Aboriginal breastplates encapsulate the complex histories between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia.
Breastplates are both positive and negative objects. They are symbols of dispossession and represent the mistreatment of Indigenous people at the hands of European invaders and colonisers. They are also symbols of Aboriginal pride, reflecting the strength and resistance of Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal breastplates, also known as king plates, gorgets and brassplates, were given by Europeans to individual Aboriginal people during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Originally governments awarded breastplates to individual Aboriginal people who they believed had control and influence over their community. In this sense they recognised the authority of Aboriginal leaders, but also tried to control Aboriginal people.
By the 1850s the breastplates were no longer a rare distinction awarded by the government. Pastoralists began to offer breastplates to Aboriginal people who served them well in any way.
Each breastplate is unique. The sizes, shapes, materials, inscriptions, and decorative features of breastplates vary as much as the reasons for awarding them.
Breastplates are inscribed with the name of the individual to whom they were awarded. Often a title such as king, queen, princess and chief was added to highlight the special status of the individual and the award. However, this type of hierarchy and terminology is not part of Aboriginal cultures.
Breastplate inscriptions also include some annotations that indicate the basis of the award. For example, the breastplate from Poonipun, illustrated below, includes an account of the heroic acts that led to its award.
Material and Shape
Crescent shaped breastplates are the most common form, but squares, circles and other shapes were also used.
Originally plates were made of lead, but later they were crafted from brass. They are engraved with text, and augmented with decorative design. Some are quite elaborate, while others are plain.
Rescue of Sovereign Survivors Breastplates
A passenger and cargo ship, the Sovereign, was wrecked after it set out from Moreton Bay in rough weather on 11 March 1847. The ship struck a bar at the south end of Moreton Island and capsized. Only 10 of the 54 crew and passengers survived.
The survivors owed their lives to the valiant efforts of a group of Aboriginal men from Quandamooka (Moreton Bay). The men put their own lives at risk in extremely dangerous conditions. They swam out to the wreck and pulled the survivors back to shore.
The heroic actions of these men in rescuing the Sovereign survivors was very much appreciated by the colonial government.
It seems that the men were rewarded with a boat – a significant and valuable asset at the time. The Moreton Bay Courier reported in January 1848 that a crew of local Aboriginal men “exhibited skill and emulation” to win the “eighth race of the day” in a vessel given to them “for their exertions in rescuing survivors of the unfortunate Sovereign steamer and her sable crew”.
In addition to the vessel, the government made special engraved brass breastplates for each of the Aboriginal rescuers. These recognised their skill, effort and bravery. Recipients included, Nuahju (aka Billy Cassim), Noggun, Juckle Juckle, Poonipun, Toompani and Woondu. At least three plates have survived - two are held by the Royal Historical Society of Queensland and another at Queensland Museum. The whereabouts of the other plates is unknown.
One of the surviving breastplates was awarded to Poonipun, an Aboriginal man from Stradbroke Island. This object is held by Queensland Museum.
The inscription on the breastplate reads:
WAS REWARDED BY THE GOVERNOR,
FOR THE ASSISTANCE HE AFFORDED WITH SEVERAL OF HIS COUNTRYMEN,
TO THE SURVIVORS OF THE WRECK OF THE STEAMER ‘SOVEREIGN’
BY RESCUING THEM FROM THE SURF UPON MORETON ISLAND,
ON THE 11TH OF MARCH 1847,
UPON WHICH MELANCHOLY OCCASION 46 PERSONS WERE DROWNED
AND BY THE AID OF THE NATIVES 10 WERE SAVED
Queensland Museum's Find out about... is proudly supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation and the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation.