The Return of the Gweagal Spears

25 minute read

On 28 April 1770, the HMB Endeavour commanded by Lieutenant James Cook arrived at Kamay (Botany Bay) in present day Sydney. This was the first encounter between the British and Indigenous Australians of the east coast.   

The ship’s arrival was resisted by the Gweagal people, and forty spears were taken without Gweagal consent from a campsite by members of the Endeavour crew. Only four are extant and documented today. They were given by Cook to the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, first Lord of the Admiralty, who presented them to Trinity College in October 1771. 

Figure 1. On 23 April 2024, the Gweagal Spears were returned to the La Perouse Aboriginal community at a ceremony held in the Wren Library of Trinity College, Cambridge. Image credit: Jenny Magee.

The spears remained in the Wren Library of Trinity College until 1914 when they were deposited at the University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 

In March 2023, Trinity College agreed to return the spears to the community in Sydney. The decision follows a respectful and robust dialogue over the last decade between the University of Cambridge and representatives of the Gweagal people, the broader Dharawal Nation and leading community organisations, including the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council and Gujaga Foundation. 

An event marking the formal return of the spears took place in the Wren Library on 23 April 2024, with a delegation from the La Perouse community in attendance, as well as members of the Australian High Commission, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, and National Museum of Australia.  

As many who were involved in the ceremony expressed, the return of the spears marked an opportunity to reflect on colonial histories and highlight the role of museums as key sites for communities to reconnect with their material heritage. Returning the spears only enriches the power of the objects as well as their relationship-building potential. 

The return ceremony garnered over 3,000 mentions in international media reports and has become exemplary of what can be achieved through collaborative relationships between Indigenous communities, cultural institutions, and the university sector.

Figure 2. Signing the transfer of ownership. From Left to Right: Ray Ingrey, Dame Sally Davies, Professor Nicholas Thomas, Noeleen Timbery, Leonard Hill, Hon. Stephen Smith and Ben Maguire. Image credit: Jenny Magee.

The speeches from the event are reproduced here in full:  

David Johnson, member of the Gweagal Clan of the Dharawal nation.

This year marks 254 years since the Endeavour navigated its way up the eastern coastline of what we now call Australia. I want to give you a different insight to the event that had occurred all those years ago at Kamay, or Botany Bay. Today, I will share our unique insight of the view from the shore.     

My name is David Johnson, and I am a member of the Gweagal Clan of the Dharawal nation. Our homelands are on the southern part of Kamay including the site were the crew of the HMB Endeavour made contact with my ancestors.   

I am a direct descendant of one of the warriors who opposed the landing of Captain Cook.   

Dharawal people, like all Aboriginal cultures, have an understanding and interpretation of existence, knowledge, connections and our place in the universe. We have an ontology that explains our origin and existence as spiritually founded; this is our Dreaming.  

For our people, knowledge is abstract and theoretical, it doesn’t have to be scientifically proven.  A spiritual explanation is logic for us.  

When the Endeavour came into view, it was a confusing and surreal event.   

We know from our oral history; our old people were interpreting this strange event through a spiritual lens.  

Our old people wondered if the Endeavour with its billowing white sails was a low-lying cloud bringing spirits back from the afterlife.  

As the Endeavour approached the shores, two men started to oppose the landing on shore. They were hand gesturing to go away while yelling out ‘warra warra wa’ which means ‘they are all dead’ 

As the crew advanced on shore my old people threw stones trying to discourage the crew from advancing. In our culture it was taboo to come on someone else’s territory without permission.   

The crew continued so my old people started throwing spears, but they were just landing short, this was intentional to try and discourage further entry. As they were skilled hunters, if they wanted to injure anyone, they could of done it with little worry.  

As this was seen as a threat, the crew fired on my old people. They returned with a shield but were heavily overwhelmed and retreated to safety.  

As the crew advanced into the old campground they noticed the canoes, spears and some of our people sheltering in their dwellings trying to avoid contact. In Dharawal culture contact with spirits from the afterlife was mostly avoided by the general community, to engage it would create a spiritual consequence.  

