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Power of Objects

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.

Penny Edmonds ‘A breastplate reveals the story of an Australian frontier massacre’, The Conversation, 28 October 2014

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.

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