Era: 1918 - 1939 Cultural background: Aboriginal
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia.
Sydney Harbour Bridge Boomerang.
A Timber with poker-work boomerang made by Tommie Foster at La Perouse, New South Wales, Australia in 1928. The boomerang was hand carved from a section of mangrove probably from Kurnell at Botany Bay. The central motif of the Sydney Harbour Bridge spans the curve of the boomerang and there is a wattle sprig and geometric design at each end. The water beneath the bridge has been coloured with green pigment. The reverse side bears the inscription in lead pencil: ‘To Jim Kenney (1928) From Tommie Foster, La Perouse’. Dimensions 235mm wide x 545mm long x 10mm deep.
During the 19th century the vast majority of the Sydney Aboriginal communities were forced off their land out into regional areas, including the South Coast of New South Wales. But as the South Coast was subdivided for dairy farming from the 1870s, these Aboriginal communities were again landless and began to drift back to Sydney or up the North Coast. Several locations in Sydney including La Perouse and Blacktown became informal refuges. The refuge at La Perouse was known by government officials as the ‘Blacks Camp’.
In 1885 a small Anglican mission was established at La Perouse. In addition to providing food, shelter and basic education, the mission also provided religious instruction.
In 1895 seven acres was gazetted by the New South Wales Government as a ‘Reserve for the use of Aborigines’ at La Perouse. The New South Wales Protection Board’s decision was partly prompted by the desire of local Aboriginal people to protect their homes and lifestyle from the encroachment of commercialism and missionaries.
In the late 1920s the world economy slumped into the Great Depression. In some areas of Sydney unemployment was 40 per cent. Many families had no incomes at all and could not pay their rent. Unemployment camps sprang up at various locations around Sydney including Happy Valley at La Perouse. Happy Valley was next to Anzac Parade behind Congwong Beach.
People often arrived with only the possessions they could carry. They would simply pick a spot and erect a hut with scrounged corrugated iron roofing, white washed hessian walls and earthen floors. They scrounged food from local Chinese market gardeners and local fishermen. The government provided one pint of milk per family per day.
In 1932 Happy Valley had a stable population of at least 330. While life at Happy Valley was hard, in other ways things weren’t so bad. One former resident recalled life as ‘happy, carefree, no rush and bustle, no money, no work, swimming all day on Congi Beach’. Another recalled that ‘we had freedom… even if it was the freedom to starve’.
The Aboriginal Mission was located opposite Happy Valley and the two communities enjoyed a good relationship. Extensive trade and interaction developed and many European- Aboriginal relationships formed resulting in many marriages and children.
In 1938 the New South Wales Golf Course, tired of having so many poor people living on its boundaries creating an eye sore for its wealthy patrons, pushed for evictions. The mayor of Randwick Alderman Bourke was also concerned about the Council’s image and the number of ‘illegitimate and half caste’ children being born at Happy Valley and lobbied the State Government to remove the camp. By 1939 all the residents were moved to more suitable housing and the huts were demolished.
The boomerang has historical significance as evidence of many boomerangs that were made in the La Perouse community in the 1920s and 1930s. The central motif of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was an icon inspiring hope for the future for a nation going through the hardships of the Great Depression. The icon of the Harbour Bridge was a much used symbol of many products and logos. It was used on at least one other La Perouse boomerang and was a common motif on many non-Indigenous souvenirs and designs.
The boomerang has aesthetic significance in the design and manufacture of aboriginal material culture incorporating contemporary European icons and design.
The boomerang is significant for researchers as it has the potential to resonate with all types of material culture produced by urban indigenous communities at a time when sections of the community were under significance financial and social stress.
The boomerang has tangible significance to the Aboriginal people of New South Wales, the wider population of Sydney and Australia as a symbol of the overall harmonious nature of the Australian community despite continual waves of migration and the issues of dispossession and violence in the Colonial era and the stolen generations of the 20th century.
The boomerang is rare as one of series of individual object made by Tommie Foster at La Perouse using the Sydney Harbour Bridge design.
The boomerang represents sub themes in Australia’s migration history of minority communities that carry on with stoicism and optimism in the face of indifference and racism by the dominant Australian cultural groups, mainly Anglo Australia. In celebrations and large cultural events Aboriginal people have traditionally been presented as either historical curiosities swept away by the arrival of Europeans after 1770 or as fauna. Aboriginal people during the Great Depression faced the double disadvantage of racism, and economic disadvantage.
The boomerang interprets the survival and celebration stories of the Aboriginal people and their communities in the greater Sydney area and New South Wales. The issue of dispossession, settlement, genocide and survival are issues that still inhabit the indigenous debate in Australian society and politics. These tensions are still evident in Australian culture today.
Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.
Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.
Thompson. S 2002, Lapérouse Museum, Department of Environment & Conservation, Sydney.
Thompson, S 2007, At the Beach: Contact, Migration & Settlement in South East Sydney, Migration Heritage Centre, Sydney.
Written by Stephen Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
Crown copyright 2011©