Darwin, 2009

It was more of a loaf in Darwin this trip, with no trip to Croker Island, though I did catch up with some people from there, and I mostly stayed within the city itself, although I managed to venture south in the last week or so. I did make some good contacts, and was frustrated by an inability to make some others. Darwin temperatures, as usual for this time of the year, reached a daily maximum of 32 degrees and a minimum of 22.
After my trip to Croker Island in 2007, I was keen to make contact with Stephen Fejo, whom I had met and befriended on that trip, although for much of my time on the island Stephen was in Darwin for ‘sorry business’ . Stephen’s traditional land encompasses the ruins of the Fort Wellington settlement I had been researching, and we had determined to visit the site together some day. I rang Croker, and learnt that Stephen was in Darwin, but they had no address or phone number to contact him. Frustrating.
I was also keen to contact a linguist who spends a lot of time researching on Croker, by the name of Bruce Birch. Making contact with Bruce is like trying to meet the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Ghost who Walks and the poet Ern O’Malley rolled into one. No phone calls of many to various numbers bearing his name ever elicited an answer. No voice message earned a response, and only one email was answered. This email indicated that he would be in Darwin during a certain week-end, and that I should call him to arrange a meeting, but the mobile number, when called, was not available. All subsequent attempts at contact failed. Maybe next time.

East Point Beach

I had more luck with my quest to contact Stephen. When doing some casual shopping at a nearby deli, I was served by an attractive and friendly lady from Arnhem Land called Heleana. One night I arrived at the shop as it was about to close, and Heleana was bringing the signs in. In the near distance some fireworks lit up the sky. We watched and chatted, and it was then I found out that Heleana was from Arnhem Land, and I mentioned my wish to contact Stephen. Stephen turned out to be her cousin, and although she did not have a contact for him, she was sure she could track him down for me. 

We met again a couple of nights later, at the Indigenous Music Awards at the ampitheatre in the Botanic Gardens, a great night of music awards and music which culminated in a performance by Geoffrey Gurrumul. Heleana received a text message from a nephew, indicating that Stephen was in the crowd, and would meet us at the gate after the concert, but because of the darkness and the crowd, this meeting did not take place. The next day, however, I got a phone call from Heleana, who had met Stephen in a supermarket, and she passed on a mobile contact for him.

Geoffrey Gurrumul

Later that day Stephen, his two daughters, and Lorraine, their mother called in. Lorraine Williams is an ethnobiologist, with parents from Darwin and Croker Island, and has combined her knowledge of growing up with native plants and animals and her academic studies to form a considerable knowledge pool. Lorraine works with an Aboriginal Women’s Heritage group, which conducts surveys of various sites and produces pamphlets, brochures and reports on their invaluable explorations.


Lorraine & Stephen 

I gave Lorraine a copy of “Commandant of Solitude – The Journals of Collet Barker” which covers the period when Barker was the Commandant at the Fort Wellington settlement in Raffles Bay, not too far from Croker Island, and which was visited by Barker during his tenure. We also arranged to meet later in the week, as I was keen to view a DVD called “Wiril Canoe” which shows the making of a dug-out canoe on Croker Island in 1971, perhaps the last to be made this way.

A day or two later I was able to track down another copy of the Barker Journals for Heleana, who apart from being the friendly face in the deli, is also a student at Bachelor College south of Darwin on her days off. I am hoping one day to go back to Fort Wellington, and to explore it together with the friends I have met on this trip.

Molly, Bob, Heleana

Other activities to fill in the time in Darwin included attending the Nirvana nightclub and restaurant nearby, in particular the Tuesday night ‘Jam sessions’ and a weekly game of golf at the gardens course, with a small but friendly group organised usually by my brother Max, but who, along with Sharyn, was visiting their daughter Penny and family in Botswana. The Nirvana is a good place for amateur muso’s to have a play, but also features some of the best in Darwin at times. A great place on a Tuesday night. My golf sessions were good practice for the eventual play-off for the Donald Wilkie Innes Memorial Trophy, more affectionately known as the “Scrotum Cup”.

Eventually, Max returned from Botswana, my other brother Dean returned from a trip to Holland with his wife Willie, and we played off for the “Scrotum” my practice on the course proving invaluable as my brothers roamed the planet. 

