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After 253 away from Country, UK college to repatriate spears taken in 1770 to La Perouse Aboriginal community

Giovanni Torre -

Four spears taken by Lieutenant James Cook in 1770 from Kamay (Botany Bay), are to be repatriated back to Country.

Trinity College, Cambridge in the United Kingdom has agreed to permanently return the four spears to the La Perouse Aboriginal community. Trinity is working with the UK's Charity Commission to obtain approval for the transfer of legal title.

After years of campaigning by local Aboriginal people, the decision by Trinity College followed a formal repatriation request in December 2022 from the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Gujaga Foundation.

The spears were taken from Kamay at the time of first contact between the crew of the HMB Endeavour and the Aboriginal people of eastern Australia. Lt Cook recorded that 40 spears were taken from the camps of Aboriginal people living at Botany Bay in April, 1770.

Lord Sandwich of the British Admiralty presented the four spears to Trinity College soon after Lt Cook returned to England on the Endeavour and they have been part of their collection since 1771.

Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has held the four spears, all that remain of the original 40 spears collected, since 1914.

Trinity College said their decision follows the establishment of a "respectful and robust" relationship over the past decade between the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Aboriginal community at La Perouse, supported by the National Museum of Australia.

Discussions included representatives of the local Gweagal people - the people from whom the spears were taken, the broader Dharawal Nation, and community organisations, including the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Gujaga Foundation.

The relationship between Cambridge, La Perouse and the National Museum will continue through collaborative research projects, once the spears have been returned to Country.

The La Perouse community is currently lending contemporary spears made by Senior Gweagal Clan leader Rodney Mason to the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to demonstrate how traditional knowledge has been passed down, while adapting to new technologies.

It is expected the spears will return to the La Perouse Aboriginal community "within months", and the community plans to display the spears at a new Visitor Centre being built at Kurnell, Botany Bay.

In 2015 and in 2020 some of the spears were returned temporarily to Australia, for the first time since they were taken by Lt. Cook, and displayed by the National Museum in Canberra.

The spears will be permanently repatriated with the assistance of the National Museum and Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).

La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council chairperson Noeleen Timbery said the spears would be preserved on Country for future generations.

"We are proud to have worked with Cambridge's Trinity College and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to transfer the ownership of these enormously significant artefacts to the La Perouse Aboriginal community. They are an important connection to our past, our traditions and cultural practices, and to our ancestors," she said.

"With assistance from the National Museum of Australia and AIATSIS we will ensure these objects are preserved for our future generations and for all Australians. 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."

Dharawal Elder, Dr Shayne Williams said the spears are of "immeasurable value as powerful, tangible connections between our forebears and ourselves".

"I want to acknowledge the respectfulness of Trinity College in returning these spears back to our community. In caring for the spears for over 252 years, Trinity College has ensured that these priceless artefacts can now be utilized for cultural education by the Aboriginal community into the future," he said.

Trinity College Master, Professor Sally Davies, welcomed the decision to return the spears.

"Trinity is committed to better understanding the College's history, and to addressing the complex legacies of the British empire, not least in our collections. The College's interaction with the La Perouse Aboriginal community, the University of Cambridge and National Museum Australia regarding the return of artefacts to the people from whom they were taken has been a respectful and rewarding process. We believe that this is the right decision and I would like to acknowledge and thank all those involved," she said.

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge director, Professor Nicholas Thomas, said he was honoured to have worked with the Kamay community to repatriate the spears.

"It has been immensely rewarding to work with the La Perouse community to research these artefacts and we look forward to extending the partnership into the future. The spears are exceptionally significant," he said.

"They are the first artefacts collected by any European from any part of Australia, that remain extant and documented. They reflect the beginnings of a history of misunderstanding and conflict. Their significance will be powerfully enhanced through return to Country."

National Museum of Australia director Dr Mathew Trinca, said the Museum was happy to have played a key role in the spears' permanent return to Country.

"We are delighted to have worked with the La Perouse Aboriginal community, Trinity College, Cambridge and the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, to help facilitate discussions over many years to return these historic spears to their cultural owners. This outcome follows a longstanding relationship between the National Museum and these parties and we look forward to continuing to work with the community to ensure the long-term care of these priceless objects," he said.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies acting chief executive Leonard Hill said AIATSIS was pleased to assist the La Perouse community in bringing these objects back to Country.

"Their return is a signal to our nation and the world that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is respected, celebrated and valued," he said.

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