Remains of Empire: Trinity College to return spears taken by James Cook from Australian Aboriginal Nation

The spears were taken in 1770 from the Gweagal clan that inhabited the south shore of Botany Bay, Sydney

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Thursday 02 March 2023
James Cook and his men land on the shores of Botany Bay on April 29, 1770. Two Aboriginal spear-wielding men are seen in the background. Painting by E Phillips Fox via Wikimedia Commons

The prestigious Trinity College, part of the University of Cambridge, will return four spears taken by explorer James Cook to the descendants of an Aboriginal Nation, over 250 years after they were taken.

The spears were taken by the then Lieutenant James Cook April 29, 1770 from Kamay, also known as Botany Bay, which lies at the entrance of Sydney Harbour during the first contact between the crewmen of the HMS Endeavour (commandeered by Cook) and the local indigenous people.

Endeavour was the first European vessel to anchor on Australia’s eastern coast.

“James 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 James Cook returned to England on the HMS Endeavour and they have been part of their collection since 1771,” a statement by the National Musuem of Australia dated March 2, 2023, stated.

The spears belonged to the Gweagal, who occupied the south shore of Botany Bay at the time of Cook’s landing. They are a clan of the larger Dharawal Aboriginal Nation.

Local Aboriginal groups had campaigned for years for the return of the spears. A formal request to repatriate the spears was made by the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Gujaga Foundation in December last year. La Perouse is a suburb of Sydney.

Spears collected at Kamay (Botany Bay), 1770

Trinity College finally agreed to return the spears after the request was made. The spears, which hold spiritual importance for the Gweagal clan, have been cared for by Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology since 2014.

The College will now approach the UK’s Charity Commission to obtain approval for transferring the spears to Australia.

The statement said the spears could return to Australia within months where they will be displayed by the La Perouse community at a new Visitor Centre being built at Kurnell, Botany Bay.

It quoted La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council chairperson, Noeleen Timbery, who said the spears would be preserved for future generations:

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.

Cook, born in rural Yorkshire in the north of England, is one of the most well-known names in the pantheon of English and British navigators, explorers and seamen.

During his three voyages between 1768 and 1779, he mapped and charted the coastlines of large parts of newly-discovered areas in Oceania, including Australia and North America.

On January 26, 1788, the ‘First Fleet’, a flotilla of British ships travelling from England reached the waters of Port Jackson, the harbour of Sydney, with express orders to find a British penal colony in what is now Australia. The settlement grew into Sydney, Australia’s largest city and the colony is today the state of New South Wales.

As for Cook, he died in a violent clash with Native Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay in 1779.

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