A trip to Lichfield Park, with Max, and a balmy evening meal or two later, and it was back to the green, beautiful and varied Adelaide Hills.

Collet Barker

The Mount Barker township, region and mountain, on the south eastern outskirts of the Mount Lofty ranges, was named by Captain Charles Sturt, after Captain Collet Barker, of the 39th Regiment (Barker’s compatriot and friend Captain Charles Sturt was a fellow officer). Barker was speared to death by three Ngarrindjerri men near the mouth of the Murray River on 30th April, 1831.

Less well known is Barker’s previous experience as a commandant and friend of Aboriginal people at Raffles Bay in Australia’s north, and at King George’s Sound in Western Australia. Barker had come out to Sydney with the 39th Regiment on the convict ship Phoenix in 1828 but he spent less than a month there before being posted to Raffles Bay on the Coburn Peninsula, east of present day Darwin. There were hopes of establishing a trading port along the lines of Singapore at this remote location, but  the settlement was abandoned when Barker was transferred to King George’s Sound in 1829. At both settlements Barker was friend, researcher, and documenter of the original inhabitants.The duties of Commandant at these settlements were extremely challenging. Responsibilities included supervision of troops, convicts and assorted civilian employees, as well as handling all matters relating to discipline and punishment. Extensive record keeping, inventories, and reports consumed a lot of his time, yet Barker’s interest in indigenous culture saw him assemble a comprehensive list of names, words, and observations, unmatched by contemporaries of the period. Barker had almost daily contact with Aboriginal people at both settlements, and at times accompanied them on explorations for days on end as the sole white participant. Barker forbade the mention of deceased Aboriginal people’s names in deference to their custom, and attended the funeral of his friend Tarragon, who died of a snake bite, ‘to shew my sympathy with them’ and sat by the corpse ‘mingling my tears with theirs.’ Under the circumstances, his death, while exploring in South Australia on his way back to Sydney in April 1831, was particularly tragic and ironic.The epic journey of Charles Sturt during the summer of 1829-30 when he followed the course of the Murray River from N.S.W. to its termination into the Southern Ocean was directly related to Barker’s fateful expedition some fifteen months later. When Sturt’s party sailed into Lake Alexandrina on 9th February 1830, they sighted the dramatic outcrop we now know as Mount Barker Summit to the north – west, but because Sturt’s chronometer had been damaged, he was unable to take an accurate reading of its location. He mistakenly assumed it to be Mount Lofty Summit, which had been named by Captain Matthew Flinders as he mapped the South Australian coast in the Investigator in 1802. Sturt’s report on his return to Sydney, including that of the Murray’s disappointing merge with the ocean, (totally unsuitable as a useful port entrance), kindled interest in the southern region, including the question as to whether there might be another outlet from the river into St Vincent’s Gulf. Sturt’s mapping of what he took to be Mount Lofty, obviously at odds with Finder’s charts, was another mystery to be solved, as well as further investigation into whether the region was suitable for settlement. 

Sturt saw the summit to the N/W as he sailed into Lake Alexandrina

By 1810 there was, to some extent, some early ‘unofficial’ settlement already taking place, on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, in the form of a motley crew of whalers, sealers, escaped convicts, and some Aboriginal women from both van Diemen’s Land, and the nearby mainland. Not all of these women were residing with the sealers at their own volition, a circumstance which was to be of fatal consequence for Collet Barker.

When Barker was recalled to Sydney, via the schooner Isabella at the end of his King George’s Sound tenure, he was asked to conduct further exploration of the southern coast and the Murray mouth on the way. Anchoring near the mouth of the previously unknown Onkaparinga River, Barker and his party ventured inland. They discovered and named the Sturt River (after his friend) and climbed Mount Lofty Summit, from where they sighted the inlet which would eventually become the Port of Adelaide. They also discovered that the view to the distant lakes and river mouth was obscured by another mountain, the one Sturt had mistaken for Mount Lofty. A dramatic feature of the landscape, and isolated from the rest of the Mount Lofty Ranges, Barker would never know what importance this rugged outcrop was to the indigenous locals, though he surely would have had his suspicions.

