As the AFL celebrates its Indigenous Round this weekend, the league is rightly recognising the enormous contributions of the hundreds of Indigenous Australian players who have enriched Australian rules football.
- Albert “Pompey” Austin played one match for Geelong in 1872
- Austin played against Thomas Wills, considered one of the founding fathers of Australian rules football
- He was a talented all-round sportsman, excelling in Australian rules and athletics
For so many it has been — and to some extent still is — a story of overcoming systemic hardship and racism to make an impact in the Australian game.
According to historian Roy Hay, the first Indigenous Australian player to compete at the highest level was Albert “Pompey” Austin, who played just one match for Geelong in 1872.
Hay, who has just published the biography Albert ‘Pompey’ Austin: A man between two worlds, said the subject of his book was “unique”.
“To this present day, there have only been 40 Indigenous Victorians who have played football at the top level, and he was absolutely the first,” Hay said.
Hay, a 79-year-old Scot, refers to Austin by his nickname Pompey while describing him as his hero.
He said Austin was a gifted professional athlete, footballer, cricketer, boxer, horseman, explorer, singer, musician and orator.
“What’s not to love about someone like that, who is a black man in a world which treats him and his colleagues with total contempt,” Hay said.
Very little is known about Austin’s childhood years, which he spent in the western districts of Victoria around Camperdown, just north of Cobden.
It is thought he was born sometime between 1842 and 1846. One source lists his Indigenous name as Poorne Yarriworri.
Hay said Austin grew up in the immediate aftermath of the massacres of Aboriginal people in western Victoria, which decimated and dispersed the population following the arrival of the Hentys in 1834.
“I just thought it was necessary to say something about what I thought was going on in a generation that was just clear of the killing, the massacres, the destruction of Aboriginal life,” Hay said.
Austin’s main sport was athletics, or what was known then as pedestrianism — flat races, hurdles, sack races and even backwards races.
Hay cited Austin’s entry to an athletic carnival in Geelong in 1872, where he entered and won every race.
The Mortlake Dispatch wrote: “Caesar he should be styled, for he came, saw and conquered. The white men had not a ghost of a chance with him and pale-faced muscular Christians for the nonce took a back seat so far as running and jumping were concerned.”
At another event the following year in what was then Belfast — now Port Fairy — he won 43 pounds, which at the time was the equivalent of about 11 weeks’ wages for a white man.
Perhaps because of his athletic reputation, he was selected to play for Geelong in a game of football against the acknowledged top team of the era, Carlton, in 1872.
Also playing in that game was Thomas Wills, considered one of the founding fathers of Australian rules football, along with his brothers Horace and Edgar.
“The game was just beginning to open up in 1872, prior to that it was mud rugby — people scrambling about on their hands and knees,” Hay said.
“Here was this black flash who could be a game changer.”
As it happened, reports suggest Austin did not have much of a chance to show off his skills in what Hay said was the sheer violence of 1870s football, described as “the interminable ground-level scrummages” in which “weight and strength count for more than the ability to leap for the ball or clear hurdles”.
Early in the game a Carlton player was taken off with a dislocated knee and then Austin was hit hard and did little afterwards.
“I think the ball comes out in his direction and he was poleaxed,” Hay said.
The Geelong Advertiser newspaper reported Austin “did not appear to see any fun in the game”.
Hay surmised that threat of injury was too great for Austin given his ability to make money as a professional athlete.
Pompey described as ‘prodigious’
Austin never played at the highest level again, although he played many games for the Framlingham mission near Warrnambool where he lived.
In modern parlance, Austin would be described as a renaissance man.
In 1886 he travelled to the Kimberley region of Western Australia with the surveyor William O’Donnell, who named a rock outcrop Pompey’s Pillar.
The author Mary Durack wrote about Austin in her famous book on pastoralism, Kings in Grass Castles, referring to “the prodigious Pompey who sang popular songs hot from the London music halls”.
Other reports have him entertaining crowds in Ararat playing a concertina and in Ballarat occupying a street corner and informing the crowd of “disquisitions on the present European situation and the probabilities of war”.
He was jailed twice for horse theft in 1880 and 1885.
Austin died in Melbourne of tuberculosis in 1889. Hay believed he would have been no more than 50 years old at the time.
“He just appears like a comet and then disappears,” Hay said.
And yet, while he has been largely forgotten in Australian history, Austin’s legacy did live on for at least three decades.
“People were writing back from the trenches in the first World War about taking the barbed-wire entanglements like Pompey took his hurdles,” Hay said.
“My argument would be that Pompey is as significant a figure in the mid-19th century as Tommy Wills simply because of the great differences in where they came from.
Hay said his hope in writing the book is that Austin’s life was remembered along with many of his contemporaries who had been forgotten.
“I’ve done this, first of all, to get away from the horrible thing where people stand up and pay their respects to the Indigenous people of this country and then ignore them thereafter,” he said.