Warrior Cooman was fatally shot by members of Captain Cook’s crew when the HMS Endeavour landed on Australian shores in 1770. The voyagers opened fire on two tribesmen after they raised their spears in preparation to defend their land. The warriors managed to flee the musket fire but left their spears and Cooman’s Gweagal Shield behind them. Cook’s crew collected the artefacts and brought them back to the UK where they have remained a part of the British Museum’s collection ever since.
In an effort to negotiate the contested shield’s return to Australia Cooman’s great grandson Rodney Kelly has travelled with a delegation to London to meet with the deputy director of the British Museum. He has also presented the Museum with a formal letter signed on behalf of the Gweagal people urging its trustees to consider that ‘the healing power that this shield has for Australia is much greater than any value it can have as part of a collection in the British Museum’. The letter also suggests the shield could act as a ‘gateway’ to ‘to open the discourse on the tragic modern history of the Indigenous Australians under colonisation’
Sacred to the Gweagal people, the shield is considered the most important of the approximately 6000 Indigenous Australian objects currently forming part of the British Museum’s collections. The Museum recognises the shield’s significance for Indigenous Australians but according to Kelly his repatriation request was not well received at his first meeting with the deputy director. Instead, the Museum offered to lend the shield on a three-year loan agreement with the possibility of an extension.
Dissatisfied with anything less than the permanent return of the shield to Sydney Kelly has vowed to fight on and launch a legal battle if necessary. ‘In history, we are just the savages’ Kelly told The Guardian. ‘Rewriting our history is a big part of what has motivated me with this fight’.