The Onkaparinga Mouth, ‘discovered’ by Barker in 1831.

Returning to the ship, the party spent the next few days exploring the gulf, including the future port. Sailing on to safe anchorage at Yankalilla Bay on the 27th April, they set out on foot across the Flueireu Peninsula, joining the beach at present day Goolwa, and continued on to the mouth of the Murray, arriving late on the afternoon of 29th April. They camped for the night, and the next morning Barker, the only strong swimmer, made his fateful decision to swim across the mouth. He undressed, and with a compass strapped to his head, he set off. 

Barker took almost ten minutes to swim the 200 metre channel, and after reaching the opposite shore, he climbed a large sand dune, estimated to be more than sixty feet high, and took some readings. He waved to his comrades, and disappeared over the dune, and was never seen again. The remainder of the party, Barker’s batman Private James Mills, commissariat officer Kent, two soldiers and two convicts waited in great apprehension for Barker’s return. Captain Sturt’s summary of Kent’s version of the tragedy is best reproduced in full at this point.

Kent’s Version, as written up by Charles Sturt.

There is a sand-hill to the eastward of the inlet, under which the tide runs strong, and the water is deep. Captain Barker judged the breadth of the channel to be a quarter-of-a-mile, and he expressed a desire to swim across it to the sand-hill to take bearings, and to ascertain the nature of the strand beyond it to the eastward.

It unfortunately happened that he was the only one of the party who could swim well, in consequence of which his people remonstrated with him on the danger of making the attempt unattended.

Notwithstanding, however, that he was seriously indisposed, he stripped and after Mr Kent had fastened his compass on his head for him, plunged into the water, and with difficulty gained the opposite side; to effect which took him nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds. His anxious comrades saw him ascend the hillock, and take bearings; he then descended the farther side, and was never seen by them again.

For a considerable time, Mr Kent remained stationary, in momentary expectation of his return; but at length, taking the two soldiers with him, he proceeded along the shore in search of wood for a fire. At about a quarter-of-a-mile, the soldiers stopped and expressed their wish to return as their minds misgave them, and they feared that Captain Barker had met with some accident. While conversing, they heard a distant shout, or cry, which Mr Kent thought resembled the call of the natives, but which the soldiers positively declared to be the voice of a white man.

On their return to their companions, they asked if any sounds had caught their ears, to which they replied in the negative. The wind was blowing from the E-SE, in which direction Captain Barker had gone; and, to me, the fact of the nearer party not having heard that which must have been his cries for assistance, is satisfactory accounted for, as, being immediately under the hill, the sounds must have passed over their heads to be heard more distinctly at the distance at which Mr Kent and the soldiers stood. It is more than probable that while his men were expressing their anxiety about him, the tearful tragedy was enacting which it has become my painful task to detail.

Evening closed in without any signs of Captain Barker’s return, or any circumstance by which Mr Kent could confirm his fears that he had fallen into the hands of the natives. For whether it was that the tribe which had shown such decided hostility to me when on the coast had not observed the party, none made their appearance; and if I exept two who cross channel when Mr Kent was in search of wood, they had neither seen or heard any; and Captain Barker’s enterprising disposition being well known to his men, hopes were still entertained that he was safe. A large fire was kindled, and the party formed a silent and anxious group around it. Soon after night-fall, however, their attention was roused by the sounds of the natives, and it was at length discovered that they had lighted a chain of small fires between the sand-hill Captain Barker had ascended and the opposite side of the channel, around which their women were chanting their melancholy dirge. It struck upon the listeners with an ominous thrill, and assured them of the certainty of the irreparble loss they had sustained. All night did those dismal sounds echo along that lonely shore, but as morning dawned they ceased, and Mr Kent and his companions were again left in anxiety and doubt. They, at length, thought it most advisable to proceed to the schooner to advise with Doctor Davis. They traversed the beach with hasty steps, but did not get on board till the following day. It was then determined to procure assistance from the Sealers on Kangaroo Island, as the only means by which they could ascertain their leader’s fate, and they accordingly entered American Harbour.

For a certain reward, one of the men agreed to accompany Mr Kent to the mainland with a native woman, to communicate with the tribe that was supposed to have killed him. They landed at or near the rocky point of Encounter Bay, where they were joind by two other natives, one of whom was blind. The woman was sent forward for intelligence and on her return gave the following details:

It appears that at a very considerable distance from the first sand-hill, there is another to which Captain Barker must have walked, for the woman stated that three natives were going to the shore from their tribe, and that they crossed his tract. Their quick perception immediately told them it was an unusual impression. They followed upon it, and saw Captain Barker returning. They hesitated for a long time to approach him, being fearful of the instrument he carried. At length, however, they closed upon him. Captain Barker tried to soothe them, but finding they were determined to attack him, he made for the water from which he could not have been very distant. One of the blacks immediately threw a spear and struck him in the hip. This did not, however, stop him. He got among the breakers, when he received the second spear in the shoulder. On this, turning around, he received a third full in the breast: with such deadly presision do these savages cast their weapons. It would appear that the third spear was already on its flight when Captain Barker turned, and it is to be hoped that it was at once mortal. They rushed in, and dragging him out by the legs, seized their spears, and inflicted innumerable wounds upon his body; after which they threw it into deep water and the sea-tide carried it away.

Such, we have every reason to believe, was the untimely fate of this amiable and talented man.

Further information not mentioned in the Sturt/Kent report was the names of the sealers, (there were apparently two who gave assistance) George Bates and a a man called Warley, or Henry Wallen. These two were paid the sum of twelve pounds one shilling and sixpence for their assistance. Sturt also does not mention the names of the spearmen, also revealed by the investigating party. They were named as Cummarringeree, Pennegoora and Wannangetta. George Bates, in an interview with the Adelaide Advertiser some fifty-five years later, revealed some startling further insight about the way in which information on Barker’s death was obtained. According to Bates, he clad himself in a white sheet when they came across a party of natives camped at night. He emerged from the night with ghostly moans, causing the party to flee in all directions, and a sixteen year old girl ran straight into the arms of Warley . He gagged and secured her, and they learnt that Barker had been speared to death and hidden in the scrub by the natives (at odds with the other version). Significantly, Bates says that the black girl was claimed by Warley as his property, and was taken back to his Hog Bay settlement on Kangaroo Island as an involuntary companion. It is not known whether Barker’s party knew of or tolerated this action. This of course, was almost certainly the type of behaviour towards the Ngarrindjerri people which had facilitated Barker’s death.

It was Sturt who named the hill he had previously assumed to be Mount Lofty, Mount Barker – in honor of his friend. There are monuments to Barker in Mount Barker township, at the Murray mouth on Hindmarsh Island, at the mouth of the Onkaparinga River, and at St James’s church in Sydney. It was no doubt the illegibility of Barker’s journals, un-transcribed for over 150 years which delayed the recognition of Barker’s contribution to inter-racial relationships so ahead of his time. The revelation of his remarkable past magnifies the tragic circumstances of his death. It is a contribution which has something to say to us all.

Much of the information used for the writing of this article came fromCommandant of Solitude by Mulvaney and Green, 1992., andHistory in Portraits, Biographies of nineteenth century South Australian Aboriginal People by Simpson and Hercus, 1998.

Darwin Again

Saturday morning I flew out of Croker, via Goulburn Island again, and back to Darwin. Another week in the sun, then back to the ‘now when it’s freezing, here in these cold, cold, hills.’ The trip has been successful and enjoyable, perhaps falling a little short of my goals in some respects, but exceeding expectations in others. The booklet which doubled as a field guide to Fort Wellington, and showing the locations of of the remains of the fort proved invaluable. Last night, Tuesday 3rd July, Brother Max, Sharon and myself had a great meal (Indian) at the Nirvana restaurant, and night spot, after which I did a few songs at the ‘jam’ session, which I had participated in on other occasions. The Adelaide Hills winter will be difficult.
My project has certainly been progressed, and so it should be after two full months. There is much I will be able to use in my writings, and much of which has fueled my own interest. It is probably not absolutely necessary to view the ruins of Fort Wellington in order to write about it, but it was certainly a most satisfying experience, and I am sure I will have a better feel for the place as I frame my script.My endeavours to get a feel for the culture of the Iwaidja people of Croker Island fell a little short of my expectations. A key contact, and traditional owner of the Raffles Bay region, Stephen Fejo, was away for much of my stay on Croker, due to ‘sorry business’ in Darwin, and I have no doubt that had I met Stephen sooner, I would have gotten deeper into the culture and would have gotten to know more people there. He has made it clear that he would be pleased to have me visit again, and that he would accompany me to Raffles Bay, using his own boat, and teach me all he can about the region. He also suggested that I should camp there for a few days, something which I had really wanted to do all along. 

