Having read Keith Windschuttle’s piece on the Gweagal Shield, I was motivated to learn more. I wondered how activists could ignore the evidence he assembles. Well, to be honest I know, from bitter experience, how they could do it – because that’s their way, ignoring incovenient facts, and they know they can get away with it. But I pursued my search anyway. In the process, I came across an article by one Sarah Keenan who is described thus:
Sarah Keenan is Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck Law School, University of London and co-director of the Centre for Research on Race and Law. Her research draws on legal geography, feminist and critical race theory to rethink the relationship between membership and ownership, offering new perspectives on a range of social, legal and political issues.
The article, published by an organisation known as The Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association, offers an intriguing insight to what passes for academic thought these days. But I’ll return to that later. Let me begin with the Gweagal Shield. Keith provides the background thus:
In response to persistent protests by Gweagal activist Rodney Kelly, the museum commissioned a panel of researchers to examine the shield’s provenance and stage a specialist workshop on its history. The outcome was two papers published in Australian Historical Studies (Vol 49, No 1, 2018) by Nicholas Thomas (Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) and by Maria Nugent (Australian National University) and Gaye Sculthorpe (British Museum), which provide the evidence I have cited here.
Keenan provides a somewhat different slant, as foreshadowed in the title of her article ‘How the British Museum Changed its Story About the Gweagal Shield’. Here is how she sums up the background:
Until very recently, the narrative that the British Museum has consistently given about the shield in question is that it is, or is at least very likely to be, the one referred to in the Endeavour journals of both Cook and English botanist Joseph Banks. In their journals, both Cook and Banks refer to a shield used by one of the two Gweagal men who Cook fired at as he made his uninvited landing on that fateful day in April 1770. The shield was then dropped on the beach, where Cook collected it. Together with other Aboriginal objects taken by Cook and Banks, the shield was then brought back to England, where it has been treated as a colonial trophy and Indigenous specimen ever since.
This narrative was the key reason Rodney Kelly, a Gweagal man living in Bermagui, travelled to Canberra in March 2016 to see the shield when it was on loan to the National Museum of Australia (‘NMA’) as part of the Encounters exhibition. Kelly had grown up hearing elders in his community speak about his ancestors being there the day Cook landed. As an adult he traced his family tree and found that he is a direct descendant of one of the two Gweagal men who stood on the shoreline as Cook approached. On the final day of the NMA exhibition, Kelly staged a protest, asserting that the shield belonged to his ancestor, that the British had stolen it and that it must be returned to its rightful owners.
So far so good, other than the gratuitous sneer that the shield was treated by the BM as a ‘colonial trophy’. But she then Ms Keenan goes on to say:
A few months after that protest, in October 2016, Kelly travelled to London to present the British Museum with a formal repatriation request for the shield. He met with British Museum directors and curators, and although deputy director Jonathon Williams quickly dismissed Kelly’s request, it is clear that the museum is concerned by it. Kelly’s campaign to have the shield returned has gained some sympathetic media and academic attention. In November 2016, the museum began investing significant time and resources investigating what they describe as the ‘provenance’ of the shield (Nugent and Sculthorpe 2018: 36). That is, the British Museum set about challenging its own set of historical claims about the shield, a set of claims which it had put on proud display for the past 50 years, and which are now the basis of Kelly’s repatriation request.
The clear implication of the underlined statement is that the British Museum conspired to corrupt history in order to rob Kelly’s claim of any legitimacy.
Keenan points out that, in May 2017, a two-day workshop was conducted, one of the key aims being ‘to test the argument – or widely-held belief – that the shield was collected at Botany Bay in 1770’. One wonders how such a complex question could be addressed with any rigour in the course of 48 hours. It sounds like a stitch up, doesn’t it? I will return to this point later. Keenan continues:
Kelly knew nothing of the workshop, which was a select event involving curators from the British and Australian Museums, academics from the Royal Armouries, Cambridge and the Australian National University, and two Aboriginal representatives from La Perouse (the Sydney suburb which today encompasses Cook’s landing site), presumably invited to represent Aboriginal interests at the workshop. One of the British Museum curators at the workshop, Gaye Sculthorpe, is herself Aboriginal. Sculthorpe was appointed as the museum’s Oceania curator in 2013.
But did the BM conspire to rewrite history in order to invalidate Kelly’s claim, as Keenan suggests? The following extract from the Nugent/Sculthorpe paper, “A Shield Loaded with History: Encounters, Objects and Exhibitions” suggests not:
In recent months, we have been engaged, at the behest of the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council (LPLALC), in a multi-modal study of the shield. In the wake of the public prominence it has acquired since its exhibition in London and Canberra during 2015 and 2016, the LPLALC requested the British Museum to do further research to clarify and determine, if possible, the shield’s most likely provenance and history, and to clear up lingering misconceptions about it.
