Sarah Keenan

Image (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Object: Gweagal Shield
Location: The British Museum


The Torrens system of title registration was first implemented in colonial South Australia in 1858. It introduced a way of transferring land title which was radically different from the English common law system. Instead of title being based on physical possession, Torrens title is based on the singular act of registration. This change in the basis of title in turn shifts the process of transferring land from being oriented toward the past (proving historical chains of title through paper deeds and local testimony) to being oriented toward the future. The Torrens system draws a metaphorical ‘curtain’ across unregistered historical claims to land, preventing them from ever taking future effect in property law. Registered titles are guaranteed by the state to be the ‘mirror’ of the rights and interests that in fact exist on the land. By providing guaranteed up-to-date information about the proprietorship of land, the Torrens system produces a predictable temporal order for the everyday business of the land market. Whereas the old system of conveyancing through deeds required retrospection for managing the risk of unknowable pasts, the Torrens system eliminates that risk: the mirror pretends the land has no unknown history, the curtain blocks such histories out, and the insurance principle provides buyers with total peace of mind. The registry thus enables market coordination and also produces a shared orientation toward the future.

The Gweagal shield is part of a historical and ongoing relationship with land that is blocked out by the Torrens curtain. Made from the bark of trees grown from the land now known as Australia, the Gweagal people used this shield to protect themselves against British Lieutenant James Cook when he arrived on the shores of their land in 1770. The hole that pierces the shield was made by a bullet shot by Cook, and represents the beginning of the violent theft of land upon which Australia continues to be founded. Following this originally violence, the British declared sovereignty over Australia on the basis that the land was terra nullius (‘belonging to no-one’), and thus ripe for a new, future-oriented system of title registration. In being an object literally composed of an element/product of Australian land, made prior to the British arrival and for the purpose of defending Gweagal land, the shield thus demonstrates the fictional nature of the Torrens ‘curtain’ and ‘mirror’, and evidences a different history of Australian land than is told by the Torrens system: a history of Aboriginal custodianship and sovereignty. One of the effects of the Torrens system’s orientation toward the future is that those who have unregistered, historical claims to land are categorised as belonging to an era of history that has now ended. Aboriginal Australians are systematically constructed as ‘pre-modern’, their claims to land obsolete. The ongoing dispute between Rodney Kelly, a Gweagal man, and the British Museum over ownership and custodianship of the shield is representative of the ongoing Aboriginal relationship with and claim to Australian land. For Kelly, the shield is not a historical artefact but a legal object demonstrating Gweagal sovereignty over land; the bullet-hole evidencing a criminal breach of Gweagal law. The shield operates as a powerful counter-archive to the Torrens curtain and mirror.

A major benefit of using the shield in research is that its educative effect is very powerful: its physicality and the archived violence of the bullet-hole offer a counter- narrative to terra nullius that is stronger than the Mabo case (1992) which theoretically corrected the founding Australian myth that the land belonged to no one.

The limitation of the shield for my own research is that it is only one part of the history that the Torrens curtain has blocked out. The shield does not provide a theoretical framework to understand the temporality of land and colonialism, although if explained by its Gweagal owners, it does provide an anti-colonial way of understanding both.

The most significant limitation to using the shield for its educative effect regarding the temporality of Torrens title and its effects is that the shield is held by the British Museum in London. The shield would have significantly greater educative impact in Australia, the land from which it originates and where the colonial history that followed the encounter continues to define.