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Cooperation in areas of settlement

Gorgets played a powerful role in the expansion of the pastoral frontier of colonial Australia. Pastoralists quickly discovered that the creation of ‘breast’ or ‘brass plate kings’ as they came to be known was an important part of the process of obtaining cooperation from Aboriginal people in the area in which they intended to settle.

In the process of pastoral expansion Aboriginal people were treated with varying degrees of tolerance but always as illegal occupiers of their own land.

In order to avoid open conflict pastoralists usually attempted to coerce at least one powerful Aboriginal man into cooperating with them when they first took up their runs. It became standard policy to identify one influential man and to label him as ‘the king’ of the area in which a run was planned. He was then presented with a gorget inscribed with his name and office and the name of the proposed run.

Currying favour with Aboriginal people

As early as the mid-1820s there is evidence that gorgets were commonly used in the pastoral industry to curry favour with local Aboriginal people. In 1826 Robert Dawson went to Port Stephens as the first manager for the Australian Agricultural Company. He was given instructions to establish an agricultural station which was ultimately to cover one million acres.

The Aboriginal people of Port Stephens were already familiar with the colonists. They often encountered them at nearby Newcastle which had been set up as a penal colony in 1803. Timber-getters were also on the north coast and, through their callous and brutal behaviour, became famous for causing bad relations with Aboriginal people.

Dawson observed that the people could speak ‘a little English’ which was actually New South Wales Pidgin, [1] liked bread and were ‘immoderately fond’ of tobacco. They helped Dawson and his employees to collect bark for building huts and supplied the settlement with fish and other food.

To encourage the people into his settlement and to thank them for their help he gave them presents of tobacco and bread. He also presented a gorget to the man he believed to be most influential within the community and who he at first believed was a ‘chief’:

Having finished their Task, I gave them Tobacco and Bread and afterwards made the man who appeared to head them as Chief, a King by placing around his neck a brass Plate like an Officer’s Gorget suspended by a Riband ... which I had procured before I left Sydney for such an occasion.

The consequence which he instantly assumed and the kind of awe with which his companions observed him was very ludicrous. [2] As he became more familiar with the local Aboriginal community, Dawson realised that their social rankings were not the same as those in English society.

However, he observed that while Aboriginal people did not appear to have ‘kings or chiefs’ it was not difficult to impress on the recipient of a gorget the power the title had in colonial society:

They have not, as far as I know any Kings or chiefs among them, but if a white man who they think has any authority over other white men, present them with any badge of distinction they wear it and assume a vast deal of consequence among their own people who appear to act in obedience to their commands, but I have reason to believe that when away from us and in the woods they are all upon an equality. I gave one man a brass plate, which he wears suspended by a string round his neck, and fancies himself a great man here among his sable subjects.

Symbols of power

[3] Dawson’s comment above and another quoted below provide an insight into a possible reason for the acceptance by Aboriginal people of the gorgets as symbols of power.

Aboriginal people were aware that military officers, who were the most important of all colonists, wore gorgets. They were also aware of the extreme social differences between colonists. Convicts were looked down upon by Aboriginal people because they were looked down upon by the free colonists and most importantly by the colonial administrators.

Aboriginal people knew the difference between wealthy and influential free colonists and the poorer people with less influence, particularly the convicts or ‘government men’. One Aboriginal man observed to Dawson ‘“Dat Geppleman, dat poor man”. So soon do they learn to distinguish the difference of rank in our Society’: [4]

They have the most profound respect for white people who treat them well, but are perfectly alive to the situation of convicts, and very soon learn the gradations of rank in Society. One of them complained lately to me that a Gubberment man here had behaved uncivilly to him, and that he would not be blown-up-by a Gubberment man. [5]

King as allies

The practice of creating ‘kings’ as allies continued well into the 19th century. In 1843 James Graham bought a station of about 75 square miles on the Mow Poke Creek which runs into the Yeo Yeo Creek. When he reached the station he introduced himself to the local Aboriginal people by presenting a gorget to the man who appeared to be the most important and who Graham then called their ‘acknowledged king’.

