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
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.
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).
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 bumarang. Warungín 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