Aboriginal_cricket_team_Tom_Wills_1866
A group of Australian Aboriginal cricketers at MCG (some records claim it was taken at Albert Club, Redfern). Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.
Back: Tarpot, Tom Wills, Johnny Mullagh.
Front: King Cole (leg on chair), Jellico, Peter, Red Cap, Harry Rose, Bullocky, Johnny Cuzens, Dick-a-Dick (standing).

The first cricket team landed on English soil way back in 1868. It was an Australian team all right, but consisted of a band of Aborigines. They became an instant success. While they did not win against the big counties, they performed admirably in the other matches, and players like Johnny Mullagh emerged as big names. Unfortunately, the tour claimed the life of Bripumyarrimin (also known as Brippoki and Brippokei). Known to the English population as King Cole, or sometimes Charlie Rose, he passed away on June 24, 1868. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a forgotten man, his brief recorded career, the tragedy that claimed him, and the tour that made him a permanent part of history.

They say that people have existed in Australia for at least forty millennia (it might have been up to 125,000 years ago), though they have not yet narrowed down on a span lasting a millennium. They did not probably originate in the island, but had, in all probability, migrated from Africa — though some sources cite South Asia as well.

The oldest signs of humans have been found in Western Australia, the part of the island nearest both Africa and Asia. They travelled across the continent, making their way past the narrow land strip to Tasmania. When the water rose to separate Tasmania from the mainland (about 14 millennia ago), a separate civilisation developed on the tiny island.

Nature was harsh, claiming the marsupial megafauna that existed on the giant island. The 150-kg marsupial lion, the largest carnivorous marsupial ever known, disappeared, as did the massive diprotodon, the behemoth of a marsupial that weighed over 2,500 kg. While some blame the climate for the mass extinction of several exotic species, others theorise mass-scale hunting.

But life found a way. Marsupials, small and large, lived on, as did the Australian predators. And Man lived on, first as a group of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, then tilling land by River Murray. They even traded with Indonesian merchants.

Then came the British.

The First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay (Sydney) in 1788 with about a thousand people in crew and convicts. After sixteen months a massive epidemic of smallpox claimed a chunk of the Aboriginal population.

The Aborigines had obviously developed no immunity against smallpox. The exact toll remains unknown, but it is estimated that nine out ten of the local Darug population.

Many researchers blame the Europeans for carrying the disease. Some have even claimed that deploying smallpox-infected crew was an intentional ploy by the British to eliminate the Aborigines once the former ran out of ammunition. Other diseases like measles, chickenpox, and tuberculosis did not take time to spread.

By 1791 the Second and Third Fleets had arrived in Australia. In 1793 the earliest free settlers showed up in New South Wales (NSW). Van Diemen’s Land was already claimed, but it was not named Tasmania till 1825. Brisbane was founded the same year, and two years later, the British began to settle down in Western Australia. Adelaide was founded in 1836.

New Zealand was proclaimed in 1840, following the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Maori Chiefs.

By 1860 the Australian states of Victoria, NSW, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, and Tasmania had been formed, though Northern Territory remained a part of NSW.

In less than eight decades after the First Fleet had landed in Australia, the gigantic island resembled nothing remotely close to what it looked like in 1788.

But then, with the British came cricket.

Tom Wills

Cricket finds a mention in the diary of Robert Knopwood, chaplain of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania’s older name, remember?).The 1814 entry not only mentioned cricket, but also about its growing popularity.

According to Ric Finlay, Knopwood mentioned a match between “Eleven Gentlemen from the Counties of Sussex and Kent against the choice of the whole Island of Van Diemen’s Land”, played in 1826.

By 1841, Hobart, Derwent, and Launceston CC had all been formed. Hobart and Launceston, the Tasmanian giants, clashed for the first time in a major match in 1850.

Meanwhile, cricket had been gaining popularity rapidly in the Australian mainland. In 1850-51, Port Phillip, Victoria played Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in the first ever First-Class match on Australian soil.

