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by Coral Thomas Fellow, Dr Rebe Taylor
It is a dark and stormy day in Sydney ... so my plane is grounded for over an hour in Melbourne. I am going to be late for my meeting at the Australian Museum! Finally I emerge from Museum Station and dash across Hyde Park under leaden skies. Waiting impatiently to cross College Street I see that there are huge spiders on the outer walls of the Museum across the road. I find them moving across an enormous screen as I enter the foyer. It’s all part of the new Spiders Alive & Deadly exhibition. The massive beasts add to the ominous morning. So it is a relief to receive such a friendly welcome from Sydney-based Aboriginal artist Jonathan Jones and Australian Museum Collections Officer, Rebecca Fisher, who have agreed to assist me with my research.
I have come to the Museum as part of my research as the Coral Thomas Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales. My project explores the history surrounding the Wedge Collection in the Saffron Walden Museum in North Essex, England which includes a significant number of rare south-eastern Aboriginal wooden artefacts dating from the 1830s.
John Helder Wedge (1793-1872) was assistant surveyor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) from 1824 until he resigned to assist his friend, John Batman, found a new settlement in Port Philip (later Melbourne) in 1835. Wedge seemingly collected some of the Indigenous artefacts before he left Tasmania, and some after he arrived in Port Philip. He sent them to the Saffron Walden Museum, which was close to his original family home, in 1835 and 1838.
What is intriguing about the Wedge Collection is that while Wedge lived in Tasmania and travelled in Victoria, many of the wooden artefacts in his collection appear to be from New South Wales. This may be explained by the fact that around ten young men were living at the homestead of Wedge’s friend and neighbour, John Batman from 1829. Batman brought the men to Tasmania to work on the 'roving parties' which hunted down Tasmanian Aborigines for government cash rewards. In 1835, some of the NSW Indigenous men travelled to Port Philip with Wedge and Batman to help negotiate the supposed ‘treaty’ between the Port Phillip Association and the Kulin people. They were known collectively as the 'Sydney Natives', although it seems they more likely originated from the NSW South Coast.
There has been some historical work done on the 'Sydney Natives' involvement on the Tasmanian and Victorian frontiers, but there has been little research done into their earlier lives, and seemingly none exploring their possible connections to the weapons in the Wedge Collection in Essex.[i] Could they be the makers? Batman had asked them to bring traditional weapons to Tasmania, and it seems they did.[ii] Van Diemen’s Land Government ‘conciliator’ GA Robinson saw the NSW men ‘dance’ with their shields and spears and throw their spears in displays of prowess in October 1831.[iii] If they were the makers of the Wedge Collection weapons, what might the artefacts reveal about their life stories?
At least two of the 'Sydney' men had worked in the sealing trade that employed (and often abducted) Indigenous children and women and took them far from their homes. At least one of the men, ‘Johnny Crook’, had spent some time in the Native Institution in Parramatta. It seems many of their lives had been disrupted by colonial invasion, possibly from childhood. But might the weapons suggest that they had nonetheless learned and retained their traditional skills?
Many of these questions seem tenuous and challenging to answer. Going to the Australian Museum, to look at similar artefacts in their collections is a step to better understand the Wedge Collection artefacts.
I was very fortunate to have Jonathan Jones as my guide. His knowledge of south-east Aboriginal wooden artefacts is extensive and detailed. Jonathan curated the Museum’s marri ngalaya/many friends exhibit of nearly 100 wooden shields, a beautifully designed display mounted upon a white wall that explores the consistencies and differences between various traditional patterns and shapes. Both contemporary and historical artefacts are placed side-by-side, challenging any notion that traditional cultural knowledge is confined to the past.
Jonathan and I find several comparable examples in the displayed weapons with those in the Wedge Collection: the same style of ‘parrying’ shields; slender but solid guards with inbuilt handles and engraved patterns along their sides.
In the Museum’s conservation laboratory Jonathan and I are shown one of the oldest NSW shields from their collections. Crafted from a thin piece of bark cut into an oval shape, it is painted with crossed, straight red ochre bands on both sides and has a bent-wood handle inserted into two holes. It is very similar to a shield in the Wedge Collection, offering a clear indication that it is also from NSW.
Rebecca leads us to Indigenous collections store. Rows of tall, dense shelving are filled with artefacts. It is cool, quiet and dark. I can’t imagine finding anything here quickly! But Jonathan moves dexterously between shelves and up and down footstools and ladders. ‘Do you know this store well?’ I ask. ‘Well about three of the bays, yes’. These are the bays that contain south-east Aboriginal artefacts. Jonathan has spent many hours in here for his research. His work is inspired by his knowledge of material culture, historical archives as well as local knowledge systems.
I show Jonathan photographs I have brought of the Wedge Collection, along with digitised pages from the Saffron Walden’s original museum register. The register was created from 1880, nearly fifty years after Wedge sent the artefacts. The first acquisition of artefacts was in March 1835, months before Wedge went to Victoria, so I say that those weapons – a club, two shields and a spear must all be NSW. But Jonathan doesn’t agree on the club. "It looks more Victorian", he says. "It looks like one made by William Barak". He is right.
Jonathan observes that a nineteenth-century English curator was unlikely to know the differences in regional designs of artefacts, and the provenance of items in the Wedge Collection may have been muddled, even several times even, over the years.
This is an important lesson. Like historians so often do, I had given precedence to the written records. I was being asked to look beyond the paper and to trust the authority of wood! Indeed these artefacts have their own stories inscribed on them by their makers. Their designs and manufacture offer a more accurate a record than the assumptions made by an English curator distanced by time, culture and geography.
And so it seems my attempts to understand the wooden weapons in the Wedge Collection are just as awkward and humbling. Perhaps I can try to bring the story of the artefacts’ acquisition and the lives of their possible makers some life, and I will certainly do my best. But the more complete exploration of the collection, hopefully by community members and other experts, will probably unfold over several years and into the future. It will be an honour to have facilitated that exploration.
Dr Rebe Taylor, is the State Library of NSW inaugral Coral Thomas Fellow. This Fellowship is the most significant Fellowship offered by the Library, established in honour of Coral Kirkwood Thomas née Patrick (1920-1996). The Library gratefully acknowledges Rob & Kyrenia Thomas and family, whose generosity has established it. Fellowship applications for the Coral Thomas will open 8 May and close 17 July. For more information see our frequently asked questions.
[i] Harman, Kristyn, ‘Send in the Sydney Natives! Deploying Mainlanders Against Tasmanian Aborigines’, Tasmanian Historical Studies, v.14, 2009, pp.5-24; Campbell, Alastair H, John Batman and the Aborigines, Kibble Books, North Fitzroy, 1987.
[ii] John Batman to Thomas Anstey, 18 March 1830, CSO 1/320/7578 Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office.
[iii] Entries in the journals of GA Robinson for 12 and 13 October 1831, from NJB Plomley, Friendly Mission, The Tasmanian Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson, 1829–1832 (2nd edn), Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery and Quintus Publishing, Hobart and Launceston, 2008, p. 518.