Aboriginal spears stolen by Captain Cook returned to Australia by Trinity College Cambridge

  • ITV News Anglia's Matthew Hudson reports from Cambridge on a historic day

Four Aboriginal spears stolen from indigenous villagers during Captain James Cook's first contact with Australia more than 250 years ago have been returned to their rightful owners.

The weapons, which were taken in 1770 when HMB Endeavour arrived at Kamay (Botany Bay), "were undoubtedly taken without permission" after those living there tried to stop the crew landing.

Cook is believed to have shot at two men, forcing them to withdraw, according to the National Museum of Australia.

The repatriation feeds into the ongoing debate about how museums and other institutions should deal with artefacts acquired or funded through slavery and colonialism.

The spears - four of a total of 40 stolen from the Gweagal people - were presented to the University of Cambridge's Trinity College in 1771 by Lord Sandwich, along with other materials from Cook's voyage across the Pacific.

At a ceremony at Trinity College on Tuesday, the spears were permanently repatriated to the La Perouse Aboriginal Community.

Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity College, said: "This is the right decision and Trinity is committed to reviewing the complex legacies of the British empire, not least in our collections."

An inquiry set up in 2019 by Cambridge University found it had received "significant benefits" from slavery.

Known as the Gweagal Spears, they are named after the Gweagal clan of the Dharawal Nation who lived in the south-east of Australia in the area now known as the Sydney Basin in New South Wales.

Gweagal people still use similar multi-pronged fishing spears.

Elders first began campaigning for the return of the artefacts 20 years ago and, following years of negotiations, a formal repatriation request was made in December 2022 from the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Gujaga Foundation.

Noeleen Timbery, from La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, said: "[The spears] are an important connection to our past, our traditions, and cultural practices, and to our ancestors.

"Our Elders have worked for many years to see their ownership transferred to the traditional owners of Botany Bay.

"Many of the families within the La Perouse Aboriginal Community are descended from those who were present during the eight days the Endeavour was anchored in Kamay in 1770.”

Prof Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, described the spears as "exceptionally significant" and said returning them to Australia would only increase that significance.

"They are the first artefacts collected by the British from any part of Australia that remain extant and documented," he explained.

"They reflect the beginnings of a history of misunderstanding and conflict. Their significance will be powerfully enhanced through return to country."

Grappling with a colonial past

The spears are the latest artefacts to be returned to their country of origin having been taken as part of Britain's colonial history.

  • In 2022, Cambridge University agreed to return 116 Benin artefacts held at its Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. They were part of a large collection of sculptures looted during the sacking of Benin City in 1897.

  • The Horniman Museum in south London returned its collection of Benin bronzes to Nigeria in 2022.

  • Clare College in Cambridge decided to rename an accommodation building from The Colony to Castle Court because "the informal name for the site...has connotations which do not reflect the values of college".

  • Jesus College Cambridge asked if it could move a memorial to Tobias Rustiat, who invested in the slave trade, was turned down by the Diocese of Ely.

  • Attempts by the Greek government to convince the UK to return the Elgin Mables have so far been successful. The sculptures were controversially taken from the Parthenon at Athens in the early 19th century and are now held at the British Museum.

Read more: What are the Elgin Marbles and why are they in the British Museum?

The Elgin Marbles are held by the British Museum

Speaking on behalf of the Australian government, Linda Burney, Minister for Indigenous Australians, said the return of the spears would have "a lasting positive impact on future generations", adding: "The return of the Gweagal Spears is a significant step forward on the journey towards reconciliation and truth-telling."

The spears are being permanently repatriated to Australia following two temporary loans in 2015 and 2020.

They will be displayed at a new visitor centre which is to be built at Kurnell, Kamay. In the meantime, at the request of the La Perouse Aboriginal Community, they will be cared for by the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney.

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