Breastplates

Aboriginal breastplates, also known as king plates, gorgets and brassplates, were given by Europeans to individual Aboriginal people during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Originally governments awarded breastplates to individuals in Aboriginal communities who they believed had control over their community.

By the 1850s the government had lost control over the awarding of breastplates, and the rare distinction of having one awarded by government changed, with pastoralists often awarding them to Aboriginal people who served them well in any way.

Terms used on the inscriptions of breastplates, such as king, queen, princess and chief are not part of Aboriginal cultures.

The sizes, shapes, materials, inscriptions, decorative features and reasons behind awarding breastplates vary.

A crescent was the most dominant shape they were made, but squares, circles and other shapes were also used. Originally plates were made of lead, but this later changed to brass.

Breastplates whether seen as a symbol of dispossession and the mistreatment of Indigenous people at the hands of European invasion, or as a symbol of the survival and resistance of Aboriginal people, are a reminder to all of the complex history and stories that are part of Australia.

Inscription on breastplate:
POONIPUN OF AMITY POINT WAS REWARDED BY THE GOVERNOR, FOR THE ASSISTANCE HE AFFORDED WITH SEVERAL OF HIS COUNTRYMEN, TO THE SURVIVORS OF THE WRECK OF THE STEAMER ‘SOVEREIGN’ BY RESCUING THEM FROM THE SURF UPON MORETON ISLAND, ON THE 11TH OF MARCH 1847, UPON WHICH MELANCHOLY OCCASION 46 PERSONS WERE DROWNED AND BY THE AID OF THE NATIVES 10 WERE SAVED

The Wreck of the Steamer ‘Sovereign'

On March 11, 1847, the Sovereign (a passenger and cargo ship) set off from Moreton Bay during rough weather. As the ship navigated the route near the south end of Moreton Island, it struck the bar and capsized. Of the 54 crew and passengers on board, only ten survived. They owed their lives to the efforts of a group of Aboriginal men from Quandamooka (Moreton Bay) who put their own lives at risk in extremely dangerous conditions to swim out to the wreck and pull the survivors back to shore.

The government of the colony specially made a number of engraved brass plates (also known as king plates, gorgets and breast plates) to present to the Aboriginal rescuers to recognize their efforts. Three plates are known to have survived - one being kept in the Queensland Museum and two held by the Royal Historical Society of Queensland.

Recipients of the plates included, Poonipun, Toompani and Woondu. Other recipients included Nuahju (aka Billy Cassim), Noggun and Juckle Juckle however the whereabouts of their plates are unknown.

According to the Moreton Bay Courier of January 1848 a boat crewed by local Aboriginal men won the “eighth race of the day” in a vessel that was “given to the blacks of Amity Point for their exertions in rescuing survivors of the unfortunate Sovereign steamer and her sable crew exhibited skill and emulation in the race”.