‘National Treasure’ comes home: Gweagal spears taken by Cook to return permanently to traditional owners

Posted on: March 19, 2023 by

The fate of four Aboriginal spears taken by the crew of the HM Bark Endeavour in 1770 now rests with the English Charity Commission, after Trinity College Cambridge decided to seek approval to permanently return the items from its Cook-Sandwich collection to Traditional Owners in Australia.

The contested Gweagal Spears at Trinity College, Cambridge

The hunting spear and pronged fishing spears were amongst 40 spears and a wooden shield taken from the Gweagal People of the Dharawal Nation by Lieutenant James Cook’s men during their first encounters at Kamay Botany Bay.

Exhibition botanist Joseph Banks described in the ship’s Journal how the crew took away with them ‘all the lances which we could find’, after their landing party was resisted by two Gweagal men, and left behind beads, ribbons and cloth ‘as presents’.

On return to England, the Gweagal Spears were presented to Trinity College Cambridge by Cook’s sponsor Lord Sandwich.  The shield is believed to have been donated to the British Museum.

After decades of advocacy and an unsuccessful repatriation application in 2017, a formal request for the spears’ return by the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council in December 2022 has been approved.

Trinity College confirmed its decision to permanently return the spears to their Traditional Owners in a statement on 2 March 2023.

Trinity College, University of Cambridge

Cambridge University colleges and museums are able to seek approval from the UK Charity Commission under sections 105 and 106 of the Charities Act 2011 (UK) to de-accession objects from their collections if such an act is expedient in the interests of the charity or ‘in response to a morally-compelling claim for restitution’ [1].

Dharawal Elder Dr Shayne Williams called the spears ‘our national treasure’ that holds ‘immeasurable value as powerful, tangible connections between our forebears and ourselves’.

Of the 40 spears that left Gweagal Country 253 years ago, only four remain.

Australia’s First Nations peoples have suffered such prolonged and systematic cultural decimation that objects like these spears are seen as critically important in enabling tradition and cultural knowledge to continue to be shared with future generations.

Dr Williams paid tribute to ‘the respectfulness of Trinity College in returning these spears back to our community’, where he said ‘these priceless artefacts can now be utilised for cultural education by the Aboriginal community into the future’.

The Master of Trinity College, Dame Sally Davies, said that seeking repatriation was ‘the right decision’ and that Trinity was committed ‘to addressing the complex legacies of the British Empire, not least in our collections’.

A 2016 request to repatriate the spears, made by a different applicant, was previously refused by the University of Cambridge in 2017 on the basis that:

“1. The request contains no clear proposal for housing and conserving the spears if they were to be returned;

2. There is no commitment by an Australian institution to care for the spears;

3. Removing parts of the Cook-Sandwich collection, which is of great historical, scientific and educational importance nationally and internationally, would cause considerable harm by depriving the collection of its integrity;

4. It is very important that any request for a change to the current situation of the spears should be made only after full consultation with accredited representatives of the Gweagal people, and on terms which command their support.”

This  development in the spears’ case may make it harder for other UK museums to continue to resist calls for the return of other Aboriginal artefacts, like the Gweagal Shield, on the grounds of maintaining the integrity of colonial collections’ or world education.

The Gweagal Spears are a powerful example of what can be gained for both museums and Traditional Owners through collaboration to share knowledge and repatriate artefacts with tangible and intangible cultural heritage attributes for living cultures.

Previously, the spears have been displayed on loan at the National Museum in Australia’s capital in 2015 and 2020 and at the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum in 2022.

Pending a decision by the Charity Commission for England and Wales, it is anticipated that the spears will eventually be displayed at a new Visitor Centre currently under construction at Kurnell.


Notes: [1] See Alexander Herman, ‘Museums, Restitution and the New Charities Act’ (2022) Art Antiquity and Law Journal, August 2022, Number 27, Issue 3, pp. 193-211 (p. 196).

Image credits:

The Gweagal Spears courtesy of Trinity College and University of Cambridge’s Press Association

The Great Court at Trinity College via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0