The process was supposed to guarantee safety from attack: ‘I had brought a brass plate, and put it on Jemmy Curraburma as the acknowledged king of the place and people. This is your only safe way with the blacks, for so you acknowledge and establish authority’. [6]

As late as 1885 the tradition of king-making and the presentation of gorgets was still being used to maintain good relations between Aboriginal people and pastoralists:

Present to an Aboriginal King. — Messrs. P. Falk and Co. have just executed an order of a novel character for Messrs. Robertson Brothers, of Chowilla. The firm are owners of a station in Queensland which the Teraiche tribe of aboriginals make their head-quarters, and with the view of securing their friendship the Messrs. Robertson have for years past presented to the king of the tribe a brass shield as a recognition of his high office.

A few months back the blacks suffered a severe loss through the decease of their King, who had previously been decorated by his white friends, but they have lately again placed themselves under monarchical government by electing his son to reign over them. As soon as the appointment was made Messrs. Robertson Brothers sent instructions to Messrs. Falk & Co. to manufacture a burnished brass shield bearing the inscription: — ‘Tinker, King of Teraiche’, and the royal arms, consisting of a kangaroo, emu, boomerang, and spear.

This insignia is suspended on the left side from the shoulder by a brass chain, and is reviewed with the greatest veneration, not only by its fortunate possessor, but by all his subjects. The moral effect of the present has been most satisfactory, and the tribe in return for the gift secure the firm’s cattle from attack by any of the neighbouring blacks. [7]

The presentation of gorgets to Aboriginal people who already had some level of influence within their own society may well have given them some power within the limitations of colonial society. However, it did not guarantee that those people had any real power within Aboriginal society.

Aboriginal people knew that the colonists regarded the people who wore gorgets as authority figures.

Therefore it is not surprising that in the presence of colonists they were seen to defer to the wishes of those who had been given a gorget. They may even have been imitating the colonists who obeyed gorget-wearing officers. However, within Aboriginal communities it is unlikely that people who wore gorgets were treated as ‘kings’ or ‘chiefs’; they would have been given only the respect they earned within their own society.

Pastoralists such as Dawson and Graham proposed to turn the local Aboriginal communities into a work force with the ‘king’ or ‘chief’ as their main ally. Dawson commented that he did not expect the adult population to adapt immediately to his idea of regular work although he did believe they would be very useful in other ways:

As guides and messengers these poor blacks will be very useful to us, and also as Fishermen, and for many other things of a detached nature, but they will not (and it is not natural to suppose it) be confined to continual drudgery. [8]

Black and white photograph of a man wearing a breastplate and carrying a shield and weapon. He is standing on a photo set that represents a beach with the sea in the background. - click to view larger image

However, he was convinced that, given an opportunity to impress his ideas on the children, he would be able to make them into a source of cooperative and reliable labour: ‘I propose to take the first opportunity that presents itself of putting my notions into practice upon all the children of a certain age which the natives will place under my protection’. [9]

Ye-i-nie, King of Cairns

Carl Lumholtz, who travelled in Queensland in the 1880s, observed the destructive effects of pastoral expansion on the Aboriginal population of Queensland.

In his photograph, ‘Ye-i-nie, King of Cairns’ stands on the edge of culture contact. He wears a very large gorget proclaiming him to be a king, created in 1906, by the colonial process.

At the same time he wears a highly valued traditional shell ornament and holds the traditional weapons of an Aboriginal warrior including a rainforest sword.

The staged picture presents Yeinie as an Aboriginal man of high esteem within traditional Aboriginal society at a time when much of Queensland had been disenfranchised from the Aboriginal population by land-hungry pastoralists.

King Merryman of Wallaga Lake

In contrast, King Merryman of Wallaga Lake on the south coast of New South Wales was photographed at about the same time in the more documentary style. He stands with his friend Neddy in front of a tree that was marked as a site where Aboriginal people settled matters of law.

Black and white photograph of two men in front of a marked tree. There is hand written text on the photo including: King Merryman and Neddy. Both dead. 1909.
King Merryman of Wallaga Lake and Neddy

The tree and the boomerang, fighting sticks and woomera are links with a pre-colonial past, but the colonial context is clear from the European-style dress of the men and Merryman’s large, elaborate gorget.

Lumholtz commented that the creation of ‘kings’ was an insidious part of the whole process of stealing Aboriginal land. Pastoralists nominated ‘kings’ and gave them gorgets as signs of their authority. The kings were then expected to help the pastoralists in their negotiations with the local Aboriginal people.

