Showing posts with label sporting history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sporting history. Show all posts

Friday, March 18, 2011

The day my grandfather woke up in Australia

My grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985] once described to me his joy upon arriving in Sydney Harbour on the SS Marathon on Christmas Day 1908, where he was greeted by his London-born seafaring uncle William Mepham and his Australian-born wife Gertrude Driscoll, who lived at Rushcutters Bay.

The next day was important in 20th-century boxing history and, indeed, in world racial history, for Australian boxing enthusiasts would witness a match that had been unthinkable, in the Northern Hemisphere, up until that summer afternoon in Sydney. A black Texan, Jack Johnson [1878-1946], whose parents were former African slaves, would finally seize the world heavyweight championship from a white Canadian, Tommy Burns [1881-1955].

My grandfather, aged 17, spent the 26 December 1908 wandering around Rushcutters Bay, where he was impressed by the crowds who were gathering for the big match. He would tell me much later (with a hint of pride in his modest origins) that he obviously didn't have the necessary cash in his pocket to pay for a seat in the stadium.

Click the above image to see a panoramic photo—which I've only just just discovered—of the entire view of the Rushcutters Bay stadium on that famous afternoon.

Exactly 46 years later, my grandparents would take me to that same Sydney eastern-suburbs neighborhood to watch another great match: the Davis Cup tennis finals, described in my article of 27 December 2007 entitled Over half a century ago [display].

POST SCRIPTUM: A fascinating video summarizes the celebrated Johnson-Burns title fight of 1908 (which I recently heard described on French radio).

There's a terribly significant detail, which may or may not correspond to what we tend to imagine when we hear this story today. Finally, it was not the referee, but rather the Sydney police, in the 14th round, who intervened to halt this one-sided combat, which looked as if it might culminate in a fatal issue. But, before stepping in between the boxers, the police ordered the news filming to be stopped. Today, historians consider that the Sydney police had orders to do everything that they could to avoid the idea that the sporting archives might contain the terrible images of a black man hammering a white boxer to death. As you can see for yourselves in the video, the Sydney police did in fact succeed in this censuring mission.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A fight to remember

Back in the early '80s [before the existence of the Internet], I succeeded in finding this photo of the steamship Marathon, which took my future grandfather from his native London to Australia, when he was 17 years old.

My grandfather once told me that his ship reached Sydney on the same day—December 26, 1908—that a big boxing match would be taking place, between the white Canadian Tommy Burns and the black American Jack Johnson. This detail intrigued me, because I don't recall my grandfather being attracted to boxing [the only sport he liked was tennis], and I've often wondered why the Burns/Johnson fight [which he didn't even see, because he couldn't afford a ticket] would have stayed in his memory. It was only last night that I finally found an explanation, when I watched a French TV version of the splendid film by Ken Burns entitled Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

Up until last night's TV show, I had ignored the fact that, prior to the match in Sydney in 1908, no white-skinned boxer had ever deigned to defend his world heavyweight title against a black man. In America, at the start of the 20th century, it would have been unthinkable for such a match to take place. This explains why, although the boxers were from Northern America, their encounter of fourteen rounds could only be organized in a faraway land such as Australia. The match had a shameful ending. When it was clear that Burns was about to be knocked out by the giant son of former slaves, Sydney police officers stepped in and stopped, not only the fight, but the filming of the event... because the White Establishment considered it politically incorrect that the image of a white boxer being thrashed by a black man should be handed down to posterity.