So, strike one against Keenan here. I will return to her later.
There were two studies conducted that examined the bona fides of the Shield as the one discarded by an Aboriginal ‘warrior’ at Botany Bay in 1770. One by Nicholas Thomas, addressing primarily its provenance, concentrates heavily on the appearance of the actual shield held by the BM as contrasted with a 1771 drawing of a shield brought to England by Joseph Banks, presumed to be the one acquired at Botany Bay. At first glance the two look the same, even to the fact that both are pierced in their centres. But Thomas develops a detailed case, identifying a number of significant dissimilarities, including the exact position of the holes, that convinces him that they are not the same. Given that Thomas is sympathetic to the concept of ‘repatriation’ of artefacts, his conclusion is quite definitive:A Shield
In particular, a closer assessment of relevant evidence establishes that the shield exhibited in Canberra is not the one taken from Gweagal in April 1770.
His certainty is based on the fact that the sketch was done by a draftsman (rather than an artist) who was renowned for his meticulous attention to detail i.e. the dissimilarities could not be explained by artistic licence. To be honest, although I accept them, I am less convinced by his arguments here than I am by his certainty. Being a layman, I am deferring to the expert, as we are constantly being exhorted to do. However, if that is my impression then I imagine an Aboriginal activist would find it rather easier to reject Thomas’s conclusion.
Peter O’Brien: The Bogus Aboriginal World of Bruce Pascoe
Thomas also points out that the provenance of the shield held in the museum is not linked in any way with any other artefact from the Botany Bay incident, other than the sketch. It was discovered, unregistered, in a storeroom in 1978. He goes to some lengths to plausibly explain how there could have been two, so very similar, shields, one of which survived and the other, putatively the ‘real’ one, having been lost.
The second study by Maria Nugent and Gaye Sculthorpe concentrates on the shield itself eg, that it is made of red mangrove wood, which is not found in or near Botany Bay. They do concede that a red mangrove shield could have come into possession of the Botany Bay people by means of trade with other tribes, however they don’t seem to put too much weight on this. They also address a recent suggestion, by Aboriginal activists, that the hole was not made by a spear but by a ball from Cook’s musket. This contention they flatly reject. And they point out that many shields collected or observed by early colonists, have holes in the centre.
Nugent and Sculthorpe are, however, less definitive in their conclusions than Thomas, noting:
While we are under no illusion that the question of the shield’s history can ever be completely settled (the evidence, in our view, is too patchy), we also recognise that its entanglement within the history and symbolism of the ‘foundational’ encounter is now an integral part of the story of its social life. Yet, whether the shield is Cook-related is, in some ways, beside the point. Its significance does not rely upon that association alone. This is a shield of undeniable value. It is probably the earliest surviving shield used by Aboriginal people on Australia’s east coast, and of a shield type about which still surprisingly little is known.
The underlined words above pose the question, what would have happened to this shield, wherever it came from, if it had not been preserved by the British Museum during all that time? How many other such shields have remained safely in the possession of Aboriginal clans?
So, to summarize the findings of the above two papers, the probability that the so-called Gweagal Shield held by the British Museum is the one taken up by Joseph Banks in Botany Bay, is low-to-vanishing. But that doubt would still leave enough wriggle room for Kelly and others to continue their demand for repatriation, as a purported matter of principle, regardless of the shield’s provenance. Curiously, neither paper specifically addresses the clincher: that the shield held in London is definitely not the one taken by Joseph Banks. They observe, as noted above, that the British Museum shield shield is made of wood not native to Botany Bay and speculate that it could have got there by trade, but neither bothers to note that Banks, himself, describes the shield he took as being of a local bark:
Defensive weapons we saw only in Sting-Rays bay [subsequently renamed Botanists Bay, then simply Botany Bay] and there only a single instance–a man who attempted to oppose our Landing came down to the Beach with a shield of an oblong shape about 3 feet long and1½ broad made of the bark of a tree
Banks goes on to say, referencing the shield-making technique:
That such shields were frequently used in that neighbourhood we had however sufficient proof, often seeing upon trees the places from whence they had been cut and sometimes the shields themselves cut out but not yet taken off from the tree; the edges of the bark only being a little raised with wedges; which shows that these people certainly know how much thicker and stronger bark becomes by being suffered to remain upon the tree some time after it is cut round.
Such trees, still bearing the scars of long-gone shield-makers, can still be found — the one at left, for example, still alive near the Sunchine Coast. Nugent and Sculthorpe do include the above quote in their paper but use it only to draw the limited conclusion that shields were made in Botany Bay, just not of red mangrove. Why then would a shield of another wood type be found there?. Why did they ignore the telling fact that Banks described the shield as being made of bark, not wood? Be that as it may, as far as I am concerned, the wood/bark issue settles the fact that the two shields cannot be one and the same; the papers of Thomas and Nugent/Sculthorpe are just icing on the cake.
