Lieutenant Ralph Clark





Handwriting of Ralph Clark (1755-1794)
Journal kept on Friendship …
ML MS 9029, Mitchell LIbrary, Sydney

Keith Vincent Smith

On 14 February 1790 Ralph Clark, a red-coated second lieutenant of marines, took a boat trip down the Lane Cove River on Sydney’s north shore where he had a friendly meeting with two Aboriginal men. Clark bartered an English metal hatchet for two spears with the men, whose names were Tirriwan and Dourrawan.

We know this from Clark’s personal and rather idiosyncratic journal, now in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. One volume has been lost and could have gone down with HMS Sirius when it was wrecked at Norfolk Island in March 1790. The journal resumes on 15 February 1790 with the entry:

Fine clear weather — went up the Harbour in my Boat and went into Lane Cove where I was yesterday to see Dourrawan and Tirriwan the two Natives that I exchanged the hatchet with Yesterday for there [sic] two Spears.

The confident Clark, who brought a gift of red cloth for the Aboriginal families, forced his armed but reluctant servants ‘Ellis, Davis and Squirs’ to go ashore with him, though Davis ‘trembled the whole time’. William Ellis was a marine private while Davis was probably Richard Davis, a convict. In time James Squire, another convict, became a wealthy brewer, who allowed Bennelong, Bidgee Bidgee and other Aboriginal people to camp in his orchard at Kissing Point on the Parramatta River (now Putney in the City of Ryde).

Clark told his three retainers to fire at the Aboriginal men without waiting for orders if they threw spears or attacked him. When Dourrawan and Tirriwan came down to the shore from their campfire, Clark wrote:

I asked them for to goe and bring me there (Dins) which is there woman and I would give there woman Some bits of different coulerd cloath which I had brought on purpose to give to them the[y] made me to understand that there were no women there … Dourrawan went and brought a Boy a bout 3 Years old on his Shoulder the child was as much frightend at use as Davis was at them I then desired Tirriwan to goe and bring me down one of his children as Dourrawan informd me that he was the father of the Child he had brought down and that his woman the mother of his child was (poe) dead of the (mittayon) Small Pox Tirriwan brought also down a Boy much a bout the same age as the other Tirriwan[’s] child was not quite Recoverd from the Small Pox I asked him for his (din) he Said that She was up in the wood given a Young child the (nipan) the Breast I gave each of the children a bit of Red cloath I asked them if the[y] would give me the children for my hatt which the[y] Seemd to wish most for but the[y] would not on any account part with there children which I liked them for … after Staying with them for about two hours I got into the Boat and left them and went up the cove about Six miles the[y] were much affraid of our Guns — I eat one of there Muscles [mussels] which made me very Sick — in coming back the[y] cald to use to come on shore but it begining to grow dark I wished to get home — I therefore did not goe on Shore to them … the[y] are very fond of asking your names I told them mine Yesterday which the[y] recollected and cald me by it to day.

The cross-cultural meeting place is believed to be Woodford Bay, Longueville, a tranquil wide river bay fringed by steep rocky banks and crowded with trees. On Tuesday 16 February, Clark again went a little way up the Lane Cove River:

— did not See the two Natives that I was with Yesterday — on my way home I Saw a Native on the Shore with two Spears and a throwing Stick in his hand — I cald to him and puld the Boat in towards him but the moment that he Saw that I was coming on Shore he Set of as if the Devil was after him — I land and took my Gun and made Ellis and my two Convict men doe the Same after making the Boat fast and we went a little way in the wood but could not See or heer any thing of the Native …


Tirriwan shared his name with the black-backed Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen), which Captain John Hunter recorded as Ter-ra-wan-a and the convict artist Thomas Watling sketched as Tarra-won-nang. Dourrawan might have been named for the mosquito (doura). The suffix ‘wan’ in their names could mean they belonged to Bennelong’s clan, the Wangal.

Paul G. Fidlon and RJ Ryan, who edited The Journal and Letters of Ralph Clark 1787-1792 (Library of Australian History, Sydney 1981), transcribed ‘poc’, where Clark’s original is clearly written poe, a version of boè, meaning ‘dead’. Nipan meaning ‘nipple’ or ‘breast’ was recorded by the botanist Robert Brown as ‘Knepang’.

When questioned about the smallpox epidemic that swept through the Eora around Sydney in mid 1789, killing hundreds, the captured Aboriginal man Arabanoo called the illness galgalla. Consequently David Collins believed this ‘seemed to indicate a preacquaintance with it’. Yet Dourrawan called smallpox mittayon and Bulldog and Musquito, prisoners on Norfolk Island in 1805, told the Reverend Henry Fulton galgul merely meant ‘the itch’.

Ralph Clark gave his name to Clark Island, just offshore from the headland of Darling Point in Sydney Harbour, where he planted a vegetable garden with onions, potatoes and corn, which were stolen by unknown thieves. The Eora called the island Be-lang-le-wool.

Tirriwan has given his name to Tirriwan Reserve, listed by the Geographic Names Board, Bathurst, and located on the corner of Halifax and Wicks Road, Macquarie Park.

Updated 2020
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith


Adapted from
Keith Vincent Smith, King Bungaree, Kangaroo Press, 1992

It is not allowed to meddle with their [‘Natives’] affairs,
as they settle their own affairs in a Very Severe Manner
by Spears.
Samuel Smith, Journal, 30 July 1802, C222, Mitchell Library, Sydney

One such trial by ordeal or ritual combat, ‘the most malignant that has been witnessed’ according to the Sydney Gazette, took place at Farm Cove on Sunday morning, 16 December 1804 to punish ‘the heroic Willamannan’, an Aboriginal man who had taken the name of the ship William and Ann. After avoiding ‘an immense number of spears’, Willamannan was wounded in the hand by a spear which passed through his shield.

