Visitors to the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum over the past three months may have noticed a tall glass display case standing in the airy, high-vaulted foyer. The display case contained three wooden spears. Their story is another chapter in the history of dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and of the trauma experienced by Indigenous communities in seeking redress for past injustices.
What came to be known to historians as the Kamay spears were first documented on 29 April 1770 with the encounter of James Cook’s Endeavour voyage with the Gweagal clan of the Dharawal nation then living on the southern headland of Kamay/Botany Bay.
As recorded in the journals of Cook and the botanist Joseph Banks, the Endeavour’s landing party of forty men was opposed by two Gweagal warriors, one of whom was named Cooman. Following an exchange of musket fire with thrown spears and stones, the two warriors dispersed. The crew then searched the nearby gunyah (bark huts) around which they found between forty to fifty spears. In the words of Banks, the men ‘thought it no improper measure’ to take all the spears, leaving behind beads, ribbons and cloth as compensation.
A shield pierced by a musket ball, now known as the Gweagal shield, may also have been taken at this time, although its provenance is disputed.
The next stages of the spears’ journey have been pieced together by historians: on his return to Britain Cook presented ‘The Bulk of the Curiosity’s I have collected’ to his patron and First Lord of the Admiralty, John Montagu the 4th Earl of Sandwich. In addition to being a member of London’s Hell-Fire Club (club motto: Do what thou wilt), the Earl was an alumnus of Trinity College, Cambridge. Soon after receiving them from Cook, the Earl gifted around one hundred of the objects to his alma mater, including four of the spears. They were then displayed in a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ (wunderkammer) in the College library for the next 140 years before being deposited with the University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in 1914. The spears are now exhibited as part of the MAA’s Cook Voyage Collection, while remaining the property of Trinity College. The Gweagal shield is held by the British Museum.
The College’s claims to ownership of the spears went publicly unchallenged until 2016, when the Kamay spears and Gweagal shield were first loaned to the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra. On the last day of the NMA exhibition a descendant of Cooman, NSW south coast resident Rodney Kelly, read aloud a statement in front of the artefacts demanding their repatriation within ninety days, reportedly to applause from NMA museum staff. The British Museum refused, offering only to discuss arrangements for another loan.
Kelly then made a formal submission for repatriation with the assistance of the then-NSW (now federal) Greens MP David Shoebridge, which was also rejected. Kelly has since taken three crowd-funded trips to the UK to deliver speeches and engage in protest action at the British Museum and MAA with the support of local activist groups.
Despite small concessions including being able to handle the shield in his most recent visit to the British Museum in 2019, Kelly’s goal of repatriating the shield and spears remains elusive. ‘I was holding it, but I knew I had to walk away; that was the hard part,’ he said to the ABC News on 12 May 2019. ‘That’s when I got emotional. I’m walking away and leaving the shield here; that was hard to deal with.’
The Kamay spears were loaned to the NMA in 2020 for the Endeavour Voyage exhibition timed for the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Endeavour. The loan was extended through to July 2022 to allow the spears to be displayed in Sydney, with the involvement of Indigenous community organisations for the Dharawal people, the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council (LPLALC) and Gujaga Foundation.
The significance of spears to their Ancestors lives on in the Dreaming stories still told by Dharawal Elders today. Spears have an integral role in Dharawal creation stories; the spirit Ancestor Girrawhal brings spears into being at the same time as the creation of the Dharawal Country and people. Fishing spears were so essential to Dharawal subsistence that the theft of such a large quantity by the Endeavour crew would have had a devastating impact on the local economy.
‘The collection of that amount of spears is similar to what would happen if you shut down a Woolworths or a Coles in a local suburb,’ says Ray Ingrey, Chairperson of the Gujaga Foundation. ‘How are people going to feed their families? So from a practical sense that actually had a longer devastation than any other object that was taken at the time.’
