Racial hurdles

The Aboriginal Experience of genocide, suicide and sport

THERE IS ONLY one viable, actionable, and judiciable template for what is and what isn’t genocide: the UN Genocide Convention of 1948. Genocide, legally, is restricted to national, ethnic, racial and religious groups, regrettably excluding politically defined victims (like Lenin’s and Stalin’s ‘enemies of the people’ in the 1920s and Communists in Indonesia in the 1960s). Any one of five acts constitute the crime: physical killing; causing serious bodily or mental harm; creating conditions calculated to destroy a people, in whole or in part; non-consensual sterilisation; and forcible removal of children from one group to another.

In its treatment of Indigenous people, Australia committed at least three, if not four of them.

At least twenty to thirty thousand Aboriginal Australians were killed in massacres between the first at Risdon Cove in Tasmania in 1804 and the last at Coniston Station in the Northern Territory in 1928. In Australia’s Unthinkable Genocide (Xlibris, 2017) I list seventy massacre sites, but the better-informed historians Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds have now mapped at least double that number. At first, the killing was by settlers – the private genocide phase – then by state violence through the native police troops (1840s through to 1900), described by Reynolds as the most violent organisations in Australian history.

In 1896, Queensland appointed Scottish journalist and one-time parliamentarian Archibald Meston to investigate the slaughter of Aboriginal people in the colony. ‘Coloured by prejudice, distorted by ignorance’, the settlers ‘committed shameful deeds’; ‘the strictest isolation of Aborigines’, he wrote, ‘was essential to avoid the elimination of the entire people’. Queensland became the model for all states: rigid isolation by both legal fences constructed in draconian statutes and by locating people in the remotest possible domains so as to exclude predators who wanted to kill them, take their women and children or sell them opium.

This was the beginning of the protection–segregation era. It lasted from 1897 to the mid-1970s, a period that exemplifies the UN convention’s genocidal act of ‘causing serious bodily and mental harm’. Harm can be and was done ‘in their best interests’. Over time, some seventy to perhaps ninety thousand native people were rounded up and incarcerated on government-run settlements or Christian mission stations in improbable locales. Protection from genocide became incarceration in prison-like total institutions in which the inmates had committed no crimes. In the array of human rights, not one was accorded them; as wards of the state, they were infantilised and pauperised.

As early as 1839 in Victoria, churches began removing mixed-descent Aboriginal children from natural parents and locking them away in dormitories in a variety of ‘assimilation homes’. Their futures, it was said, were assured with ‘us’. From the early twentieth century, child removals became standard government and mission policy, and the last of these special facilities, Bomaderry in New South Wales, closed as recently as 1988. Some thirty-five thousand children were removed or stolen.

Such were the contexts of Aboriginal lives between 1804 and the 1980s. There was a will to survive and there was resilience, as shown in the way that they engaged in sport despite the hurdles.


IN 1995, WITH a panel of sportspeople and historians, I helped to establish the Aboriginal and Islander Sports Hall of Fame. My latest book, Black Pearls (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2018), showcases the two hundred and seventy-six individuals who make up the Hall, spanning more than a hundred and fifty years of participation and achievement in various sporting arenas in Australia and internationally. It begins in the massacre era, when there was cricket at New Norcia in the west, at Coranderrk and Edenhope in Victoria, at Purga Mission near Ipswich in Queensland, and at Poonindie Mission in South Australia.

We know of the fabled prowess of Aboriginal professional athletes, the men who challenged the obstacles and took to the running tracks, the lights, the money and the race fixing. Queensland’s Charlie Samuels is the major story – acclaimed as ‘Australia’s greatest sprinter’ in 1894 – but there were other stellar winners and place-getters: Patrick Bowman, George Combo (Samuels’s brother), Combardello Billy, Alec Henry (the cricketer), Jerry Jerome (the boxer) and Bob Anderson. In Victoria, Bobby Kinnear won the rich Stawell Gift in 1883 and Bobby McDonald invented the crouch start in the same era. In 1893, remarkably, Frank Ivory played rugby union for Queensland. And in the 1880s and 1890s there was some successful Aboriginal rowing and sculling in the Moreton Bay area and in more northern climes.

Queensland scholar Ken Edwards is compiling biographies of Charlie Samuels and Jerry Jerome, the man who went on to become the first Aboriginal boxer to win a national title – the middleweight crown – in 1912 at around thirty-eight years of age. But what we need is a detailed study of how any sport was possible for Aboriginal people in an era that viewed them as vermin to be eradicated, as ‘kangaroos to be dispersed’.