As to whether it should be returned to Australia, I have no strong feelings either way. If it were to be incontrovertibly identified as that taken by Banks, I could certainly accept that there would be a case to return the Shield. But that is not the case here. As a general rule, however, unless some significant and current connection with living people can be found, artefacts cared for and displayed appropriately by museums should be left where they are.
Now back to Keenan. I noted above her contention that one of the key aims of the two-day workshop was to ‘test the argument – or widely-held belief – that the shield was collected at Botany Bay in 1770’, which gives the impression of a hasty, slipshod attempt by the British Museum to ‘disinherit’ Rodney Kelly. Nugent and Sculthorpe make it clear that much work had been undertaken before the workshop:
In particular, our aim is to test the argument – or widely-held belief – that the shield was collected at Botany Bay in 1770. Preliminary findings were presented and discussed at a two-day workshop at the British Museum in May 2017, and while research is ongoing on some matters, other issues were largely settled and definite conclusions reached.
Keenan’s apparent misrepresentation on this point would rate an 8 on the Pascoe Scale. I couldn’t give her a 9 or 10 because it’s not an outright lie. For those unfamiliar with the Pascoe Scale, 9 is a lie you can’t prove, 10 is a barefaced lie such as ‘Mitchell counts houses and estimates a population of one thousand’. So strike two against Ms Keenan.
Why are you bothering with the maunderings of some obscure academic from the UK, I ask myself? Well, because it’s an object lesson in the way that modern ‘academic thought’ can be manipulated to give you whatever answer you want. Here is how Keenan responds to the findings that the British Museum shield is not that taken by Banks. Her thesis is based on the fact that the above researchers used:
‘interdisciplinary methodologies’ …. all located within a Western epistemological framework.
Heaven forbid. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy dealing with knowledge. As such it is, or should be, an objective, value-free zone of endeavour.
More specifically she posits:
Indigenous and anti-colonial methodologies do not appear to have been used at the British Museum’s workshop. Had such methodologies been adopted, different knowledge about the shield is likely to have been produced. Instead of re-examining the angle from which an 18th-century British botanical illustrator sketched the various objects brought back to England on the Endeavour , it could be asked what the meaning of this shield is according to the law of ruwi (Watson 2002). Irene Watson explains that ruwi is land and that the law of ruwi is in all things.
The law of ruwi cannot be understood through a non-Indigenous epistemology which renders land as object, separate and alienable from human and other life. Instead of subjecting the shield to X-ray fluorescence testing to check for signs of lead, it could be asked in what ways the shield evidences the unbreakable nature of the connection between indigenous people and country. Instead of asking how the shield became ‘Cook-related’ despite it now being deemed not ‘the real one’, it could be asked in what ways the shifting British Museum narrative around the shield evidences the dangers of producing ‘expert’ knowledge on the basis of stolen objects.
Well those questions might deliver some interesting answers but are not quite germane to the central question of whether the British Museum’s Gweagal Shield is actually the one taken by Banks – the question that was specifically asked by the La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council and surely a valid avenue of enquiry if the shield has spiritual significance for Rodney Kelly and his clan. How deep could be that spiritual connection if any old shield will do?
But that rather esoteric excerpt prompted another question. What are these “indigenous and anti-colonial methodologies” – the latter surely a contradiction in terms given that methodologies should presumably be objective and unencumbered with ideological baggage?
I had intended to conclude this essay with a foray into indigenous and anti-colonial methodologies but I find that they don’t lend themselves to casual scrutiny, being rather more conceptual than codified. So that’s a subject for another day. But here’s a teaser, from Wikipedia:
Epistemological decolonization reflects into the historical mechanisms of knowledge production and its colonial and ethnocentric foundations. It has been argued that knowledge and the standards that determine the validity of knowledge have been disproportionately informed by Western system of thought and ways of thinking about the universe. The western knowledge system that had been developed in Europe during renaissance and Enlightenment was deployed to legitimise Europe’s colonial endeavour that eventually became a part of colonial rule and forms of civilization that the colonizers carried with them. The knowledge produced in Western system has been attributed a universal character and claimed to be superior over other systems of knowledge. Decolonial scholars concur that the western system of knowledge still continues to determine as to what should be considered as scientific knowledge and continues to “exclude, marginalise and dehumanise” those with different systems of knowledge, expertise and worldviews.
But whatever they are, you can rest assured that in the hands of academics with axes to grind these “methodologies” can be put to good use turning white into black, or, perhaps I should say, turning bark into wood.
Peter O’Brien’s book ‘Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu‘ is published by Quadrant Books and can be ordered here