The exhibition included thirty-seven modern spears to accompany the three Kamay spears; thirty-seven spears making up the difference from the forty originally taken in 1770. These modern spears were made by a Dharawal Elder, Uncle Rod Mason, using traditional practices passed down through countless generations. Uncle Mason himself has been passing on the traditional arts of spear making and fishing to local children since the 1980s, now provided through cultural workshops arranged by the Gujaga Foundation. While the exhibition is not on Dharawal Country, the exhibition of the spears nearby at the University of Sydney Camperdown campus is an opportunity for the Dharawal community to demonstrate a continuity of material culture with their pre-contact Ancestors.
’We want to be able to showcase that we still have this ongoing connection and cultural understanding in a place like Sydney, where our families were the first contacted by Europeans,’ says Ingrey. ‘It still continues, where a lot of people think that these cultural practices have died out. They’re still here.’
The spears are valuable in providing a material connection for Dharawal people to a time prior to European colonisation, dating from the eight days in which the Endeavour and its crew remained in Botany Bay.
‘They are the only verified [artefacts] that we know of that come from those eight days in Botany Bay,’ says Noelene Timbery, the Chairperson of the LPLALC. ‘So they are really important because they connect us to the time before there was European occupation. To be able to display them and connect to them, there aren’t any words to describe that. It’s really special.’
With submissions for the permanent return of the spears stretching back to the early 1990’s to no avail, Dharawal Elders are now making a compromise. Terms such as ‘repatriation’ are being avoided so as not to put the museums offside. The focus now is on maximising access to the spears through extended loans while they remain in the legal possession of Trinity College.
‘We’ll leave the words like ‘repatriation’ or ‘long term loan’ up to museum people to work out,’ says Timbery. ‘Our role here is to just try and allow for there to be greater access in Australia to these really important mementos of our past. If that’s under a long-term loan, then we’re ok with that.’
‘We know that repatriation is not something that owning institutions have a big appetite for, which is understandable,’ she says. ‘But we’re willing to work with them to benefit the both of us and get a bit of leeway happening.’
Ingrey agrees with the need to accept the compromise of long-term loans. Part of the reason for doing so is that if not for their curation by the MAA the spears, the only pre-contact artefacts of their people, would not exist.
‘The theft of the spears was wrong,’ says Ingrey. ‘But our Elders knew that if they weren’t kept in a museum we wouldn’t be looking at them today. Our Elders have experienced picking up spears that were in the elements for a long time, and they just crumble in their hands.’
‘The Elders came to realise that the UK laws for repatriation are very hard to change and move,’ he says. ‘And so they started to turn their attention to having a positive relationship with these cultural institutions; so that we could have access to [the artefacts] when we need to.’
‘In the end our ultimate goal, if not repatriation, is to have them in a cultural institution on the Gweagal clan lands,’ says Ingrey. ‘We would rather have a 10-year loan, plus another 10 years plus another 10, rather than getting a zero year loan.’
Just such an institution is currently in the works. A museum-grade facility is part of the planning for a new Visitors’ Centre being built on the Kurnell headland, a development project overseen by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment. Timbery is on the project board and is ‘fairly confident’ that the developers will produce a facility that will meet the requirements of the MAA and British Museum. Work on the Visitors’ Centre will continue for at least another 2-3 years.
A willingness to compromise on claims to repatriation is not shared by all with links to the Dharawal community. Rodney Kelly, the descendant of Cooman who first raised the call for repatriation of the spears, repeats his demands in a statement to this writer.
‘At the moment it’s looking like the community don’t want the spears repatriated,’ says Kelly. ‘But many of us want repatriation now, but now we are denied a voice.’
Kelly alleges that the LPALC and Gujaga Foundation have excluded him ‘from anything about the artefacts’.
‘I didn’t get a chance to look at the spears and neither did my family,’ says Kelly. ‘It’s the La Perouse Land Council and Gujaga Foundation who are in charge of the exhibition and the narrative now around the spears. I have been silenced and not given a voice by these Aboriginal organisations.’
In response, Ingrey speaks to Kelly’s lack of involvement with the discussions leading into exhibition as the reason for his differing views on community support for repatriation.
‘If he had a conversation with us he would understand that this campaign is about doing our Elders’ wishes,’ he says. ‘We can’t ignore what our people wanted. It’s a hard pill to swallow to say that we’ve silenced him and he hasn’t been up here to have a conversation with us.’