The crew of the Endeavour constantly experienced these avoidance behaviours and couldn’t understand why our people would not engage with them over the 8 days they stayed.   

As you can see, this encounter was filled with conflict, misunderstanding and lost opportunity. However, 254 years later, we are here in the Wren Library where the spears were housed after they arrived in England.   

Instead of conflict we have partnership, and instead of misunderstanding we have a shared vision. Today, we all have an opportunity to celebrate these spears and what they represent for us, Australia and the whole world. Thank you.  

Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

This is an important day for Trinity and for all parties involved in what’s been a rewarding and respectful process and ultimately a very remarkable journey  

This journey comes, as David said, full circle with the rightful return of four Spears presented to the college by our alumnus Lord Sandwich in October 1771, soon after Lieutenant James Cook arrived back in England on HMB Endeavour following that first fateful contact with the Aboriginal people of eastern Australia.  

253 years later we’ve come together to officially hand over these artifacts of immense significance to the La Perouse Aboriginal community whose ancestors made them and from whom they were taken.  

We would like to thank all those who’ve taken part in good faith in the discussions and exchanges that have enabled us to reach this point.  

When Trinity and the La Perouse Aboriginal community announced their joint endeavour a year ago, the reception was overwhelmingly positive. This is the right decision. Our interactions with the La Perouse Aboriginal community, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies have been truly inspiring, and we look forward to the ongoing collaboration.  

The Hon. Stephen Smith, Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Dame Sally, thank you very much for hosting today’s return of the Kamay Spears. And thank you for the great cooperation that Trinity College has shown at working with the La Perouse community and AIATSIS. It’s a tradition in Australia that at the beginning of an event, we acknowledge Australia’s First Nations people, the traditional owners of the land. 

Whilst we are not on Country today, it is of course a deeply significant occasion. So, I acknowledge the La Perouse community, I acknowledge the Dharawal people, the Gweagal clan of the Dharawal people, and acknowledge that what we once called Botany Bay, we now recognise as Botany Bay, Sydney, but also Kamay Country. I acknowledge individual members of the La Perouse community who are here, Noeleen, Ray, Ashley, David, Quaidan and Tristen. 

Thanks to David for his great remarks and I acknowledge that David and Quaidan are both direct descendants of people who were on the shore at Kamay nearly 254 years ago. Indeed, Monday the 25th of October is the 254th anniversary of the first contact between the British and the Australian First Nations people with Cook and Banks arriving at the shore. 

I also formally acknowledge Dame Sally as Master of Trinity College, a great building and the centre of history and reading that we’re in today. I acknowledge also Professor Nicholas Thomas, the Director and Curator of the Anthropology and Archaeology Museum of Cambridge, Leonard Hill, the CEO of AIATSIS with whom we work very closely, and Ben Maguire, the Chair of Australia’s National Museum, all of whom are cooperating in the transfer and all of whom are working to the future to see the spears on display close to the original site in Kamay. This is a deeply significant return or repatriation of artefacts to Australia.  

I think a number of factors lead to that conclusion. 

Whilst it is the case that every return to a particular local Indigenous community is the most important return to them, this one has deep significance for Australia and deep significance for the United Kingdom. Firstly, this was the first contact by the British with Australian Indigenous communities. The spears were taken by Cook and Banks to their depository in the Admiralty, then from the Admiralty to the Wren Library, and then from the Library to the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in 1914.  

This is not the first occasion that I’ve been to the Wren Library, and coming to the Wren Library is of itself a fantastic thing to do. When I was here on a previous occasion, I had the great privilege of being shown the original manuals and documentation of the transmission from the Admiralty to the Library and the Library to the Museum. 

Indeed, if you carefully inspect the spears, you’ll see inscribed on the spears the record of the transmission from the Library to the Museum. So, it’s a great honour for me as Australia’s High Commissioner of the United Kingdom and a great honour for our team at the High Commission who work closely with AIATSIS and the Indigenous communities in Australia to effect and help effect returns and repatriation. 

