Inside the Collection

Aboriginal Breast Plates

Photograph of Engraved breastplate
Engraved breastplate, presented to aboriginal man “Harry Mulbah/Chief of Berrallawah”, brass, maker unknown, 1845-1850, Powerhouse Museum A7765

Aboriginal breastplates, like this one, are rare reminders of the relationships that once existed between the Indigenous population of Australia and the European colonists. These breastplates were similar in design to the gorgets worn by Officers in British Regiments and were tailor-made for the recipient  As a result the inscriptions and motifs are significant records from the early colonial period right up to the 1930s when they appear to have stopped making breastplates.

The earliest breastplate was handed out by Governor Macquarie to Boongarre in 1815 and was part of carefully controlled system which ensured only the Governor could decide who was, or was not, designated a ‘Chief ‘ or ‘King’. After Macquarie left in 1822 this system began to break down and from the 1830s a wide array of colonials issued these plates.

The inscriptions make it clear breastplates were most commonly presented to people who were perceived as Chiefs, Kings or Queens in a particular area. Less common were those given in recognition of service or as rewards. Land title claims, and a resurgence of interest in Aboriginal culture, from the 1980s onwards have added to the significance of Aboriginal breastplates and the records inscribed upon their surfaces.

In addition to the breastplate seen at the top of this page the Powerhouse Museum holds the following:

Photograph of Engraved breastplate "Jemmy Rodd, Constable"
Engraved breastplate, presented to aboriginal man “Jemmy Rodd, Constable”, brass, maker unknown, 1840-1880, Powerhouse Museum A7766
Photograph Engraved breastplate, “Boongong Nimmitt, Chief of the Burrier Tribe, 1847
Engraved breastplate, presented to aboriginal man “Boongong Nimmitt, Chief of the Burrier Tribe, 1847”, brass, maker unknown, 1847, Powerhouse museum A7767
Photograph of engraved breastplate, “Master William King”
Engraved breastplate, presented to aboriginal man “Master William King”, Sugarloaf, Dungog, made by .P. Grenfell & Sons, New South Wales, Australia, 1840-1880, Powerhouse Museum A7768
Photograph of breastplate, "Murray Jack / (Malian Ebai) / King of the Wolgal"
Breastplate, Aboriginal, “Murray Jack / (Malian Ebai) / King of the Wolgal” brass, engraved by C G Roesler, Melbourne, Australia, 1830-1891, A7507
Photograph of breastplate, 'David King of the Woronora Tribe'
Breastplate, ‘David King of the Woronora Tribe’, engraved brass, maker unknown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1810-1821, Powerhouse Museum 2005/35/1
Photograph of breastplate, 'Bobby King of Grafton'
Breastplate, ‘Bobby King of Grafton’, engraved brass, maker unknown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1810-1821, Powerhouse Museum 2005/35/2

Geoff Barker, Curatorial, TAM Project

References
Tania Cleary, Poignant Regalia, 19th Century Aboriginal Breastplates and Images, Historic Houses Trust, 1993

3 responses to “Aboriginal Breast Plates

  • Can you tell me any more about the origins of your Master William breastplate – A7768? It is of particular interest as the origins of the name of the Williams River (originally the River William) are unknown. Any details appreciated.

  • The Williams River is one of the two major tributaries of the Murray River in Western Australia, the other being the Hotham River.

    It starts between Williams and Narrogin and flows in a general westerly direction before it joins the Hotham River to become the Murray River near Mount Saddleback.

    The river has 12 tributaries including Coolakin Gully, Warrening Gully, Junction Brook, Coalling Brook, Jim Went Creek and Fitts Creek.

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