Keith Vincent Smith
Sydney’s coastal inhabitants, who called themselves Eora, meaning ‘people’, had little need for clothing. They wore bands around their arms, wrists and waists, nose-bones and ornaments in their hair and ‘painted up’ their bodies for ceremonies with ochre and white pipeclay.
However, both women and men liked to wrap necklaces made from cut segments of reeds threaded on cord around their necks. The common reed (Phragmites australis) grows widely in clumps in saline, swampy places throughout Australia and in other parts of the world.
Such a necklace is clearly seen in Nicolas-Martin Petit’s portrait of ‘Begi-Begi’, better know to the British colonists as Bidgee Bidgee, a young man from the Burramattagal who was later created a ‘chief’ by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. The engraving is based on sketches Petit made during a five months stay in Port Jackson by the French expedition led by Nicolas Baudin in 1802.
This might be Bidgee Bidgee’s necklace – or perhaps it belonged to another Indigenous person from the Sydney area. Either way, it’s a miracle that it has survived intact for more than 200 years.
In 2005 a curator at Le Havre Museum found this reed necklace on a shelf.
It had previously been hidden away at the bottom of a crate in a glass cabinet for about 40 years. The donor’s name, cited on a very old handwritten label, was revealed as ‘M. Lesueur’. This was Charles Alexandre Lesueur, Petit’s fellow artist on the expedition. Both men, who were first taken on the French ships as assistant gunners, were close friends and often worked together.
Petit, aged 25 when in Sydney, died in 1804, not long after returning to France and his art works were dispersed. Many of them went to the naturalist François Péron, who wrote a book concerning the expedition, and some to Lesueur who donated them to the Le Havre Museum on his death in 1846.
The Museum of Le Havre was burnt and 80 per cent of the buildings in the city were destroyed when it was bombed, not by German planes, but in air-raids by 992 British aircraft on 5 September 1944. Some 5000 people were killed and 80,000 made homeless. Nothing was left except ashes and rubble.
Fortunately, as the Germans began to occupy France, the director of the Le Havre Museum selected 100 objects which were hidden and recovered after the end of the Second World War in 1945. The Eora necklace must have been among them.
Bidgee Bidgee probably attended the annual Native Feast at Parramatta on the 28 December 1824. The travelling missionaries George Bennett and Daniel Tyerman, who were present in the market place that day, wrote, in Voyages and Travels around the World (2nd ed. London 1841, page 276):
Most of them [Aboriginal people] were partially clothed, — some having skins of kangaroos or opossums, and some rags of European dresses, sufficient to hide their nakedness. The principal ornaments worn by the men were necklaces, composed of small joints of a reed strung together. The dangling locks of the women were tagged all round with kangaroo’s teeth; they had also necklaces of the same.
NECKLACE WORN BY THE FEMALES
A very similar necklace, said to be ‘worn by the [Aboriginal] females’ also seems to be made with dried reed segments. It was acquired in England by the British Museum sometime in the 1860s. Oc.1892 represents its number, not the date it came into their possession.
The necklace was presented to the B.M. by a collector called Henry Christy, an anthropologist and one of the founders of the Aboriginal Protection Society in Britain. Christy died in 1865, when much of his enormous collection of antiquities went to the British Museum.
A very good example of a reed necklace worn by a ‘female’ is seen in the watercolour portrait of a pretty young Aboriginal woman titled ‘DIRR-A-GOA, painted in the Sydney area by the convict artist Thomas Watling (Watling drawing – no.35). Because it is copyright it cannot be shown here, but you can see her online in the First Fleet collection of the Natural History Museum in London at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/art-nature-imaging/collections/first-fleet/art collection/ethnography.dsml?sa=2&lastDisp=list¬es=true&beginIndex=30
When asked her name by the artist the young woman has replied ‘Dirragoa’, referring to the reed necklace around her neck. In 1901 Mrs. Emma Timbery, known at La Perouse as ‘Queen Emma’, told the linguist RH Mathews that Dyirriguru (dirragoa) meant ‘Reeds – cut into beads’ in the Dharawal language spoken south of Botany Bay.
‘Dirragoa’ wears a fur tassel apron or barrin, a reed necklace and kangaroo teeth around her headband. She fits the description of Patyegarang or Badyegaráng (Grey Kangaroo), aged about fifteen, the principal language informant and close companion of Marine Captain William Dawes, who wrote her names as Tagaran Tuba Kanmangnal Patyegarang and often called her Patye. The little finger of her left hand is cut as a sign that she is promised in marriage, a practice the Eora called malgun.
In an exchange with William Dawes (SOAS London, Notebook B 1791:34), Patyegarang speaks of ‘kamarigals’ (the North Harbour Gamaragal) interchangeably with eora (people) and ‘black men’. This suggests that she was a Gamaragaliang (woman of the Gamara clan).
This beautiful waratah, the floral emblem of the state of New South Wales, Australia, was painted by the English artist, natural history and botanical painter John William Lewin, who arrived in Sydney in January 1800. It features in the vividly illustrated book Mr JW Lewin: Painter & Naturalist, by Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville, published by NewSouth Publishing, Sydney in 2012.
Aboriginal people also used the stalk of the waratah (Telopea species) to make their necklaces. In 1791, a surgeon aboard the ship Britannia, whose identity is unknown, wrote in his log, now in the Dixson Library at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney (DL MS Q36) :
Some of them adorn themselves with Beads made in the following Manner—They pull up the Stalk of the Warrataa Plant one of the most beautiful in the Country, and with a small Sharp Bone cut it into circular pieces, after which they reeve a string thro’ them and tye them about their Necks—
R.E. de Bertrodano, a scholar at London University, visited Bundjalung people at Yulgilbar on the Clarence River in 1864. His typed manuscript, ‘Description of an Aboriginal tribe’ was studied and edited by anthropologist Isabel McBryde in Records of time past: ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes, published by The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1978 (page 220). Bertrodano wrote about the necklaces worn by Bundjalung women or gins:
Decorated with the “Kalgree Piv,” or necklace of rushes cut into little tubes of different sizes, and thrown gracefully round their necks in three or four circles—gins are considered either affianced, or actually married; in fact, when only children, and scarce off their mother’s back, they are often betrothed to some other child of a favourite friend.
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020