Spears shipped by Cook to England, return to Australia for the first time
Three spears removed from Australia by Royal Navy Lieutenant James Cook in April 1770 are on display for the first time in Sydney since they were taken. History records that the spears may have enabled Cook to be granted an audience with the King.
On 29th April 1770 dozens of spears that were used to gather food were taken from local aboriginal people who lived at Kamay (Botany Bay). Now, more than 250 years later, three of the spears are on display at the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum — on loan from the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology at University of Cambridge.
The display is located inside the main door of the Chau Chak Wing Museum, and the signage tells both sides of the story about the spears.
“[We] threw into the house to them some beads, ribbands, clothes &c. as presents and went away. We however thought it no improper measure to take away with us all the lances [spears] which we could find about the houses, amounting to forty or fifty” — Joseph Banks 28th April 1770.
“Fishing spears were important to the Dharawal people. Our old people used them every day. So, when Cook and his crew took a lot with them, our old people were unable to provide for their families until they had made new ones. Theft was an act that was strictly against our old ways, so when this happened, any chance of connecting with our old people at Kamay diminished” — Ray Ingrey, Dharawal people.
Modern spears are also on display near the three spears: “On April 29 1770, Dharawal people saw HMB Endeavour sail into Kamay (Botany Bay). During their first day there, the Endeavour voyagers removed a great quantity of spears from a campsite. The three spears displaced here are visiting Sydney for the first time since they were taken in 1770. The other 37 spears of the display were made through knowledge passed down by Dharawal men into the 21st century. Their presence is a demonstration of the continuous evolution of this important cultural practice” — Signage displayed at the Chau Chak Wing Museum.
Four spears remain today
Words displayed with the spears explains how the items were transported to England: “Only four of the 40 to 50 spears that were taken from Kamay (Botany Bay) on April 29, 1770, by HMB Endeavour officers Joseph Banks and James Cook are known to exist today. There are three that survived the voyage back to England and were given by Cook to John Montagu, the First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1771, Montagu presented the Gweagal spears to Trinity College, the University of Cambridge. They were transferred to the University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 1914.”
One small item that you might note in the display is that the date in the diaries kept on HMB Endeavour are different to the real-time date. This is because the diaries on the HMB Endeavour maintain the same date-sync with England, and didn’t reset when they arrived in the Pacific.
The spears are referred to as having ‘exceptional significance’ in a statement on the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology’s Facebook page.
Cook’s meeting with the King
But, why did Cook consider John Montagu, the First Lord of the Admiralty, important enough to be the recipient of the spears and almost 100 items collected during his trip? History records Montagu as a well-connected political and military statesman who was the Postmaster General when Cook departed for his first trip to the Pacific. After Cook gave the bounties, which included the Gweagal spears, to John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, he then presented Cook to King George III. The audience with the King was regarded as an unusual privilege for a lower ranked Royal Navy officer.
As the 1770s continued, it became apparent that Cook had high regard for the 4th Earl of Sandwich. In 1778, James Cook named a collection of Pacific islands after John Montagu — the Sandwich Islands.
The Earl of Sandwich donated the 100-object collection — including the spears — to his alma mater, Trinity College, in October of 1771. These objects now form Trinity College’s Cook-Sandwich Collection. This collection was moved to the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in two transfers — in 1914 (which included the Gweagal spears) and 1924. The collection is still held there on deposit according to research conducted by Francesca Helen Dakin. The accompanying inventory remains in Trinity College’s Wren Library.
When the spears are displayed at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, they are accompanied with this label: “When Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, arrived at Botany Bay in April 1770, men belonging to the local group, the Gweagal, threw spears and resisted their landing. After the men were shot at they retreated, and the British gathered up spears, including these. Cook later tried to trade, but acknowledged that ‘all they seem’d to want was for us to be gone’.”
An additional label states: ‘This object was collected during the first encounter between Aboriginal people and the British, when Captain James Cook landed at Botany Bay in April 1770.’
Gweagal Gararra (Gweagal Spears)
Each spear has an old label. And, for those who are interested, this is what is written on them: ‘D. 1914.3’ ‘Fish gig.’ ‘Cook collection.’ ‘Trinity College 1915.’ A sign at the bottom of the display in Sydney reveals that they are on loan: ‘MAA D 1914.2’. ‘MAA D 1914.3’. ‘MAA D 1914.4’
The spears will be exhibited in Sydney until 10th July 2022 and is part of a partnership between the University of Sydney with La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the National Museum of Australia.
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