Objects as Windows into Colonial Relationships: The Bonney Collection and Pastoral Australia

15 minute read

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this blog may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.

The collection of Indigenous Australian material culture at MAA is among the most significant in the world. These objects number in the thousands and in many instances bear witness to colonial relationships between Europeans and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Over time, many artifacts collected in preceding centuries have become disconnected from archives that reveal the circumstances in which they were produced and exchanged.

Figure 1. Hafted stone axe inscribed ‘Samson’. Paakantyi People. Momba Station, New South Wales, Australia. Collected by Frederic Bonney. Donated by Reverend Professor Thomas George Bonney. MAA 1929.483.

When objects are treated as sources and subjects for historical inquiry, and reunited with textual and visual sources from the time in which they were collected, new insights into the past and its entangled relationships can emerge. My research into MAA collections attributed to Frederic Bonney has revealed that nineteenth-century pastoral properties were sites for rich and diverse social interactions, with objects playing a key role in station life and its cross-cultural and inter-colonial dimensions.

The Bonney Collection at MAA

Evidence of these relationships can be seen in over fifty objects that were collected by Bonney in and around Momba Station in north-western New South Wales between 1865 and 1881. Born in Staffordshire in 1842, Bonney moved to the colony at the age of twenty-three to pursue his fortunes in the pastoral industry.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Australia promised ample economic opportunity to enterprising migrants as a result of the discovery of gold and rapidly expanding agricultural sector. Frederic joined his brother Edward at Momba Station and both men became co-managers of what was then the largest sheep and cattle property in the colony, numbering 84,000 square kilometres.

A man seated on the ground with a loaf of bread in his hand.

Figure 2. Photograph of Frederic Bonney captioned “F Bonney in Camp Momba near Wilcannia River Darling New South Wales”, circa 1875. National Museum of Australia. 2015.0012.0001.

Momba Station was located on Paakantyi (also spelt Barkandji and Barkindji) Country, home to the Paakantyi people and significant ancestral Dreaming tracks through which Indigenous peoples travelled to exchange material and share in ceremony.

From the perspective of the European colonists, Momba Station’s close proximity to the Darling and Paroo Rivers was an ideal site for pastoral endeavours. Stations like

Momba were located around strategic water supplies. Periods of frontier violence often erupted as Indigenous people sought to remain on Country.

Figure 3. Momba Station is today part of the Paroo-Darling National Park. Source: NSW Parks and Wildlife Services.

By the time Bonney arrived at Momba in 1865, large-scale violence had largely subsided as cross-cultural alliances of strategy and necessity developed. This was common on large pastoral leases as the twin desires for access to Indigenous environmental knowledge and farm labour led to many instances of co-habitation.

While pastoralists have usually been perceived by scholars to be disinterested in the knowledge of Indigenous Peoples, Bonney dedicated himself to the collection of Paakantyi language, social custom, and material culture.

He documented place, local life, and cross-cultural relationships through photography and ethnographic field notes that are today located across archives in Sydney, Canberra, and Cambridge.

This archive is enriched by a visual record in the form of a sketchbook illustrated by a Paakantyi youth named Panga between 1875 and 1879 who lived on Momba Station, which is now held in the National Museum of Australia. When Bonney’s writings and photographs are brought together with Panga’s sketchbook, the objects at MAA emerge as key participants in the social life of Momba Station and its diverse relationships.

Cross-Cultural Relationships on Momba Station

Evidence of a close familiarity between settlers and the Paakantyi abound in both Bonney’s writings and Panga’s sketches. Bonney learnt the Paakantyi language and wrote down the names of those living at Momba Station, labelling the subjects of many of his photographs.

While the pastoral economy on Momba Station relied on a workforce that brought together settlers and Indigenous Australians in a shared labour regime, Bonney’s writings emphasise cultural exchange over the day-to-day activities required to maintain the property.

Bonney’s familiarity with Paakantyi practices in birth, life, and death, testifies to substantial time spent together, and he wrote that ‘children are named after animals or birds’, with Panga meaning ‘kangaroo in a snug camp on a cold morning’.

He received a Paakantyi name as well, writing that ‘my own name “Daypaypooka pertigee” [translates to] eggs of the Daypaypooka (small yellow bird)’ as he was once observed collecting them. Bonney also recalled that Panga was ‘taught to write a little by an overseer, Mr William Sutton’. The exchange of language, names, and skills such as writing, reveal a co-existence between settlers and the Paakantyi on Momba Station that characterised social relations.

