First XI of 1868: The story of the all-Aboriginal cricket side that was Australia’s first sports team to tour overseas
Posted On April 3, 2022
When thousands of people from across the world attended the public memorial for Shane Warne at the MCG, the day of love and legacy was further proof of how Australia’s identity is inextricably linked with the stories of its athletes.
But Warne’s was not the only sporting story commemorated in Victoria last week that offered a glimpse into who we are.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this story contains an image of people who have died.
The tale of Australia’s first sports team to tour overseas, an all-Aboriginal cricket side known as the First XI of 1868, was brought to life in a performance by an entirely Indigenous cast.
The play Black Cockatoo tells the story of 13 cricket players who learned the game from the west Wimmera settlers whose farms they worked on.
Partly trained by British cricketer Charles Lawrence and Australian Rules football founder Tom Wills, the men played across Victoria before being smuggled out of the state to play in the UK.
With dazzling athleticism, they won or drew 33 of the 47 games they played against British sides in 1868, even while mourning the death of teammate King Cole from tuberculosis.
The play is a tale of triumph, racism, exploitation, illness, culture clash and truth, and references the intense discussion among Indigenous Australians over what they want to achieve with truth-telling.
Director Wesley Enoch says having an entirely Indigenous cast, even for white characters, ensures First Nations people own the story that means so much to them.
“I think we are in a phase of history now around ideas of sovereignty and treaty, and art and sport have always played a very important role in making sure stories are being told,” he says.
As one of the actors, Joseph Althouse, says, “In Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal Australia, we are still asking these questions of how our old people found the courage and the strength to survive. So to have this story, it really is a beautiful metaphor”.
In the play, young Indigenous activists sneak into the Wimmera Discovery Centre, and uncover the truth of what happened to Jardwadjali man Unaarrimin — also known as Johnny Mullagh — and his cricket team.
Hundreds of people watched the performance on Johnny Mullagh Oval in Harrow, one of the towns where it all began, in the 1860s.
Most of the plot of Black Cockatoo reflects exactly what happened.
Wotjobaluk man Uncle Richard Kennedy, the play’s cultural consultant, says when the players returned from England, they weren’t treated like national heroes.
“They were just dumped in Sydney, they had to find their own way home,” he says.
“They never got any pay at all even though they were promised 50 pounds each. They did make some money when they demonstrated their skills at shows after the cricket match, but the tour wasn’t profitable.
“They thought it would be a way of making money so they could support their families back in Australia, that’s probably one of the reasons why they did it.”
Many in the team had to live out their days in missions created while they were overseas, as part of the Victorian Aboriginal Protection Act.
“They were meant to go onto missions to Christianise them and also protect them and help them live their lives because everyone thought [Indigenous people] were going to die out,” Uncle Richard says.
The group’s star, Johnny Mullagh, continued playing cricket in Victoria on his return, and lived out his days at a waterhole near Harrow.
His grave, which venerates him as a world-renowned athlete, lies in the cemetery overlooking the town.
The story of the First XI
Black Cockatoo is the latest in a series of initiatives to better recognise the First XI’s story.
In the nearby centre of Horsham, a silo will be painted later this year to commemorate the story of a member of the team, Yanggendyinanyuk, also known as Dick-A-Dick.
Along with two other Indigenous trackers, Dick-A-Dick saved three children lost in Victoria’s desert in 1864.
Meanwhile, the best player in Melbourne’s boxing day test now wins the Johnny Mullagh medal.
Last year, it was won by Indigenous bowler Scott Boland.
Before he created his own piece of sporting history, taking 6/7 off four overs on the third day, Boland visited Harrow in 2018 as part of the 150th anniversary of the First XI tour.
The 32-year-old is only the second Indigenous man to play test cricket for Australia.
But Justin Mohamed, co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cricket Advisory Council, is confident he won’t be the last.
“We have a number of players now coming through to that elite level, which wasn’t the case a number of years ago and the question was: ‘Why that hasn’t happened?'” he said.
Cricket Australia data suggests from 2017-18 to 2020-21, participation in the sport among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people nationwide grew by 23 per cent.
Aside from Boland, there were four other male and five female Indigenous cricketers in the most recent Big Bash seasons. One of them, Ash Gardner, played in Sunday’s Women’s World Cup win over England.
Where a story fits in a nation’s history
Uncle Richard is a descendent of Dick-A-Dick’s, and he says it’s important that when the story is told, the less pleasant aspects aren’t omitted.
“The whole thing is, I think, a way of giving everybody in Australia the history of Australia, because it is part of our history, and part of cricket,” he says.
“They were taken across as skilled people, they learned the game within four years of picking it up, and toured England.
The play’s run of shows down the east coast comes at a critical point in Victoria’s relationship with its past.
Eleven days ago, the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Australia’s first-ever Indigenous truth-telling exercise, began hearing evidence of the intergenerational trauma suffered by First Nations people during and after colonisation.
Mr Enoch is hopeful that in coming years, the town of Harrow and the Boxing Day Test (and Black Cockatoo) won’t be the only places giving due credit to the story of the First XI.
“What I’m hearing a lot from audiences is a sense of, ‘How come I didn’t know about this?'” he says.
“I like to think that what we will see in the future is every time we hit a ball with a bat, we will go, ‘Oh hey, remember that story from 1868?'”