How the British Museum Changed its Story About the Gweagal Shield

by | 24 Feb 2022

When Lieutenant James Cook landed, uninvited, onto the continent now known as Australia, he began a colossal theft. The British colonial project initiated by his landing not only involved the mass theft of Aboriginal land, but also of sacred Aboriginal objects made from it. Still today, many of these objects sit inside glass cabinets in museums around Europe. For at least the past 50 years, the British Museum has claimed to have had in its possession an Aboriginal bark shield used to defend against Cook’s first landing in 1770 onto the continent now known as Australia. The shield is on permanent display in the museum’s ‘Enlightenment Room’, and was chosen to feature as part of the museum’s 2010 BBC collaboration, A History of the World in 100 Objects, and its 2015Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation exhibition. As an Aboriginal defensive weapon used in the highly consequential moment of first British contact, the shield is of obvious significance to Aboriginal, Australian, and British colonial history. But in a shocking revelation explained in two articles in the most recent volume ofAustralian Historical Studies (‘A Case of Identity: The Artefacts of the 1770 Kamay (Botany Bay) Encounter’ by Nicholas Thomas, and ‘A Shield Loaded with History: Encounters, Objects and Exhibitions’ by Maria Nugent and Gaye Sculthorpe), the British Museum and academics working with the institution are now claiming that the shield is not that from Cook’s landing after all. While I am not contesting the claims set out in those articles, I am arguing that the methodologies used to make these claims are all located within a Western epistemological framework, and that the use of Indigenous and anti-colonial methodologies would have yielded different conclusions.

Until very recently, the narrative that the British Museum has consistently given about the shield in question is that it is, or is at least very likely to be, the one referred to in the Endeavour journals of both Cook and English botanist Joseph Banks. In their journals, both Cook and Banks refer to a shield used by one of the two Gweagal men who Cook fired at as he made his uninvited landing on that fateful day in April 1770. The shield was then dropped on the beach, where Cook collected it. Together with other Aboriginal objects taken by Cook and Banks, the shield was then brought back to England, where it has been treated as a colonial trophy and Indigenous specimen ever since. This narrative was the key reason Rodney Kelly, a Gweagal man living in Bermagui, travelled to Canberra in March 2016 to see the shield when it was on loan to the National Museum of Australia (‘NMA’) as part of the Encounters exhibition. Kelly had grown up hearing elders in his community speak about his ancestors being there the day Cook landed. As an adult he traced his family tree and found that he is a direct descendant of one of the two Gweagal men who stood on the shoreline as Cook approached. On the final day of the NMA exhibition, Kelly staged a protest, asserting that the shield belonged to his ancestor, that the British had stolen it and that it must be returned to its rightful owners. In making this protest, Kelly became part of a strong and diverse group of Aboriginalactivistsartists and academics making the point that the on-going non-consensual possession of Aboriginal artefacts by white cultural institutions is not only based on racist theft, but is also a denial of Aboriginal sovereignty.

A few months after that protest, in October 2016, Kelly travelled to London to present the British Museum with a formal repatriation request for the shield. He met with British Museum directors and curators, and although deputy director Jonathon Williams quickly dismissed Kelly’s request, it is clear that the museum is concerned by it. Kelly’s campaign to have the shield returned has gained some sympathetic media and academic attention. In November 2016, the museum began investing significant time and resources investigating what they describe as the ‘provenance’ of the shield (Nugent and Sculthorpe 2018: 36). That is, the British Museum set about challenging its own set of historical claims about the shield, a set of claims which it had put on proud display for the past 50 years, and which are now the basis of Kelly’s repatriation request.

In May 2017, the shield disappeared from its usual position, its empty cabinet stating it had been ‘removed for study’. That month the museum held a two-day workshop which had as one of its key aims ‘to test the argument – or widely-held belief – that the shield was collected at Botany Bay in 1770’ (Nugent and Sculthorpe 2018: 37). It is participants from this workshop who have authored both of the Australian Historical Studies articles arguing that the shield is not the one from Cook’s landing.

Kelly knew nothing of the workshop, which was a select event involving curators from the British and Australian Museums, academics from the Royal Armouries, Cambridge and the Australian National University, and two Aboriginal representatives from La Perouse (the Sydney suburb which today encompasses Cook’s landing site) (Nugent and Sculthorpe 2018: 37), presumably invited to represent Aboriginal interests at the workshop. One of the British Museum curators at the workshop, Gaye Sculthorpe, is herself Aboriginal. Sculthorpe was appointed as the museum’s Oceania curator in 2013. She is committed to facilitating Indigenous access to and engagement with objects taken from their ancestors, and has been involved in research projects involving extensive engagement with Indigenous communities (Russell-Cook 2016). Her role as an informal mediator between Aboriginal activists and the British Museum is likely to be challenging, this museum having proved itself to be an institution resolutely and structurally opposed to returning cultural objects acquired through colonial violence.

