On this day in history : 13th May 1868 – A cricket team made up of Aboriginal Australians arrives in England to play a series of 47 matches….ten years before the first white Australian team visits….

First Australian team of cricketers that visited England, 1868
First Australian team of cricketers that visited England – National Library of Australia via Flickr

The first Aboriginal XI match was played at the Oval on the 25th of May 1868….some 20,000 spectators attended – and not all just for the cricket…. People were fascinated – bearing in mind it was at the time when everybody was talking about Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’….many were curious about this new ‘species’…. The Times said “Their hair and beards are long and wiry, their skins vary in shades of blackness, and most of them have broadly expanded nostrils…. Having been brought up in the bush to agricultural pursuits under European settlers, they are perfectly civilised and quite familiar with the English language”….

They were also darned good at playing cricket…. Over a six month period they played 47 matches in England….one outstanding player, Johnny Mullagh, scored 1,698 runs and took 245 wickets…. Highly respected English fast bowler of the era, George Tarrant, claimed “I have never bowled to a better batsman”…. The Aboriginal team also delighted the crowds when they demonstrated their boomerang and spear throwing skills…. And in a cricket ball throwing competition they were only just narrowly beaten by a 20-year-old W.G.Grace…. All in all it was an enlightening and thoroughly successful tour….

Johnny Mullagh – Public domain

However, only a few months earlier it had appeared doubtful whether the tour would even be able to go ahead…. The Aboriginal people had been introduced to the sport by European settlers on the cattle stations in the Western District of Victoria, where many of them worked…. The Aboriginals were admired for their athletic skills and with the help of Tom Wills, Captain of the Victoria cricket team – and incidentally founder of Australian rules football – an Aboriginal XI cricket team was set up….

Coach and Captains Tom Wills, 1866 – by Samuel Calvert – Public domain

Tom Wills was indeed an extraordinary man; having grown up amongst the Aboriginal people he was able to talk to them in their own language….but what was remarkable was that he had narrowly escaped being a victim of a massacre in Queensland; 18 settlers including his father were killed by local Aboriginals….

The team played their first official match against Melbourne Cricket Club on the 26th of December 1866 and were captained by Wills…. Although they lost the match they well and truly earned the respect of the opposing team, spectators and Press alike….

the Aboriginal Cricket Team pictured with their captain and coach Tom Wills at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 1866 – Public domain

Shortly afterwards entrepreneur Captain Gurnett persuaded the team to travel to Sydney….the proposed plan was for a tour of the Colonies and then England…. Obviously this kind of ambitious venture does not come cheap and a large amount of money had to be raised…. However, when the Aboriginal XI team arrived in Sydney in February 1867 they were to discover that Gurnett had embezzled their funds….they were left stranded…. Through the generosity of public donations they were able to finish their tour of New South Wales but then in May had to return to Victoria….

Fortunately new financial backers were found and former Surrey professional cricketer, Charles Lawrence, became their coach and manager…. Finally they were on their way to England….

The Aboriginal team playing team playing against Melbourne Cricket Club, 1867 – by Samuel Calvert – Public domain

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