Protest outside Trinity for return of Australian Spears

It comes amidst cries to decolonise Cambridge

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Today a small protest took place yesterday outside Trinity College and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in response to the museum's refusal to repatriate four Gweagal spears, which are on permanent loan from the college to the MAA.

In June, Rodney Kelley protested outside the MAA and demanded the return of the spears "back home to my people", in Australia. These claims have solid grounding: In 2016, Australia’s New South Wales SW Parliament voted to have Gweagal artefacts, which are hosted in both Cambridge and the British Museum in London, repatriated.

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Historically, over 50 Gweagal spears were taken in the 18th Century by Captain Cook, four of which are currently housed in Cambridge.

His campaign is not the first to request the repatriation of artefacts held by Cambridge colleges. Last year saw Jesus College come under severe pressure to return a Benin bronze cockerel to Nigeria. In March 2016 the cockerel was removed from the hall of the college.

In an interview with The Tab's George Nairac, Rodney Kelley told us: "Trinity College owns four spears that were taken from Botany Bay in 1770 and they've gone on permanent loan at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. I put a submission in earlier asking for the return of those artefacts and Trinity College have come back and said no to returning those spears back to it's people."

Kelley's demands for the repatriation of the spears has quickly followed a month of controversy around the subject of decolonisation. In October, CUSU's Lola Olufemi was misrepresented in the national media as a result of her petition asking for the English faculty curriculum to contain "postcolonial or BME authors". This triggered a rally in support of Olufemi, which was in fact attended by Kelley.

CUSU women's officer, Lola Olufemi

When asked about Trinity's response to his petition, Kelley told us: "Yeah they gave a few explanations, they tired to discredit my oral history. They tried to discredit who I represent, they tried to say that I don't represent the Gweagal people. They talk about the integrity of their collection, so they've given me a few reasons that I've brushed off as just not true and I'm back over here again just trying to gather support.

"This is very concerning for the aboriginal people of Australia. These institutions in the UK and indeed around the world have many items from aboriginal culture and many of them were wrongfully taken, you know they have human remains still in museums and universities. Lots of people back home think about all this stuff that these museums have… they always think about it".

Despite the small size of the protest, Trinity college had put railings up outside Great Gate. When asked for an explanation, a porter merely said: "It's quite a busy day at the college."

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Kelley (left) and a fellow protestor on the other side of the barrier. He has travelled to England for the sake of his protest.

When asked for comment, a University of Cambridge spokesperson gave us an extensive answer about why the spears have not been returned.

They said: "The University recognises the great significance of the spears, not only to the Gweagal people, but to all Australian citizens, and indeed anyone who is interested in Australian culture and history. It considers it very important to continue developing strong cultural links and exchanges with indigenous Australians, particularly members of the Gweagal people and to take steps to continue to increase the accessibility of the spears to everyone for whom the artefacts are culturally, historical and educationally significant."

On the topic of retaining the spears, they explained the University: "Concluded that at present these aims can best be achieved by retaining the spears in the Cook-Sandwich Collection in Cambridge because:

"1: The request contains no clear proposal for housing and conserving the spears if they were to be returned;

"2: There is no commitment by an Australian institution to care for the spears;

"3: Removing parts of the Cook-Sandwich collection, which is of great historical, scientific and educational importance nationally and internationally, would cause considerable harm by depriving the collection of its integrity.

"4: It is very important that any request for a change to the current situation of the spears should be made only after full consultation with accredited representatives of the Gweagal people, and on terms which command their support.”

What seems implicit from the statement is that the University is not on principle against the repatriation of the spears. Therefore, the legitimacy of Kelley's claim is not the main stumbling block, but rather the practicality of repatriation and the extent of his support. As was clear from Saturday's protest, his campaign would have a long way to go if it were to succeed.

In an apparent effort to overcome this obstacle, Kelley expressed his desire to keep lobbying the Australian government to support his campaign for the repatriation of the spears. Having spoken at a seminar event in Pembroke, he returns to his native Sydney today.