While the British Museum’s workshop addressing the provenance of the shield included Aboriginal participants, the ‘interdisciplinary methodologies’ published as having been used to review the shield are all located within a Western epistemological framework. For example, researchers reconsidered ‘the species distribution’ of the wood; compared the shield to others held at the British Museum; reviewed museum records and registers; and re-read British First Fleet records searching for details of the shield (Nugent and Sculthorpe 2018: 36-37). In each of these research methods, the frames of reference the shield is being tested against – botanical species categorisations, the British Museum collection and catalogue, and British colonial shipping records – are treated as sources of authority capable of revealing the shield’s true identity. Yet these frames of reference and the methods based upon them are culturally specific products of post-Enlightenment scientific systems of knowledge (Tuhiwai Smith 1999). Like all methods, the materials and expertise they utilise limit the kinds of knowledge they can produce.

Indigenous and anti-colonial methodologies do not appear to have been used at the British Museum’s workshop.  Had such methodologies been adopted, different knowledge about the shield is likely to have been produced. Instead of re-examining the angle from which an 18th century British botanical illustrator sketched the various objects brought back to England on the Endeavour (Thomas 2018: 17), it could be asked what the meaning of this shield is according to the law of ruwi (Watson 2002). Irene Watson explains that ruwi is land and that the law of ruwi is in all things. The law of ruwi cannot be understood through a non-Indigenous epistemology which renders land as object, separate and alienable from human and other life (2002: 255-256). Instead of subjecting the shield to X-ray fluorescence testing to check for signs of lead (Nugent and Sculthorpe 2018: 39), it could be asked in what ways the shield evidences the unbreakable nature of the connection between indigenous people and country (see Fourmile 1989; Moreton-Robinson 2004; Black 2010; Simpson 2014; Coulthard 2015). Instead of asking how the shield became ‘Cook-related’ despite it now being deemed not ‘the real one’, it could be asked in what ways the shifting British Museum narrative around the shield evidences the dangers of producing ‘expert’ knowledge on the basis of stolen objects.

This is not to dispute the conclusions reached by Thomas, Nugent and Sculthorpe, nor to question the motives of those who participated in the workshop and have written these articles. Indeed, my understanding from their footnotes and other work is that they are in favour of repatriation of objects taken during colonial violence. However the effect of this published research is to undermine Kelly’s repatriation claim, and to strengthen the British Museum’s position in retaining possession of the shield: further research will likely be done to ‘properly’ categorise it. The dispute over this shield goes well beyond questions of individual ownership and genealogy and to the heart of British white supremacy established at the genocidal expense of Aboriginal Australia. Whatever conclusions about the shield’s provenance are reached by the British Museum and its invited experts, the fact remains that this shield is an Aboriginal object in the possession of an institution whose entitlement to it remains grounded in the racist notions of cultural and intellectual superiority which saw it displayed in its cabinets in the first place. So long as the shield remains in the possession of the British Museum, its full educative capacity and ‘true identity’ will remain trapped in the discourse of the latest knowledge preferred by the heirs of its colonial captors.

Black, Christine F. The Land Is the Source of the Law: A Dialogic Encounter with Indigenous Jurisprudence.Routledge, 2011.

Coulthard, Glen Sean. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Fourmile, Henrietta. (1989) ‘Who Owns the Past? Aborigines as Captives of the Archives.’ Aboriginal History 13: 1-8.

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. (2004) ‘The Possessive Logic of Patriarchal White Soveriegnty: The High Court and the Yorta Yorta Decision.’ borderlands e-journal 3(2).

Nugent, Maria and Gaye Sculthorpe. (2018) ‘A Shield Loaded with History: Encounters, Objects and Exhibitions’Australian Historical Studies 49(1): 28-43.

Russell-Cook, Miles. (2016) ‘Exhibiting indigenous Australia at home and abroad’ Australian Historical Studies 47(3): 485-491.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press, 2014.

Thomas, Nicholas. (2018) ‘A Case of Identity: The Artefacts of the 1770 Kamay (Botany Bay) Encounter’ Australian Historical Studies 49(1): 4-27.

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. Decolonizing Methodologies : Research and Indigenous Peoples. Dunedin, N.Z.: Otago University Press, 2012.

Watson, Irene. (2002) ‘Buried Alive.’ Law and Critique 13: 253-269.


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