One of the greatest indicators of cross-cultural companionship on the property can be seen in Bonney’s rich accounts of Paakantyi ceremonial life. He devoted many pages to describing social rites, medical procedures, and men’s rituals that were annotated to him by his key Paakantyi contacts Poondarrie, Samson, Bobby, and Culty Tommy. Several of these practices are also represented by Panga, and as a young man, he likely participated in ceremonies that Bonney had privileged access to.

Figure 4. Depiction of a ceremony by Panga. National Museum of Australia. 2015.0012.0001.

While Bonney does not explicitly detail how all of the over fifty-objects now at MAA came into his possession, he does state that several artefacts were specially made by his key collaborators.

Bonney writes that stone axe heads,

‘which were in general use before the advent of Europeans with the tomahawk, are found about the old encampments. Some of them are very neat specimens … brought from a distance from the N.W. [and] when in use … mounted in a wooden handle’.

Four of these articles can be found at MAA and reveal the long-distance trade networks that Indigenous Australian material culture travelled through as well as the advent of European objects that often replaced traditional manufactures.

Figure 5. Hafted stone axe inscribed ‘from Bobby’. Paakantyi People. Momba Station, New South Wales, Australia. Collected by Frederic Bonney. Donated by Reverend Professor Thomas George Bonney. MAA 1922.272.

Upon close inspection, two Paakantyi axes in Cambridge bear the name of their makers in faint pencil, with one reading ‘FROM BOBBY’ and another labelled ‘Samson’. While these are European names that the men likely used in cross-cultural settings that was additional to their Paakantyi names, it is exceptionally rare for Indigenous objects from the colonial period in museum collections to carry reference to the people who created them. The MAA catalogue did not note these markings, suggesting they had yet to be recognised.

This reveals colonial-era objects in museums can contain clues of their past lives that are often waiting to be reactivated and repositioned within the historical and social contexts in which they were produced and exchanged.

Figure 6. ‘From Bobby’. Inscription on the handle of a hafted stone axe. MAA 1922.272.

Figure 7. Samson’. Inscription on the handle of a hafted stone axe, MAA 1929.483.

Several wana, or boomerangs, collected by Bonney contain engravings that speak to a specific regional style. As Dave Doyle, a Barkindji/Malyangapa man from New South Wales has identified, the markings on several boomerangs from the Bonney collection in MAA closely match others in Australian collections credited to the Darling River area.

Figure 8. Wana. Boomerang with specific engraving linked to the Darling River region. Paakantyi People. Momba Station, New South Wales, Australia. Collected by Frederic Bonney. Donated by Reverend Professor Thomas George Bonney. MAA 1922.249.

Another unique object in the Bonney collection is a spade or shovel used for digging up yams. In Bonney’s notebook, he refers to the spade as a purpuria, and references having collected it from a Paakantyi man at Mount Murchison woolshed in the northern part of Momba Station. Only a few yam spades from colonial Australia are known to exist in museum collections today, with this object providing insight into Paakantyi domestic life and agricultural practice.

Figure 9. Yam spade. Paakantyi People. Momba Station, New South Wales, Australia. Collected by Frederic Bonney. Donated by Reverend Professor Thomas George Bonney. MAA 1922.279.

Inter-Colonial Connections

Research into the MAA objects attributed to Bonney reveals that he also amassed objects from localities outside Momba Station and was active within a network of collectors.

Settlers – often working in remote areas and with links to the pastoral industry – regularly acquired objects as indices of human difference and evidence of a perceived control over the land and its inhabitants.

Bonney wrote that he received two ‘knives’ or ‘carne moolee’ used for cutting meat from Alex Sullivan, a settler who was credited in 1868 with charting a profitable stock route from Wilcannia in New South Wales across the Queensland border.

Figure 10. Carne mole. Knife. Paakantyi People. Momba Station, New South Wales, Australia. Collected by Frederic Bonney. Donated by Reverend Professor Thomas George Bonney. MAA 1922.269.

Numerous ‘beaked’ boomerangs and stone tools at MAA were given to Bonney by another Queensland pastoralist, W. H. Watson, from Currawulla Station at Farrer’s Creek in Queensland. Bonney also received a club from J. P. Tripp, a local merchant.

