Friday 18 October 2019

Origins of footy again and a cautionary tale of Tutsi high jumping

Published as ‘Footy fiction’, Geelong Advertiser, Tuesday 16 October 2007, p. 15.

by Roy Hay

The recent rediscovery of an etching at the Museum of Victoria which appears to show group of Aboriginal children playing kick-to-kick possibly a year before a set of rules was drawn up for the ancestor of the game we play today has rekindled notions of an Aboriginal contribution to the origins of Australian Rules football.

But before we jump to that conclusion, consider the tale of Tutsi high jumping.

In the late nineteenth century German colonists in what was then East Africa and is now Rwanda visited the court of the Tutsi tribe.

There the king sent a couple of his young men to jump over the surprised visitors.

The ceremony was meant to demonstrate the inferiority of the newcomers to their hosts.

At some point thereafter the Duke of Mecklenburg was photographed watching a young Tutsi jump over a bar placed between two forked sticks at a height which exceeded the world record, if such existed, for the high jump at that date.

Yet you can scour the records of athletic performance since that time and you will find no signs of Tutsi holders of world records or Olympic medals for high-jumping.

What was an interesting cultural practice did not translate into a modern sport.

And the same, I’m afraid, may be true of the Aboriginal practices of marn grook played in the Western District of Victoria or the game or activity taking place in Gippsland, which involved leaping high to catch the ball which was discussed at the Sporting Traditions Conference in Canberra this year by Robert Messenger.

Messenger thought that the high mark developed by players like Charlie ‘Commotion’ Pearson, the Essendon star of the 1880s, might have derived from his early experience of what was taking place in the area in which he grew up.

As I have said before, I would love to believe that footy was influenced by Aboriginal practices in its early chaotic days, before it settled down into the sport we know today.

But my training as a social historian causes me to be very sceptical that members of the Melbourne and Geelong middle classes in the mid-nineteenth century, many of whom went to private schools modelled on, and staffed by, products of the English public schools, would look beyond their English models for the game they were evolving.

We know that Tom Wills, our local hero, who had a big influence on the game as it developed in Geelong, wrote an inspirational letter to Bell’s Life calling for a game to keep cricketers fit during the winter months.

And he was heavily involved with the Aboriginal cricketers who made the first Australian cricket tour of England in 1868.

But Wills was educated at Rugby school in England and he had less influence on the development of the rules of Australian football than his cousin Colden Harrison and Messrs Thompson, Hammersley and Smith who looked predominantly to English models.

It is very unfashionable in these days of aggressive Australian nationalism to suggest that we could learn anything from England, but our 19th century predecessors were as keen to demonstrate that they were part and parcel of the British empire as they were to claim any colonial distinctiveness.

And when they sought to draw up rules for what became the pre-eminent domestic code of football it was to England, not to Aboriginal Australia, that they turned for inspiration.

History is always changing and being reinterpreted as new evidence comes to light and new ideas impinge on the way we think about and interpret our history.

It may be that in the future we will find convincing evidence that there was a strong Aboriginal influence on our fledgling game, but so far I remain reluctantly sceptical.

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