The pastoralists looked after the welfare of the kings, giving them special privileges and regular supplies of food, tobacco and clothing. However, the favours only lasted as long as there was a threat of attack from hostile Aboriginal people who lived on and around their properties.

The same pastoralists treated the kings as inconsequential nuisances when they were no longer needed. According to Lumholtz the gorget was principally a meal ticket to many Aboriginal people:

Sometimes the squatter appoints the best native near his station a ‘king’, and as a mark of this dignity he gives him a piece of brass containing his civilised name to wear on his breast. In return for food, tobacco, woollen blankets and similar things, the ‘king’ promises to watch his tribe, and keep them from doing damage to the white man’s property.

Every native is anxious to become ‘king’, for the brass plate, which is considered a great ornament, also secures the bearer many a meal. At first, while the natives are more or less dangerous, a chief of this kind may be very valuable to a squatter, who may in this way be warned of attacks from hostile tribes, but after the natives have become quiet and peaceable the institution is of value only to the bearer of the brass plate, who continues to demand his pay. [10]

The whole process of coercing Aboriginal people with foreign food and goods at the same time as their land was being taken and their traditional lifestyle permanently interrupted gradually made these people dependent on the colonists.

The degeneration and demoralisation of the natives, which are an inevitable result of the march of civilisation, are already far advanced. ... The natives become more indolent, and they lose their former self reliance and independence after they acquire the habit of relying on what they can get from the white man.

They spend most of their time near the stations and villages, where they are able to obtain liquor and opium, for which the Chinese immigrants soon give them a taste. I cannot conceive a more disgusting sight than a camp of such ragged, impudent blacks marked by all the vices of civilisation. To me, coming from Northern Queensland, where the natives still were in their pristine vigour, the picture was an exceedingly sad one ... [11]

The theft of their land by colonists meant that Aboriginal people were denied the right to choose a lifestyle so that their experiments with the culture of the colonists could not be reversed. The influence of Aboriginal ‘kings’ assisted colonists in achieving total control over Aboriginal communities.

Many Aboriginal communities were ultimately removed from their country or were left with very limited access to the land.

In the 19th century Aboriginal people became an essential and effective work force in the pastoral industry. Lumholtz wrote about Queensland in particular but Aboriginal people worked on properties wherever pastoralists settled:

The natives of central Queensland have, as a matter of course, obtained that kind of civilisation which necessarily results from a prolonged intercourse with the white population. They have long since recognised the superiority of Europeans, and the new condition of things is leading them to give up their former occupations.

The most capable ones become servants at the stations, partly as cooks, partly as stockmen and shepherds, and they are of considerable use to the white population; but the great mass of them prefer to enjoy their liberty, while at the same time contact with the white man gives their life and habits a new character. [12]

An Aboriginal person decorated with a gorget was regarded by pastoralists as a reliable and trustworthy employee and when hiring they would look out for such a person. In the late 1850s, Oscar de Satgé and his brother were engaged to ‘inspect and report upon two valuable blocks of country’ on the northwest side of the Darling River below Burburgate.

It was ‘an expedition which ... possessed considerable elements of risk’ [13] and its success was dependent upon obtaining Aboriginal assistance. Therefore they were delighted when they found Flash Billy who had been given a gorget which acknowledged his reliability and ‘pledge of responsibility to his employer’.

We secured ... the services of ‘Flash Billy’, king of Burburgate blacks. ... ‘Flash Billy’ was a wonderful fellow; he was a head shot, and a first-rate cook. ... He was always in good humour.

... He would drink, of course, when he got grog, but the brass plate on his splendidly developed chest, proclaiming him King of the Burburgate tribe, was not without its pledge of responsibility to his employer and his ‘honour amongst thieves’. Often in colonial after days have I wished for ‘Flash Billy’ and his invaluable services ... but he was tied to his kingdom and would never leave it for long. [14]

Not all gorgets given to Aboriginal people by pastoralists recognised ‘kingship’; some were acknowledgments of special skill as a stockman or even overseer. ‘On the cattle and sheep stations many a faithful old stockman was rewarded with such a trophy’. [15]

Many Aboriginal people spent all their lives on one particular pastoral property. They were highly valued by their employers and attained positions of considerable authority.

The presentation of gorgets to Aboriginal people who worked in the pastoral industry was a conscious effort by pastoralists to reinforce what they believed was Aboriginal satisfaction with their new lifestyle.

