Aboriginal spears snatched by British in 1770 returns to Australia

April 25, 2024 - 4:52 PM
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The surviving Kamay spears were given to Cambridge's Trinity College in 1771.(Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge)

 Four spears taken from Australia by a British explorer more than 250 years ago will be returned by Cambridge University to descendants of the indigenous community which crafted them, in the latest high-profile repatriation of artefacts.

The four spears are all that remains of the 40 or so which James Cook and his team took from the Gweagal people on their arrival in Australia in 1770, when they became the first known Europeans to reach the country’s east coast.

Indigenous people from across the globe have battled for years to recover works pillaged by explorers and colonizers, and they are finally receiving some of the treasures back at a time when Western institutions are grappling with the cultural legacies of empire.

Benin Bronzes have been returned to Nigeria by Germany and British organizations, while the Netherlands has handed back precious stones, silver and gold jewelry to its former Asian colonies, Sri Lanka and Bali.

The Gweagal people’s multi-pronged wooden spears have been part of the University of Cambridge’s collection since 1771, when they were presented to Trinity College, where it was returned in a ceremony on Tuesday.

It comes seven years after an initial request was refused, partly over concerns about housing and conserving the spears.

“Our Elders have worked for many years to see their ownership transferred to the traditional owners of Botany Bay,” Noeleen Timbery from the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council said in a statement.

“They (the spears) are an important connection to our past, our traditions, and cultural practices, and to our ancestors.”

Despite momentum swinging in favor of repatriating objects in recent years, some campaigns continue to meet resistance, most famously Greece’s bid for the Parthenon sculptures.

Athens has long called on the British Museum to permanently return the 2,500-year-old sculptures that British diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon temple in 1806. The museum has said it would consider a loan to Greece only if Athens acknowledges the museum’s ownership of the sculptures.

While resolution seems some way off in the Parthenon case, Cambridge could return further items. Trinity College said it was committed to reviewing the complex legacies of the British empire, particularly in its collections.

— Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Stephen Coates