Sydney Shield

The Aboriginal people of Sydney region were the first to experience the impact of colonisation in Australia.
 

Shield B1788, front

Photography Department © Australian Museum

‘They are also armed with a shield made of the bark of a tree, with which they very exterously [dexterously] ward off any thing thrown at them.’
Surgeon General to the First Fleet John White, 29 July 1788.

The Aboriginal people of Sydney region were the first to experience the impact of colonisation in Australia. With the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 their lives were to change dramatically. This opening episode in the British annexation of Australia produced an interesting historical legacy.

The arrival of nearly 1400 Europeans at the Cadigal-owned Warrane (War-ran), now known as Sydney Cove, caused the profound disruption to indigenous life. This rude transgression resulted in a degree of fear and hostility but also curiosity on both sides. For example, the images of sailing ships have appeared in carvings and drawings in rock shelters and in the open rock surfaces around the Sydney region. These pictures suggest that the Aboriginal people were expressing curiosity about newcomers and attempting to find a meaning to this momentous event.

Europeans were doing the same. In the first few years of Sydney settlement they produced an impressive body of written observations and images of Aboriginal people and their culture. On the other hand, very few artefacts that were collected at the time survived in Australian or overseas public collections.

One of many motifs depicted frequently in the rock carvings in the Sydney area is an oblong shape crossed with one long line and two or three perpendicular lines around the middle. This motif is often interpreted as an Aboriginal shield. It vividly resembles the “Sydney shield” depicted in early colonial paintings.

In 1884 the Australian Museum acquired a shield strikingly similar to those depicted in early illustrations of Aboriginal people and their artefacts. The shield was obtained from a long-time collector and dealer. Although we don’t know from where and when it was collected, it is quite probable that the shield is one of the artefacts used in the Sydney region in the early years of European settlement.
 


Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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