How Europeans Discovered the Aboriginal Boomerang

From William Dampier in 1688 - to Phillip Parker King in 1818.

Aboriginal man Combo of Bogan River 1836

Aboriginal man Combo of Bogan River 1836
Photographer: Reproduction © Courtesy of the Research Library, Australian Museum

The extraordinary English explorer and adventurer William Dampier was the first European to leave us a written description of the boomerang used by Indigenous Australian. On his grand voyage of 1688 he explored parts of the west coast of Australia, then known as New Holland. Observing the First Australians on several occasions, Dampier reported on their appearance and some of their tools. The boomerang was ‘made of wood and rudely shaped somewhat like a cutlass.’

Exactly one hundred years later, in 1788, an English settlement, soon to be known as Sydney, was established on the east coast of New Holland. In that year, and throughout the following decade, many hundreds of Europeans eagerly observed Indigenous people of the region. Not a single boomerang was spotted. However, when the boomerang was eventually discovered further inland, it provoked an enthusiastic reception in both Australia and beyond.

Clearly it was the boomerang's ability to return that aroused such interest in the colonists. Returning boomerangs were embraced as a toy in Australia, and interestingly, even more so in America and Europe. ‘Walking sticks and umbrellas have gone out of fashion; and even in this rainy season no man carries anything but a boomerang’ - reported Dublin University Magazine in 1838.

The public and some scientists marvelled patronisingly: ‘How could the improbable idea of making such an extraordinary implement have occurred to the Aborigines?’ Ironically, the remarkable returning habit, which so impressed the white public, was actually a hindrance for the Aboriginal hunter. The boomerang was designed and used for purposes where the returning was neither needed nor wanted. ‘It is used by the natives with success in killing the kangaroo’ observed accomplished marine explorer Phillip Parker King in 1818.

Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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