What is a gorget
In pre-Federation Australia the various armed colonial services wore a gorget, or breastplate, to indicate the rank of officers. The gorget itself being only a ceremonial imitation of the full gorget of an armoured knight that protected the neck and connected the helmet to the armour plating of the shoulders and chest.
To honour those Indigenous Australians who had distinguished themselves amongst the newly arrived colonial settlors a brass gorget might be given with a grand title. Most commonly the title of King was bestowed and this gave rise to the alternate descriptions of the gorgets as king plates. In many cases these honours were sincerely well intentioned gifts, and in some cases as a bribe for treachery against other Indigenous people, but in all cases these honours were given in ignorance of the actual practices, customs and leadership structures of Australia’s Indigenous peoples.
Because of the ignorance about Indigenous systems, and the use of gorgets to create privileges for those Indigenous men and women who helped the settlers, some people perceive these gorgets to be offensive and demeaning tokens.
For further reading we recommend the book King Plates: A History of Aboriginal Gorgets by Jakelin Troy.
Note: Tanjenong IC has no relationship with this author and receives no benefit from any sales of this book.
A chest plate belonging to King Dick of Boondie, chief of the Palparara tribe of western Qld in the Winton-Windorah area, near Julia Creek. This plate is on display at the Miles & District Historical Village.
Information regarding this image sourced June 2016 from: Wikipedia. However, a downloadable zipped copy with a link to the license under which this photo is used is available here.
The gorget coronet
At Tanjenong IC we are committed to playing our part in helping our people to develop the skills, resources, expertise, and the institutions to be truly autonomous.
As part of this commitment we are re-appropriating symbols of subjugation as symbols of a new and emerging capacity to determine our own affairs. Re-appropriating symbols of subjugation as symbols of sovereignty.
The art and science of heraldry is the symbolic language of sovereignty and state craft, so we commissioned a local heraldic artist, who is also an Indigenous Australian, to develop a new heraldic device. A device that would re-appropriate the colonial king plates of the past as a symbol of a new and real autonomy. The result is the gorget, or king plate, coronet.
The gorget, or king plate, coronet consists of a circlet of gold with alternating Australian black opals and Australian pearls to show that black and white Australia co-exist on the same land but are separate realities.
An emu and a kangaroo with their backs to each other etched into the surface of brass gorget was the most common king plate motif and is used here to reflect a very common experience across the continent.
Seven gorgets around the circlet symbolise the colonies that formed the seven States and Territories of the Commonwealth of Australia and symbolises that both State and Federal Governments are responsible for the present circumstances of Indigenous communities.
In Tanjenong IC's own heraldic design the gorget coronet is depicted as matt white for purely aesthetic reasons.
Our shield-our claim
The heraldic design adopted by Tanjenong IC has many layers of symbolic meaning embedded within it.
In the science of heraldic practice every element, be it the colour, the way of dividing colours such as with wavy or straight lines, or the pictures known as charges that are used, all have a distinct meaning and follow very specific rules. This allows the design to be written down and then recreated accurately by another artist without ever seeing the original.
Heraldic designs were a form of personal signature developed at a time of limited literacy and continue to have the same purpose today. Like a personal signature each design is unique and belongs to only one person or organisation and is the sign of that person’s authority, just as a signature is today.
In heraldic practice colours each have their specific name and some general meanings attached to them. Those familiar with colour theory will recognise these colours as the the primary and secondary colours. However, yellow, symbolising gold, and white, symbolising sliver, are known as metals.
There is a rule is that no two colours can be put side-by-side without a metal in between, or vice versa, that no two metals can be put next to each other without being separated by a colour. This is a very logical and sensible rule as some combinations can be very hard to see clearly, even more so at any distance. Imagine trying to see a blue flag with a black pattern at a distance in poor light. Dividing blue and black with white or yellow does make a powerful difference to the clarity of the design.
