By Angel Bottaro
The preservation of Aboriginal breastplates, with a degree of empathetic imagination, evoke powerful stories of colonisation. The physical weight of the objects around one’s neck and the ascriptions given to them – gorgets, brass shields, but most commonly ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ plates – made them highly charged and politicised objects from the outset, a status they retain. ‘Gifted’ to Aboriginal people in an attempt to establish relations, sometimes resembling business negotiations, their meaning was not universal or constant, and the interpretation of their purpose was not necessarily shared among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, or within the members of those categories.
It is my assertion that these breastplates, known since 1815 (and with many variations and permutations since) were highly encoded objects. Institutional collections of them continue to benefit us and future generations with insight into the reasons for deploying such objects for various objectives, certainly as a significant tool of communication of power relations between indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Australia’s past.
The relative omission of Aboriginal voices from the colonial record makes it difficult to be conclusive about the perceived significance of the breastplates to the wearer. As such, it is the hearsay evidence and inferences made by colonial non-Indigenous people which provides an entry point to understanding, with all of the problems that attends this for historians, anthropologists and others wishing to better understand our past. Add to that the fact that you are presently reading an account of that pot-holed history from a non-Aboriginal author. I wish to acknowledge at the outset that the author claims no authority over Aboriginal voices, knowledge and understandings, but rather the paper is principally informed by examination of primary and secondary sources. In turn, these conclusions have been generated from an internship with the Barengi Gadjin Aboriginal Land Council and an encounter with the biography of ‘King’ Anthony Anderson, an Aboriginal man bestowed with the ‘royal’ title of King of Birchip, Morton Plains, Donald and Surrounding Districts from 1902, by the Birchip Shire Council. Anderson’s ‘Kingship’ carried with it a broadly-held perception by pastoralists in the region seeking unfettered ownership of that regional land that he represented the ‘last of his tribe’, but also an underlying acknowledgement that he was its legitimate land-owner and someone with whom negotiations should take place. Undaunted by those profoundly complex obstacles, let’s press on.
A History of Breastplates
Breastplates are distinctive artefacts of Australia’s colonialisation, and although they do not constitute Aboriginal material culture in an orthodox sense, they are via inscription, indelibly tied to the individuals to whom they were given.
A brief discussion of medieval gorgets, a distant conceptual relative of Aboriginal breastplates is helpful in understanding the likely context in which they were both given and received and the role they played in facilitating all manner of misunderstandings, tensions and encoded meanings. Situated at the neck, metal gorgets served medieval warriors by protecting the neck and throat in combat. At the close of the seventeenth century the gorget was one of the few remaining pieces of armoury. With the widespread introduction of firearms, however this once indispensable object proved increasingly ineffectual and redundant in terms of practicality, matched with a corresponding increase in its attraction as a nostalgic status symbol for British infantry officers. Gorgets were engraved to make clear their ownership. Heavy to wear and superannuated as a defence mechanism in battle, by the eighteenth century the British army issued a standard-sized gorget, diminished in scale. By order of King William IV, they were eventually abolished by the mid-nineteenth century.
Meanwhile, in a distant land known as the colony of New South Wales, and now returning the reader’s imagination to that location in the eighteenth century, the marine infantry who were charged with defending the colony until 1792, wore gorgets to denote their rank, and attached them around their necks with ribbons “as duty symbols until 1832”. Governor Macquarie presented the earliest known breastplate to Bungaree, assigned the title of ‘Chief of Broken Bay Tribe’.
An overarching purpose of the issue of breastplates becomes evident in the case of Bungaree, portrayed in the colonial record as a skilled mediator, capable of moving easily between two cultures. Bungaree had assisted Matthew Flinders from 1802. Obviously, breastplates served the purpose of defining who was to negotiate on behalf of Aboriginal people, conveying messages from the colonial front, and with an underlying and unmistakable inference that there was something to exchange between people of a certain ‘rank’ in their respective communities, that is, land ownership and attendant resource use. The gifting of breastplates was not fortuitous and accidental, but calculated and deliberate, in the service of particular predetermined ends.
As the practice of gifting breastplates became obsolete in other colonial settings, it was resuscitated in New South Wales. The gifting of breastplates enveloped Aboriginal leaders as extensions of the projection of extant colonial power structures, offering at first the beguiling appearance of being equals engaged in occupations characterised by duty and prestige, but soon this of course devolved into a pattern of overlords and subordinates. Undoubtedly, the differential dress code of Aboriginal men and colonial soldiers would have reinforced this impression, including the fact that the breastplates were a ‘past’ fashion accessory, possibly the subject of mockery rather than respect.
