"The Spoils of War"?

Objects collected by Walter Wilson Froggatt in the Kimberleys in 1887

Should museums retain objects which have been acquired in violent circumstances? Some of the artifacts in this display were taken during an attack on an Aboriginal camp.

William John Macleay employed Walter Wilson Froggatt in 1887, primarily to collect animals, birds and insects in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Like many nineteenth century European collectors, Froggatt also collected Aboriginal artifacts which he saw as specimens of "natural history".

During the expedition, Froggatt accompanied police in a raid on an Aboriginal camp. The attack was premeditated and aggressive. One Aborigine was shot and the camp was burned. Froggatt gathered any weapons, bowls, shields, bags and other items that he considered valuable, brought them back to Sydney, and displayed them at a meeting of the Linnean Society of NSW. Some of this material is now in the Macleay Museum.

This exhibition draws on Froggatt’s own account of the raid from his journal.


Frontier conflict - "An adventure with the natives...."?


Froggatt's collecting expedition occurred at a time when white pastoralists were first moving into the Kimberley area. Along with their stock, pastoralists brought a belief that they had a right to the land. They treated Aborigines as unwelcome and dangerous. The Aborigines reacted to the invasion of their land by killing cattle and sheep which overran waterholes and other food sources.

To avenge stock losses police and pastoralists close to Devil’s Pass raided an Aboriginal camp on the banks of the Lennard River in the early hours of a December morning in 1887. Froggatt accompanied them.

Froggatt's account of the attack shows the panic of the awakened camp and the aggressive actions of police and pastoralists.

"...the natives kept crying collier collier (enough) and yelling as they went. Now that we had nothing to fear from the enemy we commenced to overhaul the camp finding a large varied and curious collection of spears weapons of all sorts and many other curios as they had left all their goods and chattels on the battlefield. As the police made a fire to burn everything I picked out all the most valuable of the things to take home while the manager counted the remains of his slaughtered sheep scattered all around the camp saying ‘the beggars did'ent [sic] get half enough; we did'nt [sic] import good merino sheep from Riverina to feed d–d niggers on.’ We then decided to return for the horses and rations followed up their tracks and drive them out of the hills so loaded with the spoils of war we descended on the plain and marched homeward."

What does this account reveal about the attitudes of natural history collectors in the context of colonial expansion?

The Language of War

"...Shoot whenever a head shows up"

The Aborigines woke to find armed police and pastoralists destroying their camp. Froggatt's journal contains a powerful and disturbing account of the raid. His was the language of war.

"The natives fancied themselves so secure that it was a complete surprise; we nearly trod on the natives as they sprang from beside the mouldering fires."

Froggatt's excitement is evident in his writing.

"A rattling volley from us as the natives came up the rocks mingled with the yelling of the gins and the howling of the dingoes."

The premeditated attack was swift and ruthless.

"Only one man in the stampede had time to seize his spears. He stood up bravely in front of the pass through which the others ran. He was vainly trying to fit his spear to the woomera when a rifle shot brought him down."

Forbidden material

During his Kimberley expedition Froggatt also collected secret and sacred objects as well as Aboriginal skeletal remains.

Secret/sacred objects have considerable ceremonial and religious significance for Aboriginal people. Froggatt’s journal shows that he was aware of this but still collected such material. How did Froggatt acquire these objects? They are unlikely to have been given to him.

Froggatt’s account of his discovery of human remains provides some clues as to his collecting methods.

I found a lot of skulls in some caves...

Froggatt and the manager of the King's Sound Pastoral Company explored caves in the Oscar Ranges. They found human remains put into clefts in the rocks "out of reach of the wild dogs". Froggatt writes,

"...many of the skeletons (were) quite perfect until we handled them when they fell to pieces."

Froggatt's actions reflect the dominant European mind-set of the late nineteenth century. European men put themselves at the top of a hierarchy of living things. According to their hierarchy, Aborigines were treated as part of natural history, the object of scientific study and were given little respect.

The Macleay Museum is currently attempting to return sensitive material to its traditional owners.