In 1883, Aboriginal athlete Robert Kinnear chalked an easy win over a field of white rivals in the classic Victorian footrace. His victory was recorded in the press and views on athletics sought by reporters decades later. Yet today he is presented as a victim of racist oppression
“Duarte holds a range of positions including as co-chair of Reconciliation Victoria, advisory board member of the Koori Youth Council, panel member of the Premier’s Jobs and Investment Panel, director of Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, director of WasteAid, and member of the Victorian Regional Churchill Fellowship Committee.”
A gifted athlete in her day and woman of broad achievement since, some might view the video interview below and suspect that, where reconciliation is concerned, reconciling a family myth of racist oppression with the sanguine facts of a once-prominent ancestor’s life and achievements might be a good place to start. Thirty-nine seconds into the clip, Ms Duarte explains that one of the highlights of her younger life was competing in the women’s events at the Stawell Gift athletic carnival. The significance of that moment (emphasis added)
“One of the special experiences I had was competing at Stawell … it was special because my greatuncle was the first Aboriginal man to win the Stawell Gift and at that stage he wasn’t acknowledged as the winner …”
Ms Duarte’s greatuncle was Robert “Bobbie” Kinnear and the notion that he was denied the winner’s laurels is a far greater mystery than accounts of his triumph, which are very easy to find at the National Library online archive, Trove.
According to the Melbourne Sportsman of April 4, 1883, two days after the event,
The various races were closely contested, the fifteen placed men on Saturday in the 130 yards Easter Gift struggling stubbornly for the prizes, the winner turning up literally in a dark horse from the Mission Station near Dimboola, best known as Bobby Kinnear.
The correspondent’s little joke about Robert Kinnear being “a dark horse” would not go down well today, but there is no denying he was accorded both the winner’s honour and a measure of local fame that endured until his death in 1935 at the age of 84. Indeed, he was so well known and respected that painter Percy Leason sought him to paint his portrait (right).
The Weekly Times obituary summarising a long and colourful life, with accounts of tribal war, attempted infanticide and the Gift victory, can be read here.
Far from being mistreated, Kinnear reminisced at the age of 70 in the Sporting Globe of the courtesy and respect shown him by the Stawell Athletics Club. The Trove facsimile is barely legible in parts but this sentence is clear as day:
Ms Duarte will no doubt be tickled pink to learn her great-uncle, far from being shunned, was honoured, respected and consulted well into his final years. Indeed, Robert Kinnear’s life, from the savagery of tribal life and his father’s attempt to kill him to memorialised athlete might prove useful in encouraging the young Aborigines she aims to save from suicide via her Culture is Life organisation to understand how white and black Australians are united by history, rather than divided.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online.