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Captain Cook’s Aboriginal spears belong in Cambridge, not Australia

Captain Cooks Aboriginal spears
David Abulafia
Written by David Abulafia

On the eve of the First World War, Trinity College, Cambridge deposited four spears collected by Captain Cook during his first encounter with native Australians in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of Cambridge University.

There they could be seen and studied by any visitor to Cambridge, rather than being hidden away in a cabinet of curiosities in the Wren Library at Trinity. Now, more than 250 years after Cook’s visit to Australia, they are to be returned to Sydney and to members of the tribe that originally made them.

After they arrived in what became known as Botany Bay, Cook’s men confiscated about 40 of these rods from members of the Gweagal clan. At first, the Gweagal were suspected of using these spears as weapons, and over several days the crew picked them up in their villages and along the coast; some were as much as 15 feet long. Only four have survived, all now in Cambridge, and of these only one or two were obtained on the first day of Cook’s visit. The Australian historian Maria Nugent has examined them closely and describes them as ‘straightforwardly functional and surprisingly sturdy’. They have splayed prongs, rather like fingers, which originally contained tiny barbs, now mostly gone, and their real use was to spear fish – another type of weapon was used in warfare.

The museum curator in Cambridge, Professor Nicholas Thomas, notes that ‘they are the first artefacts collected by any European from any part of Australia that remain extant and documented’. That remarkable fact surely points to their importance in the history of Europe rather than Australia, where they had no special significance, and were just items in daily use. But for Professor Thomas there is a sinister aspect too: ‘they reflect the beginnings of a history of misunderstandings and conflict. Their significance will be powerfully enhanced through return’. Rather the opposite: their significance as the first acquisitions to reach this country from Australia will be lost.

One misunderstanding is that this expedition was somehow an imperialist enterprise. Australia was a little-known land which the Portuguese and the Dutch had already deemed of no commercial interest. But during the eighteenth century Australia was arousing curiosity in scientific minds: not just the English expedition but a French one commanded by La Pérouse wandered through these waters at the end of the century, ardently encouraged by King Louis XVI, whose passionate interest in Pacific exploration remained alive even as he was awaiting execution by the French revolutionaries. Cook had arrived in 1770 in what was then called New Holland from New Zealand, accompanied by the eminent naturalist Joseph Banks; but his mission was to search for the Southern Continent which was supposed to lie in the southern Pacific below Australia – what was expected was not ice-bound Antarctica but a temperate land, maybe or maybe not already inhabited.

In his diary, Joseph Banks bears witness to the difficulty Cook faced in interpreting the gestures of the Aborigines. Cook and Banks seem to have realised that these were not so much aggressive as a sign that the Gweagal, like him, were uncertain about how to react to the curious strangers who had arrived on their shore. It seems that the Gweagal did try to prevent Cook, Banks and others from landing, and that a few shots were fired to scare them away. This can barely even be described as a skirmish. Cook’s crew stayed in the area for eight days, moving along the coast and making forays inland. The local people seemed uninterested in trading anything they might have for the simple gewgaws such as bells and beads the English offered them. Cook’s gunner wrote: ‘during our stay we saw partys [sic] of Indians several times, but could not come near enough to make any kind of friendship with them but they always made signals for us to be gone.’ Sometimes the native Australians simply ignored the Englishmen, continuing to fish as if no strangers were even present.

The puzzlement was mutual. Europeans had encountered what might be called Stone Age societies during earlier explorations, beginning in the Canary Islands in the fourteenth century; but this sort of hunter-gatherer society was very different. The principal reaction of Cook and his companions was to try to find out about these remarkable people, whose way of life contrasted greatly with the societies he encountered in the Pacific Islands and New Zealand. The inhabitants of Australia did not possess the navigational skills of the Polynesians, which in some respects surpassed those of the Europeans. They had no knowledge of metals or ceramics. To say that is not to ignore the complexity of their thought world, with its stories of the Dreamtime and vivid paintings in rock shelters.

Professor Nicholas seeks to link the spears to the colonial history of Australia. The treatment of the native peoples of Australia is a truly terrible story. But it is a later story disconnected from the era of Cook. Nineteenth-century settlers regarded the Aborigines as sub-human and sometimes hunted them to death like animals, as the all but total extinction of the Tasmanian population reveals. Astonishingly, Aborigines were denied the vote until 1962. But to hold Cook and Banks responsible for later crimes is a serious misjudgment, even if it is also a very fashionable one: an attempt has already been made to remove a bust of Banks from the atrium of the British Library.

The Master of Trinity Sally Davies insists that: ‘Trinity is committed to a better understanding of the college’s history.’ How disposing of the spears will enhance that understanding is a profound mystery. The Fellows of Trinity should resist Professor Thomas’s enthusiasm for giving away important objects in the university collections; if the museum does not want these objects maybe they should be returned to the Wren Library.

Objects of this sort provide important testimony to growing European knowledge of the world. The peoples of Australia had a natural fascination for Europeans in the Age of the Enlightenment. The extraordinary story of the Australian spears needs to be told within Europe too, and virtue signalling of this sort is more destructive of knowledge than capable of adding anything to it.


David Abulafia is Associate Editor of History Reclaimed

This article was originally published in The Spectator

About the author

David Abulafia

David Abulafia

David Samuel Harvard Abulafia CBE FSA FRHistS FBA (born 12 December 1949) is an English historian with a particular interest in Italy, Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He spent most of his career at the University of Cambridge, rising to become a professor at the age of 50. He retired in 2017 as Professor Emeritus of Mediterranean History. He is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.[2] He was Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge University, 2003-5, and was elected a member of the governing Council of Cambridge University in 2008. He is visiting Beacon Professor at the new University of Gibraltar, where he also serves on the Academic Board. He is a visiting professor at the College of Europe (Natolin branch, Poland).

He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the Academia Europaea. In 2013 he was awarded one of three inaugural British Academy Medals for his work on Mediterranean history. In 2020, he was awarded the Wolfson History Prize for The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans