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Australia's Indigenous cricketing history explored in new documentary and exhibition We Are One



Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images and names of people who have died.


In 1868 Australia sent the first-ever international sporting team to England to play cricket — and remarkably, it was an all-Indigenous side.


In an effort to bring this unique period of Australia's sporting history to new audiences, two Sunshine Coast women have collated the stories of those with connections to the First XI in a documentary and photography exhibition.


Film director and Malyangapa/Barkindji woman Sasha Parlett and photographer Claire Letitia Reynolds have spent the last year on the We Are One project.


"Cricket Australia decided not to name their January 26 [Big Bash games the] Australia Day tests and I thought that was a very inclusive move on their behalf," Ms Reynolds said.


"It made me investigate a little bit further into Cricket Australia and cricket for Indigenous Australians — and [I] came across this really, really heroic journey of the athletes from 1868."


The project features elders from Queensland and Victoria, current First Nations cricketers and two direct descendants from the 1868 side.

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Aunty Fiona Clark is a great-great-granddaughter of Grongarrong (Mosquito), while Uncle Richard Kennedy, is the great-great-grandson of Yanggendyinadyuk (Dick-a-Dick).


Both Grongarrong and Yanggendyinadyuk played on the all-Indigenous side in 1868.


Portraits in the photography exhibition are printed on fine art paper with handcrafted dye from native leaves, including Swamp Bloodwood and Narrow-leaved Red Gum.


For the documentary, Ms Parlett interviewed the participants, asking about their experience as a First Nations cricketer or their knowledge about the First XI.


"I was able to, through the voices of First Nations cricket players today and descendants of the original team …tell the story of the First XI and experiences of being a First Nations cricketer today."


Tracing history

As part of the film and photographic collaboration, the women journeyed through Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.


They began by tracing the team's story back to Harrow, Victoria where the local Discovery Centre proudly chronicles the story of the First XI.


It is also where the annual Mullagh Cup is played between Indigenous descendants of the original side and non-Indigenous players.


Ms Parlett said visiting the regional town and nearby Edenhope — the site where the Indigenous side first gathered to practice — was "amazing".


"We actually got to go out to the field where they did all their training and … walk through their steps to see part of their story."


How the team got to England

Queensland was not a state in 1868, so almost all of the team's players were from Victoria.

Tom Wills, a cricketer from a wealthy New South Wales family descended from convicts, assembled the team.


Many of the Indigenous cricketers on the team came from settlements where they played the game.


One of those who did not hail from the garden state was Jallacharamin, also known as James Crowe, a Gubbi Gubbi/Kabi Kabi man from Queensland's Sunshine Coast.


"He was a known to be a chief of the Gubbi Gubbi and a very powerful man," Ms Reynolds said.

She said Wills saw the players' potential and "athletic prowess" and began training.


"Initially they thought, 'Hey we can probably make a bit of money out of this, let's tour everyone back over in England'," Ms Reynolds said.


Last year, John McPherson, a descendant of Wills, told the ABC that seven years prior to the First XI's 1868 tour of England, Wills participated in the revenge killings of Gayiri people during the Snake Ridge massacre.


However, other descendants of Wills claim McPherson has made an "error in judging" Wills' involvement in the massacres.


Cricket and culture

Ms Reynolds said the First XI players had to be smuggled out of Victoria on a ship to England because of a new law, the Aboriginal Protection Act, which gave the government full control over the lives of Aboriginal people.


While in England the team played to substantial crowds in counties across the country, including Lords.


They played a total of 47 matches between May and October, 1868.


According to the National Museum of Australia, they won 14, lost 14 and drew 19 — much to the surprise of their competitors.


"They came up basically dead-on even with the English side," Ms Reynolds said.


Away from the pitch, the players gave demonstrations of their culture in between matches and during lunch breaks.


Ms Parlett said that included spear throwing, shields and Woomeras.


"A lot of our local Indigenous tools they took over there with them on the ships and they performed for the Lords in England, which is just fascinating," she said.


Monuments to honour players

While the Indigenous First XI garnered respect in England, sadly a couple of the side died there.

"Leaving Australia for the very first time, they came across diseases that they'd never seen before," Ms Parlett said.


"We've been told that there are monuments over there dedicated to players that we lost in the travel."


The exhibition travels to Canberra's PhotoAccess in January 2023 and to Harrow, Victoria in February.


The creators hope to eventually share it with audiences nationally and in England.


This article is courtesy of ABC and journalists Annie Gaffney and Kylie Bartholomew

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