and force for social cohesion, just as Australian Football is today. It is a game that belongs to all of us. It is a game that embraces and celebrates all cultural backgrounds and status groups in our society and gives a cosmopolitan basis to our modern tribalism. Australian Football is firmly embedded in our national psyche and culture and for that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Tom Wills, whose life, however tragic and brief, was a testament to reconciliation.
It is indeed almost ironic that Australian Football represents probably the most potent, but still politically unrecognised force for reconciliation in our nation today, if only we have the sense and foresight to capitalise on it properly. Hopefully, we have seen the beginnings of this with the Marn-Grook Cup being contested annually between the AFL teams of Sydney and Essendon, in the promotion of Aboriginal All-Star games, and in the AFL Pathways Program, but much more needs to be done.
Surely, with the 150th anniversary of the founding of our national game just around the corner, we should be doing all we can to recognise and celebrate the Aboriginal origins of our national game, and the contribution of Aboriginal players in particular, to its history and development.