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'Everyone falls quiet': why Blackburn’s whip is a shocking reminder of Australia's history

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If a single item could encapsulate the clash of Indigenous and European cultures and laws that began with the arrival of the First Fleet, it is almost certainly one held in the collection of the South Australian Museum.

Blackburn’s whip comprises a sturdy piece of fashioned wood, bulbous at one end, attached with four knotted strands of rope at its tapered extremity. It is, for all intents and purposes, a late 18th century cat o’ nine tails, an instrument of punishment in the navy – where one in five English sailors was said to meet with the lash – and Imperial penal system.

But it is so much more than that.

The wooden handle is actually an Aboriginal weapon – at once a bludgeon and a missile of the sort carried by Indigenous men of what is now the greater Sydney area from Botany Bay, where the First Fleet arrived on 18 January 1788, and Port Jackson, to which Arthur Phillip’s tall ships relocated eight days later.

Indigenous men routinely carried such clubs for tribal self-protection and, later, as the post-invasion European pastoral front line expanded amid the spread of black-white wars and battles, as weapons against settlers, soldiers and militias.

Precisely how, when or where the wooden club was acquired by Berkshire-born David Blackburn, commander of His Majesty’s brig, Sirius – the ship which led the fleet into Botany Bay and later Port Jackson – is undetermined.

The club/whip is the only documented wooden artefact from the First Fleet’s encounter with Aboriginal people that still survives.

As Philip Jones, historian and South Australian Museum curator writes in........

© The Guardian