MARN GROOK & INDIGENOUS FOOTBALL GAMES

It would be a mistake to say ‘Marn Grook’ was the football  game of all Australia before the arrival of the British.

As with language and customs, the ball games and other amusements of Aboriginal communities were greatly varied.

Other ‘football’ like games across the continent included ‘Purru Purru’, ‘Mingorm’, ‘Buroinjin’ and ‘Woggabaliri’.

Drawing by Gustav Mützel (in Berlin 1862) based on Blandowski's 1857 observations of a scene near present day in Victoria.
Detail of ‘foot-ball’ from drawing by Gustav Mützel (in Berlin, 1862) based on Blandowski’s 1857 observations of a scene near Merbein in Victoria.

Below is a collection of clippings from texts that touched on the games and other amusements of Indigenous communities that might fall within the broad definition of ‘football’.

The first was written by David Collins in 1798. Collins, an officer in the British navy, arrived in Port Jackson on board the Sirius with the ‘First Fleet’ in 1788.  

AN ACCOUNT OF THE ENGLISH COLONY IN NEW SOUTH WALES — David Collins, 1798

Among their juvenile exercises I observed that of throwing up a ball, and passing it from one to another.

BLANDOWSKI’S AUSTRALIEN IN 142 PHOTOGRAPHISCHEN ABBILDUNGEN — William Blandowski (Polish naturalist, Victoria), expedition to the Murray River, 1857

A group of children is playing with a ball; the ball is made out of Typha roots; it is not thrown or hit with a bat but is kicked up in the air with the foot. Aim of the game: never let the ball touch the ground.
[Near present day Merbein, Victoria]

THE ABORIGINES OF VICTORIA — Robert Brough Smyth, 1878

I asked the late Mr. William Thomas, who had held the office of Protector or Guardian of Aborigines [Port Phillip, Westernport and Gippsland] for nearly twenty-five years to write down under separate heads all that was known to him respecting the Aborigines; and thus have been preserved numerous interesting facts that would otherwise have been lost.

The adult natives were seldom without employment — their wants being many — but they found time too for amusements. Some of their games were not unlike those which find favor amongst Europeans. The ‘marn-grook’, or game of ball, for instance, is thus described by the late Mr. Thomas. The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played. One makes a ball of opossum skin, or the like, of good size, somewhat elastic, but firm and strong. It is given to the foremost player or to some one of mark who is chosen to commence the game. He does not throw it as a white man might do, but drops it and at the same time kicks it with his foot, using the instep for that purpose. It is thrown high into the air, and there is a rush to secure it — such a rush as is seen commonly at foot-ball matches amongst our own people. The tallest men, and those who are able to spring to a great height, have the best chances in this game. Some of them will leap as high as five feet or more from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it again ; and again a scramble ensues. This continues for hours, and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise.

I have seen the natives at Coranderrk [Healesville district]amusing themselves in this manner very often, and their skill and activity were surprising. It is truly a native game. The ball, I believe, is often made of twine formed of the twisted hair of the opossum. It is elastic and light, and well suited to be kicked from the instep, as the natives use it.

AMUSEMENTS AND WAR IMPLEMENTS — William Thomas, 1858

The Marngrook (or The Ball) is a favorite game with boys and men, a party assemble one makes a ball of opossum skin or what not of a good size the ball is kicked up and not thrown by the hand as white boys do, the ball is kicked into the air not along the ground. There is a general scramble to catch it in the air. The tall black fellows stand the best chance, when caught it is again kicked up in the air with great force and ascends as straight up and as high as when thrown by the hand. They will play at this game for hours and fine exercise it is for adults or youths. The girls play at Marngrook but throw it up as white children.

AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINES : THE LANGUAGES AND CUSTOMS OF SEVERAL TRIBES OF ABORIGINES IN THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF VICTORIA — James Dawson, 1881

One of the favourite games is football, in which fifty, or as many as one hundred players engage at a time. The ball is about the size of an orange, and is made of opossum-skin, with the fur side outwards. It is filled with pounded charcoal, which gives solidity without much increase of weight, and is tied hard round and round with kangaroo sinews. The players are divided into two sides and ranged in opposing lines, which are always of a different ‘class’ — white cockatoo against black cockatoo, quail against snake, etc. Each side endeavours to keep possession of the ball, which is tossed a short distance by hand, and then kicked in any direction. The side which kicks it oftenest and furthest gains the game. The person who sends it highest is considered the best player, and has the honour of burying it in the ground till required next day.

The sport is concluded with a shout of applause, and the best player is complimented on his skill. This game, which is somewhat similar to the white man’s game of football, is very rough ; but as the players are barefooted and naked, they do not hurt each other so much as the white people do ; nor is the fact of an aborigine being a good football player considered to entitle him to assist in making laws for the tribe to which he belongs.

THE ABORIGINES OF VICTORIA AND RIVERINA —  Peter Beveridge, 1889

Ball-playing is another game to which they are exceedingly partial. This game they make much more boisterous and noisy than they do the wrestling bouts, but, notwithstanding this, it results in very much fewer serious mishaps. The women participate in this game as well as the men. I have seen as many as 200 (including both sexes) engaged in this game at one time.

The ball is composed of old opossum skin tightly rolled up, and covered with a fresh piece of skin firmly sewed together with opossum [possum] tail sinews; before they begin to play they arrange sides, each side having a captain, whose place it is to guide and control his oftentimes unruly squad.

When all is in order, a player starts off with the ball in her hand; she walks a little way out from her own side and towards that of her opponents, drops the ball with seeming carelessness, but ‘ere it has time to reach the ground she gives a dexterous and by no means a gentle kick, which being correctly aimed sends the ball spinning high into the air. Thereupon the fun begins in downright earnest.

Such screaming, jumping, and frothing at the mouth by reason of the excitement I am certain was never seen at any other game outside the walls of Bedlam, and then again, such inter mingling of limbs, brawny and bronze, nude and glossy, or such outre groupings were never yet beheld under any circumstances other than those attendant upon an aboriginal ball match.

They have not any appointed goal to which the ball has to be driven; the whole of the play merely consists of keeping the ball in motion, and preventing its coming to the ground, whilst the struggles of the game all tend to keep the ball from being captured by the opposing side.

Those holding the ball throw it from one to the other of their own side, and it is whilst this is going on that the non-possessors strenuously run and jump to intercept it in its flights.

As the eyes of the players are never by any chance bent on the ground, tumbles during a game are numerous and frequently ludicrous, more especially when one goes down, and so becomes a stumbling-block over which a dozen or more come toppling in a heap; these incidents, however, add mirth unto the fun, without creating the least ill temper.

Ball-playing is frequently kept up from noon until dark, and even at that late hour it is given up with reluctance. The many laughable incidents which occur during the game provide ample matter for conversation round the camp fire…

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY AND AFTER [a British magazine]— Vance Palmer, August 1906

As a boy in a small Western Queensland township, the present writer remembers reading in the school-books that ‘the natives of New Holland are the lowest race on earth.’ It was hard for us as children to reconcile the statement with the intelligence shown by our black playmates. We found them merry companions, full of fun and good-humour. Our games of ‘purru-purru,’ a sport somewhat akin to Rugby football, and swinging the ‘bujaram,’ were learnt from them. In keenness of perception and general alacrity we were their inferiors, and in a certain quality of cheery sportsmanship they were models to all. 

TOM PETRIE’S REMINISCENCES OF EARLY QUEENSLAND (DATING FROM 1837) — Constance Petrie, 1904

As a boy my father [Tom] has often joined in with the games of the blacks … in the early days of Brisbane … Another game was ‘Purru Purru.’ It was played with a ball made from kangaroo skin stuffed with grass, and sewn up. ‘Purru’ meant ball … sides were picked, but the women joined in. The ball was thrown up in the air, and caught here and there, each side trying to keep it to themselves or to catch it from the opposite one.

© Sean Fagan

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