Sport was even less possible once the protection–segregation era began in Queensland in 1897, and then in all jurisdictions by 1912. Permits were needed to exit reserves, but they were hardly forthcoming. Contact with non-Aboriginal people was actively discouraged or physically prevented. Daniel Matthews, ‘Mr Maloga’, ran a mission on the Murray River and flogged those who tried to run to the athletic tracks. It was from that kind of asylum – later named Cummeragunja – that two brothers, Doug and Dowie Nicholls, escaped to the running track and, in Doug’s case, to Australian Rules football fame with Fitzroy, a knighthood and the governorship of South Australia in 1976. Kinsman Lynch Cooper outran them all, winning the Stawell Gift in 1928 and the World Sprint Championship a year later.

WE Roth, the Chief Protector in Queensland, stopped all Ipswich cricketers coming to Brisbane because, he declared, cricket gave the blacks expectations in life that were quite beyond their capacities to achieve. Some settlements allowed internal and sometimes neighbourly competition, as at Cherbourg in Queensland. The New Norcia Mission in Western Australia continued allowing its cricketers to walk 132 kilometers to Perth for local matches. By the 1950s Ted Egan had founded and coached the famous St Mary’s football team at the request of Darwin’s Catholic bishop, due to fears about the interaction between Tiwi Islanders working for the armed forces in Darwin and the locals.

For all its authoritarian statutes and even tougher regulations, Queensland nevertheless allowed Paddy Crouch to play rugby league for the state against New Zealand in 1925, and later his sister Edna and her cousin Mabel Campbell made the state cricket team that played the visiting Poms in the 1930s. In that decade, the astonishing fast bowler Eddie Gilbert was given permission (and a chaperone) for every one of the Sheffield Shield matches he played.

Jerry Jerome was the benchmark for some outstanding Queensland boxers to come: Tommy Chapman, the legendary Ron Richards, Elley Bennett, Jack Hassen, and Palm Island’s George Bracken. In the late 1930s, Cec Ramalli – who surely warrants a book – and John Howard (about whom we know very little) each played two union tests for the Wallabies. In World War II, the enlisted Ramalli survived as an inmate of a Japanese prison camp and then as a slave labourer in an underground Nagasaki mine when the atomic bomb was unleashed on that city in 1945.

Remarkably, two Queensland cousins, Alex Hayden and Jimmy Williams, were chosen in a national three-man roughriding team to contest test matches again the United States and Canada in 1937. That story needs telling. Equally remarkable, four Aboriginal lads from Cherbourg were in Australia’s boxing team at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, with Jeff Dynevor winning the bantamweight title.

I am not aware of a single mission or settlement, apart from Cherbourg, that allowed or encouraged sport. Certainly there were no facilities or fields for play.

This was also the era of pressure on Aboriginal achievers to suppress their identity. Champion jockey Frankie Reys (winner of the Melbourne Cup on Gala Supreme in 1973) called himself a Filipino rather than endure the racial prejudice rampant in senior horseracing. Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer, perhaps the best of all Aboriginal Rules players, was asked to conceal his early origins at Sister Kate’s orphanage for stolen children. And while the Commonwealth Games are always dubbed ‘The Friendly Games’, there was nothing kindly about the way officials asked Percy Hobson, winner of the high jump at the Commonwealth Games in Perth in 1962, to deny his Aboriginal origins.

A number of memorable Aboriginal teams arose in this era: St Mary’s in the Northern Territory; the hugely successful Mallee Park Australian Rules team from Port Lincoln; the Rovers team in Ceduna, winners of the regional Rules premiership in 1958 but a team of doomed teenagers – of the eighteen players, only one survived past the age of fifty; the Redfern All Blacks in Sydney, a team the state tried to ban because they wanted the players to assimilate. The history of that team in its political context is still awaited.


AMID THE GENERAL woe of the stolen generations are some weird and wonderful stories.

Western Australia had some eighty-four assimilation homes that quarantined removed mixed-descent children. Sister Kate’s orphanage was the home of two magnificent Australian Rules footballers, Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer and Ted ‘Square’ Kilmurray. Faith Thomas emerged briefly from the institution in Quorn, South Australia to play competitive hockey and a cricket test for Australia. Carlton’s Syd Jackson was taken to Roelands Native Mission at the age of two, and it took him another thirty-seven years to find his mother. He and one other sportsman, the late Burnum Burnum (Harry Penrith), are the only two removed children I have known in the past fifty-six years who have had any kind words about their institutions.