Thomas Antill of Port Phillip, Victoria, claimed 7 for 33 and 6 for 19 in the match. Antill did not play another First-Class match. He was, however, the cousin of Tom Wills, Australia’s first great cricketer, and more famously, one of the pioneers of Australian Rules Football.

Born in NSW and brought up among the Aboriginals, Wills became conversant in their language. He went to England and played for Cambridge, MCC, and Kent before returning to Australia in 1856. He rose in popularity soon after his return, and was quickly hailed as the finest cricketer in contemporary Australia.

Then came the Wills Tragedy (also known as the Cullin-la-ringo Massacre), the most severe incident of the Aborigines slaughtering Europeans. They killed 19 people of the party of 25, including Horatio Wills, the father of Tom. Mass-murders of the Aborigines by the white population was not too rare, but this was indeed an uncommon occurrence.

Despite the incident, Wills, one of the few survivors, stayed back at Cullin-la-ringo. When his uncle William Roope arrived in December that year, he left almost immediately due to Wills’ behaviour.

He continued to play cricket, and had his tussles with Melbourne CC. He remained popular in Brisbane, where he was appointed Justice of the Peace in May 1863.

In 1866 Melbourne CC announced a match between the club and “the native black eleven”. However, cricket needed to be spread among the indigenous population, and that role was taken up by Wills. He replaced one William Hayman.

The move might come across as unusual (given his father was murdered by the Aborigines), but it must be remembered that Wills had grown up among the locals, and perhaps more importantly, had grown up among them. He set out in August.

By November he had formed a team, mostly from Western Victoria, training them at Lake Wallace South (owned by Hayman). Wills started what the Australians of a later era would label ‘mental disintegration’: he made it known to the media how strong a team the Aborigines were, especially stars like Johnny Mullagh.

In their seminal work Cricket Walkabout, John Mulvaney and Rex Harcourt have mentioned a match in early December where the Aborigines (170 for 8) thrashed Lake Wallace CC XVI (34), Mullagh scoring 81 not out and taking 6 wickets. They also beat Edenhope XVI by an innings and plenty.

In the big match at MCG on Boxing Day, the Aborigines were bowled out for 39 and 87, Mullagh scoring 16 and 33. Though they won the match, Melbourne CC were bowled out for only 101 in their first innings, Mullagh taking 2 wickets.

Along with Mullagh, others like Tarpot, Jellico, and Dick-a-Dick also earned accolades. On January 18, 1867, Johnny Cuzens (a variation of Cousins) and Bullocky became the first Aborigines to play ‘inter-colonial cricket’, for Victoria against Tasmania at MCG.

Do note the exotic names. Names like Arrahmunyarrimun were beyond the scope of any European, so the Aborigines were given English names. While some, like Johnny Mullagh (Unaarrimin), were perfectly passable as names, Jimmy Mosquito (Grongarrong) and Twopenny (Jarrawuk) certainly did not.

The Aborigines won hearts in Melbourne, and for that matter, across Victoria, in Ballarat and Bendigo and elsewhere. Then began the disastrous trip of Sydney, where the Aborigines impressed on field but fell prey to circumstances off it.

With captain-coach Wills and team manager Hayman almost playing impresario, the Aborigine matches were sold as packages, often involving boomerang hurls, cricket-ball throws, high-jumps, and other feats performed by the indigenous men.

Unfortunately, the Aborigines had to pay a major price for the trip. Their immunity system had still not caught up; to make things worse, several of them fell prey to alcohol. Wills, a heavy drinker, was not the best possible guide for them in the big city. A decade and a half later, a broke and delirious Wills committed suicide.

They lost Sugar before their first match, and Sugar’s replacement Watty soon afterwards, the latter a mere 25 km before reaching home. In the inquest, it came to light that both his lungs had been damaged.

Once back home, pneumonia claimed both Jellico and Paddy, while Harry Rose, Tarpot, and Dick-a-Dick were taken ill. To add to their woes, they received no remuneration for their hardship.