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An example of this rule in modern heraldic practice used by the Aboriginal community today is the Aboriginal flag developed by Mr. Harold Thomas who holds the copyright to the design and from whom you must seek legal permission to reproduce the design. The Aboriginal flag was however proclaimed a ‘Flag of Australia’ under the Flags Act 1953 and you are allowed to fly the flag without needing permission provided all due respect is shown in how you display it. Questions on this topic should be directed to Commonwealth Flag Officer in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Most Australians will recognise the design of the Aboriginal flag with its yellow disk representing the sun and the life it gives, separating the red coloured bottom half symbolising the sunburnt Australian landscape and the red ochre used in ceremonies, and the top half in black symbolising the many generations of the Aboriginal people walking across the land.
In the language of heraldry this design design would be written, or blazoned, as: Per fess, sable and gules, overall a bezant.
Rarely other colours might be used that are referred to as stains because because they are combination of one colour discoloured by another, or a stain. In colour theory these colours would generally be the tertiary colours.
The heraldic stain known as tenné is sometimes shown as an orange colour in error, but is meant to be the colour tanned leather. Medieval combat shields were typically made of wood and covered with a protective layer of hardened leather and unpainted portions of a shield may be what gave rise to the use of tenné as a heraldic stain.
Tenné also closely resembles the colour of patterns stained into the leather side of possum skin coats depicting kinship and territorial information of many Aboriginal peoples across Australia. Aboriginal possum skin coats are likely to play a prominent role in future efforts to prove the continuing rights of Aboriginal people, and tenné features in our design to evoke this very point.
In heraldry there several special patterns that depict certain types of animal furs, scales, or feathers and can be used like the heraldic metals to separate other colours from each other. In the heraldry of continental Europe there is a fur known as kürsch, a pattern of grey coloured pelts laid out in rows. Kürsch appears very similar to the fur of the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus Vulpecula) used to make Aboriginal possum skin coats and kürsch is used in our design to allude to these very coats.
Our design features two shields, a smaller shield in the centre known as an escutcheon and the main shield itself. In this case the larger shield is symbolically protecting and supporting the smaller escutcheon at its centre.
The upper part of the escutcheon features a particular way of dividing the shield into three parts. This division of the shield resembles a coat worn over the shoulders and left open at the front.
Capes and coats are alternative words for the same thing in this matter, but the most common word used is mantle. This mantle shape is 'blazoned' by various names in different heraldic traditions, some as tierced in mantle, some as chapé ployé, chaussé ployé, or as the English like to describe it a pile inverted and embowed.
The Western Australia City of Fremantle makes use of this same mantle like device and two untied tassels to suggest that the mantle is untied, or free, in their heraldic design as a pun on their name of free-mantle.
a mantle-like division of the shield
In some Aboriginal traditions the leather side of their possum skin coats would be stained with symbolic designs. For example straight lines to indicate land or circular shapes to depict family and kinship connections.
Our design references these markings on either side of a 'charge' known as a fish weel, a type of basket woven to work as a fish or eel trap. The weel alludes to the Gunditjmara people of Western Victoria whose ancestors settled in villages and actively farmed eels, fish, and some plants. The Gunditjmara farming practices could defeat one of the tests of the legal doctrine of terra nullius, that of showing evidence of indigenous cultivation practices and of clearly marked territorial boundaries.
Above the fish weel is a disk of wavy blue and white lines traditionally symbolising a fountain. In various legal doctrines sovereignty is said to be the fountain from which all laws and powers of the state spring from and is used here to clearly assert that our sovereignty is not relinquished. The fountain also shows a five pointed star, a common symbol of a sovereign state, as seen on the national flag of the United States of America or in Australia’s own Federation Star which has seven points to symbolise the various sovereign States and territories that make up our Federal Government. Here we use the star of statehood to show that the sovereignty of Australia’s first peoples will emerge from the fountain of our ancient rights.