Research discovery suggests AFL pioneer Tom Wills participated in massacres of Indigenous people

© Provided by ABC Grandstand There are new suggestions that Tom Wills took part in the mass murder of Aboriginal people. (Tom Wills c. 1857 or c. 1864  (printed c. 1905-1910) by an unknown artist. National Portrait Gallery, Australia/Gift of T S Wills Cooke 2014. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program.)

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

A startling discovery by a sports history researcher suggests that AFL pioneer Tom Wills participated in the mass murder of Aboriginal people during the infamous reprisal attacks that followed Queensland’s Cullin-la-ringo massacre of 1861.

Melbourne-based researcher Gary Fearon has uncovered a Chicago Tribune article from 1895 whose author claims that Wills — Australia’s first cricket superstar and a co-inventor of Australian Rules football — spoke of his participation in reprisal massacres.

Wills is quoted as claiming: “I cannot tell all that happened, but know we killed all in sight,” and describes his murder of an Aboriginal man who’d stolen Wills’s treasured cricket jacket during the attack on Cullin-la-ringo.

“Nothing else like it has previously been found,” Fearon says.

“It’s the only example I know of where a private conversation with Wills is being recorded at anywhere near this length and about events of such a serious nature.”

On October 17, 1861, while Tom Wills was away getting supplies, his father Horatio Wills and 18 others in their party were murdered at the newly-established Cullin-la-ringo station in central Queensland, which sat within the 15,000 square kilometres of Gayiri land between Springsure and Capella. It was the largest massacre of white settlers by Aboriginal people.

The attack on the Wills party was itself a reprisal for the unjustified murder of Gayiri men by Wills’s neighbour Jesse Gregson, a squatter from the nearby Rainworth station. Gregson had mistakenly accused the Gayiri of stealing cattle.

Over the following months, white settlers and native police carried out what is considered one of the most lethal punitive expeditions in frontier history — a series of massacres whose death toll is estimated by experts to have reached 370 Aboriginal lives.

‘Death to the devils written on every face’

In the Chicago Tribune article, titled “Old Days in Australia”, an anonymous correspondent with the byline “G” concludes a racist diatribe about his own days as a gold miner in Australia by loosely quoting Wills’s description of his tearful arrival back at the scene of the Cullin-la-ringo massacre.

In the account, Wills says:

“I turned to the drovers, who were crying like children, and ordered them to gallop to the neighbouring ‘runs’ to spread the news. Before morning thirty good men and true were at the door, among them two native trackers who were friendly to us, who said there was about forty in the gang. If you ever saw men set out to kill it was these. There was ‘death to the devils’ written on every face.

“After eight hours’ galloping we came up with the band about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. What a shout went up as we sighted them! How we galloped down upon them! I cannot tell all that happened, but know we killed all in sight. Just as we thought they were all settled I happened to see a dirty, shrinking, greasy brute with my Zingari jacket on sneaking off. O, the desecration of it! Fancy my Zingari jacket! O, didn’t I gallop after him, and when I got alongside I emptied the whole six barrels of my revolver into him, the brute.”

At that point, the author offers his own conclusion:

“Such was poor old Tommy Wills’ tale, but the pathos with which he surrounded it, and the indignation expressed at the fellow who dared to wear his Zingari jacket, cannot be portrayed in cold print. Tommy, poor fellow, took the drink, and became a perfect wreck, and if any one ever had an excuse for doing so surely he had. It was woe betide any native that came across Tommy Wills, for he was allowed to have a sort of general prescriptive right to rid the country of what he called d-d vermin.

“But then all this was in the good old days.”

‘It’s an incredible detail’

Fearon, who has been researching sports history for a decade, says that although the article contains numerous errors and exaggerations, there are several important details that only someone intimately familiar with Wills’s story could know.

Chief among them is Wills’s outrage at the theft of his treasured I Zingari cricket jacket — a souvenir of his times playing for the glamorous English amateur cricket club.

“It’s an incredible detail,” Fearon says.

“That jacket was a prized possession to Wills. In his letter to his cousin [and co-founder of Australian Rules] HCA Harrison after the massacre, that jacket is the one personal item he lists as having been stolen by his father’s killers. Until the discovery of ‘Old Days in Australia’, it was the only piece of evidence we had that Tom took his I Zingari jacket up to Cullin-la-ringo.

“When Wills finished his schooling in England and came back to Melbourne, the first sporting institution he reproduced wasn’t football, but the I Zingari club.”

Fearon says that much of what was previously known of Wills was sourced from Australian, British and New Zealand sources. In his own research, Fearon has looked through newspaper and online archives from other countries, sometimes translating foreign-language material to seek new insights. But he found the Chicago Tribune article with a single click on newspapers.com.

“It occurred to me that, given the flow of internationals through Australia in the mid-19th century, some may have written about Tom in accounts of their travels,” Fearon says.

“But I never expected to find something like this. And this article was reprinted in newspapers from Maryland to California. Millions of Americans would have read it, and it’s just been sitting there in plain sight in digital form.

“The format of the article, which is similar to yarns old-timers would write for periodicals like The Bulletin, is less important than the content, which is a mixture of uncanny corroborations and glaring errors.

“But from what we know about Wills — his character, the things he cared about, and his vocabulary — there are moments in this account where it does seem as though his voice is coming through.”

‘It’s a truth that has been covered up’

The violence and devastation inflicted upon the Gayiri in the wake of the Cullin-la-ringo massacre was so sustained that some academics assume descendants cannot be found.

In fact, that is another misconception, of which Yamba Konrad Ross, a Gayiri man living in Melbourne’s west, is proof. Determined that his people’s name and culture be kept alive, Ross became an artist and educator. He is acclaimed for his public works.

“Not a lot of people know about Gayiri people at all,” Ross says.

“That is why I started my art and my education — letting my family be known out in the community. If I’d never done that, nobody would be reading my words.”

In the early 2000s, Ross heard stories from his mother about the massacres and decided to take a look at Cullin-la-ringo for himself.

“I went up there, and it felt like I was gonna die next if I let people know who I was,” he says.

“There was really no mention of my people getting slaughtered up there. That’s when I started to just think of the old stories that I’d heard — the killing of the women and children.

“It’s a truth that has been covered up to hide the fact that they put my descendants in the ground.”

The suggestion of Tom Wills’s involvement in the killings was no surprise.

“Of course he would have had retribution for his father,” Ross says.

“It’s stuff that doesn’t get talked about because people don’t want to know about it. Nobody has been held accountable for it. We were classed as pests on the land.

“And it would be more than 370 people. If I’ve got no-one to go back to talk to about my ancestors, it wiped out a whole town. There would have been 1,000 people or more.”

He also doesn’t buy the image of Wills as a reconciliatory figure.

“He was trying to make up for his wrongdoing, killing all my people,” Ross says.

“He felt guilt from doing it. That’s not enough. Still to this day, even at my age, I feel the loss of culture, not connecting to the land as my ancestors did.”

‘A pioneer in Anglo-Indigenous relations’

Historians, biographers and academics have never previously found overwhelming evidence of Wills’s involvement in the reprisal attacks that followed the Cullin-la-ringo massacre.

Many point to Wills’s early childhood spent as the only white child among Djab wurrung people in the Grampians — and his decision five years after Cullin-la-ringo to coach the trailblazing Aboriginal cricket team of 1866 — as proof that Wills bore no grudge against Aboriginal people.

Interpretations of Wills’s suicide at 44 years of age in 1880 have also tended towards the matter of the things Wills had seen, rather than what he might have done.

The image of Wills that has resonated most strongly in recent times is his elevation to the status of progressive pioneer for his coaching of the Aboriginal cricket team. Two years later it became the first Australian cricket squad to tour England.

Although Wills fell into relative obscurity until the 1990s, his story has since been harnessed by cricket and the AFL alike: Wills was a founding inductee of the Australian Football Hall of Fame; he is immortalised in a bronze statue outside the MCG; in 2008, the AFL staged “Tom Wills Round”; in 2016, with the backing of heavy hitters from the cricket world, the Mullagh-Wills Foundation was established.

A 2016 documentary about Wills labelled him “a pioneer in Anglo-Indigenous relations”.

At the Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame, an exhibit on the Aboriginal team describes Wills’s mentorship of them as “an act of compassion and courageous reconciliation”, and “an early act of public reconciliation between Aboriginal people and the English settlers”.

Fearon’s discovery is likely to alter those perceptions.

‘It would be the only case’

The increased likelihood that Tom Wills was involved in massacres is no surprise to experts on the subject of frontier violence.

Emeritus professor Lyndall Ryan, who has spent much of the last decade mapping frontier massacres at the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle, turns the question on its head: “The question I would ask is, ‘Why wasn’t Tom involved in reprisals?'”

“There were many other occasions where surviving members of such a family had, somehow or other, got some sort of semi-licence to go out there and get revenge. No magistrate was going to turn up and say, ‘Look, leave it to the police to deal with this. You can’t be involved.’ I don’t think anyone ever said that in Queensland at that time.

“It would be the only case — probably the only known case in Queensland — where the strapping, surviving son was not involved.”

Ryan says there is something other than the I Zingari jacket that legitimises the Chicago Tribune account.

“A lot of the information we have about massacres on the map has come from information provided long after the event,” Ryan says.

“Later stories are so important to the investigation of massacre. Everybody is told to keep quiet in the immediate aftermath. That’s a characteristic of massacres. And if you speak out, you’ll probably lose your own life.

“In some cases it’s one of the perpetrators, who has the need to tell. We’ve found accounts of a massacre that occurred 30 years before, and a person has come up and said, ‘I need to tell you what happened.’ They remember it vividly. They’re obviously very pleased to get it off their chest.

“Whether they write it up themselves, or talk to a journalist, or someone travelling through the area and meeting by accident, they do tell. It may be that Tom Wills, knowing this guy didn’t belong to the area and didn’t know what happened, [thought he] was someone he could tell about it.”

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