The grass-wood spears housed at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.Louis Klee

In the Maudslay Hall of the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where vitrines on all sides teem with the spoils of empire, it is easy to miss two grass-wood spears. Yet, along with a handful of other artefacts, these spears are the material testimony from that afternoon in April, 1770, when Cooman and his companions witnessed Lieutenant Cook land at what is now called Botany Bay – that is, of the first encounter between indigenous Australians and the British Empire.

The story of this event – one charged by the calamitous history that was to follow – can be told today through many means, and one is the trajectory of these objects. Of course, Cook, as well as several members of his crew, wrote about them in his journals. This passage, marked by his disquieting syntax (“one of them took up a stone and threw it at us, which caused my firing a second musket load with small shot, and although some of the shot struck the man”), reveals that Cook and his crew took some 50 spears and other items from the shore that day. But to defer to this privileged archive belies a far more interesting approach to this history – one unfolding as I write.

Rodney Kelly, Djiringanj Dharawl knowledge-holder and direct descendent from the Gweagal warrior Cooman, learnt of these events through oral history passed down through six generations. As he puts it, “they can never tell our stories they don’t know our stories... Our stories are in our minds passed down thousands of years”.

And in part, Kelly’s telling of the story is as a maker of it. Along with several other renowned indigenous activists – Vincent Forrester, a Mutitjulu elder, and Roxley Foley, of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra – Kelly is journeying across the museums of the UK and Europe, campaigning for the repatriation of the artefacts stolen at first contact. While Kelly has fought for and achieved the endorsement of both the New South Wales Parliament and the Australian Senate, they have given him neither diplomatic nor financial support. This trip to the other side of earth, which is not just his first time outside of Australia, but also on a plane, has been financed by his followers through crowdsourcing.

Of all the surviving artefacts from first encounter, the Gweagal shield is, in the words of Michael Ingrey, “the one all the elders talk about” – and it’s not hard to understand why. At around a metre in length, this rough-hewn red mangrove-wood shield bares a single conspicuous hole at its centre. Sir Joseph Banks, one of Cook’s crew, attributes the hole to a “single pointed lance” – an explanation that Neil MacGregor, the previous director of the British Museum where the shield is held today, not only adopts in his book A History of the World in 100 Objects, but takes as a sign of the prevalent “conflict” in indigenous Australian society; that “the shield had seen action before it came up against Cook’s musket shot”.

But Kelly has a different perspective – the hole is the consequence of the first musket shot fired in what would become the conquest of indigenous Australia. As Vincent Forrester put it in London this November: “The hole in that shield is the symbol of our dispossession. The first moment of violence in a history of violence. If you look through that hole to now, to where Australia is today, you will see that dispossession”.

To look through that hole is to see not just the destruction wrought by a brutal colonial legacy – the frontier wars, the Stolen Generation – but the disgrace of contemporary Australia; it is to see the wretched catalogue of crimes and grievances; to see a country where indigenous Australians die 10 years younger than their non-indigenous compatriots; where the government has unflinchingly committed to cutting off water and electricity to hundreds of communities as a savings measure; where an indigenous child is more likely to be locked in prison – like Don Dale, where children have been subjected to abuse and torture – than to finish high school.

The significance of the Gweagal shield, then, could not be clearer. In Kelly’s words it offers “concise, poetic and irrefutable proof” that Cook did not ‘discover’ Australia as terra nullius – Australia was settled by British fusillade from the very start. Cook knew this well at that moment when, reaching the northern tip of Australia, he fired three volleys from his ship to symbolise the annexation of the eastern coast for King George III. But not just that – it attests to the presence of indigenous resistance to colonialism; a history that, as Kelly points out, has been systematically “erased from the history books.”

On 4th November, Kelly received the British Museum’s reply – the artefacts are part of a universal patrimony; millions of people can visit them in London. “The Museum is happy to consider lending the shield subject to all our normal loan considerations”. Underlying this naked display of archival power – we will decide the terms under which you access the shield of your ancestors – is perhaps an anxious acknowledgement of the truth to that old quip: there’s nothing British in the British Museum. To admit, as Kelly puts it, that “they have no title over it... it was taken by gunfire”, is to concede also to the decolonisation of a vast collection of artefacts obtained under similar circumstances.

The Cambridge museum, on the other hand, has yet to reach its final decision on the repatriation of the spears. While repatriation will not right all the wrongs of the colonial past, it will, at the very least, open a vantage from which to view this history – one in which indigenous resistance is, as it should be, in the foreground

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