This lifestyle they claimed was not forced upon Aboriginal people nor brought about by the greed of the pastoralist but was simply an inevitable consequence of the need to feed stock:

The settlers are on account of their flocks obliged to encroach on the hunting-grounds of the black, and the natives, who have no thought of the future or of posterity, are satisfied with the advantages obtained in exchange for the loss of their hunting grounds — that is, they get the leavings from the kitchen and the slaughter-house, milk, old clothes, tobacco, etc. [16]

Bobbie Hardy, who is descended from five generations of grazing families, believes that the pastoralists’ attitude towards the gorgets was completely self-gratifying:

The white men often sought to reinforce their authority by decorating the tribunal ‘king’ with the mockery of a cheap brass plate, worn round the neck as a badge of office. The function of these puppets of a sadly undermined realm was to influence their subjects in the white interest.

For all their simple delight in such baubles, Aboriginal cooperation was not so easily bought. It had to be earned by the white man on his own merits, not by the imposition of extraneous titles and insignia little comprehended in tribal circles. [17]

Billy Hippie, King of Minnon

The finest gorget held in the National Museum of Australia (collection number 1985.59.363) belonged to a man called Billy Hippie who may well have been a head stockworker.

His importance is evident from the title ‘King of Minnon’ which was given through his long association with Minnon Station, now known as Cubbie Station, near Angledool, Queensland. The decoration on the gorget shows an Aboriginal stockworker who is an expert horseman in full pursuit of runaway cattle.

Engraved breastplate.
Billy Hippie, King of Minnon

In 1911 Edmund Milne, who collected the gorget, received a letter from AG Sheridan at the police station, Angledool, which provided some information about Billy:

... from inquiries made by me from some of the Old Aboriginals about Angledool, I have ascertained that some years ago, there was a Station called Minnon situated about 40 miles from Angledool in Q’land, and owned by a Gentleman named Dugald Cameron, who left the District over 40 years ago [c1871]. At this place there was a large crowd of Aborigine’s [sic], and one of the first Kings to wear a plate known to the Aborigines around here was the chief of Minnon.

His name was Hippie but known to them by the Christian name of Bernie Hippie [sic]. I have no doubt that Hippie was the original owner of the plate now in your possession, as there was only one King of Minnon.

This place is now known as Cubbie Station, and owned by the Australian Pastoral Coy, From what I can learn King Hippie was a very big man, and a good Athlete, and died on Woolerina Station about 30 years ago [c1881] after a long illness. I obtained this information from an Aboriginal about 80 years of age. Trusting that this information will make this plate more interesting. [18]

Although there is little primary information about Billy Hippie an interpretation of his gorget can provide a social context in which to place him.

The gorget was a well-crafted and expensive item and the person who gave it to Billy Hippie, probably Dugald Cameron, must have intended the gorget to have considerable impact both on Billy and anyone else who saw it. The gift is consistent with what was written in 19th-century accounts about the importance to a grazier of having a powerful Aboriginal ally.

Placing an Aboriginal person in the role of stockworker on the gorget reflects the value also placed by graziers on cooperative Aboriginal help in their pastoral endeavours:

As stock-men and shepherds the blacks are excellent, in this work sometimes even surpassing the whites. They are superb riders, and have a wonderful talent for mastering an unruly horse.

... Among the sheep and cattle the blacks are well nigh indispensable at every station. They know every animal, and give it much better care than it can get from a white man. A black boy whom I knew was able to distinguish the footprints of the various horses belonging to the station. [19]

There is plenty of evidence in contemporary accounts that Aboriginal women were at least as successful as Aboriginal men as stock workers in the 19th-century pastoral industry. Ruby de Satgé, who told her story of life in the cattle industry to Bill Rosser [20], explained how women did the same work as men and were often preferred as employees because they worked for almost nothing and were dependable. Aboriginal people are still famous in the cattle industry for their skillful horsemanship and ability to work and track stock.

The image on Billy’s gorget is a grazier’s idealised representation of an Aboriginal stockworker, well dressed, wielding a stockwhip and mounted on a fine horse. However, the picture may not have been far from the truth as it is consistent with a contemporary account from southern Queensland. Billy Hippie may even have been carrying a whip and his worse wearing a bridle both of his own making:

Some of them have great skill in making whips and bridles, in carving whip handles, and in doing other handiwork. ... These civilised blacks soon try to acquire the white man’s manners; they like to wear clothes, and they like to have their clothes fit nicely. Some even shave and wash themselves, use towels and are perfect bush dandies.

