Cambridge University to return Aboriginal spears brought back from Australia by Captain Cook

020323 ANGLIA aboriginal spears
Credit: Cambridge University
The four multi-pronged fishing spears were brought to England more than 250 years ago. Credit: Cambridge University

Aboriginal spears brought to England by the famous explorer Captain James Cook more than 250 years ago are to be returned to Australia by Cambridge University.

Four of the multi-pronged fishing spears were given to Trinity College after the British explorers took 40 of them from a local camp belonging to the Gweagal people.

The indigenous Australians resisted Captain Cook's men after they landed at Kamay, otherwise known as Botany Bay, in 1770.

The four spears, later transferred to Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), are regarded by the Gweagal as national treasures.

Campaigners have long called for their repatriation to Australia, where Gweagal people still use similar multi-pronged fishing spears.

Captain James Cook is famous for his exploration of the Pacific and particularly New Zealand and Australia

Trinity College has agreed to permanently return the four spears to the La Perouse Aboriginal community after a formal repatriation request was made in December.

La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council chairperson Noeleen Timbery welcomed the repatriation of the spears and described them as "enormously significant artefacts to the La Perouse Aboriginal community".

"They are an important connection to our past, our traditions and cultural practices, and to our ancestors," she said.

Dame Sally Davies, master of Trinity College, said it was the "right decision" to return the spears.

The college is seeking approval for the transfer of legal title from the Charity Commission, and it is hoped the spears will be returned within months.

Trinity College seen from across the river Cam Credit: PA Images

Lord Sandwich of the British Admiralty presented the four spears to Trinity College soon after Captain Cook returned to England on the HMB Endeavour.

They have been part of the college's collection since 1771, and from 1914 were cared for by the MAA.

The four spears are all that remain of the original 40 spears.

Trinity College's decision to return the spears follows a decade of talks between the MAA and the Aboriginal community at La Perouse.

Prof Nicholas Thomas, director of the MAA, said the spears were "exceptionally significant", adding: "They are the first artefacts collected by any European from any part of Australia, that remain extant and documented.

"They reflect the beginnings of a history of misunderstanding and conflict.

"Their significance will be powerfully enhanced through return to (the) country."

There are plans for the artefacts to be displayed at a new visitor centre being built at Kurnell, Botany Bay.

Some of the spears were returned temporarily to Australia in 2015, and again in 2020, for the first time since they were taken by Captain Cook, and displayed by the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, as part of two exhibitions exploring frontier encounters.

Last year, Cambridge University agreed to return 116 artefacts including Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

The items, mainly made of brass but also some ivory and wooden objects, were taken by British armed forces during the sacking of Benin City in 1897.

Last year, the Horniman Museum agreed to return ownership of 72 treasured artefacts to Nigeria, including its Benin Bronzes, Credit: Cambridge University

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…