Aboriginal and Māori sportsmen

The Natives prepare to play in Queensland in July 1889 on the homeward leg of the tour.

Aboriginal and Māori Sportsmen

The story of the Aboriginal cricket tour of 1868 – a decade before the first white Australian team went to Britain – has been told by John Mulvaney in Cricket Walkabout (Melbourne, 1967). They won as many matches as they lost, and were praised for their 'steady' yet 'wristy' (an adjective often applied to non-Caucasian cricketers) batting and 'thrilling' fielding (for which hunting in the outback was thought to have prepared them) as well as their 'sturdy limbs' and 'deep chests'. They were judged by The Times to be 'perfectly civilized' and 'quite familiar with the English language'.

However, the Aboriginals were closely confined by their promoter, who forced them into a playing schedule which caused 'an amount of fatigue that now seems incredible'. They had to mount exhibitions of 'Australian' and 'native sports', including boomerang and spear throwing, after every match. Several developed serious drinking problems during the tour, one died of tuberculosis, and two others had to be sent home ill. Only one achieved any subsequent cricketing fame.

How did the Natives compare? More successful in terms of results, they were also complimented for their physique (frequently being described as bigger than their opponents) and playing abilities. Apart from performing a haka – a practice which they seem to have soon discontinued – they were not expected to parade their indigenous culture before the paying public. And because most were of European as well as Māori descent, they didn't stand out too strongly from the English.

Whereas the Aboriginals remained objects of curiosity, the Natives settled into a routine not unlike that of their All Black successors, or of white sportsmen from the colonies. It appears that they sometimes stood up to their promoter when his demands to play and attend functions became too much to bear. Assembled from around the country and with previous experience of representative tours, they were much more worldly-wise than their counterparts from the Gippsland bush. A dozen were to play representative rugby after the tour was over.

However, the contrast should not be exaggerated. Several of the Native players declined quickly into alcoholism or psychiatric illness, and many died young. Youthful sporting prowess was no guarantee of continuing health or success for indigenous members of a colonial society once their ability to make money for others had been exhausted.

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