The Gweagal shield (photo © The Trustees of the British Museum)

Captain James Cook’s very first contact with Indigenous Australians in 1770 resulted in gunshots, the throwing of spears, and the theft of one Aboriginal warrior’s shield carved from bark, which eventually ended up in the collection of the British Museum. A gift from either Cook or Joseph Banks (a botanist on that voyage of the HMS Endeavor), the so-called Gweagal shield is usually on view in the permanent collection galleries at the museum, which owns the largest public collection of Aboriginal objects outside of Australia. At its center is a small, pierced hole — what some Indigenous Australians claim is a foreboding mark of imperial aggression, left by a bullet Cook fired that struck the leg of the shield-bearer, a warrior named Cooman.

Nearly 250 years later, the sixth-generation descendent of the shield’s original owner is calling for its return home, on behalf of the people of his Gweagal clan and their ancestors who fought Cook’s crew on that historic day. Rodney Kelly has been attempting, for over a year now, to negotiate with the British Museum for the repatriation of his forebear’s ancient armor, along with other Aboriginal artifacts. Although he met with trustees last October, little progress has been made. So, on Sunday, he gave a series of rogue lectures at the institution to make his claim in a more vocal and visible way, describing to visitors the shield’s significance and why it shouldn’t reside outside of its homeland. Kelly was supported by activist group BP or Not BP?, which has staged many protests against BP’s various sponsorship deals with cultural institutions in the United Kingdom.

A 19th-century engraving shows members of the Gweagal tribe opposing the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1770. (public domain image)

“The shield is the symbol of our resistance,” Kelly told Hyperallergic. “It proves that the notion of terra nullius is wrong, and it can teach so much history. It could be the start of many indigenous peoples around the world claiming back their history and culture so that they can teach and show people their history.”

Last April, the British Museum offered to display the shield in Australia on a loan, but the Gweagal clan will only accept its permanent return. In August, New South Wales’s Parliament passed a motion acknowledging the clan as the shield’s rightful owners; two months later, Australia’s Senate followed suit. Kelly is hoping that the shield, if returned, will go on display in a museum in Sydney, but he ideally would want to fundraise to build an indigenous museum.

No museum will ever show our culture like we would,” he told Hyperallergic. “[Museums] need to work more closely with community members whose family are the original people from that area. Items like the shield just get lost when they’re in general museum collections — the British Museum’s display didn’t properly tell the rich history behind it.”

The museum, he said, makes key decisions about the shield without consulting the Gweagal people. One of its most offensive moves occurred in 2015, when it displayed the object in a major exhibition sponsored by BP, which was then pushing to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight. Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation, organized in collaboration with the National Museum of Australia (which later hosted a version of it), was a landmark exhibition of artifacts from its collection that represented many different indigenous communities from Australia and the Torres Strait Islands. Only two, however, were informed that the oil giant was funding the show, as the Guardian reported. BP or Not BP? protested that exhibition twice, creating symbolic oil spills to highlight the company’s history of making deals that directly threaten the lives of indigenous peoples around the world. 

Most recently, the British Museum also removed the Gweagal shield from its display case for study without alerting Kelly’s family. Kelly learned of its public disappearance only through an acquaintance who had visited the museum. A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that representatives from the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council had requested that the museum undertake further scientific analysis and historical research into the shield, and it communicated that information to Kelly. Kelly, however, maintains that neither party consulted him about this decision. The British Museum spokesperson added: “When the research is complete the British Museum will be in touch with the La Perouse community, Rodney Kelly, and other interested parties.”

Rodney Kelly and Indigenous Mirning elder Bunna Lawrie visiting the Gweagal shield in October 2016 (photo by Kristian Buus)

The shield, with its hole, is a powerful symbol for many people of both colonial violence and indigenous self-defense. To some, it’s particularly significant as a material trace of the very first shots fired by Europeans on Australian soil. The source of that small aperture, however, is disputed: the museum’s object record describes it as a “pierced hole near center,” alluding to beliefs that it was punctured not by a bullet but by a spear. (It also lists the shield as “possibly obtained on Captain Cook’s first voyage” and”found/acquired: Botany Bay.”) Banks, who witnessed the conflict, wrote the following in his journals:

We saw, however, at Botany Bay, a shield or target of an oblong shape, about three feet long, and eighteen inches broad, which was made of the bark of a tree: this was fetched out of a hut by one of the men that opposed our landing, who when he ran away, left it behind him, and upon taking it up, we found that it had been pierced through with a single pointed lance near the center.

No matter the cause of its damage, the shield was taken by Cook or one of his crewmen following their burst of gunfire, which forced the Gweagal warriors to retreat on their own land. Cook’s vessel remained in the bay for about a week, during which time his crew collected plant and animal specimens to bring back to England.

Among their loot was the Gweagal shield — and, as Kelly found out in an astonishing discovery last November, it may not be the only one taken during that fateful first encounter. While on a campaign through Europe to urge the repatriation of indigenous artifacts, he found that Berlin’s Ethnological Museum holds another shield whose handwritten, 18th-century catalogue entry connected it to Cook’s 1770 visit to Botany Bay. Its curators invited him to examine it, and Kelly became the first aboriginal man to hold it in two centuries. Writing about the experience online, Kelly noted that the museum treated him with respect, and was open to conversations about building relationships with Indigenous Australians to respectfully display such artifacts in the approrpiate cultural contexts.

“To go from the British Museum, where I could only view the shield behind glass, and then holding the identical shield in Berlin was amazing, so powerful,” Kelly told Hyperallergic. “I’ve never felt like that before. It was the most amazing day. I could feel my ancestors with me.”

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...