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Return of the Gweagal Spears to the La Perouse Aboriginal Community

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

Ray Ingrey, Gujaga Foundation Director carrying Eucalyptus at the start of the ceremony. Photo: Jenny Magee

Trinity College and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) 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 were taken by James Cook and Joseph Banks at the time of the first contact between the crew of the HMB Endeavour and the Indigenous people of Kamay (Botany Bay). The spears are all that remain of 40 spears which 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 MAA in Cambridge.

The Wren Library inventory including the spears. Photo: Jenny Magee

Trinity College’s decision 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.

Community representatives Quaiden Riley Williams and David Johnson at the ceremony. Photo: Jenny Magee

The strong 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 (NMA), 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 which is to be built at Kurnell, Kamay. In the meantime, 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.

Today’s ceremony in the Wren Library was attended by members of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community; the Australian Government; the MAA, University of Cambridge; AIATSIS; and the NMA. It included readings from the Voyage Journals of James Cook and Joseph Banks as well as statements by representatives of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community.

Noeleen Timbery of La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council said of the spears:

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, La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council. Photo: Jenny Magee

David Johnson, a member of the Gweagal Clan of the Dharawal nation and a direct descendent of one of the men who opposed Cook’s landing, described that encounter from the perspective of the community in Kamay.

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 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.

Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity said:

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. We are delighted to be able to return the Gweagal Spears to the La Perouse Aboriginal Community. 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.

Back row: Ray Ingrey, Nicholas Thomas, Leonard Hill, Ben Maguire. Front row: Dame Sally Davies, Noeleen Timbery, Stephen Smith. Photo: Jenny Magee

Read the speeches by Noeleen Timbery and David Johnson.

Coverage of the ceremony by broadcast media including Reuters, Australian television channels and regional UK media: 

Cambridge University returns snatched Aboriginal spears | REUTERS – YouTube

Spears taken by Captain Cook have been returned to Traditional Owners | ABC News – YouTube

Cambridge University Returns Gweagal Spears to Australia | 10 News First – YouTube

Indigenous spears returned to Australia by UK museum – YouTube

Aboriginal spears stolen by Captain Cook returned to Australia by Trinity College Cambridge | ITV News Anglia


Selected BBC coverage: 

Cambridge college returns 18th Century Aboriginal spears – BBC News

Why did Trinity College repatriate Aboriginal spears to Australia? – BBC News

The Today programme (starts at 2:42 mins)


The announcement of the return in March 2023 as reported by 7News in Australia

Australian aboriginal spears at Cambridge University’s Trinity College to be returned to Sydney – YouTube

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