Indigenous Australian delegates bring calls for repatriation and ocean defence to BP-sponsored British Museum

Last Saturday, we joined Rodney Kelly, members of ‘First Contact 1770‘ and Mirning elder Bunna Lawrie for a powerful visit to the British Museum. On display in the museum’s ‘Enlightenment’ gallery is a Gweagal shield, first carried by a man called Cooman who was part of the first group of people to encounter Captain Cook when he first landed at Botany Bay.

The shield bears a bullet hole from where Cook and his men opened fire on the local people, wounding Cooman and forcing him and the others to flee the beach. Cook then seized the shield (as well as other items) and ultimately gave it to the British Museum. This object therefore tells a powerful and important story of the violence of that first encounter.

Rodney Kelly in front of the Gweagal shield, with Mirning elder and whale song man Bunna Lawrie. Photo by Kristian Buus.

Rodney is the 6th generation direct descendant of the shield’s original owner and, on behalf of Gweagal Elders, Ancestors and People, he is calling for its return.

Yesterday, he issued a statement to the British Museum calling for them to outline their plan for repatriating the shield and other artefacts within 5 days. We’ve copied the statement below – see the First Contact 1770 page for more details.

The Gweagal shield was included in the BP-sponsored “Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation” exhibition at the British Museum last year. Most of the Indigenous communities whose items were used in the exhibition were not informed that BP would be the sponsor. We gatecrashed the press launch of that 2015 exhibition and also staged a three-hour performance occupation, calling for the return of stolen Indigenous artefacts and the end of the BP sponsorship.

Last Saturday, after viewing the shield with the delegation, Mirning elder and whale song man Bunna Lawrie performed in the museum’s Great Court, including a song dedicated to the campaign against BP’s drilling in the Great Australian Bight. The Bight is a haven and breeding ground for whales and other marine species, and is vital to the livelihoods of local communities.

Bunna Lawrie performs under a BP banner in the museum’s Great Court. Photo by Kristian Buus.

Bunna was at the forefront of the campaign against BP’s planned drilling, as part of the Great Australian Bight Alliance. Just weeks ago, BP announced its decision to ditch its plans to drill in the Bight. However, BP’s drilling partner – the Norwegian oil company Statoil – has not yet pulled out, and so Bunna has been on tour in Norway as well as the UK, to raise support for the campaign to keep the Bight oil-free.  Find out more about the Great Australian Bight Alliance here.

(Statoil are also sponsoring a new children’s gallery at the Science Museum, where members of BP or not BP? joined the Progressive Science Institute for two protests last week.)

Alongside Rodney and Bunna were Vincent Forrester, traditional elder of Mutitjulu, sacred fire keeper, Roxley Foley, other members of ‘First Contact 1770’, and Tony Boye. See here for more photos from the visit.

Roxley Foley, Vincent Forrester, Rodney Kelly and Bunna Lawrie in front of the Gweagal Shield. Photo by Kristian Buus.

Please read and share Rodney’s powerful statement below and support the call for the return of the Gweagal shield! Sign the petition and follow @sovereignmbc on Twitter for campaign updates.


October 25, 2016
Murrum of the Gweagal, Custodian of the land Kamay


Respondents :
Trustees of the British Museum
Hartwig Fischer – Director of the British Museum
Jonathan Williams – Deputy Director of the British Museum Gaye Sculthorpe – Curator of Oceania

To the British Museum,

I am Murrum of the Gweagal, custodian of the land of Kamay, sixth time great grandson of the warrior Cooman. It is with hope in my heart that I write to you. What I wish to offer is respect and the chance to help heal the wrongs of the past that have been perpetrated against my people.

My people are the original inhabitants of the Botany Bay region where Captain Cook first landed. We call it Kamay. We, the Gweagal have lived in Kamay since the dawn of time, in harmony with the land, animals and spirit with our own sovereign law and customs.

It was my ancestor, the warrior Cooman of the ancient Gweagal people whom stood on the beach that day in 1770 and opposed the landing of Cook, defending our land and people from a strange tribe. The story of Cook’s landing has been passed down through my people in our oral traditions for the past 246 years. Now for the first time, the world can see the invasion of Australia through the eyes of its Original people.

