Studying Australian history often feels more like uncovering some sprawling conspiracy. Buried underneath all the accounts of white explorers, convicts, bushrangers, miners and diggers is a vast bedrock of black history. The more you dig the more connections you find but the full story always seems to remain hidden.
The reasons for this cover-up have differed slightly depending on the time and place. During the early years of settlement British authorities carefully censored records of indigenous Australians to prop up their legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ – declaring that the whole continent of Australia was literally ‘nobody’s land’. Meanwhile accounts of resistance by indigenous peoples were suppressed in the coastal settlements to avoid panicking colonists even as they were exaggerated on the frontiers to justify massacres and reprisals.
This selective attention on indigenous Australia continued as the colonies grew. In one prominent example scholars towards the end of the 19th century declared that a woman named Truganini was the ‘Last Tasmanian’. Colonial authorities in Australia and America made similar ‘Last of. . .’ pronouncements for other tribes and other peoples in a conscious effort to distance themselves from responsibility for the indigenous communities that remained. Their fixation on the idea of racial purity allowed them to close the chapter on indigenous history even as their struggle for rights and recognition went on.
As Australia went from a penal-colony to an independent nation discomfort over the status of indigenous Australians prompted authorities to push those communities further into the margins of white society. Reservations and mission stations administered by the Aboriginal Protection Boards were established all over the country in an effort to promote ‘assimilation’.
It took until 1962 for the federal government to extend voting rights to indigenous Australians. In the following decades some effort was made to acknowledge the damage that had been done but a push for a formal treaty and a growing acceptance of the idea of ‘native title’ prompted a backlash from reactionaries. Rather than a public debate that might air the grievances of indigenous Australians conservative public figures like John Howard waged a culture war against what they called the ‘black armband view of Australian history’. Their fear, never fully acknowledged, was that reflecting on the violence of colonisation would open the door for further land claims and draw attention to the ongoing abuse of indigenous people. Howard understood that a full reckoning of Australian history would permanently discredit the image that white Australia had built for itself- a myth of fairness and equality of opportunity. In the process they relegated countless stories of indigenous struggle and achievement to obscurity.
Long before Howard’s culture war hard-fought campaigns had already been waged to give wider recognition to the contributions of indigenous Australians. One of the first anglo-Australians to recognise the neglect of indigenous history was the anthropologist William Stanner. In 1968 Stanner wrote about what he called ‘The Great Australian Silence’:
It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned, under habit and over time, into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.
The few indigenous Australians to overcome that cult of forgetfulness were athletes that managed to gain recognition on the world stage. As they racked up world titles figures like Lionel Rose, Evonne Goolagong and Cathy Freeman became too prominent for anyone to ignore. More than any other aspect of Australian society it has been sport that has provided the closest thing to a levelling effect for indigenous Australia. But the recognition of exceptional athletes was only possible because the indigenous communities they came from continually pushed back against the obstacles put in place by white society to keep their people out of contention.
The story of the Cummeragunja Invincibles is just one of those stories. The Invincibles were a football team drawn from the Yorta Yorta people living on a mission reserve called Cummeragunja on the Murray river. Before white settlement the Yorta Yorta Nation^ had encompassed an area of central Victoria roughly 200,000 square kilometers spanning from the Dhungala (Murray) river past Echuca in the west to the edge of the Victorian alps in the east.
In 1835 a European settlement was established at Port Phillip and the new colony quickly spread out to encompass vast stretches of what is now the state of Victoria. The frontier wars that took place during the land grab have been neglected in historical accounts of the era but the results of those conflicts were undeniably devastating. In the fifty years following the arrival of white settlers in Port Phillip almost all of the Yorta Yorta were killed or displaced. By the 1880s only about 200 people remained. The community at ‘Cummera’ was made up of survivors from a handful of clans who were confined to a mission station near Barmah under the authority of one of New South Wales’ newly established Aboriginal Protection Boards (APB).