In 1815, Governor Macquarie inaugurated grand feasts held annually at Parramatta, laden with barrels of “grog”, extending an invitation to the feasts to members of adjacent Aboriginalgroups, who in turn invited more senior Aboriginal members of more remote tribes to join in the apparent festivities. At these feasts, Macquarie publicly bestowed badges to those men, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal whom he believed to have served him well, and to whom he believed to have the capacity for ongoing authority and influence among their peers.
As currency, breastplates became extremely versatile, but the common denominator was loyalty to the Crown, mediated through the delegated authority of Macquarie. Soon, breastplates were not only issued to ‘chiefs’ in charge of decisions about the use of land in exchange for social and material favours (was this thought of as a form of treaty at the time?) but to exploration guides, brave individuals, friendly and loyal individuals, and for any other arbitrarily emergent use to quell unwanted behaviour and reward compliant behaviours in the service of the Crown’s ultimate ends. This pattern of distribution of rewards to people other than tribally-nominated elders was at odds with the extant indigenous forms of political organisation. This undermining not only obfuscated alliances but has, in current literature, problematised breastplate wearers, portraying them as ambiguous intermediaries between cultures (Nugent 2015, p. 69).
The Native Police that soon appeared, according to Troy (1993:27) represented a “force raised and used against other Aboriginal people to prevent them from opposing the expansion of the pastoral frontier” and regarded at the time and since as a duplicitous set of characters. Aboriginal trackers and guides were employed as allies in the expansion of the frontier and the quelling of any dissidents who opposed this ambition.
As the frontier expanded, impatience and lawlessness increased among non-traditional owners. Squatters began taking the law into their own hands, particularly when Governor Thomas Brisbane succeeded Macquarie’s administration from 1822. Correspondingly, breastplates changed in size and meaning and became more prolific, matching their increasing meaninglessness and insincere application. Pastoralists created and issued their own breastplates for “Kings’ and Queens’, mimicking and trying to reproduce the manipulative outcomes of colonial ancestors. Both Cleary and Troy are to be applauded for their research in this area. To illustrate, in 1846, pastoralist James Graham gifted a breastplate to the man he believed was the most influential Aboriginal traditional landowner as a mechanism to dilute aggression over the ‘contest’ of land, stating, “This is your only safe way with the blacks, for so you acknowledge and establish authority”. Capturing loyalty via trinkets and material favours involving food, clothing and the like was clearly less expensive than the possibility of unpredictable manifestations of collective antagonism against the newcomers on traditional land.
The subsequent division of settler-land parcels into fenced farms excluded Aboriginal people from accessing traditional resources, therefore increasing dependency on non-Aboriginal people for food, and more exotic supplies such as blankets, alcohol and tobacco, setting a self-fulfilling prophecy well into train. These were not necessarily on offer for free, but rather in exchange for information about the location and use of water, land management, and of course, as insurance policies against violent raids and retributive justice. Breastplates, still being issued prolifically, allowed government workers to readily identify trustworthy allies and informants.
Aboriginal people however, continually adapting to the pressures of colonial society, where possible appropriated its codes to their advantage. Edward Ryan (1999) demonstrates for example, that Anthony Anderson (in 1902) “…appropriated European power structures by requesting the local government to present him with a brass plate”, in doing so establishing legitimacy within both his own and the white community.
By the mid-1840s, the currency of breastplates as a signifier of ‘royalty’ was being devalued, and their power to extract information and favours in return began to also diminish, while the breastplates themselves generally increased physically in size.
Based on the revered arguments of Darwin, Wallace and others, translated into relations among humans, it was widely assumed that Aboriginal people would inevitably face extinction, leaving the issue of land ownership non-problematic.
It did not.
Breastplates are objects with multiple embedded meaning and memories from our past. They are patently important to preserve.
Angel Bottaro is completing her Honours in Anthropology at La Trobe University, Melbourne focusing on her major interest areas – Oceanic Arts and museology, and Indigenous affairs in post-colonial Victoria.
Author unknown, 1816-1852, ‘Cora Gooseberry, Freeman Bungaree, Queen of Sydney & Botany Bay[Brass breastplate]’, State Library New South Wales, Ref #447023, accessed 9th May 2018.