Wooden shield

Early shield from New South Wales, Australia

What is it?

A shield made of bark and wood (red mangrove), dating to the late 1700s or early 1800s. The shield has a hole near the centre consistent with being hit by a spear. The shield is on permanent display in Room 1 (The Enlightenment Gallery) in the Museum. In 2015-2016 it was loaned to the National Museum of Australia for an exhibition in Canberra. 

Where is it from?

As red mangrove does not grow in Sydney, it's likely to be from coastal regions further north in New South Wales. In recent decades, until 2018, the similarity of this shield to one illustrated with objects from Cook’s voyages suggested it may have been obtained by Captain Cook during his visit to Botany Bay in 1770.  

Further research carried out at the request of Aboriginal community members in Sydney and work by Professor Nicholas Thomas of the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, Cambridge on Cook voyage materials at Cambridge and elsewhere suggests that the shield is not one collected by Cook. 

How did the object come to the British Museum?

There is no specific record of how it came to the Museum. It's likely to have arrived at the Museum between about 1790 and 1815 as part of the many objects being sent back to London by colonial governors and others from the colony at Port Jackson (Sydney). It may have been sent back to Joseph Banks who had a close association with the Museum at that time, but this is not certain. 

What has been requested?

Following its display in Australia in 2015-2016, the return of the shield to Australia has been requested on a number of occasions by Rodney Kelly, an Aboriginal man whose ancestors are from the Sydney region, and others who support his request.

Status of discussions

Rodney Kelly has visited the Museum on several occasions over the last few years, most recently in May and November 2019. He has viewed the shield and discussed his request with staff. On his last visit, he suggested he would like to see more research done on the shield and related objects, working closely with Aboriginal people in the Sydney region and related areas. The Museum is looking at ways to facilitate this request as we know other community members are also interested in further research.

The British Museum's position

The Museum acknowledges that the shield, irrespective of any association with Cook, is of significance as probably the oldest known shield from Australia in any collection. In recent years it has come to symbolise British colonisation of Australia and the ongoing legacy of that colonisation.

We are aware that some communities wish to have objects on display closer to their originating community and we are always willing to see where we can collaborate to achieve this. The Museum would consider lending the shield again (subject to all our normal loan conditions). 

Where else can examples be seen?

Documented examples of objects from the Sydney region are rare in museum collections. Spears collected by Captain Cook at Botany Bay in 1770 are in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) Cambridge. A similar looking shield is in the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. Some other examples can be found in regional museum collections in the United Kingdom.

Further reading

  • Maria Nugent and Gaye Sculthorpe, 'A Shield Loaded with History: Encounters, Objects and Exhibitions', Australian Historical Studies 49:1 (2018), 28-43.
  • Nicholas Thomas, 'A Case of Identity: The Artefacts of the 1770 Kamay (Botany Bay) Encounter', Australian Historical Studies 49:1 (2018), 4-27.