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Rewards for government service

McCarthy observed that ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ were not the only people presented with gorgets: ‘native constables were also ... rewarded, as were native guides by explorers and leaders of expeditions’. [1]

From the earliest days of settlement colonists followed Aboriginal tracks in their explorations of the country. Where possible, they also obtained the services of an Aboriginal guide.

The business of guiding colonists developed into an industry for Aboriginal people and particular guides became famous and were sought out by people planning expeditions.

Aboriginal people also enjoyed tracking and apprehending escaped convicts and their services were often sought by government officials. Aboriginal trackers became a major deterrent to escapees.

In the mid-19th century an Aboriginal police force was raised and used against other Aboriginal people to prevent them from opposing the expansion of the pastoral frontier.

Outstanding service to the government by Aboriginal people in the capacity of guides, trackers and police was often rewarded with the presentation of a commemorative gorget.

Black and white photograph of a policeman on horseback.

GW Wilson, 'Aboriginal tracker'

Newcastle was established as a penal settlement in 1804 and ‘there began an official system by which the authorities used Aborigines as guards and trackers to prevent the escape of prisoners’. [2] In 1821 the Port Macquarie settlement was established and what was by then known as the ‘Newcastle system’ was again employed.

Aboriginal leaders were identified by commandants and given gorgets as rewards for their services and as proof of their status. For example, Morningal and Yarrowbee were trackers ‘decorated by the commandant with a brass crescent-shaped plate that was supposed to confer the rank of chief on its recipient’. [3]

The work was dangerous and at least one Aboriginal ‘king’ was killed apprehending convicts. For example, ‘King Burrigan’ was fatally knifed by John Kirby, one of two convicts who escaped from Newcastle on 26 October 1820. The men were captured almost immediately by Burrigan and his people. Unfortunately, Burrigan was knifed by Kirby the following morning when the men panicked at the sight of arriving soldiers. [4]

In the late 1820s Peter Cunningham observed that a number of north coast Aboriginal men had become famous for their assistance to the colony and particularly as trackers of runaway convicts:

The Newcastle natives, and all the coast tribes northerly, are docile, obliging, and very willing to do occasional work, if it be not hard; but Johnny M’Gill, and Jemmy Jackass, from the Newcastle settlement, are certainly a remarkable exception to the general body, as these individuals cleared ten acres of heavy-wooded land for the missionary at Reid’s Mistake as well and as quickly as could be done by white people.

These two natives, and another named Bob Barret, accompanied Captain Allman, the former humane commandant of Port Macquarie, to that settlement, where he had been despatched to establish a penal station; and they proved of eminent service to him as bush-constables in tracing and apprehending runaways. Certainly three more powerful intelligent men he could not have selected, and such good marksmen were they, that every living thing would drop before the muzzles of their pieces, nothing chagrining them more than missing their aim.

Bob Barret pathetically laments to this day the snapping of his fusee at a desperate bush-ranger, at Port Macquarie, long a pest to the settlement, who through that mishap escaped for a time. Their names having been given to these three men by the whites, they, like all our blacks, are proud to be known thereby, — the first request they make of a white, being, to name them.

A brass or tin plate with an inscription, is also a great desideratum in their eyes, to hang round their necks, giving them much additional consequence in the estimation of their tribes; but, as I have already said, no one possesses authority farther than what his own arm or greater intelligence can command. [5]

Tommy, Constable, Wellington

There are many gorgets with the title ‘constable’ and one example is held by the National Museum of Australia. It was presented to Tommy who is likely to have been a constable at Wellington, New South Wales (collection number 1985.59.369).

Engraved breastplate.
Tommy. Constable, Wellington

Tommy may have been a police tracker or a member of the Aboriginal police force, known at the time as ‘the Native Police’. He may have been one of the boys trained on the Wellington Mission Station.

Among the boys who frequented the Church Missionary Society Mission at Wellington in the period 1830 to 1850 was one called Tommy. On the station the boys learnt to speak English and were therefore valued as employees by colonists. [6] Tommy’s skill in speaking English would have made him a desirable choice for the police force.

Language teacher rewarded

In 1825 the Reverend Lancelot Edward Threlkeld of the London Missionary Society (LMS) went to Newcastle to set up the society’s first Australian mission. He chose a site at Lake Macquarie because it was known to be a meeting place for a large number of the local Aboriginal people. It was a beautiful location, well stocked with game and food plants, a favourite place for festive occasions.