The other point which makes this deeply significant, it’s not just the first contact, it’s not just the diligent and respectful documentation, it’s also the length of time which has expired. Taken almost 254 years ago to the day and now returned, returned in a collegiate, cooperative, respectful partnership. This is now the model that we use for repatriations and return of remains and artifacts to Australia. 

It’s one of the great things that we do at the Australian High Commission to work closely with AIATSIS and closely with collecting institutions in the United High Kingdom to bring about great moments like today. And this is one of the most significant. This is one of the most important. And we are deeply grateful to the College, the Library, the Museum, AIATSIS and our local La Perouse community for ensuring that after such a long period of time, this has been able to be done and effected in a dignified, respectful, meaningful, but also highly emotional day.  

It’s a great day. It’s a great day for Australia, it’s a great day for the United Kingdom, it’s a great day for the College, the Wren Library and the Museum, but it’ll also be a day which does have some tinge of emotion and sadness for our local Indigenous communities who will see this as a shining day of something which has been done in a marvellous way, albeit decades or centuries too late. But we thank and congratulate all those concerned, and we look forward to future repatriations and returns led by AIATSIS in due course. Thank you very much.  

Leonard Hill, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Good morning all. Thank you for your warm welcome, Dame Sally. What a privilege it is to be here today, to be part of this truly historic and momentous occasion. 

My name is Leonard Hill. I am the CEO of AIATSIS, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, and an Indigenous man from the Ngemba Nation from northwest New South Wales.  

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the representatives of the La Perouse community here with us today. Without your vision and your tireless work to have your treasures returned, this event would not be possible. To Ray, Noeleen, Ash, Quaiden, David and Tristen, thank you for making the journey with us and allowing us to be part of this enormously significant occasion, not only for your community but also for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and all Australians. I pay my respect to each of you, your Elders past and present, and your ancestors and the makers of these remarkable spears. 

I’d also like to acknowledge and pay my respects to distinguished guests here today. High Commissioner, the Honourable Stephen Smith, thank you for your support and your ongoing advocacy with respect to repatriating material from the UK. To Ben Maguire, the Chairperson of the National Museum of Australia and the support that we’ve had from the NMA with this particular return. And Professor Nicholas Thomas, Director of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  

The event today is dedicated to the diverse history and cultures and the heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We work with Australia’s First Nations people at AIATSIS to tell the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and create opportunity for everyone to encounter, engage with and be transformed by that story. AIATSIS is Australia’s only national cultural institution where our work is exclusively focused on the history and culture of our First Nations people. And I’m sure that this historic event will be one such story that we will thoroughly enjoy and look to tell in years to come.  

It is significant on so many levels. When the HMB Endeavour anchored at Kamay in Australia in April 1770 and the crew went ashore, it was the first interaction between the British and Australia’s First Nations people. The encounter would forever alter the future of both nations and impact the lives of generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

The spears were the first items removed by the British from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to say that this return is important to First Nations people, would not do justice to the significance and the historical importance of their return. I’m incredibly proud of the work that we do at AIATSIS and I’m particularly proud of the work that we do to facilitate the return of cultural heritage items back to Australia’s First Nations people through the return of the cultural heritage program that’s supported by the National Indigenous Australians Agency and the Australian Government.  

Returning cultural heritage material is a key aspiration of First Nations people in Australia. It supports the maintenance and the revitalisation of the world’s oldest continuous cultures. It facilitates the intergenerational transfer of knowledge, supports reconciliation, truth-telling, and healing. The Return of Cultural Heritage program works to identify and facilitate the return of cultural heritage material held in overseas collections. On behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, we aim to influence international repatriation practices and policies by emphasising the power of collaboration and the significance of ensuring that First Nations people are centred in the conversations about where their cultural heritage material is best placed and best cared for.  

Our approach is grounded in building respectful and productive relationships with both the communities whose material is held abroad and the collecting institutions and the collectors who house these materials. Today marks the culmination of a remarkable collaboration between the La Peruse Aboriginal community, Trinity College, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, the National Museum of Australia and AIATSIS. 

Again, what a privilege it is to witness the gathering of so many people here through their deep commitment, their care and courage. We’ve demonstrated that repatriation is not a loss for collecting institutions, rather, it’s an opportunity to build enduring partnerships. 

