The Sydney Boomerang in Captain Cook’s Collection?

The first observation of a boomerang, with its peculiar flight and returning ability, was immediately reported with great enthusiasm.

Boomerang H313

Boomerang H313
Photographer:  © Australian Museum

It is believed that possibly five boomerangs, existing in various collections, had been collected at Botany Bay by Captain James Cook and his crew. Yet they may well have never seen a boomerang when first surveying the east coast of Australia in 1770. ‘There is no mention of boomerangs ... in any of the Endeavour journals.’

This may not carry much weight, since their encounters with First Australians were brief. However, the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander managed to make an impressive collection of plants. The English also familiarised themselves with some Aboriginal customs and implements. At Botany Bay they collected about forty to fifty spears, four of which are now in the Cambridge University Museum. Unfortunately, some other artefacts they brought back to England were dispersed through various collections and lost.

A few drawings produced by artists Sydney Parkinson and John Frederick Miller are rare pictorial records of the Cook party's encounters with Indigenous people of the Sydney region. Parkinson most likely made his sketches at Botany Bay in April 1770. Miller's drawing of artefacts, probably from the same area, is dated to 1771, since he made numerous illustrations of collected specimens and some artefacts during the long return journey back to England. These drawings depict Aboriginal people, their canoes and huts. They also show the native implements such as paddles, shields, spear-throwers and detailed images of spears. But no sign of a boomerang.

In the early years of the Sydney settlement, a curved wooden implement was seen to be used by the local Indigenous people. Early diarists consistently referred to it as a sword, implying that it was similar to a sword in shape, length and the manner of use. For instance, in 1790 Watkin Tench, a British Marine Officer, reported that some stolen implements were returned to the Indigenous people. ‘Imeerawanyee claimed the sword [... then] singling out a yellow gum-tree for the foe, he attacked it with great fierceness, calling to us to look on.’ Another episode recorded in the same year involved Baneelon who, ‘snatching a sword of the country, [ran to his wife] and gave her two severe wounds on the head and one on the shoulder.’

There is no reference to be found about throwing such swords or the swords returning. However, the first observation of a proper boomerang, with its peculiar flight and returning behaviour, was immediately reported with great enthusiasm.

Subsequent observations made further inland, beyond Sydney Harbour, confirm that the boomerang-missile was not known or used in the area. On his journey to the Blue Mountains in 1802, Ensign Barrallier, British officer, made this point clear. He described the boomerang as made ‘of a piece of wood in the form of a half circle which they make as sharp as a sabre on both edges, and pointed at each end. They throw it ... in the air, making it revolve on itself, and with such a velocity that one cannot see it returning towards the ground.’ This account leaves no doubt that the boomerang used in the mountains was different from the sword known in Sydney area. It was deeply curved – ‘half a circle’ - the major characteristic of the returning boomerang.

It is interesting to note that the boomerangs presumed to have come from the Cook's collection are similar to the forms which are typical further inland, in and beyond the Great Dividing Range. Therefore they could not have been collected by the Captain and his companions at Botany Bay in 1770.

Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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