The University of Sydney avoids buying into the question of ownership and repatriation, deferring to the LPLALC and Gujaga Foundation on the fate of the spears in a statement from Professor Lisa Jackson-Pulver, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Services.
‘The people of La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, the Gujaga Foundation and the La Perouse Aboriginal Community Alliance are the ones who have worked through matters relating to these stolen items with the relevant parties for a very long time,’ Jackson-Pulver’s statement reads. ‘The time for people who are not from the respective community and those who are non-Aboriginal to have the privilege of what should happen next to such items has rightly passed.’
‘I support fully the communities’ expectations of what happens next to the spears. I thank the community for entrusting the University, our staff and our students, and the Museum itself, to host these precious items.’
Why wouldn’t the LPLALC and Gujaga Foundation just refuse to return the spears to Trinity College while they are in Australia on loan? Apart from the damage that would do to their relationships with the MMA and other museums, there is a significant legal barrier. The 2013 federal Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan (PCOL) Act guarantees the return of cultural objects on loan from foreign institutions, giving immunity from seizure to the borrowing institution. The Act was introduced following a 2004 incident involving rare Indigenous bark etchings then on loan to Museum Victoria from the British Museum. Elders of the Dja Dja Wurrung Native Title Group made a series of emergency declarations delaying the return of the etchings for eight months. The Elders’ repatriation claims were ultimately overturned in federal court, with the Victorian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gavin Jennings, declining to intervene despite having a legal trigger at his disposal to enforce the compulsory acquisition of objects of cultural significance to the Indigenous community.
The PCOL Act was legislated to arrest the drying up of travelling exhibitions that followed this episode. The Act is quite expansive when compared with immunity laws in other countries that are restricted to objects on loan to state institutions; in Australia any borrowing institution can apply for protections under the Act, including private organisations. But there is no doubt that the Kamay spears are protected, guaranteeing a stiff legal challenge for anyone seeking their repatriation. The National Museum of Australia, the borrowing institution in the loan agreement with the MMA for the spears, was one of the first institutions in Australia to be approved for protection by the Act in perpetuity.
Unlike some other post-colonial countries including the USA, Australia lacks an actual repatriation law to buttress repatriation claims. But it does have a ‘policy’ offered by an Advisory Committee in the cultural affairs arm of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications mega-department. The Australian Government Policy on Indigenous Repatriation supports funding for international travel by Indigenous community representatives to repatriate Ancestral remains, but not for seeking the return of cultural objects from foreign museums.
The policy’s funding is held in an Indigenous Repatriation Special Account, currently amounting to $2M to be shared across all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Communities. Compare this with the cost of constructing the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Solider at the Australian War Memorial, built to display the remains of a single soldier repatriated from Villers-Bretonneux in 1993. The cost of building the Tomb was approximately $1M after adjusting for inflation. The Australian War Memorial is currently working through a $500M renovation including updates to the Tomb.
Repatriation of cultural objects from foreign institutions is within the remit of the Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) project administered by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Established in 2018, the project has so far identified over 100,000 objects held by around 200 international institutions.
According to a RoCH report, when contacted by the project only 45 of those institutions expressed a willingness to consider a repatriation request. While 11 of those willing institutions are from the UK & Ireland, the British Museum and MAA are not among them. To date, eighty-five objects held by the Illinois State Museum and Manchester Museum have been repatriated by the project to six Indigenous communities across the Gulf of Carpentaria, Central Australia and the Kimberley.
Dr Gareth Knapman is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies, specialising in the repatriation of museum collections and 18th – 19th century colonial thought. Knapman explains that the resistance of museums to the repatriation of cultural objects is due to multiple factors, including a view that they are museums of world culture, therefore entitled to hold and display artefacts from different cultures. Another common argument is the objects will be destroyed if denied museums’ curatorial skills and returned to the traditional owners.
The final and most operative reason is the thin end of the wedge argument; Knapman references the Elgin Marbles, the Classical Greek sculptures held by the British Museum and subject to a long-standing repatriation claim by the Greek government backed by UNESCO in 2021.