Raffles Bay

The difficulty about the island visit was in not knowing how it would be at all, and in not knowing anyone there. The next time I go there, and I feel I will, I will be off to a flying start. I met with, talked to, and showed photographs to lots of people in the last couple of days, but alas, I had to move on. I had already been there for ten days. I have also been put onto a DVD about traditional culture on Croker and have obtained the name and contact information of a linguist who visits Croker regularly, and who everyone tells me, would be very helpful in providing me with useful cultural and historical information.

Meanwhile, the Adelaide Hills beckon…..


NT independence day celebrations

The View From Coker Island

It has now been ten days since I arrived on Croker Island. During that time, John Howard has demonstrated his new found concern for Aboriginal welfare. I have long held a cynical view of anything Howard does, and nothing has disturbed me more than his ill disguised contempt for the Aboriginal people of Australia over the past eleven years. His dismissal of ill treatment, dispossession, and murder of the past as a “black arm band view of history,” his refusal to acknowledge or to express genuine regret for the stolen generation, the disbandment of ATSIC leaving Aboriginal people with no substantial representative body to speak for their rights, are just a few of the glaring demonstrations of his indifference, if not malice. He has also, of course, undermined what progress has been gained in cases like Wik, by passing legislation to undermine those gains. What is the view, in light of Howard’s sudden ‘concern’ for Aboriginal welfare, from Croker Island?
I have been asked to write something on this subject by traditional owner Rachael, who I met early in my visit here. I had been wondering what effect the deluge of information over the last week or so would have on the sleepy, sunny and laid-back community of Minjilang. Rachael is the first to approach me directly, and has asked me to write of the concerns, as she sees it, of the community, something I do not feel qualified to do, being a mere visitor, albeit researching a positive story of black/white relationship in this region, 180 years ago. I am writing that story because I think it has something positive to offer, but it is not what Rachael means when she asks me to represent her view. I can only comment on what I have seen on my brief visit, and reflect on how the recent announcements may be affecting the community, through the eyes of a ‘Balanda’. 

There are obvious advantages to living on an island community, and disadvantages too, the most obvious being the high cost of transport for everything brought from the mainland, mostly by the weekly barge. This affects the price of everything, all of the consumer goods; cars here cost as much to ship as they do to buy. The advantages? I have seen no sign of grog at all in the ten days I have been here, and it appears that the isolation may have much to do with that. Within days of my arrival, after months, if not years of preparation, the controlled use of kava was introduced to the community. Just yesterday, the Howard government has announced a total ban on the import of kava, except for traditional (Pacific Islander) use. This is the kind of wide brush-stroke pronouncement which obviously must be upsetting communities across the territory. Do problems in some communities mean that it should be banned in all communities? Should communities who are handling their grog licenses in a responsible manner have their licenses revoked? Should the children of Minjilang, some of the happiest and healthy looking children I have ever seen in an Aboriginal community be subject to some compulsory medical examination, which may or may not be related to sexual molestation? What message does that send to responsible parents, who appear to be managing their community well? If Minjilang is not on the list of communities to be targeted, as seems likely, why did John Howard announce that every child in the Northern Territory under the age of sixteen would be examined? 

Speaking for myself, I believe that the Howard Government, indifferent to ill health, lack of housing, education or respect for the Aboriginal people for eleven years, is using the issue of sexual molestation to attempt to divide the wider community. I believe he is using the issue as a form of land grab, as he takes over the administration of townships, and coupled with his attempts to wrest communal land from communities, he seeks to dismantle and fragment what is left of traditional culture, deliberately or indirectly as the consequence of his actions. The people of Croker Island, have a vibrant beautiful community, despite a dark past when it served as a mission for the stolen generation, a plaque listing over 200 names bearing testament to a past when the Balanda thought they knew what they were doing, and got it wrong. The man who has demonstrated indifference at best, and hostility at worst throughout his political career towards the Aboriginal people, is now representing himself as the hero charging in on his white steed to solve all the problems, in a field where he has demonstrated an overwhelming ignorance. If it makes me concerned and uncomfortable, what effect does it have on the Aboriginal community?