Charles (Dickens and) Lawrence

Wills is one part of the story. The other, of course, involves Charles Dickens and his less-illustrious namesake Lawrence.

It is well-known that Dickens had turned down the offer to tour Australia in 1861-62, despite the fact that he was offered £7,000 (he was offered £10,000 the year after, but to no avail).

The initial offer had come from hoteliers Felix Spiers and Chris Pond. After Dickens turned down the offer, they invited a group of cricketers. The brigade was led by Heath Stephenson of Surrey. They included one Charles Lawrence, who, in his teens, had hitched a dog-cart ride to travel miles to see Fuller Pilch bat at Lord’s.

Note: The tour involved a curious match between Surrey XI (led by Stephenson) and a team called The World (led by Tom Hearne). Hearne hailed from a family of cricketers called Hearne, but it was not ‘the’ Hearne family. Surrey XI expectedly lost, for who stood a chance in front of The World?

The tour was a success, and while his teammates returned, Lawrence decided to stay back in Australia as a hotelier. He also played for NSW and coached in Sydney. The growth of the Aboriginal cricketers made him see realise the potential of an England tour with a team.

The plan involved four men — Lawrence, Hayman, an alderman called George Smith, and Smith’s cousin, a solicitor called George Graham. Graham’s ledger, acquired by Bill O’Reilly (no less), was subsequently passed on to the able hands of Mulvaney and Harcourt.

On July 20, 1867 Lawrence arrived in Lake Wallace. Though hardly a teetotaller, Lawrence made sure the drinking curse did not affect the Aboriginals. He regrouped the team. Following several practice matches, he slowly formed the nucleus of the side that would create history.

Lawrence deserves more credit than history usually reserves for him. One must remember that he had to convince the Aborigines that despite the disastrous Sydney tour, cricket should go on. A reasonable cricketer, he also coached them diligently, and to be fair, while he made sure the venture made money, at every known step he put the Aborigines’ interest before his.

Shrewd businessman that he was, Lawrence knew that cricket alone would not be able to appeal to the English public for a six-month tour. Hence he encouraged the Aborigines to hone their skills at the boomerang and the spear, and more.

They were an attractive lot. Mulvaney and Harcourt wrote that “they took to cricket field decked in white flannel trousers, military red shirts (a shirt-like blouse called a Garibaldi), with diagonal blue flannel sashes, blue elastic belts and neckties, white linen collars and beneath this finery were ‘French merino undershirts’.” The attire was designed by Lawrence himself.

Note: Surprised? White flannels took their time to arrive in cricket. Even after they did, outrageous colours (including checks and stripes and dots) were common in the 1850s.

The team left Edenhope on September 16, 1867, en route England. Along with Wills (who would lead the side) and 12 Aboriginal cricketers, there were Hayman, Smith, and a cook. Smith would tour with them as manager and earn enough money to buy stallions on his way back.

A salient feature of the Aborigines was their caps. Every member was given a cap carrying an emblem of a silver boomerang and a bat, but the most ingenious aspect was Lawrence’s idea of assigning one colour to each cricketer, along with a sash of the same colour. Otherwise how would the English spectators recognise them individually?

Lawrence, obviously, wore white, while Mullagh, their biggest star, donned red. This was a bit surprising, for they already had a Red Cap in the side, who was assigned black for no apparent reason. The full list, as mentioned in Cricket Walkabout, reads:

Player

Cap colour

Charles Lawrence

White

Bullocky

Chocolate

Dick-a-Dick

Yellow

Harry Rose

Victoria plaid

Jim Crow (Neddy)

Pink

Johnny Cuzens (Cousins)

Purple

Johnny Mullagh

Red

King Cole (Charlie Rose)

Magenta

Jimmy Mosquito

Dark blue

Peter

Green

Red Cap

Black

Sundown

Check

Twopenny

McGregor plaid

Barring minor hiccups, the journey in a covered wagon was enjoyable. As the first Australian team to embark on an organised overseas cricket tour, they were given celebrity status wherever they stopped, and defeated most teams that challenged them en route.

