This article discusses colonial violence against First Nations peoples. Mention of those who are now dead.
A new disclosure has been made by researcher Gary Fearon that Tom Wills, the cricketer and founder of Australian (Rules) football, was an active participant in the mass murder of Aboriginal people. Research confirms that Wills was involved in attacks on the Gyrie people in Queensland in response to the murder of his father.
The new evidence uncovered by Fearon reflects the complex politics of settler-tribal relations at the time. Through his connections with Aboriginal peoples, Tom Wills essentially existed on the border between settlers and indigenous peoples.
This discovery challenges the popular understanding of Tom Wills as the peaceful friend of all Aboriginal peoples. It will be interesting to see how the Australian Football League (AFL) and Cricket Australia react now that the information has finally been made public.
Tom Wills as a Cultured Person
There is a common misconception that tribal people exist as a group. However, a great diversity exists within Aboriginal communities in Australia; A fact seen in the AIATSIS map of the continent. This is why Wills treated the Gyri people as hostile outsiders, despite having links with the Jab Wurung people.
It is also important to remember that the cultural values and attitudes of the 1860s are not the same as those of 2020. Men and masculinity were somewhat different at the time and violent vendetta was at the heart of it. 19th century Australia was a violent place. However, this in no way justifies atrocities against First Nations peoples.
Tom Wills spent his early childhood in western Victoria with the Jab Wurung people, and spoke the language. After his father was murdered by the Gyri people, Wills returned to Victoria and worked with Aboriginal cricketers, the Jardwadjali, Gunditjamara and Wotjobaluk peoples of western Victoria.
The contemporary celebration of Tom Wills as the father of Australian football and as a pillar of settler-aboriginal relations is one-dimensional, demonstrating our inability to deal with the messiness of Australia’s colonial history. Wills participated in colonial violence, a fact highlighted in the genocide map showing the extent to which violence was displayed along the border.
Most of the killings following the Gerry attack, where Wills’ father died, were carried out by government-funded Indigenous and non-Indigenous Queensland Native Police. A piece of history that has caused great pain to Aboriginal people in Australia.
This is an example of a colonial truth that is often difficult to discuss. Like Wills’ involvement in retaliation for his father’s murder, it is far easier to understand the border as representing the line between good and evil or right and wrong. That Wills, like the local police, are trapped in this line is often difficult to contemplate.
An 1895 Chicago Tribute article suggests that Wills was involved in the murder of 40 Gyrie men in response to the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre (of which his father was a victim), but may have planned the attack with Wills. by stating:
I turned to the drivers, who were crying like children, and ordered them to gallop to the neighboring “run” to spread the news.
The Cullin-la-Ringo massacre in which 19 people were killed is known as the largest genocide of Europeans by Aboriginal peoples in the history of Australia. The total death toll of the Aboriginal people as a result of retaliation for the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre is estimated at between 370–1,000.
In my research, I have found that Australia’s refusal and systemic oblivion to colonial violence and forced assimilation of Aboriginal peoples is an indicator of whiteness. The need to forget and deny the past is white in order to be able to claim Australia as home in the present.
So Fearon’s discovery is a pivotal moment for the AFL. Will the AFL use this as an opportunity to engage in an honest discussion of its history and culture or to turn a blind eye, in denial, and distance itself?
opportunity to speak the truth and reconcile
Australian (Rules) football has played a role in shaping contemporary Australia and is celebrated as a pillar of contemporary race relations in Australia. For example, Joe Johnson is celebrated as the first indigenous VFL player. However, he was not actually able to reveal his tribalism at the time, as it would have ended his football career, a fact overlooked today.
The AFL must move beyond enlightened racism and symbolic reconciliation to eventually accept Marangrook as the Aboriginal forerunner of Australian (Rules) football, and the importance of Aboriginal cultural knowledge and practice in Australian (Rules) football.
The AFL needs to understand racism such as the examples exemplified in the 2019 documentaries “The Australian Dream” and “The Final Quarter” as a symptom of a colonial culture of exclusion, denial and hyper-masculinity. Both documentaries referenced Adam Goodes’ experiences as an Aboriginal man within an organizational structure that does not understand the nuances of race and racism.
If the AFL really wants to be a leader in the fight against racism, it must first accept the mess, the uncomfortable realities of exclusion and a legacy of marginal violence. More must be done beyond overdue apologies.
Instead of whitewashing this discussion, listen to the tribal people, sit with the history as well as the contemporary truths. Despite the AFL’s racial slurs rules and the introduction of annual education seminars, these issues are not going away.
Indigenous players continue to experience racism and are unable to adopt their culture within a game that traces its origins to interactions with the Dejab Wurung people of Wills.
Although the AFL has development programs for indigenous players, the AFL remains an unsafe place for indigenous peoples. The AFL needs to address white privilege by allowing them to all educate, reconcile and tell the truth over Aboriginal people.
To paraphrase AFL footballer Eddie Bates, it’s not meant to shift changes on Aboriginal people. This change begins with honest dialogue and recognizing the ugly truth of our shared history. Truth-telling is fundamental to any reconciliation process and highlights strategies the AFL can use to move forward in a culturally respectful and appropriate manner.
If Wills is to become a figure of truth and reconciliation through his meaningful tribal-settler relationships, then the reality of that relationship needs to be acknowledged. It is the truth that makes reconciliation possible. If a history needs to be rewritten, it is one that draws on Aboriginal perspectives, centers Aboriginal voices and makes racism a responsibility of non-Indigenous peoples. For too long the First Nations people have had to bear the burden of our complacency.
Instead of removing or changing the record, tribute to Tom Wills as the famous father of Australian (Rules) football, give it an opportunity for change to tackle our shared difficult history. We have to learn to live with the shame and trouble of our history and try to understand what the tribal people experience in this country. We can’t do that if Tom Wills is erased from public memory.