On a brighter note, I was able, after nearly two weeks here, to meet with and to have a long discussion with Stephen Fejo, a resident of Croker Island, and a traditional owner of Raffles Bay. Stephen actually flew to Darwin around about the time I was flying into Croker, because of the pending death of a relative in Darwin hospital, and returned the day I went to Raffles Bay. We viewed the photographs of Iwaidja people taken in the 1880’s I had downloaded into my laptop, and chatted into a recorder as we did so. He was pleased to view the pics of Fort Wellington I had taken, and to hear that I had used my GPS to record the location of the remaining ruins.


Stephen was also very interested in the Commandant of Solitude, the book of Barker’s journals, which documents Barker’s daily activities with Stephen’s Iwaidja ancestors. I have left the details with him, and all of the writings I have done (mainly a brief summary of incidents of relevance from the journals) and photographs I have taken, and he now knows of my obsessive project. Hopefully we will get together again sometime to further it. 

Fort Wellington, Raffles Bay

At last, two months into my visit north, today I made it to the Raffles bay settlement, begun in 1827, and abandoned in 1829. Here Collet Barker oversaw roughly eighty people, made up of convicts and soldiers in almost equal numbers, and grew gardens, ran stock, erected buildings and befriended Aboriginals. My story of his life will be greatly enriched having tread this sacred ground.
One never knows what to expect, so I took a little too much of everything, but that’s better than arriving and lacking something I guess. My GPS was invaluable for finding the site, although the ‘astrofix’ taken in 1966 I used for my co-ordinates, was out by a couple of kilometres in longitude. Fortunately the latitude was spot on, and guided us straight to the cutting/slipway through the coral rock which was our goal, even though the reading suggested we needed to go another 1.6 kilometres to the east before we were there. My genial guide, who could well be Diver Dan’s long lost brother, was Robert Hunt, who runs his little Jarbu Lodge on the western side of Croker Island, with a handful of basic but comfy lodges to house the people who pay him to take them fishing. Deb, the head of the Minjilang School, also came along for the ride, and proved invaluable in helping to find the sites we were seeking in the undergrowth.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the following should save me writing twenty thousand of them.
The day begins

Rob’s place

Dining area

Sleeping huts

All one needs

Setting out

Just over there

Near Fort Wellington

The slipway cutting

Rob, Deb, the boat.

North to the point

Monument to Fort Wellington (1977)

House remains

West from the fort
Remains of well

Water tanks

The armoury

Artefact (the brick)

The slipway

The way home

On Croker Island

I had a bit of a whinge on this entry a few days ago. Have now edited that out. Tomorrow comes the boat trip to Raffles Bay. Here are some pics of a beach walk on Mission Bay.
I am really looking forward to the trip across Bowen Strait and into Raffles Bay though. I have already spent time carefully organising my equipment. Canon digital EOS, with assorted lenses. Panasonic mini DV video camera, lightweight tripod, and my ipod rigged up with a recording device which will enable me to record voice notes, useful when documenting which areas are being photographed. I also have an accurate fix on the location, which is loaded into my hand held GPS, so finding the site should be relatively straightforward. Deb, the headmistress, on holidays at present, is also coming across to lend a hand, (bringing a cut lunch) and Robert Hunt, the man with the boats, seems to be the perfect man to get us there. Yesterday I took a walk along the beach on which the Minjilang Community nestles. It is called Mission Bay, because for many years the stolen generation were housed here in large numbers. The beach put me in another space, and a faithful hound who has adopted me since I arrived, accompanied me. I have named him ‘Spring’ which was the name of the dog Barker owned during his commands. You can always tell a good dog by the way their feet barely touch the ground as they trip along, seemingly suspended by an upright tail. Here’s some pics. 

Footy oval

Mission Bay


Prevailing winds
Cyclone damage
Norris creek


Mangrove swamp patterns
Shipwrecked barge