During the journey Lawrence had conversations with his teammates, especially Dick-a-Dick and Cuzens, about Christ and Christianity. As many as nine of the Aborigines accompanied him to the Church of England one Sunday morning.

Dick-a-Dick (Jumgumjenanuke) emerged as the star attraction of this period, the master of sprints, backward-sprints (!), hurdle-races, and boomerang throws, though Mullagh was the star when it came to the high-jump.

But Dick-a-Dick’s main attraction lay elsewhere, when he brandished a leowell (or langeel), a baseball-club-lookalike weapon with his right hand and a “narrow wooden parrying shield … a metre in length, nine centimetres in width and triangular in cross-section”.

Thus armed, Dick-a-Dick challenged the spectators (sometimes three or four at the same time, all of them hurling with all their power) to throw cricket balls at him while he used his shield and club to ward them off. During this phase of the trip, he is said to have deflected sixty in one go.

There was another trick, usually performed by Mosquito: a team member would place a coin on his fingertip, and Mosquito would use a stock-whip to flick the coin clean. Charley Dumas, a later addition to the team, was outstanding with the boomerang.

AA Thomson, in his wonderful piece Bat, Ball and Boomerang, wrote of Dumas: “Great crowds came to see him hurl the slender stick almost out of sight and apparently keep it voyaging, rather than an Antipodean sputnik, by remote control. Gaping, spectators would see it return, slowly and, as it seemed, deliberately, to make a three-point landing between Charley’s bare feet.”

Before leaving for England, the team had two new members, Dumas and Tiger (unfortunately, their cap colours remain unknown). Graham, too, joined the party; as mentioned above, his ledger was instrumental in documenting the tour.

On the other hand, Harry Rose did not make it and had dropped out at Geelong. The strength of the team was now 14 including Lawrence.

Note: For some reason Age reported that Twopenny and Jim Crow had also opted out along with Harry Rose, but we know that they made it to the boat.

The tour

On February 8, the team set sail on the Parramatta(a wool clipper) for the three-month journey. They were given “a large cabin” between the first- and second-class areas. Thanks to the excellent management of Lawrence and warm hospitality of Captain Williams, the voyage was spent well. The education in Christianity, meanwhile, continued on board.

They were met by the familiar face of Hayman when they disembarked at Gravesend on May 13, exactly 81 years after the First Fleet had sailed from the same town.

The team would play 47 matches in 40 grounds despite the small squad size. No play was allowed in England on Sundays, which meant that they played on an astonishing 99 days in 21 six-day weeks, in addition to the exhausting schedule involving travel on underprepared roads.

They did a tremendous job for a side not exposed to English cricket. Of the 47 matches they won 14 and lost 14, drawing the remaining 19 matches. While their 10 matches against major counties yielded 4 draws and 6 defeats, they comfortably beat most other oppositions.

Red Cap and Tiger played all 47 matches, Cuzens and Twopenny 46 each, Mullagh and Dick-a-Dick 45, Dumas 44, and Lawrence 40. It was a warm (but not hot) summer, warmer than Australian winters, but nowhere close to the Australian summers. And then, there was rain…

As expected, Mullagh dominated the show (1,698 runs at 23.65, 245 wickets at 10), while Lawrence led from the front in his home nation (1,156 runs at 20.16, 250 wickets at 12.1).

The other star of the tour was Cuzens (1,358 runs at 19.90, 114 wickets at 11.3). The gigantic Bullocky captured the imagination of the English with his phenomenal glovework. To prevent him from being worn out, wicketkeeping duties were shared by — you have guessed it right — Lawrence, Mullagh, and Cuzens.

In his autobiography WG Grace wrote of the Aborigines: “In strength they were about equal to third-class English teams; and the result of their visit was satisfactory and encouraging to them in every respect. I had not the pleasure of playing against them; but I believe it was generally admitted that two players, Mullagh and Cuzens, showed very good all-round form.”

