Bermagui man Rodney Kelly is on a journey to fight for his ancestors' belongings to be returned home, and on Tuesday he came one step closer to winning.
The NSW Upper House voted unanimously to pass a motion acknowledging the Gweagal clan of the Dharawal tribe as rightful owners of artefacts stored in the British Museum and the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Mr Kelly said it was the first time in Australian history any parliament has fully supported a motion on an Indigenous issue.
“Sitting with the legislative council… watching them… it was a great moment, we were so happy that history was made and finally we’d be able to get some support.”
The Gweagal shield and numerous spears were taken by Captain Cook's landing party at Botany Bay in 1770 after shooting at Cooman, a Gweagal warrior and descendant of Mr Kelly.
"It’s time to give our history back so our ancestor’s spirits can finally be at rest.”
Accompanied by his five kids and mother and father Kelly said the support from Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members was overwhelming.
“Even the Minister for Aboriginal affairs approached me and said it was great that this got passed and that she supports it 100 per cent… We asked her to take it to the Federal Minister of Aboriginal affairs now and she’s going to look into it.”
Rodney is a sixth generation descendant of the shield’s owner Cooman and he says this win isn’t just for him, but for all Indigenous Australians and their children.
“This is very important for me to try and do this for my people, to try and get some of our stuff back. I want to do this for everyone in Australia... so they can get their history back and reclaim their ancestor’s remains.
I’d like to see it come back without the red tape on it. All the years we’ve spent fighting for this return… I want to do my best, go over there and tell the UK public, to plead with them and tell them that it’s time to give our history back so our ancestor’s spirits can finally be at rest,” he said.
“It’s something I think about every day.”
The incident was one of the first moments of contact between Europeans and Australia's Indigenous people.
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge has been working with Kelly in his battle to have the artefacts repatriated and says it’s a long but rewarding task.
“As with everything in politics, it takes a long time, but the effort has been well rewarded,” he said.
"This is a testament to Rodney’s work - he’s one of the most committed campaigners with real political courage. We wanted a political statement firmly stating that the items were stolen and need to be in the hands of traditional owners and unambiguously calling for their return."
Shoebridge says plenty of people have been joining in the call for the shield and spears to be returned but that we need to see it end with the return of the artefacts.
“Now what we need is the same commitment to the return of every single artefact that was stolen through the invasion and colonisaiton of Australia. We need to see this as just a start and it needs to end with the industrial scale return of artefacts culture and history to traditional owners and country.”
Kelly wrote to the British museum, asking for the artefacts to be returned back to Australia and was disgusted with their response.
“They replied saying they were willing to send it back to Australia on loan…I was disgusted that they wouldn’t recognise the fact that they stole it and still own it. Only offering to loan it back, when clearly that history was stolen.”
Now Kelly says it’s a matter of educating people about the importance of land, culture and heritage.
“I’m raising funds to travel to the UK, not only to meet members of the British Museum, but to hold a speaking tour. I want to teach people about Aboriginal artefacts and make them aware of issues around repatriation of human remains and discuss what happened in 1770.
Kelly is thankful with everyone’s support but says he’s disappointed to see Aboriginal communities, especially in New South Wales not doing enough to help.
“I’m pretty disappointed that nobody has helped, all we want is support from our area, it would go a long way… not just letters but actual hands on help.
People need to remember that this isn’t for me. This is for every single Indigenous person in Australia. This is for them and their ancestors artefacts. This is what it’s all about.
Maintaining history so we can pass this on to future generations. School kids can go to our museums and have a better understanding of what happened that day, if they can learn that history they gain the power of knowledge.”
“It’s not theirs to keep. They think they can teach that history but that’s our culture. That’s our history. That shield holds our language, knowledge, teachings, it means so much to us.
It proves how we were before Cook came, that we used to travel long distances that it wasn’t Terra Nullius (no man’s land), it proves it doesn’t belong to British land – they stole it and it needs to be returned.”
The history of the Gweagal Shield:
The Gweagal Shield is the shield taken by James Cook and his companions when they first stood on Australian soil at Botany Bay in 1770. As they approached the shore Cook and his crew were warned-off by two Gweagal men shaking spears at them and shouting. In the exchange that followed the shield’s owner, Cooman, was shot in the leg by Cook and ran for cover. The shield was then taken by Cook from where it was left.
Who are the Gweagal people?
The Gweagal are a clan of the Dhurawal Aboriginal people whose country covers the Southern shores of Botany Bay and extends out towards Liverpool in the West and towards the Shoalhaven in the South.
Why is this important?
In Aboriginal cultural belief and practice all artefacts must be kept on the Country they came from. They always remain an integral part of the story of that Country. State laws covering Aboriginal cultural heritage in New South Wales recognise this fact. It is very disrespectful to keep artefacts such as the Gweagal Shield away from their home.