Episode Transcript – Episode 89 - Australian bark shield

Australian bark shield (made in 1770), from Botany Bay, New South Wales

Today's object is one of the most potent in the whole of this series. It has become symbolically charged, freighted with layers of history, legend, global politics, and race relations. It's an aboriginal shield, one of the very first objects brought to England from Australia, and it was brought here by the explorer Captain Cook. We know the precise date that it came into Cook's hands, 29 April 1770. We have written accounts of the day from Cook himself, but the indigenous Australian who owned the shield did not write, and this is why a history told from objects can be so important. For the unnamed man confronting his first European on the shore at Botany Bay nearly two hundred and fifty years ago, this shield is his lasting statement.

"It's a bit of a cliché that they came from another planet, of course they did. These gentleman hopping out of the boats with these clothes on, which looked very, very different - and muskets of course. So the effect that it must have had upon a community must have been very traumatizing." (Phil Gordon)

"In its absence of adornment it's very raw, and it seems to me incredibly honest, and useful. And I think once we start to look at the other cultural heritage and material objects of these people, we find a great deal that Cook was not able to see." (Maria Nugent)

Captain Cook himself told us what he did see when he first arrived on the east coast of Australia. He wrote in his captain's log, "Sunday 29th in the afternoon, winds southerly and clear weather, with which we stood into the bay and anchored under the south shore."

He was just south of Sydney, at what would come to be called Botany Bay, thanks to the collecting work of the botanist Joseph Banks, who travelled with Cook. The log is worth referring to, I think, before we get on to "reading" the bark shield itself, and finding out what it can tell us as a counterpoint to Cook.

"Saw, as we came in on both points of the bay, several of the natives and a few huts . . . as we approached the shore they all made off except two men who seemed resolved to oppose our landing. As soon as I saw this I ordered the boats to lay upon their oars in order to speak to them, but this was to little purpose for neither us nor Tupia could understand one word they said . . . I thought they beckoned to us to come ashore, but in this we were mistaken, for as soon as we put the boat in they again came to oppose us, upon which I fired a musket between the two, which had no other effect than to make them retire back where bundles of their darts lay. And one of them took up a stone and threw it at us, which caused my firing a second musket load with small shot, and although some of the shot struck the man, yet it had no other effect than to make him lay hold of a shield, or target, to defend himself."

And at this point the diary of Joseph Banks picks up the story . . .

". . . a man who attempted to oppose our landing came down to the beach with a shield 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 pierced through with a single pointed lance near the centre."

And here in the museum we have what must be that very shield. It has the hole near the centre mentioned by Banks, and near that there are the traces of white colouring, recorded by the expedition's illustrators. It's a long narrow shield about three feet (90 cm) high and only about a foot (30 cm) wide - so quite narrow to protect a man. It's a rich reddish brown, it's roughly carved, and it's gently curved. So you can still sense the trunk from which it has been cut. It's made of red mangrove wood, one of the woods specifically chosen by indigenous Australians to make shields, because it's tough enough to absorb the impact of a spear or deflect a club or boomerang, but it is also extremely resistant to insects and rot, even when submerged in sea-water. At the back of the shield is a handle, made out of flexible green mangrove wood, that has dried to a firm shape for a good grip. Whoever made this shield knew exactly which woods were fittest for purpose.

This shield was owned by a man living on a continent that his ancestors had occupied for over 60,000 years. Phil Gordon, aboriginal heritage officer at the Australian Museum in Sydney, describes the way of life in the area:

"One of the great myths about aboriginal Australia of course, is that it was a hand-to-mouth existence, for want of a better word. The living around Sydney, and in the Sydney region, and a vast majority of the coastal part of Australia, was very good. The fish levels in the harbours were high . . . there are diaries out of the first and second fleet of Europeans [which describe] pulling in nets full of fish, and almost sinking their little dinghies, and things like that. So Sydney harbour would have been a great place to live. The climate was good, the economic existence was good. That allowed people then to involve themselves in the spiritual side of their existence, and the other parts of the culture."

