Almost 250 years after James Cook’s arrival paved the way for Indigenous dispossession, federal parliament will debate a call for the return of countless thousands of looted Aboriginal artefacts, many of which remain in the British Museum.
A Labor motion calls on the federal government to intensify efforts to cooperate with other countries, especially Britain, to hasten return of Aboriginal cultural materials – including ancestral human remains – in the name of “truth telling”.
This is long overdue.
Australian parliamentary and government inaction on stolen sacred Indigenous cultural material and human remains in foreign collecting institutions, is a continuing insult to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ spiritual sensibility.
The motion will test the questionable bona fides on First Nations issues of the federal government, which has refused to countenance the call from the 2018 Uluru convention for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, holds the electorate of Cook, which includes the place where the British lieutenant first stepped onto the continent that became Australia.
Morrison is an ardent booster of Cook’s part in the Australian story and in the formation of our national identity. He has committed some $50m – including for new memorials in his electorate – to the sestercentennial of the arrival at Kamay (Botany Bay) of the HMS Endeavour during the first of the lieutenant’s three voyages of discovery.
On the afternoon Endeavour anchored at Kamay and Cook went ashore, his crew promptly fired at Indigenous men, wounding at least one. His men then stole what has become known as the Gweagal Shield and spears that the Indigenous men dropped.
The shield has an apparent musket hole. The shield and the spears have been central to the British Museum’s Indigenous Australian collection of some 6,000 items, many questionably acquired. The museum has refused repeated requests from descendants of the Kamay men involved in that moment of violent first contact – including Rodney Kelly – for the return of the artefacts.
The museum has not, however, ruled out the option of long-term “loans” of Indigenous artefacts to Aboriginal cultural and other Australian institutions. In 2015 the British Museum loaned the Gweagal Shield and other artefacts to the National Museum of Australia for its controversial Encounters exhibition – but only after the federal Labor government legislated the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act, rendering Aboriginal items loaned back to Australia legally immune from Indigenous claim.
Matt Thistlethwaite, the member for Kingsford Smith which includes La Perouse – the oldest continuous Indigenous settlement in Sydney and home to Gweagal descendants – is due to move the parliamentary motion on Monday afternoon.
The Wiradjuri woman Linda Burney, the member for Barton, which shares a boundary with Cook and incorporates part of the Kamay shore, will second it.
It “acknowledges … that during Captain Cook’s expedition to Australia in 1770 a number of Aboriginal artefacts and cultural heritage materials were taken from local Aboriginal people and removed to Great Britain and other countries … [that] many of these cultural heritage materials are now on display or housed in museums and colleges in Great Britain and other countries”.
The motion “recognises the historical, cultural and heritage significance of such cultural heritage materials to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Australian history … that such cultural items, where possible, should be returned to the original custodians and owners; and … that these cultural materials play an important role in truth telling about Captain Cook’s expedition and British settlement in Australia.”
The motion acknowledges the government-funded Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has been intensifying efforts to return Indigenous cultural materials held overseas to rightful Aboriginal owners.
In his speech to the motion Thistlethwaite writes: “When Cook’s expedition left our shores they took with them the sovereignty of the First Australians over a land they had nurtured and inhabited for tens of thousands of years. They also took with them some of the symbols of that sovereignty – cultural artefacts, materials and human remains passed down through generations through the longest continuing connection with a land on the planet.
“When Cook and his crew left Botany Bay they had in their possession many spears, shields and other cultural pieces that tell an important story about our nation’s true history … They belong with their creators’ decedents … The 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing is the perfect opportunity to announce an agreement with the British government on a process to identify and repatriate historic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artefacts and remains and I call on the Morrison government to make this an important priority for next year’s commemoration.”
British collecting institutions – especially the British Museum – are, however, rarely of a mind to return artefacts, ill-gotten during colonial rule, as the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson recently pointed out. He criticised the British Museum over its continued intransigence on its troves of “stolen” colonial loot – not least the Elgin Marbles.
He said: “The trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display.”
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