Spears taken by Captain Cook in 1770 to be returned to Sydney’s La Perouse Aboriginal community

ABC NEWS | By Heath Parkes-Hupton

Four spears taken during Captain James Cook’s landing at Sydney’s Botany Bay will be handed back to the local Indigenous community more than 250 years later.

Key points:

  • Only four of the 40 spears taken from Kurnell survive today
  • Negotiations for their return to the community have stretched for years
  • Cambridge’s Trinity College has now agreed to their permanent repatriation

The spears are the last remaining of 40 gathered from Aboriginal people living around Kurnell at Kamay, also known as Botany Bay, where Captain Cook and his crew first set foot in Australia in 1770.

Scholars said they were the earliest artefacts collected by Europeans from Australia that were documented and intact.

Now a decision has been made for their permanent return after years of negotiations between the La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council, the Gujaga Foundation, and museums in Australia and the UK.

Gujaga Foundation chair Ray Ingrey said the spears were taken by the HMB Endeavour’s crew from campsites at Kurnell after a conflict with Gweagal warriors who opposed the landing.

“The spears were pretty much the first point of European contact, particularly British contact with Aboriginal Australia,” he said.

“I think for us it’s a momentous occasion that where Australia’s history began, in 1770 on the shores of Botany Bay at Kurnell, the spears that were undoubtedly taken without permission are returned to the rightful people.”

David Johnson (L) and Quaiden Williams, members of the Gweagal clan of the Dharawal nation, inspected the spears last year.(Supplied: Ray Ingrey)

Mr Ingrey said the decision came more than 20 years after local elders started campaigning for objects taken from the area to be returned.

The spears were presented to Cambridge’s Trinity College by Lord Sandwich John Montagu in 1771, soon after Captain Cook and the Endeavour’s return.

Since 1914, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge has cared for the artefacts, apart from short loans at the National Museum of Australia and the University of Sydney.

Those trips helped kickstart their permanent return, with the National Museum working with the La Perouse community to build relationships with Trinity College.

Trinity College agreed to return them home, and its master, Dame Sally Davies, said the college was committed to “addressing the complex legacies of the British empire”.

“We believe that this is the right decision, and I would like to acknowledge and thank all those involved,” she said.

The college is approaching the UK’s Charity Commission to gain approval for the legal title’s transfer after a formal repatriation request from the La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council, the Gujaga Foundation, in December.

It is hoped the objects will be back in Sydney in a few months.

“They are an important connection to our past, our traditions and cultural practices, and to our ancestors,” the land council’s chair Noeleen Timbery said.

“Our Elders have worked for many years to see their ownership transferred to the traditional owners of Botany Bay.

“Many of the families within the La Perouse Aboriginal community are descended from those who were present during the eight days the Endeavour was anchored in Kamay in 1770.”

Mr Ingrey said the spears could be stored at the National Museum until they are displayed at Kurnell when the visitor’s centre is rebuilt.

“Ultimately, they’ll be put on permanent display for everyone to go see; at the very spot they were taken 250 years ago.”