A breastplate reveals the story of an Australian frontier massacre

The breastplate given to ‘U. Robert King of the Big River and Big Leather Tribes’ by an unknown settler at Goonal station. Photo Dragi Markovic, National Museum of Australia

The flood of coverage of the centenary of Gallipoli and the first world war profoundly shapes the way we think of Australia’s history; but we suppress other violent events in our own country that also shaped us.

On Australian colonial frontiers, violence and conciliation went hand-in-hand. Acts of aggression, retribution, and pacification were linked in complex ways — ways that were not always recorded in archival accounts. We come to our history often through the written word, or television, and objects too often are left as mere footnotes to our history.

So can historical objects from our frontier past gives us fresh perspectives in rethinking and writing colonial history, and give us a window on such violence and troubled diplomacy?

In an essay Australian novelist Delia Falconer wrote for the the Australian Book Review in 1999, she noted evocatively that using objects as originating points for our research is like “walking though the back door of history, you don’t necessarily end up at the front door of the same house”.

In the course of my work – in Australian and Pacific-region colonial histories – I came across a curious 19th-century heart-shaped breastplate (main image) and found myself at the front door of frontier massacre. The breastplate was given to “U. Robert King of the Big River and Big Leather Tribes” by an unknown settler at Goonal station, established in 1843 on the Gwydir River or “Big River” in New South Wales.

The breastplate is clearly part of the widespread settler tradition of giving crescent-shaped breastplates plates to Aboriginal people for alliance and pacification, on a continent where there were no formal treaties.

Yet with its heart-shaped form it is exceptional, and at the top – between an emu and kangaroo – it shows an intriguing motif of crossed spears and gum boughs, similar in style to North American “peace medals” given to native Americans that displayed a crossed hatchet and peace pipe, suggesting pacification or the halting of violent relations.

‘Mounted Police and Blacks’ depicts the killing of Aboriginals at Slaughterhouse Creek by British troops. Wikimedia Commons

The heart motif in European tradition is a symbol of love, friendship, and affiliation, but also of “bone fides” or good faith. Yet, as it turns out, this strange and unique object can be traced directly to the Gwydir River, in the New England region, and to the general vicinity of two of the most infamous massacres in Australian history: the Waterloo Creek massacre and the Myall Creek massacre of Kamilaroi peoples in 1838.

In this year, escalating frontier skirmishes between settlers and Aboriginal peoples led the Governor to dispatch Major James Nunn to the region to “suppress these outrages” by the “blacks”. Nunn led a group of more than 20 troopers to the Liverpool Plains district in January of 1838.

On January 26 1838, known as “Foundation Day”, our precursor to Australia Day, Major Nunn and his group attacked a large group of Aborigines camped by a lagoon at Waterloo Creek (or Slaughterhouse Creek), resulting in what most historians agree were the deaths of at least 30 Aboriginal people.

Vigilante-settlers continued Nunn’s campaign, riding the country shooting Aboriginal people they could find, in what Muswellbrook Magistrate Edward Denny Day would come to call a “war of extermination” on the Gwydir.

Five months later, on the afternoon of Sunday June 10 1838, a gang of 11 convict and ex-convict stockmen led by a squatter, surrounded and tied up Wirrayaraay Aboriginal men, women and children, who were camped peacefully next to the huts on the Myall Creek cattle station of Henry Dangar, near Bingara on the Gwydir River.

They were taken away and slaughtered. The gang later burned the decapitated bodies. Despite public outcry, and after a second trail, seven were hanged in December 1838 in one of the few instances when white men were tried, convicted and hanged for the mass-killing of Aboriginal people.

When His Honor Judge Burton passed sentence on the men, he remarked:

I sincerely hope that the grace of God may reach and penetrate the hardened hearts that could surround a funeral pile lighted by themselves, and gloat on the tortures and sufferings of so many of their fellow beings.

By the 1850s remaining Aboriginal people in the area continued to seek protection on stations were they could, with men and women often working as shepherds and stockmen.

The breastplate given out to “U. Robert” of Big River, probably a senior Aboriginal man and possibly a shepherd, within decades of massacre, is a greatly unsettling object and represents a supreme conceit given the pernicious violence that occurred in the region as settlers pushed into northern New South Wales to take pastoral lands.

It is an object of alliance and friendship, given all too late. Aboriginal artist Andrea Fisher has rightly critiqued the coercive sentiment of the breastplate tradition with her reworkings and subversions of the breastplate motif in her works “blood” and “truth”.

Andrea Fisher, Blood. Museum of Democracy

But the heart-shaped breastplate may be suggestive of other meanings and valences. While I have not traced it to an individual settler with a “whispering in his heart” – Richard Windeyer’s compelling phrase echoed by historian Henry Reynold’s to suggest settler conscience – it may be nonetheless expressive of compassion and conscience.

In fact, Robert Brown, the owner of Goonal Station, to which the breastplate is linked, and a devout and evangelical Christian, went quite mad and was declared a “lunatic” in 1862, and died a year later in an asylum. Did he commission this breastplate for the Aboriginal people living and working on Goonal Station, their region only so recently invaded and beset by violence?

Was this the folly of a madman, or was it given in the name of friendship, reward, pacification, coercion or some form of conciliation with “U. Robert” and his family group? Did the whispering in Brown’s heart drive him mad? We may never know.

“Heart” can mean conscience, and it can also mean hope and acting in good faith. Every year, for 14 years now, commemoration ceremonies have been held at the site of the Myall Creek massacre. Here, the descendants of Aboriginal people and settlers come together in good faith as part of a community-based reconciliation project.

Artworks by Andrea Fisher. Museum of Democracy

The non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal participants in the reconciliation ceremonies at Myall creek have described “a great lifting”, and that they felt “set free” when they acknowledged the violence of their shared past.

Heart may also be the courage to remember, honour, and the strength to forgive in order to reconcile. These acts of reconciliation were possible at the Myall Creek site because some form of justice - at least, in part - had been seen to be done, unlike Waterloo Creek. The plaque on a stone memorial at the Myall Creek massacre site reads:

Erected on 10th June 2000 by a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians in an act of reconciliation and in acknowledgement of the truth of our shared history. We remember them/ Ngiyani winangay ganunga.

These ceremonies are rites of passage in settler societies, events crucial to peace-building and healing, where the past has been strewn with conflict and trust can be low; here through truth-telling and ritual the past is acknowledged and shared, and new stories are made.

These are emotional journeys where “fraught hearts” come into play and individual acts of consciousness and the building of trust matters.

Every year Australians engage in such grassroots commemorations, to mourn, reflect, say sorry, and honour, and to build new peaceful accords.

These community ceremonies are sometimes uncomfortably close to our hearts and homes, based on events that occurred under our very feet, and are far closer than battles on distant shores. There must be room for these too. Our most important history is too often at our own front door.

And its vestiges can be elicited by extraordinary objects in museum collections.

Penny Edmonds’ book, Conciliation on Colonial Frontiers: Conflict, Performance and Commemoration in Australia and the Pacific Rim (Routledge), co-edited with Kate Darian-Smith, is due out in late 2014.

The Conversation is currently running a series looking at the history and nature of violence.