‘They don’t want to get rid of the Elgin marbles,’ he says. ‘So if you say yes to [repatriating] the spears that they’re not really interested in keeping, why can’t you say yes to [repatriating] the Elgin Marbles that they do want to keep.’
Knapman is a Project Officer for the Return, Reconcile, Renew (RRR) project which aims to support research into the repatriation of human remains, and to provide assistance to Indigenous organisations in bringing their Ancestors home. Funded primarily by Australian Research Council grants, the project is a collaboration between Australia and New Zealand universities and Indigenous community organisations.
According to RRR research, the remains of around 13,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were taken from Indigenous communities from the beginning of colonisation through to as late as the 1970’s. Around 10,000 were held in Australian museums, with the rest taken to museums and other scientific institutions in Britain, Europe and North America. To date the remains of around 3,000 Ancestors have been repatriated from Australian institutions, and around 1,600 from international institutions. Around 1,000 Ancestors are thought to still be held outside Australia, although the real totals are unknown.
And these are the totals for Ancestors returned to their communities; the total number to have completed their journey home through being buried or returned to funerary caves is much fewer. As with repatriation of cultural objects such as the Kamay spears, Ancestral repatriation is rife with challenges for Indigenous communities.
Repatriation of Ancestral remains and cultural objects taken from Indigenous communities across the entire 420 km2 Kimberley region is the responsibility of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC). In 2008 KALACC coordinated the repatriation of the remains of thirteen Ancestors from the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. The remains had been deposited with the museum by the Swedish ethnographer Eric Mjöberg following his 1910 expedition to the Kimberley.
As detailed in the 2008 documentary Dark Science, Mjöberg had gone to Australia seeking evidence in support of racist social Darwinist theories common in scientific circles of the time holding that Australian Aboriginals were directly descended from Neanderthals, and possibly even the ‘missing link’ between apes and humans. Skulls were key to proving such theories via the pseudo-science of phrenology, leading Mjöberg to plunder Indigenous burial grounds for skeletons including those of children and a recently deceased Elder. While he received some fanfare on his return to Sweden, overall his peers were more troubled by the theft of the human remains. They were boxed up and kept in a storeroom for decades, never to be studied or exhibited by the museum.
Following initial approaches through diplomatic channels in the early 2000’s instigated by the Museum of Ethnography, the Australia government sent a delegation to Sweden to formulate a plan for repatriation of the remains. The delegation included a biological anthropologist Steve Webb, currently Adjunct Professor of Australian Studies at Bond University.
Professor Webb has had extensive involvement with repatriating Ancestral remains from Australian and international museums over the years; most notably, he was expert witness in the case before the British High Court in 2007 seeking the repatriation of the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aboriginals then held by London’s Natural History Museum to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC). The high-profile case, with Geoffrey Robertson arguing for the TAC, was successful in having the Ancestors repatriated, the culmination of 20 years’ requests and legal challenges resisted by the museum for as long as possible.
The Swedish government and museum authorities did not take as much persuading to agree to return the remains stolen by Mjöberg. ‘The Minister for Culture said ‘We don’t want these remains’,’ recounts Webb. ‘’They’re a travesty.’ They were embarrassed, and they said this should never have happened.’
KALACC’s repatriation officer, Neil Carter, a Gooniyandi and Kidji man, then coordinated the repatriation. Planning for the repatriation of Ancestral remains is exceedingly complex, due to reburial having no precedent or exemplar in Indigenous traditions. The Elders with the closest affiliation to the Ancestors, and who are willing and able to make the long trip to retrieve the remains, need to be identified. Consensus needs to be reached even on such matters as the appropriate wood to be taken for the smoking ceremony held by the Elders when they are reunited with their Ancestors.
Carter writes eloquently in The Routledge Companion to Indigenous Repatriation about the challenges faced by Elders in bringing their Ancestors home the right way:
Bringing back and reburying Ancestral Remains, it’s all new. There are many questions that people are faced with when deciding how to care for their Ancestors’ remains that have been in museums – this is a new thing. Nobody had to bury museum-returned remains in traditional times. How do you rebury somebody? How do you put somebody back into the ground? People are worried about doing the right thing.
