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