First XI of 1868: The story of the all-Aboriginal cricket side that was Australia’s first sports team to tour overseas

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.

The team of Indigenous cricketers from western Victoria toured England in 1868.(Supplied: Harrow Discovery Centre)

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. 

An Indigenous man in stands in the doorway of a large tent. Behind him, a stage is being set up.
Wesley Enoch says he hopes one day everyone will know the story the play dramatises.(ABC Wimmera: Alexander Darling)

“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”.

No fairytale

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