The Gweagal Shield is a gateway that has the potential to open the discourse on the tragic modern history of Indigenous Australians under colonisation. The British Museum must realise that this Sacred object still has vital and imperative cultural work to do in Australia.

The time has come for all of our artefacts to be returned. My people are suffering and our culture is dying. We need our artefacts back to bring our culture back together.

The healing power that this shield has for Aboriginal Australia is much greater than any value it can have as part of the British Museum, or any other foreign institution can never tell our stories as we can.

You don’t know our stories. Only we can tell our story. Our stories are held in our minds and in our hearts and have been passed down for thousands upon thousands of years. Our artefacts are the remnants of an ancient culture that has been decimated by the invasion of colonialism.

Our shield means very little to visitors of the British Museum. This artefact is of the utmost cultural importance to my people.

The significance of the Gweagal shield is four pronged, like our spears:

It holds significance for my family as something held by our ancestor Cooman, it has significance to the Gweagal people for the survival of our culture, it has national significance as a symbol of pride and unity to Australia’s Original People and it has significance to Australia, as a reminder of the true nature of first contact in this land and the history of its Original inhabitants.

In the 246 years since Cook’s landing, everything has changed in Australia. My people, the Original inhabitants now face horrifying youth incarceration rates, drug and alcohol epidemics, an impoverished existence, welfare dependance, loss of language, culture, ceremony and lifestyle and the industrial rape and pillaging of our sacred landscape to the point of ecological collapse and mass extinction. The finger of blame is pointed squarely at the British Empire.

As Cook astutely noted in his own diary on April 30 1770 ;

“all they seem’d to want was for us to be gone”

Since the invasion in some parts of Australia, up to 50% of the Aboriginal population is incarcerated. The drugs ice and alcohol have torn apart families and entire communities.

Today there are many, many Aboriginal people in Australia trying to find out who they are, where they come from and how to connect with their history. Because that history has been stolen from them. My people have never forgotten what happened 246 years ago and our Elders still speak today.

It is a core part of Aboriginal belief that artefacts must be kept on the country they came from, as they form a part of the ongoing story of that place. It is a part of our culture that our artefacts and tools of survival are left on the ground to be picked up as needed.

The British Museum must recognise the strong connection between Aboriginal people, their land and their artefacts and that the Gweagal people and their descendants are the rightful and lawful owners of all artefacts produced on their territory, including the shield and spears held in the British Museum and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Why these artefacts are so important to the Gweagal people of Botany Bay is that we were the first Original Australian people to have contact with the British and we were the first to lose our culture and language. We haven’t practiced our culture for many years. It’s slowly returning to us word by word, artefact by artefact. We are slowly regaining our culture and our language. To us, our artefacts are not just a tool. They are who we are.

246 years from that day that Cook stole my ancestor’s shield and invaded Australia and we’ve lost so much since that day.

I hope that one day the rich history and culture of Kamay (Botany Bay) can be revived again. Be brought back to life and be taught to our kids and to our family members. I hope to bring my ancient Gweagal culture back to life one day and I hope to see all Gweagal artefacts returned to our custodianship on our land to help us achieve this.

It saddens me to know that today, our culture is dying. Without our artefacts our culture will die. We need our culture back. We need our artefacts back to rejuvenate the pride in our youth who are incarcerated and committing suicide in epidemic proportions. My People are subject to genocide, racism, incarceration and poverty. We need to be proud of who we are.

The Gweagal shield has the power to rewrite Australia’s history and heal its People. My only hope is that maybe one day my family my tribe could speak our tongue, speak our language and practice our culture again. I hope we can one day go out and make spears and take our young ones out and show them how it was done before white men came to our shores. All our are stories passed down generation to generation, they tell us who we are, tell me who I am.

For the people of the Botany Bay region, our artefacts represent who we and are where we come from. They are symbolic of our tribe trying to piece our stolen culture back together. The Sacred objects and artefacts held in British collections would bring pride and culture into the people of Botany Bay who have lost so much since the British invaded our land in 1770. My family were the first to be in contact and when you come to my tribe you really see what has happened and what has been lost since the British invasion of 1770.

History is always written by the conquerer. What has not been told is the version of events as told by My People. Our history. That story is being told now by me. For my people. I am speaking to you on behalf of my Elders and my tribe.

