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Aboriginal breastplate for Timothy, Chief of Merricumbene

1985.0059.0378

Aboriginal breastplate for Timothy, Chief of Merricumbene

Object information

Description

Edmund Milne (1861-1917) was born in England and emigrated to Queensland with his parents 19 months later. He had had personal contact with Aboriginal people throughout his life, from when he was a small boy in Queensland and, from the late 1860s, in New South Wales. This contact may have led him to recording the names of Aboriginal people associated with particular objects in his collection, at a time when this was rarely done. Milne seems to have begun actively collecting Indigenous artefacts in the early 1880s and was still acquiring objects a few months before his death in 1917. His work with the NSW Railways (1876-1917) enabled him to meet a broad range of people who facilitated his collecting and associated activities like visiting Aboriginal sites. From at least the time he lived at Orange NSW (1906-1915), and later at Ryde (1915-1917), near to Sydney city, he displayed his collection at his home. In addition to a large collection of Aboriginal artefacts, Milne?s collection included artefacts from the South Pacific and prehistoric implements from Egypt, France and England. In his will dated 12 December 1916, Milne bequeathed his ?Anthropological collection? to the ?first Federal Museum opened in the Federal Capital?. The collection remained at Ryde until early 1931 when it was acquired by the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra. It remained there until the Institute?s collections were transferred to the National Museum of Australia in 1985.

Physical description

A crescentric brass breastplate with a hole at the edge of each horn to attach a chain. 'TIMOTHY / CHIEF OF / MERRICUMBENE' is engraved on the anterior surface. A raised, peaked crown is engraved in the centre of the breastplate with an emu to the right side, and a kangaroo to the left. Leaf sprigs are in both curves.

Educational significance

This is an Aboriginal brass breastplate with a hole at the edge of each horn to attach a chain. 'Timothy / Chief of / Merricumbene' is engraved on the anterior surface. A raised, peaked crown is engraved in the centre of the breastplate with an emu to the right side, and a kangaroo to the left. Leaf sprigs are in both curves. This breastplate measures 150 mm (h) x 205 mm (w) x 20 mm (d).

This breastplate was awarded to Timothy, one of a group of Aboriginal men who rescued drowning merchant seamen off the coast of Batemans Bay, NSW, around 1840. The men formed a human chain to brave the surf and rescue the stranded crew of the wrecked schooner. The breastplates awarded to the men were commissioned by a naval captain who was unable to secure government funding to reward the men for their bravery.

Breastplates are illustrative of Aboriginal-white relations during the early settlement period of Australia. The Governor of NSW, Lachlan Macquarie (1762-1824) presented breastplates to Aboriginal people in an attempt to combat the deteriorating relations between colonists and Indigenous people. Later it became common for others to present breastplates. By 1946, when the last known breastplate was presented, hundreds, if not thousands, had been awarded. They were presented for many reasons, such as rewards for heroic acts or faithful service, or as part of processes of negotiation and exchange.

Macquarie's strategy of presenting breastplates was an attempt to establish a system of 'chieftainship' whereby each Aboriginal 'tribe' had a chief who would settle internal matters and who would be the intermediary between his tribe and the government. This system was very different to the democratic systems favoured by Aboriginal people at the time, which were based around consensus decision making by a group of elders. The 'chiefs' were to be presented with a brass 'badge of distinction', or breastplate, engraved with their name and tribe, identifying them and their status.

Throughout their history, breastplates generally remained crescent-shaped. Not all featured decoration additional to the inscription, but there was considerable variety in the engraved designs of decorated plates. Kangaroos and emus with their heads turned looking over their shoulders are common designs. Other Australian animals found on breastplates include platypuses, lyrebirds, lizards and snakes. Grass and grass trees are the most common plants to be found. Other common motifs include Aboriginal people, sprigs, weapons and coronets.

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