The history of martial arts in Australia

It’s generally accepted knowledge that Asian martial arts arrived Down Under after World War II, when the Japanese and Koreans began exporting their combative traditions around the world, starting a frenzy of interest among those who’d previously been exposed only to Western boxing and wrestling.

Combat in the colonies

In reality, martial arts took root in Australia before the country even took its name. Besides those who fought bare-knuckled in the established Western way — such as Ned Kelly, who was famous for his 22-round war with district champion ‘Wild’ Wright long before he donned his armour — there were plenty of immigrants utilising their native fighting traditions in the goldfields that sprang up across the wide, brown land. Dr David Waldron from Victoria’s Federation University delved into the archives to uncover these long-lost stories.

Today I work as a historian and folklorist, but in my youth I was an avid martial artist, training in Pencak silat and kempo for many years after starting with taekwondo back in the 1980s. One of the things I love as a historian is searching through old documents for those strange quirks of life that are forgotten today but captured people’s imagination at the time. So, it was when researching Ballarat’s gold rush-era Chinese community for my history podcast ‘Tales from Rat City’ that I started to come across references to Chinese boxing, and matches between Western boxers and their Chinese counterparts. Further digging revealed the Australian public’s fascination, bordering on obsession, with jiu-jitsu (also spelled jujitsu) in the late 19th century. It also revealed to me the phenomenon of ‘all-in fighting’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries, where experts in different styles would compete in mixed grappling and striking combat that seemed to closely resemble today’s MMA competitions, and even more so the early UFC events where matches focused on comparing and contrasting styles. I raised this with my colleague, who trains in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and we decided to do some exploration of Australia’s colonial tradition of martial arts.

It is worth nothing that even before white settlement, Indigenous traditions of combat and wrestling were already established among Australia’s Aboriginal population and, in Victoria, many of these contests and skills were well described by early explorers. George Augustus Robinson, an Aboriginal protector from 1839 to 1852, described on several occasions competitive wrestling matches between competing ‘tribes’ of Aboriginals in Victoria. One such description, from where Narre Warren sits today, can be found in The Papers of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate (Vol 2) by Ian Clark:

“The ‘miam miam’ or huts were scattered over a beautiful entrance at the northeast corner of the township. Two native men would start from a group to the ground appointed for the gymnastic. One would remain and one would return. They ran to and from the ground. The one that remained knelt of one knee. When, if his challenge was accepted, the same running accompanied by another was gone through and the wrestling commenced. They both quietly embraced or grappled with each other, where a trial of strength would ensue. They would try to lift each other off their feet and which when they succeeded they would try to throw their antagonist and which they generally succeeded. Sometimes the person thrown would keep so firm a hold as to recover his feet and throw his adversary. Sometimes they would throw each other two or three times together. When they were equally matched, they would separate and return to their respective huts. When a challenge was not received… after a reasonable time the challenger would get up onhis leg and throw a handful of ashes at his opponent (a token defiance) and then return to his people…”

While such descriptions leave us to speculate as to the techniques used, it’s clear that there was an elaborate tradition with its own complex system of rules and techniques. Likewise, early settlers and explorers commented on the high quality of skills demonstrated by Victorian Aboriginals with their wooden shields. Noting that it was very rare, one could get past another’s defences with his spear, and it was reported that they showed effective use of their shields against an officer’s saber (Mount Alexander Mail, 9 March 1869) as well as against thrown missiles (The Australasian 9 July 1932). Again, while we can only speculate as to their methods, the records remind us of a culture that made use of training, technique and ritualised practice, like any martial art.

Martial arts were also known to the settlers of Australia. Far from simply an appropriation from Asia, many sophisticated systems of wrestling, boxing and the like were indigenous to Europe and practised within local communities, and the settlers to Australia brought these skills with them. One example of this was the wrestling tradition of Glima from Scandinavia, described in The Daily Herald (14 January 1911) as a “very fast and varied style of wrestling, affording opportunities for developing great skill, as was shown by the way in which Josefason successfully threw several English wrestlers of much
heavier build than himself.”

Likewise, the Celtic wrestling systems brought over from Cornwall, Ireland and Scotland were also well known by colonists, such as the coilearagus- dille (collar-and-elbow) system, featuring throws with folkish titles like ‘the flying mare’, which was, in practice, nearly identical to the jujitsu technique of ippon seio nage. These styles were also well known during the American Civil War, and were a popular pastime for Celtic immigrants. The origins of this system of wrestling as a competitive sport date back to at least the 17th century and tie into already established traditions of ritualised combat during the Middle Ages and earlier. These sorts of matches featured commonly in the papers of the day, with much discussion of their intricate locks, holds and throws — and even the ‘dirty tactics’ used. One of the earliest descriptions we could find described a match for land in Launceston as early as February 1838, in Tasmania’s The Cornwall Chronicle

“The first throw was won by Arthur, who very dexterously capsized his antagonist in real Devonshire style. The next two were won by Glass, who claimed the victory, which, however, Arthur denied, in consequence of coming down
in the last wrestle, as he said, from a bite inflicted on his arm by Glass, contrary to the rules and regulations of Devonshire wrestling. Glass very properly maintained, that in the absence of agreement as to the particular mode of wrestling, he was justified in adopting that plan that pleased him best, and that having beaten his adversary, he was justly entitled to the fifty weathers.”

Likewise, the Chinese on the goldfields brought their own styles of combat with them from southern China. Many gold rush-era depictions of the Chinese comment on their unique skills of boxing and acrobatics, yet the skills themselves seemed to have been carefully guarded by Victoria’s Chinese community, with the exception being performances given in the Chinese quarters of Ballarat, Castlemaine and Bendigo. In particular, displays of what we would identify today as theatrical wushu were common on Victoria’s goldfields in both circuses and theatres. Many of these extraordinary feats performed with swords, spears and bare hands astounded Western observers, as this description of a Chinese gathering in Castlemaine (from The Age on 29 June 1858) attests:

“The entertainment, so far as we were able to see it from a dangerous platform composed of the rim of a beer barrel and the edge of a wooden rail, seemed to comprise characteristic dances in which the performers executed those wonderful feats of arms — and legs — with two swords, single sword and shield and spear.”

Such displays were part of the cultural fabric of the Victorian colony, where bouts between boxers and wrestlers of various kinds served as both entertainment, dispute resolution and self-defence. It would also be fair to note that many of these styles became integrated together as people intermarried, shared ideas and experimented with the traditions of other cultures. As discussed in an edition of The Age back in August 1877, boxing matches where French practitioners of la savate vied with boxers and wrestlers were also common, and the desire to pit these combat systems against each other was high for practitioners and audiences alike. However, this push for comparing combat
methods reached a fever pitch with the arrival of Japanese jujitsu in Australia in the late 1880s, around the time Japan was emerging as a major industrialised power on the world stage.

The mythologising of the samurai tradition took off like wildfire in Australia, with papers running articles on the unique qualities of jujitsu and extolling the virtues of the katana (sword) in a manner prescient of the martial arts films of the 1970s.

And likewise began a fascination with Japanese and Okinawan systems of hand-tohand combat featuring many of the practices, and the myths and folklore, of Japanese martial arts.

With this fascination came the desire to test these styles against each other in the practice of ‘all-in fighting’