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Our Global Neighbours: Galmarra’s Breast Plate

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 15 Mar 2016

Silver Plate Purportedly Given to Aboriginal Hero.

Galmarra's Breast Plate 1851

Galmarra's Breast Plate 1851
Photographer: Reproduction © Public domain

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

In 1854 on an overland journey near Albury (town on the northern side of the Murray River) a tragic accident happened. A young intoxicated Aboriginal man, about 21, died falling into a campfire. Sadly, premature death of indigenous men was not (and still is not) uncommon.

But this young man, Galmarra (c. 1833-1854), from the Muswellbrook area in the Hunter Valley, probably of the Wonnarua or Geawegal nation, only three years earlier was hailed as a hero in Sydney.

Galmarra, called Jackey Jackey by his colonial ‘masters’, as a teenager assisted an explorer Edmund Kennedy on his heroic journey across north Queensland in 1848 (then still part of New South Wales) from Rockingham Bay to the north end of Cape York – over 1000 kilometres. He was the sole survivor of the advanced party and held Kennedy in his arms when the fatally wounded explorer died, only 30 kilometres from their destination.

While the 1854 accident near Albury that cut his life so short was pure chance, the trajectory of his life as a dispossessed indigenous man, looks more like destiny. And it may be even possible to link it with his colonial tag. Jackey Jackey was a scornful and dismissive name, denying indigenous man his individuality and dignity. Recognition for his valiant deeds would taint him among his own people as a collaborator, subservient to settlers - asserts an article in the Monthly (Apr 2008). But there was not a meaningful place for him in the racist colonial society either. Colonisation was (and is) detrimental to the wellbeing of Aboriginal Australians.

In 1851, three years before his death, Galmarra was rewarded by Charles Augustus FitzRoy, the Governor of New South Wales, and given £50 in a bank account as well as supposedly presented with a silver breast plate, commemorating his courage and assistance to explorer Kennedy. Galmarra never claimed, or was given an opportunity to get his money – equivalent today of around $80,000.

Was he ever given and carried his breast plate?

The plate is unusual in this context, finely crafted and decorated, with an ornate and lengthy inscription engraved on its face. It does not resemble any breast plates presented to other Aboriginal Australians in the well-established tradition of copper plate style, heavier and down-to-earth, with a prominent name accompanied by a short inscription and simplified imagery, typically an emu and kangaroo. The prominent feature of the plate is His Excellency Sir Charles FitzRoy, two swans and a refined silver garland decorating its lower rim. One could be forgiven for the impression that the plate commemorates the achievements of Sir FitzRoy.

The Sydney Morning Herald (31 Dec 1850, page 2) reported that ‘His Excellency the Governor has caused to be prepared a highly ornamented silver breast-plate, for presentation to Jackey Jackey.’ The inscription on the plate reads (in part): ‘Presented by His Excellency Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy, K H, Governor of New South Wales, to Jackey Jackey’ - followed by another 116 words summarising the recipient’s involvement in Kennedy’s expedition. I have not found, yet, an unequivocal reference about the actual presentation of this plate to Galmarra.

The plate appears to be in perfect condition, as if never touched by a humble man or used in the road-side camp near Albury or elsewhere. Since 1966 it has been in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, and currently on display at the Australian Museum – ‘Trailblazers: Australian’s 50 Greatest Explorers’ (November 2015 – July 2016).