Brass breastplate for King John, “Chichauweel”. Terrick Terrick, North Central Victoria, circa 1860.
Brass breastplate or gorget, shield-shaped, 145 x 130 mm (irregular), anterior with engraved lettering on three lines KING JOHN / Chichauweel / Terrick Terrick; the surface has been cleaned, leaving a small amount of verdigris patina in the recessed areas of the engraved design; the unengraved reverse is uncleaned and has a deep brown patina; the original brass chain, intact and still attached at the two upper corners, has been partially cleaned.
The long lost and forgotten breastplate of a Djadjawurrung speaker named Tjitjawil or Djidjawil, a Jaara man known to white settlers by the sobriquet “King John”. The object, which dates to around 1860, was possibly commissioned by the squatter Dr. John Pearson Rowe of Terrick Terrick station, the pastoral run that had originally been taken up on Djadjawurrung country by William Mitchell in 1845. Barely ten years earlier, the explorer Thomas Mitchell had been the first European to pass through the Terrick Terrick plains, on his journey into ‘Australia Felix’.
The artist and naturalist Ludwig Becker records in detail in his journal the two-day visit of the Burke and Wills expedition to Rowe’s Terrick Terrick No. 2 station in late August – early September 1860. The explorers camped near the local Jaara people, who would not approach them on account of their being terrified of the expedition camels, which they regarded as ‘bunyips’.
We know that this breastplate was probably made around the time of Burke and Wills’ visit to Terrick Terrick as, serendipitously, a graphic description of King John – which even contains a mention of his breastplate – has survived in the historical record. The following article originally appeared in the Bendigo Advertiser, August 29 1864, and was reprinted in several other Victorian newspapers at the time, including The Age, Melbourne, 31 August 1864. It describes a series of midnight corroborees staged by Jaara men near Raywood on the Victorian goldfields, on Djadjawurrung country some 26 km north of Bendigo:
‘THE ABORIGINES.—The midnight stillness of Raywood has lately been disturbed by the corroborees of some thirty blackfellows, with their lubras and piccaninnies. Their camp is at the lower end of the Raywood lead, and consists of three or four fires, surrounded by a circle of low sheltering bushes, within which the aboriginals repose in their opossum rugs on the turf. The party is composed of two tribes, King John Chichawweel, in regal attire—bare legs, a dirty grey blanket for a robe, a trooper’s cap for a crown, and a brass breastplate hung round his neck by a brass chain, on which is inscribed his title—being the chief of one of the Terrick Terrick tribes, while the other ruler is Governor Latrobe, of Ganawarra Loddon tribe, clothed in dirty white breeches and black sac coat, his own wool being the crown he wears, and hanging round his neck a brass crescent plate, with his title thereon. A number of the diggers usually visit the camp at midnight to witness the corroboree, the object of which is to get a few shillings to buy fire water. The blackfellows evidently enjoy the fun of the corroboree, which is merely a variety of simultaneous motions of either arms or legs, the performers standing in a row or circle, while the lubras, under the leadership of a musical blackfellow, beating time with two pieces of wood, sing a sort of chorus, beginning low, gradually swelling louder, and then ending in a low plaintive strain. The encouragement which they receive in the way of cash is very small.’
Several years later, in 1869, in the Sixth Report of the Central Board Appointed to Watch Over the Interests of Aborigines in the Colony of Victoria, it was reported that the numbers of Jaara people living on Terrick Terrick run had dwindled markedly:
‘TERRICK-TERRICK. . . The number of Aborigines who frequent this station is twenty-six – seventeen males and nine females, including six children. Mr. Green reports that there were no Aborigines at the station when he was there, and that Mr. Synnot informed him that the Aborigines, as a whole, are a little improved within the past few years in their state of health, but at the same time he thinks that they are dying out very fast. He says that they still drink very hard.’
Djadjawurrung is an eastern dialect of Western Kulin, one of the Pama-Nyungan languages; the breastplate features a phonetic approximation of King John’s indigenous name in Djadjawurrung, “Chichauweel”, a more accurate rendering of which would be Tjitjawil or Djidjawil. As a language recorded by Europeans during the phase immediately after first contact, Djadjawurrung stands out from other Kulin dialects by virtue of a glossary of over 700 words compiled by Joseph Parker (1878), and a grammatical sketch from R.H. Mathews, published in German (1904) (see Barry Blake, Dialects of Western Kulin, Western Victoria. La Trobe University, 2011). The last syllable of the mooted name Tjitjawil or Djidjawil ‘is highly likely to be -wil, a widespread suffix in Kulin languages meaning ‘having’, rather like -ed in English as in wooded (area) or straw-necked ibis‘ (Professor Barry Blake, personal communication, May 9 2019).
This Tjitjawil or Djidjawil does not appear to be the same historical figure as the well-documented John Terrick (c. 1835-1921), a Djadjawurrung man who lived at Coranderrk from the 1860s until his death.