Figures 11 and 12. Left – Beaked Boomerang. Currawulla Station at Farrer’s Creek, Queensland. Collected by W. H. Watson and Frederick Bonney. Donated by Rev. Prof. Thomas George Bonney. MAA 1922.264 B. Right – Lil lil. Club, made of gidea wood. South Australia. Collected by J. P. Tripp and Frederick Bonney. Donated by Rev. Prof. Thomas George Bonney. MAA 1922.277.

While Bonney provides no details for his material transactions with fellow colonial settlers, it is possible he received objects as gifts, or in exchange for other material (possibly Paakantyi).

In any case, this uncertain provenance illuminates that colonial collecting circuits often operated without the input of Indigenous makers and instead could be dominated by settlers whose wealth and mobility across Country was shaped by affiliation with the pastoral industry.

The presence of these objects in MAA reveals that collecting and the exchange of artefacts was key to the establishment of relations between settlers. For men like Bonney and his contemporaries, artefacts carried significant cultural capital, and could communicate relationships and authority over specific locales and peoples.

Momba Station Objects and Colonial Relationships in Britain

When Bonney returned to Britain in 1881, he shaped the information he had accumulated during his time in north-western New South Wales into an account of his time among the Paakantyi.

He published an article, ‘On Some Customs of the Aborigines of the River Darling’ in 1884 and presented it to the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Cover of an article Frederic Bonney submitted to the Royal Anthropological Society in London.

Figure 13. On Some Customs of the Aborigines of the RIver Darling, New South Wales by Frederic Bonney. National Library of Australia. 2403248.

Bonney remained engaged in intellectual networks throughout his lifetime and was enthusiastic to share the knowledge he had gained on Momba Station.

Bonney’s brother, the Reverend Professor Thomas George Bonney, was a Fellow of St John’s College Cambridge and a friend to Baron Anatole von Hügel, first curator of the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (now MAA).

It is through this connection that Frederic came to donate copies of his article and Momba Station photographs to the museum in 1906. These became part of Alfred Haddon’s mounted collection and were enthusiastically received by the curator, who wrote to Bonney that ‘it is a great pleasure … to receive such welcome gifts’.

In this relationship, Bonney’s scholarly and social network intersected, with photographs made on Momba serving as an entry point into Cambridge’s growing anthropological community.

A half-length portrait of a young woman with child. The woman is wrapped in blankets and is carrying her child wrapped in an animal skin. The background is plain white.

Figure 14. Photograph made by Bonney of a young woman and child. MAA P.217.ACH1.

While Bonney was content to share his article and reproductions of his photographs, he kept Paakantyi objects close by integrating them into his domestic space.

The objects were displayed in his home throughout his life, and it was not until his death in 1921 that his brother donated his collection to MAA, where they have remained for over a century.

A hallway with boomerangs and several others objects hung on the walls.

Figure 15. Objects from Momba Station arranged on the inside of Bonney’s Staffordshire home, Colton House. Photograph: Colton House.

The Bonney collection and objects in MAA are today of keen interest to Paakantyi, Barkandji, and Barkindji people, with research visits planned by community members who will provide new perspectives into the material and its importance today.


As my research has sought to demonstrate, objects can serve as windows into the past, illuminating the companionship Bonney cultivated with the Paakantyi on Momba Station as well as his fellow pastoralists.

The collection serves as indexes to these relationships and reveals that Indigenous Australian material culture – both Paakantyi and from further afield – was bound up in regimes of value that spanned networks of colonial pastoralism.

Material exchanges therefore constituted a significant aspect of social connectivity on the pastoral frontier, shaping cross-cultural as well as inter-colonial relationships.

These are just some of the historical stories that can be brought to life by MAA objects, demonstrating complex colonial interactions shaped by labour, as well as the intimacy that could flourish in often unexpected environments. The meanings of these objects will continue to unfold as communities today engage with their material heritage, breathing new life into the collection and testifying to its enduring value.


  1. Jane says:

    Wonderful research into Barkindji objects Eleanor! It’s amazing that some of the objects can be linked to their makers/ owners. You are probably aware of the photographs from Momba that descendants such as Zena Cumpston have written about too? See the collection ‘Calling the Shots’.

  2. Denéa says:

    Fantastic read, Eleanor! Your work is excellent and it’s such a pleasure to learn about a part of Australian history I’d never come across. I look forward to seeing the Bonney collection and Paakantyi objects on display in a new light the next time I visit the MAA.

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