Living conditions at stations like Cummera largely depended on the station managers that the APB appointed. The managers exercised almost complete control over every aspect of life on the mission. Some were conscientious and tried to improve conditions on the mission, others were domineering and violent. One former resident at Cummera, Ronald Morgan, later wrote his opinion of the APB’s overseers.
We have had fifteen managers of various types. We have had those who preferred to come with their Bible and those that favoured their bullets and batons, each one believing as he came that he would in his way “achieve a revival and bring things back” (to use one of the manager’s expressions) to their former glory. But they did not take long to find out that their castles were built on old foundations and soon crumbled away. There was unrest on Cummeragunja for many years
One of the appointees that had the interests of the community at heart was not a manager but a teacher sent by the Department of Public Instruction to run the school at the station. Thomas Shadrach James had travelled to Australia from the British-controlled Mauritius to study medicine but found his calling teaching and campaigning on behalf of the community at Cummera. The Protections Board insisted that no indigenous children be educated beyond the fourth grade but James quietly established a ‘scholars hut’ at Cummera where he provided further education to residents of all ages. Several of his pupils went on to become unionists, writers and spokespeople for the indigenous community – including activists like Jack Patten, William Cooper and Douglas Nicholls. Years later William Cooper established the Australian Aborigines League – the first indigenous civil rights organisation recognised by the Australian Government.
For their part the local authorities at the time were busy congratulating themselves simply for establishing the mission station. In a telling excerpt from an 1899 article in The Riverine Herald the writer explained that;
“the population of Cummeragunja today is 205 souls. The conditions under which they live are pleasing to dwell on, as they serve to show that the British race, though their civilising encroachments have resulted in the practical extermination of the aborigines, are mindful of the duty devolving on them to care for the remnants of the race which once owned this valuable continent…The population consists of a good number of elderly men and women, a large proportion of active-looking young men and young girls and a whole host of little picaninnies who race about from morning till night. Apart from the harvest work and all that is necessary about the place a number of young men – many of whom are well known in cricketing circles—go away shearing every year, whilst the women look after the houses and housework.
Residents had to seek permission to leave the station but, even in Cummera’s earliest days, the community was never fully isolated from the white settlers around them. As the article indicates; residents did seasonal work on nearby stations, picked fruit, worked the land on the mission station and sold the produce to towns all along the river.
When war broke out in Europe in 1914 military service offered the first opportunity for Aboriginal men to earn a wage equal to white men and to stand on equal footing despite their lack of citizenship. Dozens of Yorta Yorta men attempted to enlist but, initially at least, the AIF only accepted Aboriginal applicants with at least one white parent. As the war dragged on the women on the reserve knitted care packages for the troops and waited for news of sons and brothers and husbands. One of Willam Cooper’s nephew’s, Joshua, returned home after being badly wounded at Poziers in 1917. A few months later Cooper received word that his son Daniel had been killed on the front line in Ypres.
Throughout the early years of white settlement the men from Cummeragunja had played football and cricket with the Europeans. While cricket had been played in one form or another since the 16th century Australian Rules Football began to be developed in the 1850s in the colony at Port Phillip. One of the game’s earliest proponents was a man named Tom Wills who helped codify the rules and pushed for formal clubs to be established – mainly to ensure that cricket players kept fit during winter. In doing so he took inspiration from an indigenous game known as ‘marngrook’. It’s not certain whether ‘marngrook’ referred to the game or the possum-skin ball it was played with but the word itself comes from the language of the Mukjarrawaint people native to the Gariwerd (Grampians) region of north-western Victoria where Wills grew up.