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to everyone involved in facilitating this return and please allow me to assure you that your efforts have and will make a very real positive and a deeply felt impact on all of our communities. Lastly, I’d like to express my appreciation to all of you who at the La Perouse Aboriginal community. I thank you for placing your trust in AIATSIS and for your incredible generosity in sharing this richly symbolic occasion with us all.   

It is my deeply held wish that the return of your people’s spears, who hold within them the echoes of our shared past, serve as a profound testament. 

Ben Maguire, Chair of the National Museum of Australia.

Your Excellency, the Hon. Stephen Smith, Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. Noeleen Timbery, Chair of the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council. Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity College. Professor Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Mr Leonard Hill, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.  Most importantly, I acknowledge and thank the members of the La Perouse Aboriginal community who are here today, and with whom I am privileged to share in this moment. 

On this wonderful day, I am very humbled and honoured to represent the National Museum of Australia, which sits in Canberra, on the lands of the proud Ngunnawal, and Ngambri peoples, and I pay my respects to them and their ancestors.  

I’d particularly like to thank two La Perouse Elders who aren’t here today, but who have contributed so much to the National Museum’s understandings of these spears and their significance to Aboriginal people today.  

Since 2011, Dr Shayne Williams and Rod Mason have generously shared their time and thoughts about these spears with us at the National Museum. They have inspired us, challenging us to represent history differently. To use these spears to bring forth the view ‘from the shore’ as a fundamental part of Australia’s national story. More recently other members of the La Perouse community have also helped us communicate this nuanced history to Australian audiences. 

Out of this work has developed a robust and respectful relationship between the National Museum, members of the La Perouse community and our colleagues here in Cambridge.  It characterised by a great generosity of spirit, and in fact sharing in this occasion with you all, I personally want to thank you for the respect, patience, kindness and welcome, that has been afforded to me as part of this occasion.  

Spending the last 24 hours with David and Quaiden who are grandsons of Shane and Rod had been a highlight. You young men are leaders in your own right. 

Objects create relationships. As these spears have changed location, moving from context to context, they have been catalysts for creating a series of relationships. From their origins in Dharawal peoples’ lives before the arrival of the Endeavour; through their connection to the violence of the first colonial encounter in 1770, through their time in the care of Trinity College, through their display in museum exhibitions in Australia and the United Kingdom, and now to this moment, where we stand today.  

The spears will continue their links to both Dharawal history and to the global history of James Cook, but it is a powerful decolonising action for their physical custody to return to the descendants of those from whom they were taken in 1770. 

The spears will remain a catalyst for the new relationships that develop as they move back to Kamay-Botany Bay. The National Museum is excited to be involved in the formation of these new relationships, ones which begin today with this handback.  

We look forward to assisting the La Perouse community with the long-term care of the spears and assisting with their display at the new Kurnell Visitor Centre, on the shores of Kamay-Botany Bay. 

It was there that our nation’s shared history began. It began with gunshots and the taking of these spears. It is a history that our nation is still coming to terms with, and the National Museum is privileged to have a part in the next chapter of the story of these spears and the role they will play in our understanding of our shared history. 

Professor Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Over the last ten years there has been renewed, often polarised debate about the return of cultural heritage. Some people think nothing should go back. Other people think everything should go back. Some people think treasures cannot go back because they will not be well cared for. Others think that artefacts should go back so that they can decay naturally. In this case, all the stakeholders have an absolute commitment to the care and preservation of the spears, now and in the longer term.  

Dialogue between the La Perouse community, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Archaeology, and Trinity College started with that in common. We’ve carried on a conversation, that’s involved honesty, respect, friendship and a shared interest in broader research, which also has involved other museums and universities.  

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. 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.  

[Addressed to the La Perouse representatives]. I look forward to welcoming you back, so that we can carry on our work. In the future, my successors at the Museum will welcome back your children, as visitors, as students, as researchers. You will always have a connection here.  

Noeleen Timbery, Chairperson of the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I want to start by acknowledging Country and paying respects to Elders past and present.  

