As It Happens

'They've got no claim': Indigenous Australian demands British Museum return ancestral shield

Rodney Kelly is demanding the British Museum return a tree bark shield stolen from his Indigenous Australian ancestors by Captain James Cook in 1770. He says it should be help educate his people, not sit behind glass in London.
Rodney Kelly points to a tree bark shield he says was stolen from his ancestors by Captain James Cook in 1770. (Rodney Kelly)
It's a shield made of bark that protected his Indigenous ancestors when British explorers landed in Australia in the 18th century.

But now, the shield sits behind glass at the British Museum in London and Rodney Kelly wants it back. This week, Kelly went to the British Museum in London to demand the shield be returned to the Gweagal people.

He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the history of the shield. Here is part of their conversation.

(Rodney Kelly )

Carol Off: Mr. Kelly, what was it like for you to see your ancestor's shield on display at the British Museum?

Rodney Kelly: It was a very powerful moment. That was the second time I'd seen it. But also it was very disappointing to see how they display the shield in their museum. It was displayed amongst hundreds of other items that have nothing to do with my culture. It's just in a bad display case and people walk straight past it everyday.
My ancestors used to do ceremonies with their artifacts — their spirits are in those artifacts. For them, they are artifacts to be returned back home so their spirits can finally be at rest.- Rodney Kelly

CO: You have a fairly good sense of what happened to the owner, your ancestor, of that shield. Can you tell us the story?

RK: In 1770, my ancestors were all camped around Kamay, Botany Bay. They saw a tall ship come in that they thought was a bird. They followed it in. Two warriors gathered up the women and children and took them into the safety of the forest. Then two warriors went down to confront Captain James Cook and his crew. While Cook and his crew were out in two smaller boats out on the water they fired shots upon my ancestors. They shot one of them in the leg and that caused him to go back up to his hut, up in the bush a bit.

RK: He came back with his shield and by that time Cook had landed on the shore. My ancestor threw some spears at him. They returned musket fire at my ancestors and caused them to run away, dropping the shield. That's when Cook and his crew walked up to my ancestors' huts and just took every single spear that they could find. They took them back to the Endeavour and took the shield back to the Endeavour as well. He didn't have permission to take our stuff. He just scared us all away and took all our artifacts.

CO: Why do you think the shield should be returned to the Gweagel people in Australia?

RK: It means so much to us, that shield and the spears. They've been taken 246 years ago and my people never ever forgot about those artifacts being taken off them. My ancestors used to do ceremonies with their artifacts — their spirits are in those artifacts. For them, they are artifacts to be returned back home so their spirits can finally be at rest. They're not just artifacts. They are very special to us.
English explorer Captain James Cook (1728 - 1779) proclaims New South Wales a British possession, shortly after his landing at Botany Bay. His ship, the Endeavour can be seen in the background. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

CO: What has the British Museum said to your demand that this shield be returned to the Gweagel?

RK: They've offered to loan it back to us for three years and then they could extend it every three years again.

CO: They would loan you something that belongs to the Gweagel?

RK: Yes, that's right. They would loan us back our stolen artifacts. We've told them they've got not claim. It's all written down in the journals of those people, James Cook and the people who were with him. Also, in our oral histories. I don't know how they can just think that they own them when they were taken by musket fire.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Rodney Kelly.