Dharawal spears and shield

As Chairman of the Tourism and Transport Forum (TTF) and former MP for the federal seat of Cook (Hon Bruce Baird AM) told parliament on 14 March 2002, history relates that the first exchange between the crew of the Endeavour and the local Dharawal people was not a happy one. In fact, it involved hostilities: spears or darts being thrown and warning shots fired from a musket. Cook’s first experiences in Australia and this momentous meeting between two cultures took place at Kurnell on the shores of Botany Bay.  See also speech by Scott Morrison MP, federal MP for Cook.

Unfortunately, despite the initial meeting’s importance and the importance of the further, more peaceful, contact that was made during the week that the Endeavour remained in the area, there is a lack of solid information about these instances in the history of black and white relations in Australia. Conversely, we have a wealth of material on the plant and animal species that were encountered over these days.

Mr Baird, working with Australian journalist John Mulcair, revealed to the Australian public that there might be more relics from this initial encounter than the notes in the ship’s logs and drawings. It appears that the crew of the Endeavour were also able to take a number of fishing spears, hunting spears and bark shields with them back to Britain for study. For obvious reasons, the whereabouts of these relics are of considerable interest to their traditional owners.

As Mr Baird told the parliament, their symbolism also makes them of interest to Australian society at large.

The campaign by Messrs. Baird and Mulcair ran into difficulties over the precise location of the artefacts as well as the sensitivities of raising the issue at the same time that Australia was trying to secure the return of various indigenous human remains from the British Museum in London.

Following research done by journalist John Mulcair, the relics have been located in a history museum that is run by Trinity College at Cambridge University. While initial informal approaches to that museum made by Councillor Dawn Emerson of the Sutherland Shire Councilfor the return of the spears have been rejected by the college, there have been some encouraging indications that a more formal approach could be acceptable.

As Bruce Baird told parliament,

“If an approach was made by a major museum or institution, if it had the full support of the original owners, if it did not request the return of all the relics and if it was proposed as a ‘permanent loan’ rather than a direct return, the request might be successful.”

Notwithstanding the considerable compromises involved in these conditions, Aboriginal academics such as Trish Albert (author of ‘Plenty Stories’, a publication of the Australian National Museum) believe that the benefits of having these relics on display in Australia clearly outweigh any benefit of their being left in Britain, where many of them are not even on display.

(source acknowledgement: Hon Bruce Baird AM, Commonwealth Parliament Hansard)