Trinity College has agreed to return four Aboriginal spears to the La Perouse Aboriginal community.
Following a decision by the College Council, Trinity is now approaching the Charity Commission to seek approval to transfer legal title of the spears to the La Perouse Aboriginal community.
The spears were taken by Lieutenant James Cook from Kamay (Botany Bay) in 1770, at the time of first contact between the crew of the HMB Endeavour and the Aboriginal people of eastern Australia.
James Cook recorded that 40 spears were taken from the camps of Aboriginal people living at Botany Bay in April that year, without their consent.
Lord Sandwich of the British Admiralty presented four of these spears to Trinity soon after Cook’s return to England and they have been part of the College collection since 1771. Since 1914 Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) has been custodian of the four spears.
The College’s decision follows the establishment of a respectful and robust relationship over the last decade between the University of Cambridge and the Aboriginal community at La Perouse. Discussions included representatives of the local Gweagal people – the Aboriginal group from whom the spears were taken – the broader Dharawal Nation and leading community organisations, including the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Gujaga Foundation.
La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council chairperson, Noeleen Timbery said the spears would be preserved for future generations where they belonged. She said:
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. 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.
Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity, 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.
The relationship between Cambridge and La Perouse will continue through collaborative research projects and community visits, once the spears have been returned.
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 show how traditional knowledge has been passed down, while adapting to new technologies.
After years of campaigning by local Aboriginal people, the decision by Trinity followed a formal repatriation request in December 2022, from the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Gujaga Foundation.
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. We look forward to extending the partnership into the future.
The spears are exceptionally significant. 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.
It is hoped the spears will return to Australia and 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. At the request of the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, the National Museum of Australia in Canberra will temporarily house and care for the spears until the Visitor Centre at Kurnell is ready to receive them.
In 2015 and again in 2020, some of the spears were returned temporarily to Australia and displayed in the National Museum as part of two exhibitions exploring frontier encounters.
The spears will be permanently repatriated with the assistance of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).
Dharawal Elder, Dr Shayne Williams said:
These 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 spears into the future.
Leonard Hill, Acting CEO Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), said:
AIATSIS is 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.
National Museum of Australia director, Dr Mathew Trinca, said the Museum was delighted to have played a 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 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.