Another example of the difficult decisions to make are how to rebury remains that come from many different locations within the same traditional country, or where all that is known is that they come from a particular region within the same traditional country. Should they be buried together, or should separate reburials take place? But it’s the Elders that instruct me and they decide.
Two Elders with connections to the Nyigina, Walmajarri, and Ngarinyin people from whom the Ancestors were taken by Mjöberg’s expedition were sent to Sweden to retrieve their Ancestors. A smoking ceremony was held on their return to the KALACC offices at Fitzroy Crossing. The ceremony was attended by the Fitzroy Crossing community including local police and town authorities, and Indigenous people from throughout the Kimberley.
‘That’s what repatriation of our Ancestral Remains does,’ writes Carter. ‘It brings people together and says that we’re all one mob, white and black, and we should all feel the same way about any of our mob’s remains that are overseas, Aboriginal or not.’
Following the ceremony, the remains were stored in a Keeping Place at Fitzroy Crossing. The Elders asked Professor Webb to assist with ‘sorting’ the remains; piecing together each Ancestor, restoring them to their original state as far as possible.
‘I thought it was the least we could do,’ says Webb. ‘You can’t right these wrongs, they never go away really. But to try and just help; that’s really the best word.’
Carter then performed the delicate role of consulting further with the Elders of the three communities on their Ancestors’ reburial, deliberations that continued for three years.
Finally, the Ancestors’ long journey home was completed when they were reburied or returned to the caves from which they were taken nearly one hundred years previously.
More Ancestors remain in the Keeping Place at Fitzroy Crossing, returned from Australian and international museums as far back as 2008. For many the precise provenance is unclear, making it difficult for Elders to reach a consensus on where and how they should be reburied.
Wes Morris, the Chief Executive of KALACC, takes direction on the fate of these remaining Ancestors from the Elders on the KALACC Board.
‘I feel bad that these particular Ancestors have sat where they are for 14 years,’ says Morris. ‘I raised it with the [KALACC] directors last week in the hope that we might do something. The Board gave me very clear guidance to leave them exactly where they are.’
Progress is further hampered by KALACC no longer having a repatriation officer to perform the delicate and crucial role of consulting with Indigenous communities. After employing Carter since the late 1990s, paying his salary at a loss for many years, KALACC was forced to let him go in 2021.
Morris sees an absurdity in a community organisation such as KALACC providing repatriation services without having a dedicated repatriation officer. He draws parallels between the specialised knowledge required by a repatriation officer and the medical profession.
‘You wouldn’t countenance for a moment the concept of a hospital with no doctors,’ he says.
Morris doesn’t see any way of supporting further repatriation efforts until increased funding is delivered to Indigenous organisations through the Closing the Gap reforms. The Closing the Gap implementation tracker has a deadline of October 2024 for delivery of increased funding and empowerment for Indigenous organisations such as KALACC.
‘I’m essentially over repatriation until such time as codesign and empowerment comes along,’ says Morris. ‘I’m just a bit over pretending that things are okay. ‘
At the time of publication, the Kamay spears are no longer on display in the Chau Chak Wing museum, but are still at the University of Sydney for a period of private viewing by the Indigenous community. After this they will return directly to Cambridge, this time making the journey in the cargo hold of a jet rather than a tall ship. With traditional owners wary of disturbing relationships with those museums most entrenched within the vestiges of colonial power, and the unwillingness of those same museums to entertain permanent repatriation with Indigenous communities and AIATSIS, the outlook for the permanent return of the spears seems bleak.
Progress on repatriation will only be made by reform to our national institutions; beyond improved funding to Indigenous communities through delivering on Closing the Gap targets, repatriation must be front and centre to the Treaty reforms called for by the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Reconciliation demands the restoration of dignity to Ancestors through returning them to their rightful communities and Country, and the permanent return of sacred and cultural objects from which traditional owners have been dispossessed.