April 28 1770. The first musket round ever fired over Australian soil rang out across what would come to be known as Botany Bay, announcing the arrival of the British Empire. That first shot put a hole in a wooden shield held by my ancestor, one of the first indigenous Australians ever sighted by a white man. It was the day that changed Australia forever. For my people, it was a change for the worst.

If we could bring this shield home to Sydney it would have immensely greater significance than being displayed here in London. It would be something that the Australian people could really learn from about the true history of Australia. It deserves to be at home and the British Museum should not be threatened by this.

I am more than happy to keep the commitments that the British museum has for loaning this shield on tour. But this Shield and all other Australian artefacts and Sacred objects belong in Australia. We want to develop a relationship with the British museum and other institutions where we have the communities themselves telling the true stories of our artefacts and that’s something the British museum can benefit from. We can help revolutionise your collections and help them to become something much greater.

It is hard for me not to be insulted by your haphazard display of my family’s Sacred object. Our shield very much deserves to be at home where it can help repair our history and start telling the true story of Botany Bay, where modern Australia started and started to go wrong. That is where we are going to get the greatest amount of healing, by understanding our history and that’s not going to happen in England, it’s going to happen in Australia. It’s our story to tell not yours.

When it returns back home you will see the immense pride we will have in our shield.

It is the will of the Gweagal people that our shield, artefacts and Sacred objects be on display in our own Living Cultural Heritage Museum at Kurnell (Botany Bay) where our people can see them, so our stories can be told, and be told from our perspective.

My ancestors shield has significance to the land of Kamay, where it belongs. We want our shield back home and to see it like this in a display case, haphazardly displayed amidst so many unrelated objects is extremely insulting. This is the crown jewel of Aboriginal Australia. Aboriginal people have great pride in this shield. It is a symbol of our strength, a symbol of our pride and a symbol of our resistance to the colonialism that has destroyed our country, our people and our way of life. It is not right for it to be sitting in the institution of a foreign power that has done so much damage to our people, our land and our culture. It belongs at home where it can perform the task of regenerating the dying culture of my people.

The Gweagal shield and spears were only acquired after the owners of them were shot. They were stolen in an unlawful act that contravened both the British & Gweagal law of the time. The Gweagal did not give Cook or his crew these artefacts. They are spoils of war. They do not belong to the British or in Britain, they belong home in Australia on Gweagal land under custodianship of the Gweagal People.

Cook was under instructions from the Admiralty to:

“observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives, if there be any and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them,”

On the day he shot my ancestor he broke those instructions. It was the first of many unlawful acts.

All of the artefacts stolen from Kamay in 1770 by Cook and the crew of the Endeavour must be returned to the Gweagal people from whom they were stolen who are the rightful owners.


Our wish as the Gweagal people is to have all our artefacts including the Gweagal Shield & Spears repatriated into a new living cultural heritage museum at Kamay (Botany Bay) before April 28 2020, the 250th anniversary of Cook’s invasion.

This living cultural heritage museum will form the centrepiece in the revival of the Gweagal culture & customs and educate Original and non Original Australians about the ancient cultures of Australia and the true nature of the British invasion of Australia.

The NSW Legislative council and the Australian Federal Senate have supported the repatriation of all Gweagal artefacts and Sacred objects to Gweagal territory under the custodianship of the Gweagal People.

Both of the above institutions have passed motions saying that the Gweagal people are the rightful owners of all artefacts made on Gweagal territory or in possession by the Gweagal people.

By Australian law, we are the legal owners of all of our artefacts so it’s time for Britain to understand that and hand them over. It’s not just me asking for this, it is all of Australia asking for these artefacts back.

It is the will of the Gweagal clan to house all Gweagal artefacts and Sacred objects in our own living cultural heritage museum at Kamay (Botany Bay) immediately.

Your trustees have no jurisdiction whatsoever to decide the fate of my people, our culture, our artefacts or our sacred objects. We are the trustees, the lawful and truthful custodians of our culture, our artefacts or our sacred objects.

We await your response detailing your plan for repatriating all Gweagal Sacred objects and artefacts within 5 business days.

Signed this 25th Day of October 2016

On behalf of Gweagal Elders, Ancestors and People, past, present and future

Murrum of the Gweagal

(Rodney Keith Kelly)

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