Image Indigenous Australian man warding off spears, c1817

TLF ID R4047

This is a 17.7 cm x 27.7 cm watercolour showing an Indigenous Australian man holding a shield in front of himself, with fallen spears at his feet, as he faces a group of 14 men. Some are holding spears, apparently watching and waiting, while one is about to throw his spear at the man with the shield. Another group of 11 men are seated on the ground behind some rocks to the right of the picture; they are looking on, some holding their spears upright. While the foreground is bare dirt with some small rocks scattered around, a lush, verdant landscape and tree-covered mountains can be seen behind the men. The lone man on the right stands in front of a treed rocky outcrop, which serves to highlight his figure.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset shows a man using his shield and skill to dodge spears that are being thrown directly at him, one at a time - the barbed spearheads indicate he is receiving punishment for a crime; since men and boys spent many hours practising dodging weapons, and competitions were commonly held to develop and hone necessary fighting skills, little damage usually resulted from such punishment.
  • It includes both spears and shields - spears were often made from grass-tree stems and had spearheads made from wood hardened over a fire and attached with resin and sinew or two-ply twine; resin was also used to attach quartz barbs to one side of the spearhead; shields were used as protective devices to deflect missiles and stop clubs; shields were multipurpose implements with a hollowed-out cavity used to prepare ochres and a convex surface used for lighting fires by using a sawing method.
  • It demonstrates the use of shields and spears - along with woomeras, didgeridoos and stone axes, shields and spears were almost always only used by men, and in many Indigenous Australian cultures could not be touched by women; the same restrictions often applied to women's tools such as coolamons, fighting sticks and digging sticks; breaking such rules could result in derision or punishment; in some cultures, both male and female versions of some tools existed; an Indigenous Tasmanian woman, Walyer, was a resistance fighter who used spears against the British.
  • It reflects the level of attention paid to the role of men in Indigenous Australian societies by English men in colonial times - there were very few English women who were in a position to record anything about Indigenous Australian cultures, as the fields of exploration, science, art and writing were virtually closed to them; in Indigenous Australian societies, men were not permitted to view or participate in women's ceremonies; as a result, the role of Indigenous Australian women was often overlooked and unrecorded.
  • It shows loincloths worn only by the men who are standing - prior to British contact, people on the north coast of New South Wales wore only ornamental bands and hair or animal fur belts, adding possum or flying-fox skins in the winter; it is likely that the artist added the white material so viewers of his work would not be offended.
  • It is part of an important collection of paintings showing the daily life of Indigenous Australians in early colonial times - a bound album of 20 watercolours, painted before 1828 by Englishman Joseph Lycett, was bought by the National Library of Australia at Sotheby's, London, in 1972 for £9,500; the album's title page 'Drawings of the natives and scenery of Van Diemen's Land 1830' is partly incorrect as all the watercolours with identifiable locations are in NSW, near Newcastle and Port Jackson (Sydney).
  • It is one of four watercolours that Lycett appears to have at least partly copied from other works - the possible source for this image is 'Trial', published in John Heaviside Clarke's 1813 'Field sports etc. etc. of the native inhabitants of New South Wales'; the painting displays a blend of neoclassical, romantic and naive elements; the formal, carefully balanced composition of the landscape and the stylised figures within it are neoclassical in style; romantic elements can be seen in the artist's choice of exotic subject matter, while the simple, stiff figures and simplistic choice of colours are characteristic of the naive style of painting.
  • It was painted by the convict artist Joseph Lycett, who was transported to NSW in 1814 for forgery - Lycett did have some contact with Indigenous Australians as there is a record of him being wounded in an attack before he returned to England in 1822.

Other details

  • Author
  • Person: Joseph Lycett
  • Description: Author
  • Contributor
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Description: Content provider
  • URL:
  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Person: Joseph Lycett
  • Description: Author
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
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  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and National Library of Australia, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements