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After more than 250 years away the Gweagal spears will return home for good

Giovanni Torre -

In a ceremony held in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, on Tuesday, four spears taken by James Cook and Joseph Banks on 29 April 1770 were permanently repatriated to the La Perouse Aboriginal Community.

Trinity College and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology agreed in March 2023 to return the spears to representatives of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community, including direct descendants of the Gweagal people who crafted the spears more than 250 years ago.

The four spears, taken by Cook and Banks at the time of the first contact between the crew of the HMB Endeavour and the Indigenous people of Kamay (Botany Bay), are all that remain of 40 spears Cook recorded as having been taken from the villages of the Gweagal people living at Kamay.

Known as the Gweagal spears and named after the Gweagal clan of the Dharawal Nation, to whom they belong, they were presented to Trinity College in 1771 by Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, and a Trinity alumnus, along with other materials from Cook's voyage across the Pacific. The spears have been held since the early 20th century at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge.

Uncle Rod Mason, Gweagal Elder at spear making cultural camp. Image: National Museum of Australia.

Trinity College's decision to return the spears followed discussions between the MAA and the La Perouse Aboriginal Community and loans of the spears for museum displays in Australia in 2015 and 2020. These discussions involved representatives of the Gweagal people, the broader Dharawal Nation, and leading community organisations, including the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Gujaga Foundation.

The relationship forged between the La Perouse Aboriginal Community and Cambridge will continue through collaborative research projects and Community visits.

The spears are being permanently repatriated with support from the Australian government's AIATSIS-led Return of Cultural Heritage Program, and the National Museum of Australia, who have for many years collaborated with the La Perouse Aboriginal Community and will support the Community in the physical care of the spears as they journey back to Australia.

The spears will be displayed at a new visitor centre to be built at Kurnell, Kamay. At the request of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community, they will be cared for by the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney until the centre is ready.

The ceremony, held on Tuesday in the Wren Library at Trinity College, was attended by members of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community; the Australian government; the MAA, University of Cambridge; AIATSIS; and the National Museum of Australia.

It included readings from the Voyage Journals of Cook and Banks as well as statements by representatives of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community.

Contemporary Gweagal Spears. Image: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge.

Gujaga Foundation director Ray Ingrey said the spears were "pretty much the first point of European contact, particularly British contact, with Aboriginal Australia".

"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. Ultimately, they'll be put on permanent display for everyone to go see; at the very spot they were taken from 250 years ago," he said.

La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council member Noeleen Timbery said the spears "are an important connection to our past, our traditions, and cultural practices, and to our ancestors".

"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," she said.

Master of Trinity, Dame Sally Davies, said the ceremony was an important day at Trinity and all parties involved in "what has been a rewarding and respectful process, and ultimately a remarkable journey".

"We are delighted to be able to return the Gweagal Spears to the La Perouse Aboriginal Community," she said.

"We would like to thank all those who have taken part in good faith in the discussions and exchanges that have enabled us to reach this point. This is the right decision and Trinity is committed to reviewing the complex legacies of the British empire, not least in our collections."

Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Trinity Fellow, Professor Nicholas Thomas said that collaborating with the La Perouse Aboriginal Community had been "immensely rewarding".

"The spears are exceptionally significant. They are the first artefacts collected by the British from any part of Australia that remain extant and documented. They reflect the beginnings of a history of misunderstanding and conflict," he said.

"Their significance will be powerfully enhanced through return to Country. The artefacts' return opens up new possibilities. The staff of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology look forward to working further with the La Perouse community and other Indigenous Australians on further research around collections, and increasing access to them."

Uncle Rod Mason, Gweagal Elder at spear making cultural camp. Image: National Museum of Australia.

Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said the return of the spears is a "significant step forward" on the journey towards reconciliation and truth-telling.

"Bringing our history back home provides an opportunity for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, young and old, to build a greater understanding of our shared national story," she said.

"I congratulate the La Perouse Aboriginal Community on the decades of work and advocacy to return the Gweagal spears. which will have a lasting positive impact on future generations."

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) interim chief executive Leonard Hill said Tuesday's event marked "the culmination of a remarkable collaboration between the La Perouse Aboriginal Community, Trinity College, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the National Museum of Australia and AIATSIS".

"Returning cultural heritage material is a key aspiration of Australia's First Nations people. It supports the maintenance and revitalisation of cultural practices, intergenerational transfer of knowledge, truth telling and reconciliation," he said.

"Repatriation is not a loss for collecting institutions. It is an opportunity to build enduring partnerships, to walk beside communities and to share in the stories of First Nations people together."

"I would like to sincerely thank everyone involved in facilitating this return for their care, commitment, and courage. I would also like to express my appreciation of the sustained advocacy efforts of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community, to thank the Community for placing their trust in AIATSIS, and for their incredible generosity in sharing this richly symbolic occasion with us all."

National Museum of Australia chair Ben Maguire said he was "very pleased" that the Museum had "supported the growth of a robust and respectful relationship between the La Perouse Aboriginal community and Cambridge University; one which has led to the spears' return to Country".

"The return of these spears to their cultural owners after 254 years is a milestone in Australia's shared history," he said.

"We are delighted to have worked closely with the La Perouse Aboriginal community, Trinity College and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology over the last decade towards this result. We particularly thank the La Perouse community for their perseverance and patience.

"Building on the work of the Museum's Senior Curator Dr Ian Coates, we look forward to continuing to work with the La Perouse Aboriginal community to ensure the long-term care of these priceless objects on Country."

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