This is a portrait of an Aboriginal woman, by Tom Roberts. It’s thought to be Maria Little or Queen Maria but she was also known as Maria Charlie as well. She worked at Yulgilbar Castle and Yulgilbar was owned by Edward Ogilvie, who we can see in the portrait to her right.
The Ogilvies were squatters who came to Australia and initially settled around a place called Merton, and wanting more fertile land, they looked further afield and then they found the Grafton area and it was ready to be taken up. Yulgilbar started off as just one of those wattle and daub lean-to type buildings and then Edward travelled overseas and he brought home a beautiful wife called Theodosia. After that, he decided, “I want to build a castle,” and so up on the hill, with a great view of the river - it had turrets and it was made out of sandstone and it had hundreds and hundreds of windows. And you can see it from miles around and that’s what it’s known as, is the castle.
Now, recognising that not many non-Aboriginal people will go to these frontier situations, he realised that he had to employ Aboriginal people to make sure that his castle and his properties were prosperous and so he established a little community outside of Yulgilbar, which was called Baryulgil, and that’s where the Aboriginal people lived.
A lot of Aboriginal people worked at Yulgilbar who lived at Baryulgil, the nearby Aboriginal community. I’m of Bundjalung descent and my family come from Baryulgil, so I have aunties, I definitely have aunties who know how many panes of glass there are in the castle because they had to clean each and every one of them. And I can just imagine that Maria or Mariah had to do that as well.
And so he had a really, really close, strong relationship and he was supportive of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal rights. And now it is Aboriginal land and there’s even a language - Baryulgil Square language is recognised as a dialect of the Bundjalung language. And there’s definitely Native Title that relates to Baryulgil as well, so without Ogilvie we probably wouldn’t have that.
When Tom Roberts went up to the Grafton area to paint Edward Ogilvie, he mentions that “I only ever got to paint one native”, as he called it. And he was after a portrait of a woman. The Little family is one of respect in community so I think that she would have been the go-to person.
No-one had their portrait painted, women never had their portraits painted, so this, I think, is unusual. It’s a very casual, a comfortable image, so I think that she was quite happy to have her portrait painted.
I really love it, not just because I’m a Bundjalung person and Maria is Bundjalung as well, but I just think there’s a lot of strength of character in the image and it’s a really strong image of a woman, of an Aboriginal woman, in a time in the 1880s when women just weren’t spoken of or questioned or interviewed or the focus of ethnography or language or anything like that. So for Tom Roberts to go up to Grafton and paint an image of this woman I think is just amazing.