“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 kick it with their feet, using the instep for that purpose. 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.”
In his book The Aborigines of Victoria, Robert Brough Smyth quotes William Thomas (a Protector of Indigenous Australians, not to be confused with the later mentioned Tom Wills) in his observance of a game of Marngrook (or marn grook) in the 1840s. It is one of few written accounts documenting the game and is a welcome addition to the usually intense discussion surrounding the origins of Australian rules football.Australian rules football, colloquially known as ‘football’ or ‘footy’, is widely considered Australia’s national sport, where two teams of eighteen players compete on a field with an oval-shaped ball to score ‘goals’. The sport is played at many levels across the country with the professional competition, Australian Rules Football (AFL), standing as the nation’s wealthiest sporting body.
Hailing from the Gunditjmara language and literally translating to ‘game ball’, Marngrook is a broader term for an Aboriginal game that was played predominantly in Gunditjmara, Jardwadjali and Djabwurrung country of southwestern Victoria, Australia. The game was played with a ball made of possum skin, which was stuffed with pounded charcoal and native grass before being teased into a circular shape and bound together with kangaroo tail sinews. Two teams, of up to fifty people at a time, participated in the game, which was played socially rather than in competitive spirit. Occasionally, there was no team winner: only an individual who either jumped the highest, played the longest, or kicked the furthest. An animal totem, most often a type of bird, represented each team. Though it was predominantly men who played, women were also welcome; there was no discrimination based on gender or physical ability.
Given the lack of fixed historical documentation surrounding much of Australia’s Indigenous history, the game could have been developed and played a number of decades before William Thomas’s observation, making it one of the oldest—if not the oldest—ball games in the world. The game wasn’t isolated to Gunditjmara country: variations were reported across the state, filtering down to the outskirts of what is now Port Phillip Bay. Gunditjmara Elders have passed down stories of games lasting up to two days.
While Marngrook has been fiercely debated by many academics and historians within the sports community, many Aboriginal people have long considered it to be one of the inspirations behind the current game Australian rules football. It is a point of unwavering pride both among Indigenous players in the Australian Football League and Indigenous communities as a whole; many prominent Aboriginal personalities are starting to recognise and vocalise their ancestors’ contribution to Australia’s favourite game.
In the official history of the then Victorian Football League (VFL), now Australian Football League (AFL), the story begins with an Australian man named Tom Wills. Tom grew up in southwestern Victoria and lived among Aboriginal communities, predominantly in his father’s many stations.A station, in this instance, refers to a large farm or cattle station. These stations often had a homestead, manager, a number of staff and living quarters. At age fourteen, Tom was sent to England for cricket practice and further schooling. It was here that he was exposed to rugby. Upon his return to Victoria, he published a letter calling for a “football club, rifle club, or other athletic pursuits” to help keep cricketers fit during the winter season. From here, he developed the rules of Australian football, and on 7 August, 1858, the first documented game of Australian rules football was played at Richmond Paddock (now Yarra Park) near the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The game was played between Melbourne Grammar School and Scotch College and lasted for three days. The official laws of Australian Rules Football were written in May 1859, and the Victorian Football Association—which later became the Victorian Football League and then the Australian Football League—was formed in 1877.
The communities of Gunditjmara, Jardwadjali and Djabwurrung (now known predominantly as Warrnambool, the Grampians and surrounds) have long told stories about their relationship with Tom Wills. Though reports vary as to whether Tom ever played Marngrook himself, all accounts attest to the simple fact that he witnessed the game—that he was aware of this Indigenous pastime. However, Tom himself never spoke publicly of his connection to Aboriginal people. Given the animosity, distrust and outright racism Aboriginal communities experienced during Tom’s lifetime, his silence is unsurprising. The likelihood that he would express this influence is almost non-existent; theoretically speaking, outwardly declaring that an idea was sparked by Aboriginal culture would have stopped the game before it could begin. Given the lack of fixed documentation surrounding Tom’s early introduction to Marngrook, several historians have disappointingly declared the possibility that the game influenced Australian rules football to be “opportunist”, “idealist” and “a seductive myth”. For decades, many argued that due to the lack of formal documentation of Tom’s exposure to Marngrook (despite his frequent contact with Aboriginal communities and many verbal accounts attesting that he witnessed the game), there was no clear link between Marngrook and Australian rules football.
“Within Aboriginal communities, history is shared through song and story, passed down verbally from generation to generation.”
Western civilisation is specific in what it demands and expects of history. It requires written documentation, precise in its inclusion of dates and times, places and people. In many other cultures, history isn’t recognised through a textbook. Within Aboriginal communities, history is shared through song and story, passed down verbally from generation to generation. “Just because it is not written down doesn’t make it any less true,” says Shelley Ware, panellist on NITV’s (National Indigenous Television) Marngrook Footy Show and proud Yankanjatjara and Wirangu woman. “From what I’ve always been told, Tom Wills played with the boys down in Gunditjmara country and that’s how he got some of the inspiration for the game and that’s all I’ve ever known. There are too many similarities in the games for it not to be based on Marngrook.”
Though many historians claim that Tom found his inspiration for Australian rules football playing rugby in England, the game as it was established (forgiving development in technique and a number of rule changes) bears a much closer resemblance to Marngrook than it does to rugby. It was free-flowing, with no offside rule; and it was predominantly played in the air, with the aim of keeping the ball off the ground, rather than encouraging the scrums and tussles of rugby. It also included what we now call a punt kickA punt kick is the most common style of kicking in Australian rules football where the ball is dropped onto the foot of the moving player and kicked before hitting the ground. (described in the opening quote) and a leaping grab for the ball (known in current football vocabulary as a ‘mark’, and known then, in Djabwurrung language, as a mumarkee, or mark for short). The similarities are irrefutable.
