Shield and Spear Epic
“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.”