Our people use the word ‘Country’ to describe the lands, waterways and seas that we are culturally, spiritually and traditionally connected to.  And back home we perform a Welcome to Country or an Acknowledgement of Country as a modern-day interpretation of our ancient cultural lore of seeking and granting permission to enter lands that are not our own.   

And we are a long way from home; from our Country.  

But these beautiful spears have been resting on this country here in Cambridge for over 250 years, so we acknowledge these lands on which they have been. Just as we will soon welcome them back to Country and to the lands where they were created.   

Getting to this day has been a long journey for our community, and there are many people we need to thank.   

Firstly, the NMA – the National Museum of Australia were early partners in our journey toward today, and they have provided great expertise, support and advice to our community with regard to the spears and caring for cultural objects.  The NMA has worked respectfully with our community to showcase our history and the stories of our ancestors. They were integral in making it possible for the spears to return to Sydney (on loan) 2 years ago, which was the first time since they left the shores of Kamay in 1770.  And they have continued to work closely with us on our work toward the spears being returned home for good.  

We also thank AIATSIS – the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. The help and support AIATSIS has provided through their Return of Cultural Heritage program has been immeasurable.   

By helping us navigate the complexities and legalities of repatriation, we were able to build confidence in the process and focus on what was important – showcasing the resilience of our people, our continued unbroken connection to country and culture, and ensuring our community had a voice.   

Trinity College, and importantly the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  We thank you for the care you have provided for these many years. Nick, you really do deserve more than our thanks. This we couldn’t have gotten to today, without your help and support. So, I do I want to thank you from the bottom of the heart and on behalf of our community.  

Our Elders acknowledged many years ago that without that care these spears would not exist today, and the connection we feel would have been lost. Our Elders passed down this knowledge and so we honour that too.  

I was fortunate to travel here to Cambridge in 2017 alongside Dr Shayne Williams, respected Gweagal Elder and cultural educator.   

We visited the spears and other cultural objects, and we spoke with staff and students about their cultural and historic importance, the continuing cultural practice of spear-making and the role these spears have in educating both about where they came from and how the practice of spear-making has evolved.    

Shayne had first contacted Trinity College about the spears about 22 years ago, and our visit in 2017 was an important part of building an ongoing relationship with the college and the Museum. 

Now Shayne isn’t here on this trip with us, but he of course is a big part of how we got here.  He has proudly wished us well and in line with our practice of passing down knowledge and responsibility, he has handed this work on to his Grandson Quaiden who is part of our delegation.  

There have been many discussions since that visit in 2017, and our relationship has continued to grow and strengthen.  

And so we thank Trinity College and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for their commitment to work with our community, now and into the future.  And most of all we thank them for understanding that after 254 years, it was time for the spears to return home.  

We want to assure everyone here today that the significance of this moment, this “handback” has not been lost on any of us. These spears connect us culturally, spiritually and tangibly to our ancestors; they are survivors from a moment in time that marks the beginning of the shared history of Australia. They are significant not only to us and our community but to all Australians. And they are coming home.  

The spears will return to a new home in museum grade facilities within a new visitor centre being built in the Kamay Botany Bay National Park in Sydney, very near to where they were taken from. They will be showcased and celebrated on country for all to visit and enjoy. 

We will protect them. We will care for them. We will cherish and honour them. And we will ensure that they and their story is shared for many generations to come. Thank you.

***

As the speeches testify, the return of the spears was a truly momentous occasion. These objects hold immense significance today and will forever link Cambridge with communities in Australia. The relationships brought into being by the spears will continue for posterity, with the meaning and value of the material enriched by their return.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with us

If you'd like to get involved, then please get in touch with us at digitallab@maa.cam.ac.uk.

About the Museum

Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Downing Street
Cambridge
CB2 3DZ

admin@maa.cam.ac.uk
+44 (0)1223 333516

Visit the MAA Website
Search the Collections

Support

Follow us

Donate

If you wish to donate online, then please go to the University of Cambridge campaign webpage.

 

 

Subscribe

Subscribe to receive notifications when we post new blog entries:

Subscribe