First I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country on whose land we stand. It is appropriate that the Melbourne Cricket Ground – a significant site for so many cricket-loving Australians – is the venue for launching Bernard Whimpress’ book, Passport to Nowhere – Aborigines in Australian Cricket 1850 – 1939.
It was here on Boxing Day 1866 that an Aboriginal team from Victoria’s Western Districts held a match against the Melbourne Cricket Club in front of a crowd of 8000 people. This game laid the groundwork for the Western Districts’ historic 1868 visit to England which saw Aborigines become the first ever Australian team to play cricket at its birth place.
It is a great source of personal pride that the team came from around my area, the Framlingham Aboriginal Community. Two of the team members, Dick A Dick, and John Cuzens, are buried in the same cemetery as some of my relations - grandfathers, uncles and aunties.
Despite the historic achievement of the cricketers many people in this country are still unaware it happened. It took 99 years before a book Cricket Walkabout was issued to mark the centenary of the event. It is only now that the tour is being brought to the attention of a mass audience in a television advertising campaign. One thing a glossy advertising campaign won’t tell you, however, is how difficult were the circumstances they faced – in all aspects of life, not just cricket.
White laws stripped them of virtually any control over their own lives. Endemic racism blocked or destroyed their careers. Disease, poverty, dispossession and crime decimated their numbers. For the 1868 team there were no ticker tape parades or lucrative contracts. They returned to obscurity and early deaths.
Bernard Whimpress’ book Passport to Nowhere does an excellent job of placing the achievements and setbacks of our cricketers into the context of the times. Bernard, the Curator of the Adelaide Oval Museum and sports historian, has also done a great job of tracking down new facts and statistical data about our cricketing heritage.
The cricketers’ stories are woven into the realities of their peoples lives: the murders, the diseases, the overt racism. The Protection era policies controlling every aspect of their lives. He reminds us that the 1868 tour by the Western Districts team was only some 25 years after whites first moved into their homelands and shot or poisoned about one-tenth of the population.
And how only one year after the team’s return Victoria’s Aboriginal Protection Act forced the majority onto reserves or into obscurity.
Only one team member, Johnny Mullagh, dubbed "the W.G. Grace of Aboriginal cricketers" was known to have escaped the reserves and sustained a cricketing career for 25 years. Mullagh was the top scorer on the 1868 tour with an average of 23.6 runs and the top wicket taker, 245, at an average of 10. He took five wickets in an innings 21 times.
Yet despite his status as the best batsman in Victoria he was given only one opportunity to represent his state. Playing for Victoria against England he top scored with 36.
Mullagh died alone but unlike other Aboriginal icons in the book his legacy is still strong more than 100 years late in the western Victorian town of Harrow where he was based. His memorial overlooks the Glenelg River and the 1991 centenary of his death was marked by a pilgrimage to his grave by 60 (non-Indigenous) people.
Other featured Aboriginal cricketers, Queensland’s Eddie Gilbert, and NSW’s Jack Marsh suffered fates with eerie parallels to modern controversies involving black cricketers, albeit from overseas.
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