He locked horns with them alright. In a cricket-ball-throwing contest, he hurled the ball 116, 117, and 118 yards away in three successive attempts, defeating the tourists sometime around his 20th birthday.

King Cole

Let us now shift our attention to the King Cole (Bripumyarrimin), brother of Harry Rose (Hingingairah). This story is about him. One must not read too much into the word ‘brother’, for it was often used to imply ‘relative’ or even ‘clan member’ when it came to Aboriginal vocabulary. It is usually believed that they were related to bantamweight boxer Lionel Rose, the first Aboriginal Australian to win a world title.

The slight-framed, bearded King Cole was a decent all-rounder (though not in the league of Mullagh or Cuzens). He bowled brisk medium-pace and was a useful lower-order batsman.

He hailed from Southern Wimmera, and belonged to one of Madimadi or Wutjubaluk tribes (these tribes were typically groups of 20 to 100 individuals, and inter-tribe communication was uncommon). His parentage remains unknown, but he was definitely of full Aboriginal descent.

His name, of course, was a columnist’s delight. Sample this: “He [King Cole] and Twopenny were in for a considerable time, but the merry young soul was ultimately bowled.”

The Aborigines first played Surrey Club, who piled up 233 and bowled the tourists out for 83 and 132, King Cole scoring 14 and 0 but taking 2 catches at point. The first-innings 14 (including 5 twos) was the second-highest after Mullagh’s 33.The first catch was a brilliant one at backward point, taken off Mullagh off a square-drive from Isaac Walker, the future Middlesex mainstay.

The next match was a draw, when time ran out the tourists had scored 119 for 4 after Mote Park had put up 151. King Cole missed the match.

Against Gentlemen of Kent King Cole took his first wicket, having one Boycott (are you reading this, Sir Geoffrey?) caught by Lawrence at slip for 14. It remained his only recorded wicket. Boycott had his revenge, dismissing King Cole for 18. It would remain his highest score of the tour. Once again the Aborigines slumped to an innings defeat, King Cole scoring 3 in the second innings.

They then drew against Richmond but lost to Gentlemen of Sussex. Their first victory came against Gentlemen of Lewisham despite conceding an 18-run lead.

Mullagh and Lawrence shared the 10 wickets, bowling out the hosts for 60, but when their turn came the Aborigines were skittled out for 42, Red Cap (12) and King Cole (11*) scoring 23 of the runs. Then Cuzens joined forces with Lawrence and Mullagh, and the Aborigines needed 72. Mullagh fell for a duck, but Lawrence (32*) saw them to a 6-wicket win with support from Tiger and Cuzens.

The Aborigines put up a tremendous fight against MCC at Lord’s, scoring 185 in response to the hosts’ 164. Once again the heroes were the usual suspects — Mullagh (75) and Lawrence (31). Mullagh had earlier taken 5 wickets and Cuzens 4. Unfortunately, set a mere 101, the tourists were bundled out for 45.

Another unexpected defeat came in the next match, against East Hants Club, who put up 209 and bowled the Aboriginals out for 120 and 80.King Cole scored 3 and 3*.

The match ended on June 16. King Cole missed the next match, against Bishop’s Stortford, that started on June 18. The tourists lost by 8 wickets. Lawrence also opted out of the match, and the tourists were led by William Shepherd, a former Surrey cricketer. Shepherd would play 7 matches in all for the Aboriginal cricketers.

Uncharacteristically, Lawrence missed the next match as well, against Hastings, played from June 22 to 24. The Aboriginals were led by South Norton of Kent. Norton’s sister was married to Hayman and he had earlier played against the Aboriginals for both Mote Park and Gentlemen of Kent, and would play them once more, for Sporting Press.

The tourists conceded a 33-run lead, but Bullocky (64) and Mullagh (72) made sure the hosts had to chase no less than 153.

