Shield and Spear Epic

The Monthly (Australia) - - MAY 2018 - by Bron­wyn Ad­cock

“The most frus­trat­ing thing is that ev­ery­one gets out there for Aus­tralia Day, there’s so much con­tro­versy, but April 29 comes around and there’s just si­lence.” It’s a windy au­tumn day, and Rodney Kelly is slumped over a wooden pic­nic ta­ble at the Ber­magui head­land, on the far NSW South Coast. He is try­ing hard not to be bro­ken by the events of the past two years. “Some­times I want to give up. And I don’t know why, I just can’t.” From his seat, Kelly looks out across the wind­chopped ocean, where 248 years ago Cap­tain James Cook sailed on his way up the east coast of the con­ti­nent. Nine days after pass­ing this point, the Bri­tish ex­plorer ar­rived at Botany Bay, and he and his party made first con­tact with Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians – Kelly’s an­ces­tors. It was a dra­matic open­ing act to the coloni­sa­tion of Aus­tralia. Cook’s jour­nal records that on April 29, 1770 two Gwea­gal war­riors used spears in an at­tempt to stop the new ar­rivals com­ing ashore. One war­rior was shot in the leg with a mus­ket. When the war­riors re­treated, Cook’s party col­lected dis­carded spears and a shield to take back to Bri­tain. Grow­ing up, Kelly heard his lo­cal elders say that their an­ces­tors were there that day, “our fam­ily mem­bers watched Cook come in”. But it was a story in frag­ments, told by peo­ple dis­persed from coun­try. His grand­mother was born in Syd­ney, but as a young woman she was co­erced and en­cour­aged to move to an Abo­rig­i­nal re­serve near Ber­magui. (She’d al­ready had

two chil­dren taken by the state, and with a new baby in her arms – Kelly’s mother – mis­sion life seemed safest.) Kelly grew up here on the South Coast, im­mersed in Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture but dis­lo­cated, “not re­ally know­ing where I was from”. A few years ago, with five kids of his own, he “started ask­ing who I am”. After trac­ing his grand­mother’s fam­ily tree, and us­ing re­search pub­lished by an am­a­teur his­to­rian, he dis­cov­ered he was a di­rect de­scen­dant of one of the war­riors on the beach that day. It was as though all of his dis­parate parts sud­denly clicked to­gether. “Just to know our fam­ily did sur­vive the first con­tact, it made me so proud that we are still here … [and] to know who I was and where I came from.” When he heard that the shield and two of the spears col­lected that day were briefly in Can­berra for an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Aus­tralia, he thought, If I can try to bring back these arte­facts for good, then my fam­ily can start hav­ing a bit of re­spect brought to them. But Kelly was no activist. He’d been kicked out of school half­way through Year 10 and had patchy em­ploy­ment; his fo­cus was keep­ing food on the ta­ble for his fam­ily. “I had to find my courage. I knew I had it in me, I just had to find it again.” In late March 2016, two days be­fore the ex­hi­bi­tion was due to close, his mum, dad and aunty drove him across to Can­berra. First, they went to the Abo­rig­i­nal Tent Em­bassy for ad­vice. The next day, Kelly ar­rived at the mu­seum wear­ing a red head­band, and white paint on his arms and face. He marched up to the ex­hibit and stated his claim: “It is our will and the will of the clan that all Gwea­gal arte­facts are kept on Gwea­gal coun­try and do not leave the shores of Aus­tralia.” Se­cu­rity guards ap­plauded. Some by­standers started cry­ing. The next week, the arte­facts were shipped back to Eng­land. I can’t change their minds from here, Kelly thought, and de­cided to fol­low them. He launched a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign, and in late 2016 boarded a plane for the first time in his life. In the UK, Kelly, along with a small group of Abo­rig­i­nal ac­tivists, met with the Bri­tish Mu­seum, which holds the shield, and the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge’s Mu­seum of Ar­chae­ol­ogy and An­thro­pol­ogy, which has four spears. He stayed in Europe for five weeks, ev­ery day hold­ing im­promptu lec­tures in the mu­se­ums and on the streets, talk­ing to any­one who would lis­ten. “It was in­tense. I didn’t even feel jet lag.” He raised money for two more trips in 2017, but not much. This time he trav­elled alone. He busked on the streets of Lon­don with his didgeri­doo so he could eat. When ter­ror­ists at­tacked by­standers on Lon­don Bridge, he got scared of us­ing the Un­der­ground and blew scant money on taxis. Through it all, he kept imag­in­ing what it would be like if Aus­tralian schoolkids could see the arte­facts at home. “It would teach them how to re­spect Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture, and maybe in gen­er­a­tions to come Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple will be treated bet­ter.” But he re­turned empty-handed. The Bri­tish Mu­seum said it would con­sider a loan only. A report by the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge’s Mu­seum of Ar­chae­ol­ogy and An­thro­pol­ogy cited a his­to­rian’s opin­ion that Kelly’s claim to be de­scended from the Gwea­gal war­rior was “flimsy and con­fus­ing” and de­rived from “in­con­clu­sive” ev­i­dence. The report said Kelly was not a “recog­nised rep­re­sen­ta­tive” of the Gwea­gal peo­ple. “It was very up­set­ting,” Kelly says.

He’s tried to find an Aus­tralian mu­seum will­ing to house re­turned arte­facts, but to no avail.

“It was making out like I’m pretty much a loony. “These mu­se­ums can’t tell us our his­tory. Our fam­i­lies say we were there that day. It’s in our stories. And say­ing they’re look­ing for ‘proper rep­re­sen­ta­tives’ of the Gwea­gal peo­ple is just treat­ing me like I’m noth­ing … I’m not into Abo­rig­i­nal pol­i­tics, I don’t want to be in the land coun­cil, I’m just a sim­ple man who wants to stand up and tell these peo­ple we want our arte­facts back.” Lately, sup­port for his fundrais­ing and so­cial me­dia cam­paign has slowed. He’s tried to find an Aus­tralian mu­seum will­ing to house re­turned arte­facts, but to no avail. “I am strug­gling to think why this is not im­por­tant to peo­ple. These are the most awe­some arte­facts in Aus­tralia’s his­tory. Why wouldn’t any mu­seum in Aus­tralia be jump­ing up and want­ing them?” The night be­fore Kelly came to the head­land at Ber­magui, he was emailed a copy of a star­tling new ar­ti­cle writ­ten by the di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge’s Mu­seum of Ar­chae­ol­ogy and An­thro­pol­ogy. It sug­gests that the Gwea­gal shield Kelly has been fight­ing for may not come from that day in 1770 after all – shat­ter­ing nearly 50 years of ac­cepted his­tor­i­cal wis­dom. It’s still be­lieved to be the ear­li­est known shield in a col­lec­tion, but the ac­tual item col­lected on April 29 has per­haps been lost to time or is still sit­ting in a box some­where in Europe. There is no doubt about the prove­nance of the spears. Kelly doesn’t know what to think, only that “any­thing that was wrongly taken should be sent home”. “Some­times I have a lot of re­gret. Just the per­sonal loss. I’ve spent so much time away from my kids, my baby daugh­ter, my wife. Last time I got back home I was dead broke, I didn’t get back on Cen­tre­link for two or three weeks. It’s taken a toll on me. “But I al­ways have that en­ergy in me to keep go­ing on the cam­paign, be­cause, no mat­ter what these mu­se­ums or aca­demics or his­to­ri­ans say, these are my fam­ily’s stories.”

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