It was the policy of the LMS to have their missionaries learn the local language and to use that knowledge in converting people to Christianity. Threlkeld was an ardent supporter of the use of vernaculars in the mission process and, before coming to Australia, had had experience with the LMS mission in the Society Islands. He began his study of the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie district language, known now as ‘Awabakal’, as soon as he was settled.

Biraban, friend and teacher

According to Threlkeld awaba was the local name for Lake Macquarie and meant ‘a plain surface’; -kal or -gal is a suffix meaning ‘from’. [7] Threlkeld often accompanied the people on hunting expeditions so that he could increase his knowledge of the vocabulary for the local flora and fauna. However, Threlkeld acknowledged that he owed much of his success in learning the language to Biraban, an English-speaking Aboriginal man who became his friend and teacher:

An Aboriginal of this part of the colony was my almost daily companion for many years, and to his intelligence I am principally indebted for my knowledge respecting the structure of the language.

Biraban was his native name, meaning ‘an eagle-hawk’, but the English called him M’Gill. ... He had been brought up from his childhood in the Military Barracks, Sydney, and he understood and spoke the English language well. [8]

In 1830 Biraban was given public honour for his assistance to Threlkeld when he was presented with an inscribed brass gorget by Governor Sir Ralph Darling at the annual meeting at Parramatta. The inscription read: ‘Barabahn, or MacGil, Chief of the Tribe at Bartabah, on Lake Macquarie; a Reward for his assistance in reducing his Native Tongue to a written Language’. [9]

Biraban became a very practised language teacher according to the colonists who met him. Horatio Hale, a scientist with the United States Exploring Expedition in 1831, wrote that ‘it was very evident that M’Gill was accustomed to teach his native language, for when he was asked the name of anything he pronounced the word very distinctly, syllable by syllable, so that it was impossible to mistake it’. [10]

Biraban was an influential man amongst the Aboriginal people of the district. Hale observed that he was ‘always a prominent leader in the corroborees and other assemblies’. [11] His influence extended far beyond his immediate circle and it appears that he attempted to spread Threlkeld’s Christian teachings among the wider Aboriginal community.

In 1837 Threlkeld ‘met at Hinton, the junction of the River Paterson and Hunter, a small tribe of Blacks who exhibited much surprise at being addressed in their own tongue ... they concluded that the speaker must be the person of whom M’gill the Aborigine had spoken, and they appeared to be apprised of the nature of my pursuits’.

[12] A little later, in 1838, Threlkeld wrote ‘last week I was speaking to some blacks at Morpeth on the subject of Death, Judgement, and a Righteous god who punishes iniquity, when on asking if they understood the reply was, O yes! M’gill had informed them before!’ [13]

With Biraban’s help Threlkeld produced the earliest substantial descriptions of an Aboriginal language. He published many papers and small books about the language and they were collected in a volume edited by John Fraser in 1892 called An Australian Language as Spoken by the Awabakal the People of Awaba or Lake Macquarie (near Newcastle, New South Wales) being an Account of their Language, Traditions, and Customs: by LE Threlkeld.


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

[2] AT Yarwood and MJ Knowling, Race Relations in Australia: a History, Methuen, Melbourne, 1982, p. 62.

[3] Yarwood and Knowling 1982, p. 62.

[4] Yarwood and Knowling 1982, p. 63.

[5] PM Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales: a Series of Letters, Comprising Sketches of the Actual State of Society in that Colony; of its Peculiar Advantages to Emigrants; of its Topography, Natural History, ec., etc., Henry Colburn, London, 1827, vol. 2, pp 26-27.

[6] P Read, A Hundred Years War: the Wiradjuri People and the State, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1988, p. 23.

[7] J Troy, The Sydney Language, the author, Canberra, 1993.

[8] Threlkeld 1850, J Fraser (ed.), An Australian Language as Spoken by the Awabakal the People of Awaba or Lake Macquarie (near Newcastle, New South Wales) being an Account of their Language, Traditions, and Customs by LE Threlkeld, Government Printer, Sydney, 1892, p. 88.

[9] N Gunson (ed.), Australian Reminiscences and Papers of LE Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, 2 volumes, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1974, vol. 1, p. 6.

[10] H Hale in N Gunson (ed.), Australian Reminiscences and Papers of LE Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, 2 volumes, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1974, vol. 1, p. 6.

[11] Hale in Gunson, 1974, vol. 1, p. 6.

[12] Threlkeld in Gunson, 1974, vol. 1, p. 135.

[13] Threlkeld in Gunson, 1974, vol. 1, p. 140.

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