Perhaps the most telling of these tales is of the quartet who survived St Francis House in Adelaide. The superintendent despised sport and did all he could to stop it. But John Moriarty, removed from Borroloola in the Northern Territory, went on to become the first Aboriginal soccer international; Charles Perkins, removed to The Bungalow in Alice Springs and then to St Francis, played soccer in Britain and starred for several senior Australian teams and the state; Gordon Briscoe, a PhD in Aboriginal health, played soccer in British and domestic leagues; and Wally McArthur, removed from the Northern Territory river of the same name, was a sprinter of note and later a rugby league star for four English teams.

The good stories are warming, in a sense, but they also give fuel to those who deny genocide of this nature and claim that removal was ‘good for them’, citing their sports stardom. But we will never know how many talented people were suppressed by the rigidity and the abuses suffered in this system. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has already revealed in 2017 what went on in places like the Retta Dixon Home in Darwin – a place where my wife and I were once offered an infant boy over the counter, literally, for a mere fifty guineas.

The era of ‘freedom’, said to have started post-Gough Whitlam in the early 1970s, is better known for its sporting stars than that of the stolen generations: rugby league’s Artie Beetson, Eric Simms, Dale Shearer, Laurie Daley, Steve Renouf, South Sea Islanders George Ambrum, Mal Meninga and Sam Backo; Torres Strait Islander champions like basketballer Danny Morseau and hockey player Baeden Choppy; the three Ella brothers in rugby union; and Greg Lovell, Tasmania’s world-champion woodchopper. As well add Paralympian Kevin Coombs; boxer Lionel Rose; fast bowler Jason Gillespie; the spectacularly successful motocross and supercross world champion Chad Reed; Australian Rules footballers Adam Goodes, Cyril Rioli, Gavin Wanganeen, Michael Long and Buddy Franklin; and league stars Greg Inglis, Justin Hodges, Sam Thaiday and Johnathan Thurston.

The women’s success in this period was startling: Evonne Goolagong Cawley in tennis; Cheryl Mullett in badminton; Ivy Hampton in darts; Sharon Firebrace in volleyball; May Chalker in golf; Marcia Ella-Duncan, Nicole Cusack and Sharon Finnan in netball; Joanne Lesiputty and Stacy Porter in softball; Nova Peris and Cathy Freeman in athletics (both Commonwealth Games winners); Leigh-Anne Goodwin in the jockey’s saddle.


ABORIGINAL PEOPLE ARE among the world’s best oral historians. In the space of some hundred and eighty years – six generations – they have endured genocidal massacres, culturally destructive incarceration on reserves, wholesale child removals and physical relocations, and then, in the name of autonomy with the arrival of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in 1972, the sudden removal of all infrastructure, however authoritarian, leaving an ill-prepared mass to fend for themselves in isolation. Then add the Howard ‘intervention’ of a decade ago, the one that re-infantalised whole populations in the name of saving them from themselves. In short, five dramatic onslaughts on a people in a very short historical time frame. Aboriginal suicide, unknown before 1960, erupted savagely after that date, the dates that coincided roughly with so-called equal rights, civil rights, ‘autonomy’. There are very few ethnic communities with a history such as theirs.

The legacies of genocide on victim communities have barely been studied. We are beginning to comprehend the impacts on Armenian, Jewish, Bosnian and Rwandan communities. But what isn’t recognised, or sufficiently recognised, is the impact beyond the second and third generations. Genocidal memory always lingers. It flows through to the descendants; it hovers in the background, and often permeates and suffuses the foreground. It surrounds and invades life, and is to be found in songs, stories, legends, attitudes to food, in art, language, idiom. And while youth may not know the details, they feel and embrace the emotions.

Following extensive work on Aboriginal suicide these past two decades, my conclusion is that it is different from the non-Aboriginal behaviour. It is among the highest rate of self-destruction on the planet, especially for the very young cohort. In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, the 2014 rate was seventy-four per hundred thousand people, compared to an Australian overall rate nowadays of less than twenty per hundred thousand.

Recent research has now confirmed that a great deal of young (or old) suicide has nothing whatever to do with mental illness, with depression, and there is as yet not a shred of evidence to show that ethnic groups, or mainstream groups, have a ‘depression gene’, a ‘suicide gene’ or a chemical imbalance of the brain. There is, contrary to the mantras of the biomedical world, a great deal of rational suicide.

In Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide (Wiley, 2015), Italian academic Marzio Barbagli, contends that there are two groups who suicide: those who do it for themselves and sometimes for others, and those who do it against others. Suicide is an act of violence born out of the social order, not brain disorder. It is imperative to look at the social, not the medical, context of this behaviour. Much of young Aboriginal suicide is political. Over 90 per cent of their suicide is by hanging (asphyxiation) in public rather than private places: that location is indeed consciously confrontational. It is an overt rejection of us – our values, our religions, our civility and civilisation. Those who reject our way of life, so the thinking goes, must be mad or have, in a ‘nicer’ language for the alleged malady, ‘a mental health issue’.

Several studies conclude that sport plays a role in diverting, alleviating or mitigating self-harm, now occurring among kids as young as eight. As yet there has been remarkably little attention among suicide or sports scholars, particularly in Australia – a curious factor in one of the world’s most sports-oriented societies. A recent Australasian Psychiatry journal contained twenty original articles on aspects of Aboriginal emotional and physical wellbeing. Apart from a brief mention of Australian football by Brian McCoy, not one other author has mentioned, let alone considered, sport as part of that major agenda. Nor does sport figure anywhere in the literature on non-Aboriginal suicide.

A few reports need mention. A 2005 study of sixteen thousand United States public and private high school students found a significant reduction in the odds of participants considering suicide, as well as reduced odds of planning a suicide, if they were involved in sports. Being enmeshed in a social network of team mates, coaches, health professionals, community and family, the athletic participants experienced less anomie and a much greater sense of social integration.

A study of 1,102 male military recruits found that ‘students actively involved in sports exhibited less hopelessness’. An even more compelling study looked at sports participation as a protective factor against depression and suicidal ideation. Sport typically boosts self-esteem, improves body image, increases social support and has an impact on substance abuse. As sports participation increases, the odds of suffering from depression decreases (by 25 per cent), while the odds of having suicidal thoughts decreases (by 12 per cent).

Almost all the literature on strategies to combat youth suicide suggests or even insists that they must be culturally sensitive or appropriate. These initiatives bode well. But many modern, organised competitive sports are integral to Aboriginal life, whatever their domains. They have seen these sporting activities live, or on television or film, and they have played one or another of its forms, even on the most bizarre of ‘courts’ and ‘ovals’. They have long had teams and heroes they barrack for, identify with or have fantasies about. Modern Western sport is culturally appropriate; certainly, as we research and read the history of Aboriginal involvement in sport since the mid-nineteenth century, it has not been yet another colonial imposition, an institution they have had to ‘endure’ as some form of oppressive intrusion. Sport is there; it is not a strategy we have to invent, and then sell.


MOST OF THE studies mentioned above tested propositions about the relationship between suicide and socially integrative activities – in this case, sport. It wouldn’t be difficult to replicate such studies at the times of the Barunga Festival, the Yuendumu Games, the Tiwi Football League grand final on Bathurst Island in the Northern Territory, and the Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout weekend in New South Wales. I have recommended this kind of inexpensive action research to both territory and federal parliamentary committees and they in turn have included the idea in their findings. But no one else listens, or cares to listen. Instead, we loudly lament the death rates and then throw ever more millions (literally) at ‘prevention’ strategies that have high hopes and, undeniably, show no results as they search for elusive genes and call for more hotline numbers.

David Denborough in Adelaide has been working on narrative therapy with remote communities. Sport, he contends, is a realm within which and through which life can develop richer meaning. It not only provides lasting memories, but enables ‘young people who have experienced grave difficulties to speak differently about their lives’. These strategies involve getting youth to ask what they like about a game, about creating a team of life, celebrating goals, tackling problems, avoiding obstacles and assisting others, whether in sport or beyond. It makes eminent sense to use metaphors and experiences that are known, are not threatening, give pleasure (albeit transiently), which do not involve what for many are the alien worlds of white coats, consulting rooms and heavy-duty pharmaceuticals.


PLATO TOLD US almost two and a half thousand years ago that sport (gymnastics) was not just good for physical strength but for ‘psychic harmony’ – and a way of avoiding physicians. The Black Pearls book links the eras of Aboriginal and Islander achievement, from the massacre period to the present one of (relative) liberation. Sport is a metaphor that allows us to gain an overview of their experiences – the few good ones, the mostly bad and ugly ones.


Images supplied by Paul Tatz.


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