Rodney Kelly, the man behind the campaign to acknowledge the Gweagal people as the rightful owners of the shield, told NITV: “It made me feel really proud for my people and that we could have chance to have these artefacts returned. I feel proud to be able to help others, and I want to help other tribes to be able to get other items back for them as well. I’m just really proud that the motion passed, it’s a really big thing.”
Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, who introduced the motion, said in a statement, “It is a positive step for Mr Kelly’s campaign that the Australian Senate has expressed its support for repatriation of these important artefacts.”
She has requested the Australian Government to extend diplomatic assistance to Mr Kelly.
“It is core to Aboriginal belief that artefacts must be kept on country they came from. This has been a sustained campaign by Mr Kelly, I hope the British Museum does the right thing,” she said.
The motion reads:
“In 1770, two members of the Gwegal people stood in front of the place now called Botany Bay, as a boat containing James Cook and some of his crew approached the shore. The Gweagal men were holding spears and a shield and they attempted to warn off the interlopers, an action that was responded to with gunfire.”
A long time coming
Mr Kelly is a direct descendant of Cooman, one of the warriors who stood on the beach. He said the stories of that day had been passed down through generations. They’re also written in the journals of Captain Cook and botanist Joseph Banks. Mr Kelly wants the British-held artefacts to go to an Australian museum, so people “can learn the true history of that day in 1770”.
Mr Kelly believes the British Museum and the Cambridge museum have kept the shield for too long - 246 years. He wants people to “know that it was Cook that fired the first shot and that one of my ancestors got shot. I like to think that if Australians know more about this it will bring more respect for my people.”
“It made me feel really proud for my people and that we could have chance to have these artefacts returned."
Mr Kelly’s repatriation campaign began earlier this year.
On March 28, descendants of the Gweagle Clan of the Dharawal Tribe issued a statement of claim seeking the unconditional return of the weapons. Mr Kelly demanded the shield be surrendered by the British Museum during its temporary display in Canberra.
In a reply dated April 20, British Museum deputy director Jonathan Williams denied the request, saying that the museum could consider “lending” the artefact to a suitable institution.
The museum's offer to 'lend' the Gweagle Shield to Traditional Owners was deemed 'offensive'.
With the Senate’s vote in favour of repatriation, Mr Kelly feels hopeful. He told NITV: “I’d like to see the shield and the spears become the centre pieces to a new museum that shows only Indigenous artefacts, our artefacts. A museum like that doesn’t exist in Sydney, and it’s something that’s needed.
“I’ve got a legal team doing research at this stage, so if the negotiations fail I have lawyers who will begin to look into how we can take legal action against the British Museum. We have also found out in the last few days that there is also a spear that is held in a museum in Sweden, so we will eventually be looking to get those returned from Sweden,” Mr Kelly says.