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Spears taken by British explorer 250 years ago finally returned to Indigenous people in Australia

The spears, an important part of the Gweagal people's history and legacy, were taken away at their first contact with the British crew in 1770.

Spears taken by British explorer 250 years ago finally returned to Indigenous people in Australia
Cover Image Source: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

It is a big moment for Australia's La Perouse Aboriginal Community as Trinity College Cambridge, England has returned four spears stolen from them by British explorers Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks in 1770. In a joint statement released by the college and the community, it was mentioned that the spears were repatriated in a ceremony held in the Wren Library of the college. The decision to return the spears to the Indigenous people was made jointly by the college and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in March 2023. The people of the community who received the spears also included descendants of the Gweagal people, who crafted the spears over 250 years ago. The four spears are what remains of the 40 taken from the people living in Kamay or Botany Bay.

Image Source: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Image Source: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The spears are associated with a major historical event. Cook and Banks took these spears during the first contact between the crew of the HMB endeavor, a voyage held between 1768 and 1771 and the community living in Botany Bay. The spears were then presented to the Trinity College in 1771 by Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty and a Trinity alumnus. After that, the spears were kept at the MAA in the 20th century

"They 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," Noeleen Timbery of La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council expressed.

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"I am very pleased that the Museum has 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 the country. The return of these spears to their cultural owners after 254 years is a milestone in Australia's shared history," Ben Maguire, Chair of National Museum Australia, shared. 


The discussions to return them started after the college loaned the spears for museum displays in 2015 and 2020. The return comes as a big move of returning looted artifacts and cultural belongings after protests from Indigenous communities worldwide. David Johnson, a member of the Gweagal Clan of the Dharawal nation and a descendant of the Gweagal people, said, "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 a 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."


The spears will be displayed at a new visitor center at Kurnell, Kamay. Until then, they will be in the care of Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney, per the request of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community. This has become possible through the support of the Australian Government's AIATSIS-led Return of Cultural Heritage Program and the National Museum of Australia (NMA), which will help the community care for the spears. 

Image Source: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Image Source: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

"This is an important day at Trinity for all parties involved in what has been a rewarding and respectful process, and ultimately a remarkable journey," Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity, said in the statement. He added, "This is the right decision and Trinity is committed to reviewing the complex legacies of the British empire, not least in our collections."


"The emotions are mixed…a lot of the old people that started the campaign aren't with us anymore to see their hard work and labor come to fruition," Michael Ingrey, a member of the community, was quoted as saying by Bay Gallery Home.

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