… the wound brought on a stubborn conflict which for nearly an hour was general; during which time the white spectators were justly astonished at the dexterity and incredible force with which a bent, edged waddy resembling slightly a Turkish scyemetar [scimitar] was thrown by Bungary, a native distinguished by his remarkable courtesy. The weapon, thrown at 20 or 30 yards distance, twirled round in the air with astonishing velocity, and alighting on the right arm of one of his opponents, actually rebounded to a distance not less than 70 or 80 yards, leaving a horrible contusion behind, and exciting universal admiration.

Bungary or Bungaree was the first Aboriginal man seen by Europeans throwing a returning boomerang in the area around Sydney and it is likely he introduced the weapon to Port Jackson.

The boomerang, a crescent-shaped piece of timber which whirs through the air, is the best known and celebrated invention of the Australian Aborigines. It probably developed from a simple throwing stick used to kill birds and small animals.

There are two main types. The large, heavy and accurate non-returning boomerang, used for hunting and fighting, is usually thrown just above ground level and travels almost in a straight line to its target. The thinner, flatter and lighter returning boomerang, shaped like a crescent moon (or scimitar), spins and slices to great heights and distances, making a whizzing noise, then comes back to the feet of the skilful thrower.

Fragmented boomerang
Wyrie Swamp, 1974
South Australian Museum, Adelaide

Wooden artefacts rot in the ground and are rarely found, but the antiquity of the boomerang was firmly established in 1974 when a collection of wooden implements, including complete boomerangs and digging sticks, was dug up from the Wyrie Swamps, a peat quarry formed about 10 000 years ago near Millicent, South Australia. Anthropologists believe the boomerang was not in universal use throughout Australia and that the majority were non-returning types. The returning boomerang was mainly used in eastern and western Australia.

On his first day in Botany Bay in 1770, Joseph Banks, on board HM Bark Endeavour, noticed the ‘crooked’ wooden weapons ‘about 2 1/2 feet long, in shape much resembling a scymetar’ brandished by Aborigines at Gamay (Botany Bay).

H. Hatchet
S. Sword
Plate 37
Implements of New South Wales
John White, Journal of
a Voyage to New South Wales, London, 1790

None of the First Fleet journal keepers recorded seeing any type of boomerang. However, weapons described as ‘wooden swords’ illustrated in Implements of New South Wales in Surgeon John White’s Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (1990) and the figure ‘A Wooden Sword’ in The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay (1789) appear to be non-returning boomerangs.

In A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (1789) Captain Watkin Tench mentioned ‘long wooden swords, shaped like a sabre, capable of inflicting a mortal wound’. The purpose of the weapon was clearly not understood by the settlers. Rock engravings of the slender non-returning boomerangs are found in rock shelters in the Sydney and Hawkesbury districts.

On the returning boomerang, the silence of the Europeans is deafening. They would certainly have described such an interesting weapon if they had seen it being thrown. We can only presume that it was not known by the coastal bands they encountered between Botany Bay in the south and Broken Bay in the north.

The first written record of the returning boomerang in Australia was made in 1802 by Francis Louis Barrallier, a French-born ensign in the New South Wales Corps, during an attempt to find a way across the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. His remarks were merely a footnote in his journal, written in French, for 12 November 1802.

The natives of this part of the country make use of a weapon which is not employed by, and is even unknown to, the natives of Sydney. It is composed of a piece of wood in the form of a half circle which they make as sharp as a sabreon both edges, and pointed at each end. They throw it on the ground or in the air, making it revolve on itself, and with such velocity that one cannot see it returning towards the ground; only the whizzing of it is heard. When they throw it along the ground it is exactly like a cannon-ball, knocking down everything in its passage.

It is possible that Bungaree might have seen the returning boomerang in flight while circumnnavigating Australia in 1802-3 during his voyage in HMS Investigator with Matthew Flinders, or obtained it from Aboriginal people in the Hunter River district in 1801 and 1804.

The word ‘Boo-mer-rit,’ used to describe the ‘Scimitar’ (or scimitar – sword with a curved blade), was first recorded in 1790. David Collins (1798) included ‘Wo-mur-rang’ in his vocabulary as the name of one type of Aboriginal club. ‘Boomerang’ is derived from the Dharawal ‘bou-mar-rang or bumarangWarungín or worangan meant ‘south wind’, but in Dharawal warrangan was ‘boomerang’ (RH Mathews 1901).

In February 1824, twenty years after he was seen throwing the returning boomerang,  Bungaree took the French voyagers Dumont d’Urville and René Primavère Lesson to witness a revenge battle near the Brickfields (probably the site of Central Railway), where they saw and described the weapon in flight and recorded the name of the ‘sabre à ricochet’ as boumarang.

‘Boon-cooring’, an interesting variation of ‘boomerang’, crops up in Charles Throsby’s account of the funeral of  a ‘well known native called George’ at Glenfield Farm, Casula in 1821. George, probably a Gobragal from the Cabramatta area, was wrapped in a paperbark sheet and buried with his spears, waddie, boon-cooring, net, tin-pot, and, in short, all his worldly riches, by his side’. I transcribed Throsby’s article from The Australian Magazine (Vol. 1, No. 3, July 1821) in November 2001.

A returning boomerang found buried 10.5 metres under the earth, 3.5 metres east of Bunnerong Road during excavations to extend a sewerage outlet might be the oldest boomerang from the Sydney area. The site is not far from the 10-acre lease at Botany granted to Boatswain Maroot (see below) by Governor Sir Richard Bourke. See online at https://collection.maas.museum/object/442031

The boomerang was donated by the Royal Australian Historical Society to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) in 1981. The attached label was written by historian Charles Henry Bertie, first Municipal Librarian of Sydney.

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2017