The Gweagal shield


  • Sarah Keenan Birkbeck University of London


Gweagal shield, property, colonialism, repatriation, Aboriginal Australia


When British naval officer James Cook first landed on the continent now known as Australia in April 1770, he was met by warriors of the Gweagal nation whose land he was entering uninvited. The Gweagal were armed with bark shields and wooden spears. Cook fired a musket at them, hitting one. The shield from that first encounter, complete with musket hole, is today displayed in the British Museum. It is subject to a repatriation request from Gweagal man Rodney Kelly, who wishes the shield to be displayed in Australia where Aboriginal people will be able to care for and view it. In this article, I outline the contested legal status of the shield. Centring Kelly’s perspective, I argue that, regardless of whether he is able to prove the precise genealogy of either the shield as object or himself as owner, as an Aboriginal man he has a better claim to the shield than the British Museum. What is at stake in the dispute between Kelly and the British Museum is not just rights over the shield but also the broader issue of basic colonial reparations: in this instance returning an Aboriginal object to Aboriginal control. The issue of ownership/possession of the Gweagal shield cannot be separated from the historical reality of Britain’s mass theft of Aboriginal land, decimation of Aboriginal people and destruction of Aboriginal culture.