• The Gweagal shield, taken from Botany Bay in 1770 (NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AUSTRALIA)Source: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AUSTRALIA
The shield which was taken from the Gweagal people of Botany Bay in 1770 by the crew of the Endeavour, remains a powerful artefact of first contact.
Karina Marlow

25 Jan 2016 - 11:49 AM  UPDATED 25 Jan 2016 - 12:31 PM

On the 28th of April 1770, the tall ship HMB Endeavour sailed into the protective waters of Botany Bay. The Gweagal and Bidjigal peoples of the Dharawal Eora nation had never seen a boat larger than their hollowed canoes before.

The next day a small landing party came ashore, the people as pale as the smoke that rose from the fire. Two Gweagal men met the party armed with spears and shields but when the attempts at communication failed the landing party of Captain James Cook began to shoot. A bullet hit and injured one of the men and the Indigenous people retreated to higher ground.

Captain Cook and his men then entered the now partially abandoned camp that they had seen earlier from the shore.

Going from house to house they gathered over 40 spears and artefacts and left in return ‘some beads, ribbands, cloths etc. as presents.’

So Joseph Banks, the botanist of Cook’s journey of Pacific exploration, records one of the first encounters between the British and the Indigenous peoples of Australia in his Endeavour journals.

It is believed that the Gweagal shield, which is now on display at the National Museum of Canberra as part of the Encounters exhibition, was one of those taken that day.

The small hole punched through its wooden centre shows it was used as a method of defense whether from spears or potentially from gunfire.

Peter Yu, a Yawuru man from Broome and the Chair of the Museum’s Indigenous reference group described its significance as an artifact of Australia’s colonisation in The Monthly.

“You look at the shield and you want to weep… this is material that represents the whole human interaction, [not just] that particular time and place.”

The shield, along with other items, was originally taken back to England and bequeathed to the British Museum in London. While the exhibition has sought to engage with the 27 Indigenous communities from which the objects were originally taken, there is concern that the items will not be restored to those places and will instead return to the United Kingdom after the 28th of March, 2016.

Dharawal elder, Shayne Williams, spoke of the the importance of these artefacts to the local communities. 

"In a spiritual sense, it would be good to hold them again, just the way our ancestors held them, even in 1770 ... For us they feel like our national treasure."

However, while the exhibition remains in Canberra it provides Australians with the unique opportunity to view our history and the process of colonisation through the objects and artefacts that were taken over 200 years ago.

The Gweagal shield will be on display as part of the 'Encounters: Revealing stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects from the British Museum' exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra until 28 March, 2016.