In the past year, Australian academic and author Jenny Hocking has uncovered papers that support the relationship between Tom Wills and Marngrook. Discovering transcripts that place Tom and Marngrook directly in the same area of Victoria, and at the same time, has brought much-needed physical documentation to the argument to appease traditionalists who require their history in black and white. Tucked among the treasures hidden in the State Library of Victoria, the personal papers of A.W. Howitt highlight a recollection from Mukjarrawaint man Johnny Connolly in what is the only documented account from someone who actually played the game. Johnny played the game in the 1830s and 40s in the same area that Tom Wills lived. Tom was, in fact, one of the only Anglo-Saxon boys in an Aboriginal community. Further to this, Johnny Connolly had connections with multiple stations in this area of Victoria, most interestingly one named Ledcourt, which was at one stage occupied by Tom Wills’s father, Horatio Wills.
Much of the criticism surrounding the relationship between Marngrook and Australian rules football points out that each of the links and threads that weave the two together at some stage fray. But we can consider the recent recollections in the A.W. Howitt papers, along with the verbal testaments of Aboriginal people who played the game near, if not with Tom. By continuing to deny the influence of Marngrook on Australian rules football, we continue to carry our blighted history of Indigenous dispossession and exclusion. The two games are not identical, but upon considering and including all kinds of history, it is entirely possible that Marngrook, in some shape or form, has influenced Australian rules football.
It’s not just Aboriginal leaders and players who are championing the credentials of Marngrook. Though the AFL generates immense pride and inclusion throughout its annual Indigenous Round—which started in 2007 and is now named after Yorta Yorta man Sir Doug Nicholls—it is still yet to formally recognise or acknowledge a relationship between the two games. However, many individual clubs have taken it upon themselves to appreciate Marngrook and the contribution of Aboriginal players and their ancestors.
A number of clubs have now established Reconciliation Action Plans along with independent Indigenous institutes and academies. And in order to aid a growing consensus of reconciliation, remediation and understanding of Australia’s Indigenous history and culture, they are also instigating conversations around Marngrook and the origins of Australian rules football.
Keith Thomas, C.E.O. of the Port Adelaide Football Club, often refers to Australian rules football as “the Indigenous game” and has been unabashed in his encouragement and support of Aboriginal leadership, inclusion and development. Paul Vandenbergh is the director of Indigenous programs with Port Adelaide and acknowledges that recognising Marngrook as the precursor to Australian rules football would be “significant and powerful.” Since 2002, the Sydney Swans have played a game in the annual AFL home and away season for the Marn Grook Trophy, and comfortably celebrate and support the connection between Marngrook and Australian rules football. Sydney Swans C.E.O. Andrew Ireland states that “symbolically, it’s important to recognise for Indigenous people, and it can speak to a broader recognition of Indigenous culture and contribution in Australian society. And the importance of making a statement like this, with regards to the history of a sport that is held in such high esteem, is extremely valuable.” He continues that it is not just about symbolism—that these formalities and acknowledgements reflect real and important change: “It also speaks to a broader recognition that sport can be a great promoter of what we can and should be doing as a society.”
Adam Goodes, ex-Sydney Swans player and Aboriginal leader and champion, wrote about Marngrook in Geoff Slattery’s book The Australian Game of Football. “I believe Marngrook played a role in the development of Australian Football. I do know we were playing a similar game for the joy and excitement of it, before the said founders of the game came along,” he wrote. “I don’t know the truth, but I believe in the connection. Because I know that when Aboriginal people play Australian football with a clear mind and total focus, we are born to play it.”
Commentators, coaches and everyday football punters have all commented on the connection between Aboriginal players and Australian rules football that Goodes speaks of. Indigenous Australians make up three per cent of Australia’s population but approximately ten per cent of AFL players. It is often said that it is not just hard work that makes Aboriginal people such extraordinary players, but a deeper and closer connection. Consider some of the best Aboriginal players in recent years—Adam Goodes, Cyril Rioli, Nicky Winmar, Lance Franklin—and how their talent seems natural, like they are born of the game.
“With a great amount of Aboriginal culture under threat, or lost to bleak moments in history, this recognition can allow that culture to live on through a game that plays a formative role in Australia’s national identity.”
Marngrook should be celebrated in and of its own merit. It is a unique game with a rich heritage and holds an important place in our Indigenous history. But in formally endorsing the game as a progenitor to Marngrook, we are also able to ensure that this same history is championed for centuries to come. This speaks to more than just symbolism or generosity: in a country still facing up to its troubles and working to reconcile its shameful past, it is an acknowledgement of the contributions and interactions that have been ignored for too long. With a great amount of Aboriginal culture under threat, or lost to bleak moments in history, this recognition can allow that culture to live on through a game that plays a formative role in Australia’s national identity.
At its worst, sport can be a confronting reminder of how much harder we need to work as a society to remedy our future and acknowledge our dark past. But at its best, sport can promote society’s potential, becoming a beacon in an age when real politics are like a game, and real games are increasingly more political.
With thanks to the Australian Football League, the Australian Football League Players Association, Andrew Ireland and the Sydney Swans, the Port Adelaide Football Club, the Melbourne Football Club, Shelley Ware, Jenny Hocking, and the Koorie Heritage Trust.
This article was originally published in Lindsay Issue No. 1.