This tropical region preserves the best living records of the global plant evolution as well as the evolution of marsupials and songbirds. Extending along the east coast from Townsville to the Bloomfield River it is the homeland of the distictivly original cultures represented by twenty different Aboriginal groups.

Now the region is dotted with over 100 townships of mostly English names that were imposed on Aboriginal homelands. Together with grazing, farming and mining, colonial settlers rapidly encroached into rainforest since the beginning of Queensland as separate colony (1859).

The State Government's policy was the dispossession of Aborigines of their land by force. The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 brought about the policy of protection by segregation. It changed the Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders’ legal status from British citizens to wardens of the state – a peculiar status of repressive denial.

Shield from the Russell River area, collected probably in the 1880s.
Shield from the Russell River area, collected probably in the 1880s. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

With this policy Dr Walter Edmund Roth (1861–1933) was appointed the first Northern Queensland Protector of Aborigines in 1898 and, later, his duties included recording Aboriginal cultures. But other students of the rainforest people in north Queensland were attracted to observe and document this highly original and unusual culture. One of them was Carl Sofus Lumholtz (1851–1922), a Norwegian explorer who stayed a few years among the Aborigines of the region in the 1880s at the onset of the worst violence which persisted until the end of the 19th century.

The superficial, but most apparent observation, was that “these rainforest peoples were short in stature with tight curly hair – described by Eacham Historical Society - They used vibrantly painted shields and large wooden swords.” The swords were not to fend off the violent settlers, but to resolve conflicts through duels. It was not a cut-throat gladiatorial combat, but ritualised contest where strength, fortitude and nimble resilience were tested. Typically it was injury and the first blood that terminated the challenge.

It is refreshing to think that when the large armies bristling with weapons slaughtered thousands of people on the battlefields from Western Europe to Japan and China for millennia, rainforest Aborigines settled their conflicts in a pretty civilised manner. It did not stop the foreigners calling them cannibals, as Lumholtz did in his book (Among Cannibals, 1889).

But even not very considerate observers noted that the shield was not just, or even predominantly, a weapon – the man’s shield “constitutes his coat of arms” – reported Lumholtz. He also observed that “the shield, which reaches to a man’s hip and is about half as wide as it is long, is made of a kind of light fig-tree wood. It is oval, massive and slightly convex. In the centre, on the front side, there is a sort of shield-boss, the inner side being nearly flat

Our shield from the Russell River area is my favourite example. It is damaged with long marks inflicted by a sword, broken spear tips embedded in the front and the holes made by the bullets that passed through its body. Collected somewhere in the 1880s, this shield encapsulates the history in a poignant and tangible manner. It is sad to imagine how the personal emblem and a symbol of fortitude was, out of necessity, used to defend (not quite effectively) the rainforest warrior from hostile bullets.

And it is worth remembering that it was yet another aspect of Australian forgotten wars.

Shield from the Russell River area (back view), collected probably in the 1880s.
Shield from the Russell River area (back view), collected probably in the 1880s. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum