History has a way of turning up unexpected treasures and I feel fortunate to have discovered one such gem accidentally.
Fortunate in the sense I now know something about an unsung South Australian sporting hero of the 19th century; sad however at his tragic end.
I discovered Aboriginal sportsman Harry Hewitt while researching West Adelaide’s inaugural SAFA season in 1897. The Advertiser on May 26, 1897 reported that two Aboriginal players, BT Bailey and P Barker, had been “passed” to play for West Adelaide.
It was reported in a very matter-of-fact way, but I assume it meant that Aborigines needed special approval to play league football.
A further search led me to reports of Harry Hewitt, who played for Medindie, as North Adelaide was then known.
In this report from a match against South Adelaide in May 1891, The Advertiser wrote: “The Dingoes included Harry Hewitt, the Aborigine from Point MacLeay, and he played a splendid game in the ruck, defeating his opponents time after time”.
Another article on April 9, 1892 described Harry’s cricketing talents: “On January 2 against Medindie he made 126 not out, on February 13 against Milang 113 and on March 11 against Mount Barker 107 not out. Excellent performances these. Go on Harry, my boy, keep at it and you may get into an inter-colonial before long.”
Harry played at least one game for Port Adelaide. The Advertiser on August 3, 1891 described his play in a match against Fitzroy: “Hewitt, late of the Medindies, as is his wont, entered the field shoeless and stockingless, and arrayed in a gaudy guernsey, created the best part of the afternoon’s amusement by his appearance and his comical gait. He was wonderfully fast, seeming to be everywhere, and would have been a valuable man except for his infringements of the rules, for which the referee pulled him up with the utmost rigour.”
Harry was also a leader. On Friday, May 29, 1885 he captained an Aboriginal team against an SAFA combined side, known as the Wanderers, in an exhibition match.
Harry told the South Australian Register that nine of his best players were prevented from going to Adelaide and he was compelled to take substitutes who had never played before. Playing barefooted, Harry said the green grass was a drawback.
Harry seems to have involved himself in many athletic pursuits. On January 4, 1895 the Mount Barker Courier reported his attendance at the Milang Regatta, where he won the vertical greasy pole event:
There were only two competitors in the whites’ division, G Hargraves gaining the award. The contest for aboriginals however was more interesting, half a dozen niggers striving after the coveted feather, and Harry Hewitt and A Karloin, who were equally successful, divided the money.
Intrigued, I searched again and sadly discovered the tragic story of Harry’s death. Here is the full report from The Advertiser of January 25, 1907:
A tragedy happened at Milang early yesterday morning amongst the blacks camped near the town, and as a result Harry Hewitt, an aboriginal, well known both at the Point Macleay Mission Station and in other parts of South Australia was killed.
There had evidently been a great disturbance in the camp, during which fierce fighting occurred. The police on visiting the place yesterday morning saw evidences everywhere of the battle, and they found the body of Hewitt who was quite dead. An examination of the corpse disclosed the fact that there was a large hole in the skull, which had apparently been caused by a terrific blow.
As a result of the inquiries made among the natives, the police arrested an aboriginal known as Tommy Lawson on suspicion of having struck the blow which caused Hewitt’s death, and he is at present in custody on a charge of murder, pending the outcome of the coroner’s inquest, which was opened at Milang yesterday afternoon.
Hewitt, who was about 40 years of ago, was well known in South Australian athletic circles. About 12 years ago he played for a cricket team in North Adelaide, which was known as the Cambridge Eleven, and he surprised his opponents on more than one occasion by his wonderful fielding. He would stop the hottest hits when the ball was travelling on or off the ground whilst his return was both accurate and rapid.
On one occasion Hewitt scored 144 not out against the Prospects. Hewitt played for a Milang team on the occasion of a turf pitch being used for the first time on the Unley Oval. In the football season his prowess as an all-round man when he was a member of the Medindie team is well remembered by old footballers.
He was not misplaced in any position in the field, but his particular forte was in the following department. As an athlete Hewitt took part in numerous sports gatherings, while as a swimmer he was no mean opponent. Besides his athletic excellences Hewitt excelled as an acrobat and gymnast, and he was for some time connected with a travelling circus.
He also took part in a variety show, playing in farces and sketches. The Salvation Army likewise claimed some of his attention, and while connected with this organisation Hewitt attained the rank of corporal. He was recognised as one of the most intelligent South Australian Aborigines at Point Macleay.
He could read and write and was conversant with a variety of subjects which are usually considered outside the ken of an ordinary native. Hewitt was a most quiet and inoffensive man and general regret is expressed at the manner of his sudden death. For the past few years Hewitt had been earning a livelihood at Milang as a fisherman.
What a remarkable man!
The Register reported that Harry was buried on January 28, 1907. “The weird screams of the wailing women around the bier, by the moonlit waters of the lake, was enough to chill the nerves of those who had never witnessed such a scene. It was simply thrilling in its blood-curdling intensity, then sad and mournful like the sighing and sobbing of the legendary Banshee of Ireland.”
Lawson stood trial for manslaughter, but was acquitted after the jury found he had acted in self defence.
Mrs Baxter, the licensee of the Pier Hotel at Milang, was found guilty of supplying Lawson with wine, and was fined five pounds.
Searching more about Harry’s life, it’s evident he was an early advocate of Aboriginal rights. The Advertiser published this forceful and heartfelt letter on February 7, 1905:
Sir, As an aboriginal, may I say a few words about the fisherman’s license? First, the white man took the land from us and killed our game, and now he expects us to pay £1 license before we can catch fish for the market. True, we can catch fish for our own use without a license, but what is the good of that? We have few opportunities for earning a livelihood, and now they are trying to stop us from earning a honest shilling. They are not getting rid of us fast enough, too they think they will starve us out. Perhaps, however, the Government have some means of keeping us in comfort, so that we won’t have to trouble about getting our living.
H. HEWITT (Aboriginal)
Harry Hewitt represents the spirit of Aboriginal Australia. He was a talented sportsman, intelligent and articulate. He was discriminated against and ridiculed for his appearance. He tragically lost his life in a drunken brawl.
As someone who played for both North Adelaide and Port Adelaide, he should have been recognised in the SANFL’s Indigenous Team of the Century.
- This article was originally published in February 2011. It has been reviewed and updated.