Australian bark shield
Australia, before AD 1770
This extremely rare shield was made in the eighteenth century, and is thought to have belonged to the Gweagal (‘Fire’) clan, who lived on the southern shore of Botany Bay, near present day Sydney.
Cut from the bark of a red mangrove tree, it belongs to the category of shield known as elemong. It is one of only three elemong surviving in museum collections, and is the only Australian object in the British Museum collected on the voyages of Captain James Cook.
Between April 28 and May 6 1770, the Endeavour visited a large bay, which was named Botany Bay by Cook, owing to the many specimens taken in this area by the voyage botanist, Joseph Banks. When the crew tried to land, they were challenged by two men, one of whom fetched a shield for protection after being shot at by Cook.
Shields were used as defensive weapons in conflict situations, and this example has a ragged hole near the centre, which is thought to be damage caused by a spear. The hole is a unique feature, and enabled the shield to be identified as the one described in the following voyage journal entry, by Banks:
‘Defensive weapons we saw only in Sting-Rays [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 1 and a half broad made of the bark of a tree; this he left behind when he ran away and we found upon taking it up that it plainly had been piercd through with a single pointed lance near the center.’
There is also a sketch by John Frederick Miller dated 1771, after the sketch by Sydney Parkinson, the Endeavour's official artist, which depicts a shield with a hole in it, just like this one.