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First organised Australian team to go to England: Aboriginal cricketers

Many thanks to the National Museum of Australia for opening this amazing story to analysis. Friendly cricket games were an important aspect of early colonial society in Australia. Then by the 1850s, First-Class Cricket developed as a result of clubs being formally established. In 1851 the first inter-colonial match was played at Launceston between a Port Phillip team and a Van Diemen’s Land team.

So it was inevitable that Australian cricketers would want to travel back to England. What was not inevitable was that the first Australian cricket team to travel overseas was an Aboriginal team! Starting in the Western District of Victoria, where cricket was played on many stations, the Aboriginal team consisted of station hands and stockmen. Coached by local pastoralist William Hayman, this owner of Lake Wallace station formed a team of 13 men from three tribes. Hayman arranged a match in Melbourne for Boxing Day 1866 and whilst the team lost to the Melbourne Cricket Club, the large crowd loved the match.

Entrepreneur Captain Gurnett persuaded the men to begin a planned tour of the Australian colonies and England. However, after their arrival in Sydney, Gurnett embezzled the funds raised to finance the enterprise, leaving the team stranded. Charles Lawrence, an ex-All England player who had remained in Australia after the 1862 tour, took over coaching the team and raised enough funds for them to continue. They completed a tour of NSW before returning to Victoria in May where four players unfortunately became very ill.

Another attempt to organise a tour of England was started by new financial backers; the new Aboriginal team included the surviving members of the 1866 side, plus a handful of new players. On Boxing Day 1866, in front of 10,000+ spectators, this team played the Melbourne Cricket Club.

Bell's Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle reported: "Seldom has a match created more excitement in Melbourne than the one under notice, and never within our recollection has a match given rise to so much feeling on behalf of the spectators." The Sydney Mail said "A dark skin suddenly became a passport to the good graces of Victorians."

A poster was produced as part of the promotion of the 1868 tour that depicted each of the players, either in a traditional cricket stance or holding an Indigenous weapon. The photos were taken in Warrnambool and assembled into a composite souvenir lithograph: Australian Aboriginal Cricketers. 

Australian Aboriginal Cricketers 
The cricketers were selected from the stations the men worked on.
National Museum of Australia. 

Led by William Hayman and coached by Charles Lawrence, the First Aboriginal XI Australian cricket team left Sydney in Feb 1868, the first time an organised sporting group had travelled to England as Australian representatives.

The players were Johnny Mullagh, Bullocky, Sundown, Dick-a-Dick, Johnny Cuzens, King Cole, Red Cap, Twopenny, Charley Dumas, Jimmy Mosquito, Tiger, Peter and Jim Crow. Some were exceptional athletes and some just made up the numbers. The top player was all-rounder Johnny Mullagh - he made 1,698 runs, took 245 wickets and made 4 stumpings as wicket-keeper.

Sadly King Cole died from TB and was buried in Tower Hamlets in London. Sundown & Jim Crow went home from to ill-health. Cuzens died of dysentery the following year.

As well as cricket, the team also performed a range of traditional sports and displayed skills like boomerang and spear throwing at the conclusion of a match. These Aboriginal sports often drew large crowds, impressed by the unusual skills.

The first event was at Surrey’s home ground, drawing 20,000 spectators! They played a total of 47 matches across England in a six month period, winning 14, losing 14 and drawing 19; a surprisingly good result for the Australians.

The tour earned mixed reactions in England. The Sporting Life said: The Australian Aboriginal cricket team arrived in London in May 1868 and were met with fascination - that being the period of the evolutionary controversies following publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859. The Times described the tourists as, "the conquered natives of a convict colony’a travestie upon cricketing at Lord's and the conquered natives of a convict colony." The Daily Telegraph said that, "nothing of interest comes from Australia except gold nuggets and black cricketers."

Advertising poster for the 1868 tour

Questions about the civilising aspects of cricket, the intentions of the organisers and the skill of the players were also raised. The Times said “it must not be inferred that they are savages; on the contrary … They are perfectly civilised, having been brought up in the bush to agricultural pursuits under European settlers, and are quite familiar with the English language." Good grief.

The team arrived back in Sydney in Feb 1869 and split up. Twopenny moved to New South Wales and played for the colony against Victoria in 1870. Mullagh became a professional with the Melbourne Cricket Club and represented Victoria against England’s 1879 touring team. The other cricketers returned to rural station life.

The Central Board for Aborigines introduced the Aboriginal Protection Act in Victoria 1869, making it illegal to remove Aborigines from the colony without the approval of the Government’s Protector of Aborigines. This Act made it very difficult for Aboriginal cricket players to play competitive cricket. Apparently the successful tour in Britain had changed nothing at home.

John Mullagh lived, worked and died in Harrow in the Wimmera; his statue stands in the Harrow Discovery Centre, along with other 1866 artefacts.

The Aboriginal team sailed from Australia in 1868 for a series of matches against county teams, ten years BEFORE the first Australian XI team travelled to England. The 47 matches the men played between May and Oct 1868 created a gruelling schedule against middle-level English teams. The tour made headlines in England and Australia, marking an important moment in British Empire cricketing history, racial relations and Australian national identity. But how celebrated were the cricketers, once had they finished the tour?


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