A Bermagui descendant of a Gweagal warrior shot by Captain Cook's marines as they landed in Botany Bay 246 years ago is fighting for the return of important cultural artefacts locked away in London’s British Museum.
Thirty-eight-year-old Rodney Kelly visited the artifacts that include a shield and two spears during their display earlier this year at the National Museum of Australia as part of the Encounters Exhibition before writing to the British Museum requesting their permanent return to Australia.
“It was a big day of mixed emotions from happy to sad,” Mr Kelly said.
Bega-born Mr Kelly made a public statement during his visit on the final hour of the Canberra exhibition that had even the museum’s security staff clapping in support.
“The shield was meant to be in Australia for a few more months but as soon as I turned up at the museum they packed her up and sent it back to Britain,” he said.
Mr Kelly wrote to the British Museum requesting it be placed in Sydney’s Australian Museum and put on display to educate Australian’s on the events surrounding Britain’s first interaction with the Gweagal people of the Dharawal Tribe.
“It is about the story it will teach the kids about our history,” he said.
“The museum wrote me back a letter two weeks later and in the letter they said they know how significant it is to my people and that they would lend it to us.”
The refusal to return the shield and numerous spears will see Mr Kelly travel to Britain to start negotiations with the museum and the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which also has a number of spears in its possession.
“I’d like to jump on a plane to go straight over there and get some world media involved,” Mr Kelly said.
“It’s a big story but it’s hard to get the media to jump on board.”
A crowdfunding page has been created to help send a delegation to Britain to push the cause for the return of the items.
“I’ve asked Gaye Sculthorpe who is curator, and section head of the Oceania department to organise a meeting between myself and the trustees of the British Museum.”
Mr Kelly has researched the journals of Cook, Joseph Banks and Sydney Parkinson which all tell a similar story of their first contact with Australians.
“They all tell a story of shots being fired first, they didn’t throw spears until the second shot,” he said.
One of those shots struck Mr Kelly’s six times great grandfather called Cooman, the warrior who wielded the shield.
“Even other tribes had to wait for an OK to step onto the land and Cook’s crew shot from the boat, they weren’t even on land,” he said.
Mr Kelly has baptism records linking him to Cooman’s grandson, birth certificates and information from Captain Cook’s Landing Place Trust Archives linking him directly to the shield.
He said he will be working to return the spears from Cambridge University first as their committee may be more welcoming of the idea than the British Parliament linked British Museum.