Cook and Banks would later remark on how happy and contented the people seemed, although we know that there were some conflicts between different tribal groups. As well as the shield, the men had spears, and indeed the hole here in the centre of this shield was made by a wooden spear or lance, presumably in the course of a fight. This piercing, as well as marks and scrapes on the surface, make it clear that this shield had seen action before it came up against Cook's musket-shot. The shield also seems to have indicated individual identity or tribal allegiance. It's got traces of white paint, which we have analysed, and found to be white kaolin clay, so it's likely there was a painted white mark or symbol near the centre of this shield. Here's Phil Gordon again:

"There was warfare in aboriginal Australia of course - blood feuds, group against group, all those sorts of things. But they're also a marker of your cultural grip, so the shape of the shield would be different from other areas. The design on the shield would be different, which would equate to your status within the group, and your standing amongst the groups all around you too. So shields were distinctively different from coastal New South Wales to the Kimberley region in western Australia."

Cook of course knew nothing about indigenous customs - no European could. The potential for misunderstanding in this first encounter was limitless. In retrospect, neither side seems to have wanted to kill or maim the other. The indigenous men threw stones and spears, but they missed everyone. Now, given that they were hunter-gatherers who lived by the accurate use of a spear, it seems highly likely that these were simply warning missiles - telling this group of white strangers to go away and to leave them alone. Cook, on his side, claims he thought the spears might have poison tips - so justifying the musket shot which he aimed at the legs of the men. When the men ran off, Cook and his crew disembarked and went into the nearby woods . . .

" . . . We found here a few small huts made of the bark of trees, in one of which were four or five small children, with whom we left some strings of beads, etcetera."

Cook had found in the Pacific islands that trading and bartering were quick ways of striking up peaceful relationships, and of getting some sense of how the local society functioned. But here there was no interest in his offerings. When he came back the next day . . .

" . . . the strings of beads we had left with the children last night were found laying in the hut this morning. Probably the natives were afraid to take them away."

Perhaps less afraid than uninterested - or, maybe more accurately, unwilling to engage, because to do so would have involved them in an obligation they didn't want. It's not that these people didn't trade - indeed, they traded and exchanged goods over great distances, as the shield itself can tell us. The red mangrove wood that it's made from grew around two hundred miles (320 km) north of Sydney, so to source this wood the people at Botany Bay must have been trading with other indigenous Australians from much further afield.

With no direct encounters or exchanges of gifts, Cook gave up, and after a week collecting botanical specimens, he sailed on up the coast. When they reached the northern tip of Australia, Cook formally declared the whole east coast a British possession:

"I once more hoisted English colours, and in the name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole eastern coast by the name New South Wales . . . after which we fired three volleys of small arms, which were answered by the like number from the ship."

Not long after they returned to England, Banks and others recommended Botany Bay as a penal colony to the British parliament, so beginning the long and tragic story that for so many indigenous Australians spelt the end of their communities. Historian Maria Nugent explains how Cook has been viewed since this first encounter:

"Mainly in Australian history, Cook has been seen as a kind of precursor to colonisation. So he's seen as a founding father. Which in a way cancels out the fact that there had been other European nations who had already 'discovered' or charted parts of Australia. But because he's British, he gets prominent place, because we've become a British colony. And he holds that position for quite some time, probably until the politics of the 1960s and 1970s - around his bicentennial year, 1970 - in which aboriginal people vocally and prominently criticise Cook as a founding figure.

"And they see him as a symbol of colonisation, of death and destruction. I think we're going through a new phase now, and he's being seen more perhaps as a figure through which we can understand an Australian history, which is about interactions between aboriginal people and outsiders. And some people refer to this as a 'history of encounter'. But still, I think, a provocative figure in Australia, and particularly for indigenous Australians."

The bark shield stands at the head of centuries of deprivation, genocide and misunderstanding, and one of the big questions in Australia today continues to be how - or whether - any meaningful reparation can be made. It is a process in which objects like this bark shield, held in European and Australian museums, have a small but significant part to play. Programmes of research, carried out together with the indigenous communities, are exploring surviving artefacts, recording myth and legend, skills and practice, to recover what can be recovered of a history largely lost. The bark shield, present at the very beginning of the encounter between aboriginals and Europeans, may now play its part in a dialogue that failed to materialise two hundred and fifty years ago.

In the next programme we're in very different territory - in eighteenth-century China, where an ancient object was collected not by a visiting explorer but by the Emperor, to connect his dynasty to an illustrious past . . . it's a jade ring, called a 'bi'.