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A colonial explorer stole Aboriginal spears in 1770. Centuries later, they’ll finally return to Australia

<i>The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology/University of Cambridge</i><br/>Spears collected by British colonial explorer James Cook at Kamay (Botany Bay) in 1770 will be returned to the La Perouse Aboriginal community in Australia.
The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology/University of Cambridge
Spears collected by British colonial explorer James Cook at Kamay (Botany Bay) in 1770 will be returned to the La Perouse Aboriginal community in Australia.

Zoe Sottile, CNN

Four Aboriginal spears taken by British explorer James Cook in 1770, thought to be some of the oldest surviving artifacts collected by any European from Australia, will be repatriated to the La Perouse Aboriginal community, Cambridge University announced.

The spears were originally part of a group of 40 taken by Cook from Kamay, also known as Botany Bay, according to a news release from the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College. Cook’s records show that he took the spears from Aboriginal people living in eastern Australia without their consent, the news release says.

After Cook returned to England, four of the spears were presented by Lord Sandwich to Trinity College. They’ve been in the care of Cambridge’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology since 1914, according to the news release.

In the release, La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council chairperson Noeleen Timbery called the spears “enormously significant.”

They are an important connection to our past, our traditions and cultural practices, and to our ancestors,” Timbery said.

“Our Elders have worked for many years to see their ownership transferred to the traditional owners of Botany Bay,” she went on. “Many of the families within the La Perouse Aboriginal community are descended from those who were present during the eight days the Endeavour was anchored in Kamay in 1770.”

Cook traveled to Australia and New Zealand on the HMS Endeavour, marking the first known European contact with eastern Australia, CNN reported. The resulting British colonization of Australia resulted in the introduction of foreign diseases, displacement, and massacres against the Aboriginal people.

The La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council and the Gujaga Foundation submitted an official request for repatriation of the spears in December after years of campaigning, according to the release.

The spears will hopefully travel to Australia in the coming months, according to the release. The local community is currently constructing a new visitor center that will host the artifacts. In the meantime, the spears will be stored at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Shayne Williams, an elder of the Dharawal Nation — a broader group that encompasses the Gweagal people from whom the spears were originally taken — emphasized the importance of the spears for cultural education and thanked the school for caring for the “priceless” artifacts for more than 200 years.

“These spears are of immeasurable value as powerful tangible connections between our forebears and ourselves,” he said in the news release. “I want to acknowledge the respectfulness of Trinity College in returning these spears back to our community.”

Cambridge’s decision follows other repatriation efforts

Cambridge’s decision to return the spears to the La Perouse community echoes recent decisions taken by other universities and cultural institutions to return artistic and cultural artifacts that were stolen or looted. Decades of campaigning by Indigenous activists has put pressure on museums to reconsider the provenance of collections and grapple with the cultural legacy of colonialism.

British museums have repatriated some of the famed Benin bronzes, artworks stolen by colonial soldiers during an 1897 raid, to Nigeria.

And in October, the University of California Berkeley announced that it would repatriate thousands of cultural artifacts, including human remains, to Indigenous tribes.

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CNN’s James Griffith contributed to this report.

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