Captain Cook and His Crew Stole These Spears. Centuries Later, They’re Finally Back in Sydney

The artifacts are on display alongside modern spears created by the descendants of the Indigenous Dharawal people

Four Kamay spears
Three spears have returned to southeastern Australia for the first time and are being displayed at the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum. Courtesy of the University of Cambridge, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

When British explorer James Cook and the crew of his H.M.B. Endeavour first landed in southeastern Australia in 1770, they stole 40 spears from the region’s Gweagal people. It was the opening salvo of Britain’s brutal colonization of the continent, and for the next 250 years, some of the spoils of the expedition remained housed at the University of Cambridge in England, more than 10,000 miles away from Australia.

Earlier this month, three of the four surviving spears finally returned home—at least temporarily. In a move hailed as a historic reunion, the weapons are being displayed next to 37 contemporary Indigenous spears at the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum.

Gweagal families have continued making the spears for generations. Now, their modern handicrafts are on view alongside their ancestors’ historic spears. Per a statement, the exhibition’s collection of old and new spears represents the 40 taken by the Endeavour’s crew.

“We’re putting that up side by side and showing that this is a continuing practice, it’s a continuing and very much alive culture,” Noeleen Timbery, chairwoman of the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, tells the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Cameron Gooley.

British explorer James Cook in front of ships
British explorer James Cook and his crew stole 40 spears from the Gweagal people after landing on the Australian continent in 1770. Over 250 years later, three of the four surviving spears have returned to southeastern Australia for the first time.  Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The theft took place on April 29, 1770, after Cook and his men landed in Kamay, a region now called Botany Bay. There, they encountered members of a clan of the Dharawal people known as Gweagals. The Gweagal men were armed with spears, which they shook at the intruders. When they refused to stand down, Cook’s party shot at them.

After the Gweagal men retreated, Cook’s party stole the spears from their homes.

“We … thought it no improper measure to take away with us all the lances which we could find about the houses, amounting in number to forty or fifty,” wrote explorer Joseph Banks in his journal, now housed at the State Library of New South Wales.

In total, the explorers spent eight days in Kamay, collecting plants and replenishing supplies before continuing northward up the coast.

As Dan Butler writes for National Indigenous Television (NITV), the spears were used for fishing and were “essential for Gweagal people’s food gathering.” In 1768, Britain’s Royal Society and Royal Navy selected Cook, a naval officer and skilled cartographer, to lead an expedition of more than 90 men to the Pacific Ocean.

Though the Royal Society’s stated goal for the mission was to observe Venus passing between the Earth and the sun (in hopes of calculating the distance to the sun), Royal Navy leaders secretly told Cook to search for a mythical, undiscovered land called Terra Australis Incognita. Botanists also joined the expedition, collecting and cataloging an estimated 1,000 new plant species.

During the nearly three-year journey, the Endeavour circumnavigated the globe, exploring Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia before returning to Britain in July 1771. Cook and his men mapped New Zealand and claimed the eastern part of Australia for Britain. The captain led two subsequent voyages and was killed by Indigenous Hawaiians on February 14, 1779.

Four Kamay spears
The spears will be displayed alongside 37 modern spears, which represent the missing spears taken by Cook and his men. Courtesy of the University of Cambridge, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

After Cook’s first mission, the spears made their way to England. John Montagu, First Lord of the Admiralty and a supporter of Cook’s, presented four of them to the University of Cambridge. They are the only known surviving spears of the 40 stolen by Cook’s expedition.

The spears are only in Sydney temporarily; the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology initially loaned them to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, which extended its loan so the Chau Chak Wing Museum could display the spears through July 10.

For decades, Aboriginal community members have been working to secure the spears’ permanent return. Though the initiative has so far been unsuccessful, they say they will continue their efforts.

“Dharawal elders have a long-term aspiration to be able to showcase not only the spears but other important artifacts to our people, and showcase our ongoing culture and connection to places like Kamay here,” Ray Ingrey, chairman of the Gujaga Foundation, an Aboriginal language and culture organization, tells NITV. “For now, as long as our elders are happy that they’ve had enough time with them, we’ll be happy to send them back and then start to have those conversations around when they’re to come back here on a longer-term basis.”

In the meantime, Rod Mason, a Dharawal man who makes modern spears, says the newly made spears will have their own chance to mingle with their heritage. “When they are with the spears from 1770, they are meeting their ancestors,” he says in an online exhibition from the National Museum. “[T]hey are meeting their family. “

Kamay (Botany Bay) Spears: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow will be on view at the University of Sydney's Chau Chak Wing Museum through July 10, 2022.

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