“Carla” and Collet Barker

All of the Aboriginal groups who populated the vastness of Australia used fire; for warmth, for cooking, and for the hardening of wooden weapons such as clubs and spears. In the desert regions, with the tinder dry spinifex and the warm climate, the people could get a fire going in virtually seconds, and even today fire is used by them to stimulate growth, or to harvest animals for food. In the cooler and damper climes, some form of portable fire stick was carried. In the south west coastal region of Western Australia, the smouldering bark carried under their kangaroo cloaks, was called the carla, or fire bark. I have been carrying my carla for Collet Barker since 1956.
Although I was born in the town of Mount Barker, three miles from the summit which lends its name to the district, and spent my first two years at nearby Littlehampton, it wasn’t until ten years later that I first heard of Captain Collet Barker. There was a combination of reasons for this. Firstly, my parents moved to Whyalla on the western coast of Spencer Gulf when I turned two. Secondly, at the age of three and a half years old, I contracted an illness which saw me hospitalised in Adelaide for the next four and a half years. in 1954, when my parents moved to the Adelaide suburb of Grange, I finally came home, though I was still bedridden for another two years. In 1956, I staggered off to Grange Primary school with my crutches and splint, and attended school physically for the first time. I was in grade four, and the teacher was Mrs Renfrey. At the front of the class room was a large up-right white plaster relief map of South Australia, and Mrs Renfrey delighted in regaling us with stories of the early explorers of the region, beginning with the mapping of the coast by Flinders in the Investigator in 1802, of his meeting with Baudin at the aptly named Encounter Bay, and later of Charles Sturt’s epic journey down the river Murray in 1829-30. This excited me, because we were living in Sturt Street, Grange. I was even more excited though, when she told us of the spearing death of Captain Collet Barker at the mouth of the Murray in 1831, because by now I had rediscovered the region of my birth, and I was familiar with the isolated and impressive ‘mountain’ at the edge of the Mount Lofty Ranges, which had been named in Barker’s honour. Later in 1956, we moved onto Willow Bank, the farm my mother took possession of when her Father died, and during my early morning leak off the elevated front verandah, ‘The Mount’ could be clearly viewed.As the years passed, and I became interested in the Aboriginal culture of Australia, (an interest which eventually saw me living in a remote desert community as the arts organiser in the late 1980’s) my fascination with Barker never waned. The release of the Mount Barker Council book, The Mountain On The Plain by Bob Schmidt in 1983 provided some more dramatic detail of Barker’s death, and got me thinking seriously about writing his story. It was the release of a scholarly book called The Commandant Of Solitude however, in 1992 which really opened up the potential for me. This book was the ‘breath on the carla’ which fanned the fire of my obsession, because it contains the complete journals of Barker’s life as the Commandant at the remote Raffles Bay settlement on Australia’s remote north coast in 1828-29, and later at Albany on the south west of Australia. Barker supervised a small contingent of soldiers and convicts at these settlements, and also conducted explorations of both regions. Of particular interest to me, however, was his enlightened attitude and rapport with the Aboriginal people of these settlements. His excursions into the bush with his hosts, the friendships he developed , and his interest and documentation of their culture, empathise the tragedy of his death. The killing of Barker was no doubt caused by the resentment of his executioners towards the sealers on Kangaroo Island, who had constantly ill-treated them. Of course they had no knowledge of Barker’s enlightened views.

Barker died alone, and his body was never found. My goal is to nurture the faint ember of his existence, like the carla of the south-west people, into the nurturing and cleansing fires of the northern regions. The carla goes back to the classroom of 1956. The fuel is the vast research I have been doing for many years. I now have to nurture this wisp of smoke into a flame of substance. – Wish me luck.

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