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In 2008 Christie’s, a prominent art auction house in London, put on sale a boomerang associated with Captain James Cook. The origin of this boomerang is not known, but a lengthy article in Christie’s Catalogue (Exploration and Travel, London 2008, pp: 48-52) suggests it was collected by Cook’s expedition around Botany Bay in 1770. The pre-colonial era boomerang from the Sydney region would be of great significance to Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians.
Yet the boomerangs were not used in the Sydney coastal region at the time of Cook’s visit, or in the several years of the early Sydney settlement, established in 1788. Instead Indigenous Australians of the Sydney region used a curved sword. It was well described, with varying accuracy, by early diarists and depicted, in early illustrations of Indigenous Australians in Sydney and their weapons. For example in 1770, in Botany Bay, Joseph Banks (Diary: 28 April 1770), prominent botanist on Cook’s first voyage, observed Indigenous Australians “with their pikes and swords” and described the sword as “a wooden weapon about 2 feet long, in shape much resembling a scymeter.”[sword with curved blade]. In 1788 William Bradley, British naval officer of the First Fleet, described the sword as “of the shape of the common hanger with the handle or hilt carved so as to give them a good hold of it: It is made of very hard wood, smooth & sharp at both edges coming to a tolerable sharp point, they are from 2 to 3 feet long & as many inches broad or more” (Bradley’s diary: 1 October 1788, pp: 128-129). From the observers’ accounts it is clear that the “the sword of the country” as Watkin Tench calls it, was used as a sword, not a throwing weapon.
Sadly very few artefacts from the time of contact in the Sydney region are in public collections in Australia or overseas. However, in 1957 the Australian Museum acquired a ‘boomerang’ – sword – which was recovered from a rock shelter in Somersby, just north-west of Gosford, in the early 20th century. Rock shelters or caves are like a time capsule, able of preserving organic materials such as wood, for long time. The Somersby sword could have been left in the shelter before the arrival of the First Fleet or in the early years of European settlement in Sydney. It appears that swords of this type went out of use in the Sydney region before the end of the 18th century, while a boomerang, as we know it today, was introduced in the first few years of the 19th century.