They soon acquire a very high opinion of themselves, of their ability, and of their importance. They look upon themselves not only as equally good, but as better than the white men. No man on earth is more proud than a black man on horseback, with good clothes on, his clay pipe well lit, and his pocket full of tobacco and matches. [21]

Forced to adapt

Many Aboriginal people did forsake their traditional lifestyle for that offered by the graziers. However, the reality was that few had any choice. The pastoral industry infiltrated Aboriginal country and the people were forced to adapt.

Many people were coerced by graziers into becoming cheap labour and forced to make the most of a situation over which they had lost control. Little if any regard was given by graziers to the culture shock they were causing and many Aboriginal people experienced extreme suffering even while they appeared to be adapting:

Both parties ... gradually learn to take advantage of each other. The colonist avails himself of the cheap labour furnished by the blacks, and the natives acquire a taste for what the white man has to offer, though it is of course mainly limited to tobacco, food and clothes.

Of this change of condition the colonist reaps the whole advantage, for the invariable result to the black man is both mental and physical degradation and retrogression. [22]

Billy Hippie, a formerly impressive and athletic man, died about 1881 on a pastoral property after a long illness. He may well have been one of the casualties of the appropriation of Aboriginal land by 19th-century graziers.


[1] J Troy, ‘Australian Aboriginal Contact with the English Language in New south Wales: 1788–1845’, Pacific Linguistics, B-103, 1990 and J Troy, ‘Melaleuka: a History and Description of New South Wales Pidgin’, PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1995.

[2] R Dawson, letter written at Sydney, New South Wales, private and confidential; written to John Smith MP, 4 February 1826, manuscript copy, Mitchell Library Q991/D, 1826.

[3] R Dawson, letter written to Mrs Anne Dawson, 7 May 1826, manuscript, Mitchell Library Q991/D, 1826.

[4] R Dawson, letter written to Mrs Anne Dawson, 7 May 1826, manuscript, Mitchell Library Q991/D, 1826.

[5] R Dawson, letter written to Mrs Anne Dawson, 7 May 1826, manuscript, Mitchell Library Q991/D, 1826.

[6] J Graham, Lawrence Struilby; or, Observations and Experiences during Twenty-five Years of Bush-life in Australia, Longman, Roberts and Green, London, 1863, p. 252.

[7] ‘Present to an Aboriginal King’, The Adelaide Observer, 4 April 1885, p. 9.

[8] R Dawson, letter written at Sydney, New South Wales, private and confidential; written to John Smith MP, 4 February 1826, manuscript copy, Mitchell Library Q991/D, 1826.

[9] R Dawson, letter written at Sydney, New South Wales, private and confidential; written to John Smith MP, 4 February 1826, manuscript copy, Mitchell Library Q991/D, 1826.

[10] C Lumholtz, Among Cannibals: an Account of Four Years’ Travels in Australia, and of Camp Life with the Aborigines of Queensland, John Murray, London, 1889, pp 362–63.

[11] Lumholtz 1889, pp 363–64.

[12] Lumholtz 1889, pp 362–63.

[13] O De Satgé, Pages from the Journal of a Queensland Squatter, Hurst and Blackett, London, 1901, pp 116–17.

[14] O De Satgé 1901, pp 117–18.

[15] FD McCarthy, ‘Breast–plates: the Blackfellows’ Reward’, The Australian Museum Magazine, 1952, vol. 10, p. 327.

[16] Lumholtz 1889, pp 362–63.

[17] B Hardy, Lament for the Barkindji, the Vanished Tribes of the Darling River Region, Rigby, Adelaide, 1976, p. 134.

[18] AG Sheridan, letter from AG Sheridan to Mr E Milne, 10 June 1911, manuscript, National Museum of Australia, EO Milne Collection, file 85/310, folios 156 and 167.

[19] Lumholtz 1889, p. 366.

[20] B Rosser, Dreamtime Nightmares, 2nd edition, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1987, pp 1–58.

[21] Lumholtz 1889, pp 366–67.

[22] Lumholtz 1889, p. 371.

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