Time ran out with Hastings on 113 for 4. Elsewhere, earlier that same day, time had run out for King Cole as well, in Guy’s Hospital, London. He died of tuberculosis, with pneumonia acting as a lethal catalyst.

In The Black Lords of Summer, Ashley Mallett wrote that King Cole had started to cough after the last match he had played, but it was not taken seriously. A chest cold had developed soon after: it was an ailment that may not sound very serious in the 21st century, but was often lethal back then.

Lawrence and King Cole took the train to Paddington and rushed in a cab to Guy’s Hospital, but the condition was beyond the scope of medical science in 1868.

King Cole was buried in Victoria Park Cemetery, London. None of the Aboriginal cricketers was present (it is not very clear why). Mallett mentioned that “there might have been just Lawrence and the gravedigger present.”

Frederick Gale of Kent, who played against the tourists, made a curious statement in 1885 that his teammates “had no sympathy, and did not care what became of him.” The statement is in stark contrast with the usual picture of camaraderie portrayed about the team.

Mallett responded, years later, in an interview with BBC: “In the Aboriginal culture, friends and relatives of a deceased person can sometimes mourn in ‘sorry’ mode for days, often weeks, and such a time span would have brought the tour to an abrupt halt.” He speculated that Lawrence might not broken the news immediately after poor King Cole’s demise.

The doctors estimated his age at death to be about 30.

While a hand injury was cited the reason of Lawrence’s absence, he was actually at King Cole’s bedside when the latter passed away. He had been with King Cole for four days.

An obituary, King Cole — In Memoriam, was published in both Rochdale Observer and Nottingham Guardian on August 5, 1868. It ran:

To Britain he came from the land of the West
As a stranger for honour and glory,
And now as a hero intrepid and bold
Will his name be recorded in story.

For not with the sword did he covet renown,
The battle he fought was at cricket,
In lieu of grim weapons of warfare he strove,
With the bat and the ball at the wicket.

Still fortune was faithless and fickle to him,
Not long in the strife he contended,
And never did victory gladden his side,
Whenever the fort he defended.

Now run out for naught in the innings of life,
By the grave of the good is he sleeping;
Yet sad are his comrades though reckon they well
How safe is their mate in our keeping.

And, chieftains of England, give ear to the song
Of a minstrel with harp unromantic
You who have won laurels by Yarra’s far shore
Or bays gathered over Atlantic

If ever you travel old ocean again
Take guard of the bloody uprooter
For death may be chartered to bowl in a match
And trundle you down like a shooter.

Note: Mallett credits Lawrence with the poem, but there is not much supporting document. It seems unlikely that Lawrence would hold back the poem for over a month when getting it published immediately made more sense.

Thomson later called the poem “a sad and sincere effort”, adding “but I do not think poor King Cole would have liked that ‘run out for nought’.”

King Cole played 7 matches in all, scoring 75 runs at 7.50, an average that was not too bad for the team. Barring the big four — Mullagh, Lawrence, Cuzens, and Bullocky — only Red Cap and Twopenny averaged more than him. He took that one wicket (of Boycott) for 34, and held 4 catches.

What followed?

– The team lost another member, Sundown, by August. It is not clear what the ailment was, but he played only 2 matches over a span of 10 days. Lawrence and co. were unwilling to take any risk. Not only did they send him back home, they also made sure Jim Crow accompanied him on the long voyage.

Note: Mallett mentioned that both Jim Crow and Sundown “suffered fits of depression” after King Cole’s death. Contrast this with Gale’s statement, but please keep in mind that Mallett is not the best researcher in the world.

– The touring party was thus down to 11 cricketers. To their credit, they marched on gamely, with only George Storey of Northumberland having to step in to play 2 matches for them.

– The Aboriginal Protection Act was passed in 1869, as a result of which there was no subsequent tour by the Aboriginal cricketers.

– The next Australian Aboriginal team toured England in 1988.

– In 1996, Jason Gillespie became the first ‘acknowledged’ Australian Aboriginal to play international cricket.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)