Captain Cook’s first Australian souvenir returned to Indigenous owners: Financial Review

Hans van Leeuwen Europe correspondent

Cambridge, England | A set of spears souvenired by Captain James Cook during his first encounter with Indigenous Australians in Sydney’s Botany Bay, almost exactly 254 years ago, has been handed back to the original owners’ descendants.

The handover on Tuesday, from Cambridge University’s Trinity College to a group of Indigenous Australians from Sydney’s La Perouse area, has been hailed as the most significant repatriation of Aboriginal artefacts yet seen.

‘They weren’t made to be sitting in museums’

This is because the spears were the first Indigenous Australian objects ever acquired by the British. And they were acquired during the momentous first contact on April 29, 1770, between the Indigenous peoples of Australia and their eventual colonisers.

The four spears are “survivors from a moment in time that’s part of the shared history of our country”, La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council chairwoman Noeleen Timbery told the media in Cambridge, her eyes welling.

“They were made before European arrival. Our ancestors made these before they had any sense that anything was coming. They’re tools: they were made for purpose, they weren’t made to be sitting in museums – so it’s really important that they come back to country.”

In coming weeks, the spears will be shipped to a temporary home at the University of Sydney, before becoming part of a display centre planned for Kurnell, a national park on the Botany Bay foreshore where the storied first encounter took place.

Indigenous Australians from Sydney’s La Perouse community at Trinity College, Cambridge, to retrieve thefour spears taken by Captain James Cook.

Indigenous Australians from Sydney’s La Perouse community at Trinity College, Cambridge, to retrieve the four spears taken by Captain James Cook. 

Cook’s journal records his attempt to land on a beach in Botany Bay – known as Kamay to the local Gweagal clan of the Dharawal Nation – and befriend the people he saw standing on the sand.

He offered them beads, but they threatened him with spears and tried to drive him away. He retaliated by firing off several musket shots. Eventually, he made his way to their settlement and picked up a collection of spears.

In the local community’s telling, a vessel that may have ferried the spirits of the dead made a landing in transgression of the cultural norm against entering a clan’s country without invitation. Spears were thrown as a warning, not with intent to harm.

Grandchildren complete campaign

Dharawal man and Gujaga Foundation chairman Ray Ingrey said the new in-situ display would “balance the story of what happened in 1770 there, for everybody when they come to Kurnell to see the spears up close and personal”.

Ms Timbery said her community had fought for a long time to “change the narrative” about what had transpired that day.

“We’ve struggled with what’s been recorded in the history books, we’ve struggled with, I guess, the one-sidedness of that story,” she said. “And now we have some tangible objects that are coming back, that we can wrap our story around.”

Cook picked up as many as 40 spears, but there is a documentary record of only four, which were donated by the Earl of Sandwich to his alma mater Trinity College in 1771.

They have in recent decades been on display at the university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and have been coveted by the La Perouse community for more than 30 years.

Some of the young Gweagal people at the handover in Trinity’s 17th-century Wren Library are the grandchildren of those who began campaigning for the spears’ return.

“Because it’s been a bit of a long time, there are many people that kicked off this campaign or wanted to see this happen who are no longer with us,” Mr Ingrey said.

“So it is a bit of mixed emotions for us. … but it’s pleasing that their grandkids and great-grandkids are here with us, taking them home.”

The techniques used in making the spears, which are fashioned of several kinds of wood and tipped with spikes made of kangaroo or wallaby bone or a stingray’s spike, are still taught within the Gweagal community.

Evidence of an enduring culture

National Museum of Australia chairman Ben Maguire said it had been remarkable to see the young Gweagal people as they looked at the spears and “identified the skills and techniques that still exist today”.

“It is a really clear message to us all about how enduring the culture is of our First Nations people and how it has been for 65,000 years,” he said.

Successive Australian governments have for several decades been supporting the repatriation of Indigenous artefacts from museums across the world, and there are several such handovers every year.

The four spears, ready to be returned to Australia from Trinity College, Cambridge. 

Leonard Hill, chief executive of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, which co-ordinates the effort, said his team was working with about 70 institutions that held a combined 33,000 items. The total worldwide trove is estimated at 113,000 artefacts in more than 300 institutions.

“Clearly, decades of work are required in terms of working with communities, working with overseas collecting institutions, returning that material back to Indigenous communities in Australia,” he said.

The Cambridge museum’s Australian-born director, Nicholas Thomas, said the debate about whether to return cultural artefacts had become very polarised, but he described the repatriation as a “win-win” for the museum and the Gweagal people.

“The power of these exceptional historic artefacts will be enhanced on their return to Australia, and that return will strengthen the relationships between Cambridge and Indigenous Australia,” he said.

“Some people think museums are places of the past, but all the curators I know are preoccupied with the potential and power of collections in the present.”

Ms Timbery acknowledged the spears would not still exist but for the curation of Trinity College and the museum over the past two centuries.

La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council chairwoman Noeleen Timbery. Hans van Leeuwen

“A big part of you wants … that they were never taken away. But had they not been taken away and had they not been really carefully preserved and cared for by Trinity College and the museum here, we wouldn’t be able to connect to them today,” she said.

But she said it was now time for museums to return the objects like these spears to their traditional owners.

“After 254 years, it is time for the spears to come home. … These spears connect us culturally, spiritually and tangibly to our ancestors,” she said.

“We all have hope that … the decolonisation of materials, of museums etcetera, can start to happen in a way that benefits all.”

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