Suggestions that indigenous games had an influence on Australian Rules Football have been contested by many people over the years – mainly on grounds that Wills never explicitly acknowledged his inspiration for the game. But what is clear is that Wills spent his childhood on Mukjarrawaint lands, spoke their language, knew their songs and undoubtedly witnessed their games. Descriptions provided by the first settlers mention many of the features that came to be codified in the ‘Australian Rules’*. They refer to a game that involved two large teams (organised according to their clan’s animal totems) which favoured kicking and marking to keep the ball off the ground and in play. In 1858 the Assistant Protector of Aborigines, William Thomas, described the game this way;
‘The Marngrook (or the Ball) is a favourite game with boys and men … the ball is kicked into the air not along the ground, there is a general scramble at the ball, the tall black fellows stand the best chance. When caught it is again kicked up in the air with great force and ascends as straight up and as high as when thrown by the hand.’
By the time Cummeragunja was established in 1888 Australian Rules Football was being played all over the districts and the men from Cummera quickly established their own team. Their club secretary, Thomas James, sent a letter to the Bendigo Football Association in 1894 offering to put on an exhibition match complete with corroboree dancing and boomerang demonstrations. All he asked in return was for assistance collecting tickets and finding accommodation for the players. One account of the reaction from the Bendigo club gives an insight into attitudes at the time:
“the letter created much merriment among the delegates. The hand writing was excellent, so much so as to leave one in a state of doubt as to how an apparently educated person could be so unsophisticated as to seriously forward such a ‘large order’.”
Despite similar brush-offs by neighbouring leagues the Cummeragunja team managed to gain membership in the Nathalia District Football Association and by the late 1890s they had become a force to be reckoned with. They went undefeated through the 1898 and 1899 seasons and those successes led to invitations to play exhibition matches all over Victoria. After a win against South Bendigo in July 1900 the Bendigo Advertiser reported that spectators at the game:
“scarcely expected to see such a capital exhibition as was given by the mission station team. South Bendigo was fairly well represented, and none of the team anticipated that the visitors would display so thorough a knowledge of the game. The visitors outplayed the South at every department of the game, except kicking and high marking. The ground work of the mission team was well nigh perfect, and their running with the ball roused the spectators to enthusiasm.”
As well as football the men from Cummeragunja proved themselves to be some of the best runners in the country. In 1926 the 21 year old Lynch Cooper (another son of William Cooper) entered into the Deniliquin athletics carnival and took out every sprint race on the program. Two years later he placed a hefty bet on himself and won the premiere running race in Australia – the Stawell Gift. The following year, when Melbourne hosted the World Professional Sprint Championship, Cooper became the first indigenous Australian to win a world sporting title.
The legacy of the Cummeragunja sprinters is still visible in athletics today – in the form of the worldwide adoption of the crouch start. While starting blocks are a recent innovation the fundamental technique of starting a sprint from a crouch was pioneered by a Yorta Yorta man named Bobby MacDonald who became famous for launching off the mark with the aid of small foot-holds that he dug into the turf before each race. Before Bobby foot races had always begun from a standing start.
On the football field star players like Doug Nicholls tried out for the professional leagues in Melbourne in the 1920s. Nicholls was selected by Carlton in 1926 but the trainers wouldn’t touch him and the players refused to share the dressing room with an Aboriginal man. Despite discrimination and abuse – on and off the field – Nicholls managed to secure a spot in the Northcote Football club playing in the VFA. He was named ‘best and fairest’ twice and ended up playing for Fitzroy for most of the 1930s.
Throughout his career Nicholls took every opportunity to highlight the situation at Cummera and the conditions of aboriginal people in general but changes in attitude were still a long way off. When the Cummeragunga football team proposed an exhibition match against the VFA in 1936 a news report quoted a VFA councillor who declared that allowing the match would ‘make a burlesque out of the Association’. When Haydn Bunton, one of Fitzroy’s early stars, joined the team he noticed that Nicholls got changed by himself in a far corner of the dressing room. When asked why he didn’t join the other players Nicholls shrugged and told him ‘you know how it is’. From that point on Bunton made a point of staying close to his teammate but Nicholls had, by that stage, grown accustomed to being an outsider – he’d already played five seasons for the club.
