Aboriginal Breastplate Collection
King plates or gorgets
A significant collection of around 30 breastplates. These were given by European settlers to Aboriginal people in eastern Australia mainly in the 19th century. They are crescent- shaped and made from bronze or brass. In addition to personal inscriptions, the breastplates are decorated with engraved pictorial scenes. A very common design element was the kangaroo and emu and similar iconography synonymous with Australian identity today. Other imagery includes crowns, native flora and fauna, Aboriginal people hunting or sitting on horseback with spears or guns, and Aboriginal motifs.
A significant collection of around 30 breastplates. These were given by European settlers to Aboriginal people in eastern Australia mainly in the 19th century, many relating to known individuals. Breastplates were popular with private collectors, who acquired large numbers of Aboriginal artefacts in the belief that Aboriginal people were a 'dying race'. Their focus was the assembling of large quantities of objects rather than the histories pertaining to individual pieces, and so piecing together the history of those individuals given the breastplates is often difficult.
Breastplates played an important role in the development of social relationships between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people in colonial Australia. Known also as 'king plates' or 'gorgets', breastplates were given to Aboriginal people in recognition of their co-operation with settlers. Breastplates formed part of a strategy to foster peaceful relations between the two groups and were presented as rewards for bravery, faithful service and collaboration with pastoralists, stockmen and governmental authorities. Recipients of breastplates were assigned titles of 'king', 'queen' or 'chief'. Their 'badges of distinction' were engraved with their name and tribe, clearly identifying both the individual and their status. European colonisers have long been in the habit of giving commemorative medals or tokens to the inhabitants of newly 'discovered' lands. The practice of rewarding submission with breastplates is thought to have originated from earlier military tradition. French and British colonisers frequently rewarded the Indigenous people of North America with gorgets for their servitude. The gift of a breastplate was regarded as an honour by non-Aboriginal people, however, the reaction of Aboriginal people varied. For some, the breastplates were considered to endow the recipients with the status of leader and hero; while others resented the gifts in the belief it was another means of demeaning Aboriginal people. The most common form for a breastplate was the crescent-shape and usually cast in bronze or brass. Less often they were made from copper, and occasionally, silver plate was used as a finish. In addition to personal inscriptions, breastplates were decorated with engraved pictorial scenes following the conventions of European heraldry. A very common design element was the kangaroo and emu and similar iconography synonymous with Australian identity today. Other imagery includes crowns, native flora and fauna, Aboriginal people hunting or sitting on horseback with spears or guns, and Aboriginal motifs.
Sensitivities apply to the use of breastplates in exhibitions and publications; consultation with Aboriginal communities and advice from the Museum's Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee will be necessary.
1850-1920; Aboriginal Breast Plates; Brass; Breastplates; Gorgets; Iconography; Kingplates
Northern Territory, Australia; Orbost, Victoria; Western District, Victoria; Snowy River, Victoria; Mannum, South Australia; Western District, Victoria; New South Wales, Australia; Gippsland, Victoria, Australia; Queensland, Australia