Last year marked 250 years since the arrival of the HMS Endeavour in Botany Bay - 250 years since the first encounter on the east coast between the British and the first Australians. Perhaps the most familiar renderings of that moment are the nineteenth century representations of two Aboriginal warriors on the shore, portrayed as holding various weapons, challenging the approaching crew.
Historical accounts suggest the two men retreated after the landing party fired muskets at them. One of the men, the Gweagal warrior Cooman, allegedly dropped a shield after he was shot in the leg. Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist aboard the Endeavour, wrote:
.. a man who attempted to oppose our landing came down to the beach with a shield of an oblong shape about 3 feet long and 11/2 broad made of the bark of a tree; this he left behind when he ran away and we found upon taking it up that it plainly had been pierced through with a single pointed lance near the centre.
An artefact generally fitting Banks' description remains in the British Museum's collection today. Although its provenance cannot be conclusively demonstrated, some consider it to be the same shield described by Banks. Regardless of its precise origins, the shield holds historical and cultural significance to Aboriginal people as an example of traditional weaponry and workmanship. It is also a symbol of resistance and of survival; one that retains a contemporary, deeply felt connection to a living culture.
In addition, four spears taken by Cook's crew after that early encounter are housed at Cambridge University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, on permanent loan from Trinity College.
I support the calls of Rodney Kelly (a direct descendant of Cooman) and others to have these objects returned to Australia. I have contacted both overseas institutions urging them to facilitate the repatriation. This would give young Aboriginal people more opportunities to connect with their culture; allow for the traditional owners of these objects to have co-authority and a say in their care; and enliven our children's understanding of their country's ancient heritage.
The British Museum has held the shield for more than 200 years-longer than the Rosetta Stone or the Parthenon Marbles. The shield may not have the grandeur of some of the museum's other acquisitions, but its importance to our nation's first people cannot be overstated.