Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks thought they had collected a shield made in Botany Bay...

Face of shield collected at Botany Bay-Kamay in 1770.
Face of shield collected at Botany Bay-Kamay in 1770. British Museum Registration No AOA Q78.Oc.839. Image: British Museum
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Amongst the objects Captain James Cook collected at Botany Bay in 1770 was a wooden shield, now known as the Kamay—Botany Bay Shield. It has been assumed that the shield was made in Botany Bay (Sydney), but recent evidence suggests something much more interesting. Identifying the species of tree from which the shield was made, revealed that it was actually made some 100s of kilometres to the north. This knowledge provides a fascinating insight into Australian Aboriginal exchange systems prior to European colonisation.

The impetus for identifying the tree species was its inclusion in the British Museum’s “100 Objects” project, which featured objects of importance in documenting world history. The tree was identified as the Long-style stilt mangrove (Rhizophora stylosa). This was an amazing finding as the species does not grow in Sydney. The furthest south this mangrove species extends along Australia’s east coast is South West Rocks, just north of Port Macquarie on the NSW north coast, some 500 km north of Botany Bay.

Map of eastern Australia showing locations mentioned in blog
Map of eastern Australia showing locations mentioned in blog "A wooden shield from Kamay-Botany Bay gives insights into pre-European Aboriginal exchange systems". Image: Creator: Val Attenbrow
© Australian Museum

Objects such as shields are amongst the items known to have been exchanged at Aboriginal ceremonial gatherings; some had special status which would have been gained from or passed to the person who received the object. However, there is a lack of evidence in the early historical writings for the movement or exchange of objects between the NSW Central Coast and the NSW North Coast, making our finding very significant.

Identification of the Kamay-Botany Bay shield as being made from the wood of the Long-style stilt mangrove indicates that such long-distance movements/exchanges did take place, albeit perhaps infrequently. The knowledge gained from research into the Kamay—Botany Bay shield extends our knowledge of the Aboriginal exchange patterns and social networks in southeastern Australia in pre-European times.

Dr Val Attenbrow
Senior Fellow, Australian Museum Research Institute

Dr Caroline Cartwright
Senior Scientist, Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, British Museum

More information:

  • Attenbrow ,Valerie J. & Cartwright, Caroline R. (2014). An Aboriginal shield collected in 1770 at Kamay Botany Bay: an indicator of pre-colonial exchange systems in south-eastern Australia. Antiquity 88 (2014): 883–895.
  • British Museum. (2013a). Australian bark shield.
  • British Museum. (2013b). Collection online: shield.
  • MacGregor, N. (2010). A History of the World in 100 Objects. London: Penguin.