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The Return of the Gweagal Spears

In a 2022 exhibition of 40 Aboriginal spears at the Chau Chak Wing Museum in the University of Sydney, three of them, brought over separately from Britain, evoked a ripple of excitement that will have profound implications for the future repatriation of Indigenous property.

By Alec Smart

paining of the Gweagal Aboriginal Spears

'Two of the Natives of New Holland, Advancing to Combat' - engraving from an illustration by Sydney Parkinson, 1784

The Gweagal Aboriginal Spears on Display

Displayed alongside 37 contemporary aboriginal spears crafted by Dharawal peoples (the language group of Indigenous clans extending from the southern shores of Kamay south to Nowra and inland to Goulburn), this was the first time the original three spears were displayed in Sydney since they were confiscated from an Aboriginal camp by Captain Cook and his crew over 250 years ago.

Noeleen Timbery, Chairperson of the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, praised the university, for what was initially understood to be just a temporary return of the historic artefacts.

“Many of the families within the La Perouse Aboriginal community are descended from those who were present during the eight days The Endeavour [Cook’s ship] was anchored in Kamay.

“We will continue to work to ensure our community’s access to these and other important artefacts and materials; they remain an important connection to our past, our traditions and cultural practices, and to our ancestors.”

The trio of multi-pronged aboriginal fishing spears, known as the Gweagal Spears due to their being crafted by the Indigenous Gweagal peoples of southern Kamay (Botany Bay), were among a haul of 40-50 stolen by Captain James Cook after anchoring The Endeavour alongside Kurnell peninsula in April 1770.

40 Gweagal aboriginal fishing spears

The last 4 of the estimated 40 Gweagal fishing spears taken by Captain Cook in 1770. Cambridge Museum Archaeology and Anthropology

The Gweagal and Captain Cook

On that occasion, the Gweagal – who generally ignored Cook and his explorers during their eight-day anchorage, because, according to some oral histories, it was assumed they were malevolent pale-skinned ghosts – initially suffered a casualty from Cook’s landing party.

On 29 April, Cook, botanist Joseph Banks, Tahitian navigator Tupaia and a party of 30 crewmen rowed ashore in two longboats to investigate a collection of around eight gunyahs (bark huts) on Milgurrung (Silver Beach).

The Aboriginal inhabitants, fearing for their lives, fled into the nearby forest. However, two men remained steadfast, attempting to repel the invaders with rocks, fishing darts and a spear launched with a woomera, whilst shouting the now legendary warning: “Warra warra wai!” (“you are all dead!”).

From the first boat Cook fired twice from two muskets, which were loaded with ‘small shot’ (likely lead pellets).

The first passed between the two defenders; particles from the second struck one man in the leg, who, in turn, grabbed a defensive shield. Another shot fired from a crew member went over their heads, and the duo retreated.

Cook’s party, upon coming ashore, then souvenired items from the Gweagal camp, which Joseph Banks (he of the infamous description that Australia was ‘Terra nullius’ ie, devoid of people) later recorded in his travel diary.

Describing the aboriginal spears as ‘lances’, and mentioning the trinkets they scattered to ameliorate the theft of valuable fishing implements, Banks wrote that the Britons “threw into the house to them some beads, ribbands, cloths &c. as presents and went away. We however thought it no improper measure to take away with us all the lances which we could find about the houses, amounting in number to forty or fifty.”

Ray Ingrey, a Dharawal person descended from the original inhabitants of the region, holds a number of leadership roles within the Indigenous community. These include Deputy Chair of La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council and Chairperson of the Gujaga Foundation, the peak organisation leading language, cultural and research activities within the La Perouse Aboriginal community.

Cook's arrivat met with spears

Cooks Arrival. Illustration: William MacLeod 1899

How Captain Cook Obtained the Aboriginal Spears

Ray told 2230 magazine that some contemporary suggestions that Cook effectively ‘traded’ items for the spears by leaving ‘presents’ was disingenuous.

“It is well known that the aboriginal spears were taken without consent,” he insisted, “and leaving beads, etc, was more of an attempt to engage a small number of people who did not flee (from memory it was a woman, an older person and a child).

“Even if an exchange was the motivator in Cook's action, the items he gave were rendered useless and do not come close to what the spears use were back then.”

The aforementioned shield was also stolen by Cook, and until recently believed to be the ‘Gweagal Shield’ on display in the British Museum. However, recent analysis of that shield found it is made of red mangrove wood, sourced 400km north of Botany Bay, and a hole in it, thought to be punctured by gunshot, was likely caused by other means.

According to the National Museum of Australia, “Only four of the spears that James Cook and Joseph Banks took from Kamay are known to exist today. They are in the collection of the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. John Montagu, the First Lord of the Admiralty, presented them to the university in 1771.”

Ray Ingrey confirmed this. “These 4 spears are the only known surviving spears from Cook's collection. In saying this, there may be other spears that remain in private collections...”

Campaign to Return the Gweagal Spears

On 1 March 2023, more than 20 years after Gweagal Elders began campaigning for historic artefacts taken from the region to be returned, Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology announced a momentous decision.

All four Gweagal fishing spears, which, in 1770, were sawed down to a size more convenient for transportation in The Endeavour to England, would be permanently repatriated to Sydney.

Is the aboriginal spears’ return conditional, such as a permanent loan, with proprietary rights remaining with the current British custodians, or the UK Government, or a genuine transfer of ownership?

“A genuine hand back of the Gweagal spears to the La Perouse Aboriginal Community,” Ray Ingrey confirmed. “We were ok with long-term loan arrangements. However, to their credit, Trinity College Cambridge wanted to explore the option of a genuine transfer of ownership.”

The announcement triggered a backlash in some quarters. For example, an article written by David Abulafia (Emeritus Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University) condemning the spears' return was published in The Spectator (the British conservative magazine formerly edited by ex-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson).

Abulafia mocked it as “virtue signalling”.

Captain Cook landing in 1770

Captain Cook's Landing at Botany, AD 1770. (Artist unknown) National Library Australia

Ray told 2230 magazine about his conflicting emotions concerning the spears’ permanent return.

“There are mixed feelings around this announcement; mainly joy, as it has been a long journey of working with Trinity College Cambridge and the National Museum of Australia to have the spears returned.

“The campaign to have the Gweagal spears started with our Elders over 20 years ago and the senior women Elders who identified the Gweagal spears as the priority are no longer with us so it also is a time that we reflect on their advocacy, and that obviously brings us a bit of sadness.”

What's Next for the Aboriginal Spears

What happens now, will La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council take custody of the spears and supervise their future storage? Will they be displayed in a museum or used only for educational purposes and otherwise removed from public access?

“Community consultation still needs to occur on this matter,” Ray revealed. ”To date the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, the Gujaga Foundation, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies have agreed to work collaboratively to ensure the spears are stored in a museum-grade facility.

“The La Perouse Aboriginal Community, Gweagal and Dharawal Elders have always wanted the spears returned to Kurnell,” he continued, “and the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Gujaga Foundation is working with the NSW Government to make sure the end goal is for the spears to be displayed permanently at the new Kurnell Visitors Centre, which will have a museum-grade facility included so they are returned to the very location they were taken 253 years ago.”


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