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Le Souëf box

The Le Souëf box, a varnished wooden chest decorated with vignettes of pre-contact Aboriginal life in the 1840s, was made by Caroline and Albert Le Souëf in Melbourne in the 1860s. The box contains a set of miniaturised Aboriginal weapons carved by Albert (1828–1902). Caroline (1834–1915), an artist in her own right, made the detailed and delicate ink drawings on the outside of the box, depicting scenes of life of the Taungurong people, indigenous to the Goulburn River region in Victoria.

Albert was the son of William Le Souëf, who was dismissed as an Assistant Protector of Aborigines in this region in 1843, while Caroline was the daughter of English squatters who arrived there around the same time. As children, they had close contact with the Taungurong people during a period of aggressive pastoral expansion in south-eastern Australia between the 1830s and 1850s, marked by dispossession of Aboriginal people from their lands. The box reflects the Le Souëfs’ childhood experiences, and their lifelong interest in Aboriginal people.

The Le Souëfs created three sets of decorated boxes filled with miniature weapons. This one, exhibited at the 1866 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition, goes to the heart of the colonial encounter, for it embodies many of the key concerns of the 19th century’s apprehension and representation of Australian Aboriginal people.

Ethnography, typology, museology, miniaturisation and a fascination with Indigenous weaponry are just some of the forces at play in this chest made for instruction and display. The box, intriguing for its assembly of tiny objects, images and annotations, is akin to a mini-museum, and reveals as much about the scholarly concerns of colonial Australia as it does about Aboriginal people.

Decorated box (1860s)
 Decorated box (1860s)

 Decorated box (1860s)

 Decorated box (1860s)

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Decorated box and miniature weapons (1860s), ink on wood
Dimensions H 15.5 x W 102 x D 15 cm
Registration No. X 75992
Image source: Museum Victoria

© Museum Victoria Australia