Years later Nicholls led an indigenous All-Star side against Northcote in front of a crowd of 10,000 people and helped raise funds for an indigenous welfare organisation that he had established. Meanwhile the Cummeragunja team cemented their ‘invincible’ reputation in the Western Riding and Moira Football Association. Between 1926 and 1931, Cummeragunja won the premiership five times in six seasons. In response the league instituted a new rule banning players over the age of 25 – a cap that excluded most of Cummera’s best players. The team was forced to withdraw from the league in 1932.
Cummera managed to join the Echuca league in 1939 but, by that stage, conditions on the mission station had deteriorated. Over the previous years the APB had instituted a policy of removing lighter-skinned aboriginal children and putting them with white families or training them in group homes for domestic service. Anger over the state-sanctioned kidnappings, combined with a violent station manager and the confiscation of farming plots boiled over in February 1939. Led by writer and activist Jack Patten two hundred residents of Cummeragunja defied the authority of the APB and left the mission. They took advantage of the state border and mounted their protest on the Victorian side of the river – just outside the authority of the NSW protection board. The ‘Cummeragunja Walk-Off’, as it became known, was the first collective strike by indigenous Australians and a milestone in the struggle for indigenous rights.
Over the following years the community remained scattered but a large number of Cummera exiles established themselves on the floodplains between Shepparton and Mooroopna in a makeshift village dubbed the ‘the flats’. According to the history of the modern club;
Homes were built from whatever materials were available, mostly hessian bags and kerosene tins, and the land flooded often – leaving most homes underwater. There were outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid and food was often scarce.
Despite the harsh living conditions there was freedom on the flats and the community got by with seasonal work. The men formed a football team known as the ‘All Blacks’ to compete in the Central Golburn Valley football league in 1946. Yet again the core of their team were the men, now in their forties, who had been part of the original ‘invincibles’ and had been brought back to the game by Nicholls for his charity match against the VFA. Yet again they lived up to their name. In their first year the All Blacks steamrolled the competition and went on to win the grand final – beating Toolamba 117 to 93. The next year they were summarily dropped from the league.
The community remained on the flats until 1954 when a visit by the British Crown spurred on the Victorian government to provide housing for the Cummera exiles. Shepparton was on the Queen’s itinerary so the city council hurriedly tried to screen off the view onto the shanty town by putting up a wall of hessian fabric along the causeway between Shepparton and Moroopna.
While the white community hurried to make preparations for the royal visit the kids from the flats found their own uses for the material that had been strung up along the bridge. By the time the Queen’s motorcade drove through the flats the living conditions of the former Cummera residents were clearly visible. Inquiries were made and the Victorian government finally began to look for housing for the people living on the floodplain. During the 60s and 70s the ‘Aboriginal Sunday’ that had been established by Doug Nicholls to draw attention to Indigenous issues evolved into the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) and the community around Shepparton used the occasion each year to travel and play matches across the country.
But the inclusion of a Yorta Yorta team in the local sporting leagues proved to be always just out of reach. Every time the community found enough players the league officials would move the goal posts – insisting on further requirements or facilities to match those of other clubs.
Finally, in 1997, the Rumbalara Football Netball Club was established at an oval in Shepparton and the community was allowed to join the Central Goulburn Valley league once again. The next year the senior football team and the B-grade netballers fought their way through to the grand final. Mark Atkinson, the playing coach for the side recalled;
“Cummeragunja was on everyone’s lips with the conversations around on the day. We were all thinking about that 1898 premiership.”
It proved to be a tough game but in the final quarter, with Rumbalara in the lead, both players and supporters began to realise that ‘Rumba’ was going to win. On the netball courts the women also prevailed – coming from behind to win by two points. John Murray, the club’s co-founder, described the victories as a vindication:
“All those years of keeping together through the hard times were finally rewarded. . .I was seeing what was going on in the newspapers, headlines like ‘Rumba at the top’. It was wonderful.
Since then the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club (RFNC) has won a total of twenty premierships between their various football and netball divisions. The club has become a hub for the Yorta Yorta community in the region and former players like Chris Egan and Jarrod Atkinson have made it to highest level of the sport – playing in the AFL for Collingwood and Essendon respectively. As of 2019 Rumbalara fields 13 teams of Netball and Football players with almost 250 young people participating from week to week. The club also works in partnership with a number of education and employment programs to provide support services to the community around Shepparton and Mooroopna.
The history book commissioned by Rumbalara in 2010 put the revival of the club at the center of efforts to rebuild the community;
“it had become a social hub for our people. . .For years we had spoken, with bleak humour, about funerals being the only chance we ever got to meet up. Now sport had become a kind of social glue, just as it had been in the days of Cummeragunja and the Flats, creating a space for Koori families to come together. This achievement also created a unique opportunity. It offered us, as a club, a chance to go beyond playing football and netball to work towards something greater; the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of our community”
In recent years many state and federal governments as well as the Australian Football League and the Australian War Memorial have all taken steps to highlight the contributions of indigenous Australians. In most cases they’ve attempted to pay tribute to their achievements without dwelling on the prejudices and the discrimination that made them so remarkable. At best those additions balance out the historical record and prompt more interest from the general public. At worst they whitewash the experiences of the men and women they claim to represent.
Thanks to concerted efforts by several clubs over the years to seek out talent in remote communities, players with indigenous ancestry now make up more than 10% of the roster – well above the 2% figure given for the wider population. In 2016 the AFL named their indigenous round in honor of Doug Nicholls and, in an effort to clear the air, Carlton Football club issued an apology to Nicholls’ descendants for the way he was treated by the club.
As important as they were, those small steps towards reconciliation still took place under the shadow of Adam Goodes final season playing for the Sydney Swans where he was booed by opposition crowds for 17 games straight for taking a stand against racism. The AFL recently issued an apology to Goodes for their inaction at the time. They also used that moment to make their first official acknowledgement of the indigenous history of the code. But the spectacle of booing crowds and the stubborn refusal by media personalities to acknowledge racism within the sport suggests that attitudes haven’t changed nearly as much as we would have hoped in the last one hundred years.
To ensure that stories like that of Cummeragunja Invincibles become part of our popular culture we have to keep reminding one another of where we’ve come from. That’s the only way to avoid succumbing to Stanner’s ‘cult of forgetfulness’.
Special Thanks to Kylie Briggs from Rumbalara Football Netball Club for introducing me to the history of the club. Thanks also to writer Athas Zafiris from Shoot Farkin for the amazing primary source material he found researching his article on Cummeragunja Footballers.
Article in The Conversation on the legacy of Douglas Nicholls – The land we play on: equality doesn’t mean justice –
Article in The Conversation on the origins of Australian Rules football – Indigenous players didn’t invent Australian rules but did make it their own
University of Newcastle Interactive map of the frontier wars – Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930
Biography of Douglas Nicholls on Boyles Football Photos – Doug Nicholls and the Football Hall of Fame
First-hand descriptions of marngrook compiled by Ruth Gooch – Another Look at Marn Grook
Official Website of the Rumbalara Football Netball Club – rfnc.com.au
*My favourite description of marngrook is by a settler in the western district called James Dawson who included a nice little jab at the anglo tendency to elevate celebrity sportspeople to political office.
“This game, which is somewhat similar to the white man’s game of football, is very rough; but as the players are barefoot and naked, they do not hurt each other so much as the white people do; nor is the fact of an aborigine being a good football player considered to entitle him to assist in making laws for the tribe to which he belongs.”
^Names of tribal groups that are doubled up like Yorta Yorta or Watiwati generally indicate that their lands exist on both sides of a river.