The Peramangk

The Peramangk were the mysterious dwellers of the Mount Lofty Ranges prior to the white occupation of South Australia in 1836. Twenty years after the Mount Barker region was settled, they had all but disappeared.
It is difficult to make an accurate assessment of the original number of Aboriginal occupants who dwelt in what we now call the Mount Lofty Ranges. For example, two separate estimates of the numbers of Kaurna on the Adelaide Plains at settlement, suggest as few as three hundred, and as many as seven hundred when the colonists arrived in 1836. Obviously it would be more difficult, given the many forests and a more rugged terrain in the hills, to make an accurate assessment of the Peramangk numbers. 
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Peramangk Man
A further complication was the spread of smallpox, even before South Australia was formally settled in 1836. Having established a foothold in the colony of NSW in 1789, smallpox gradually worked its way into southern Australia, possibly via whalers and sealers who used Kangaroo Island as a base as early as 1810. Smallpox is also said to have come down the major river, which we now know as the Murray, perhaps through native people who had come into contact with smallpox when upstream, and had brought it south. The traditional numbers were therefore depleted before settlement, and it is unlikely any serious attempt was made to obtain accurate numbers in a new, rugged land, where survival alone was quite enough to cope with. Having no genetic resistance to smallpox, the impact on the traditional inhabitants was deadly, as were diseases of lesser concern to Europeans, such as measles. An early account of the Peramangk people puts the greater number of them in the Mount Barker region, and they were often referred to as the ‘Mount Barker Tribe.’ One description tells of somewhere near 300 camped at the base of Mount Barker Summit, and another 300 camped along the Larataringa Creek and the springs to the south of the mount. It would seem a reasonable guess to put a figure of around seven hundred to a thousand Peramangk in the region considered their domain, based on these estimates.
One must also bear in mind that gatherings of this number would be rare, and would undoubtedly have been the result of important ceremonial occasions. Initiation, ‘increase’ ceremonies to ensure the abundance of food and the cycle of the seasons, ‘sorry’ business, (funeral rites) and the practice of allocating future wives to young men, are but a few of the ceremonies practised throughout the vast territories of Australia, and in the remote regions, still undertaken to this very day. In ‘normal’ times, groups of up to perhaps thirty, comprised of an elder, his wives, and his offspring, including in-laws, would roam the land, according to where the appropriate food, shelter or water was to be found.
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Mt Barker Summit (Womma Mu Kurta – The Mountain on the Plain)
Despite the reference to the Peramangk as the ‘Mount Barker Tribe’ their terrain was much more wide-ranging, and in general their territory was considered to be the region we now refer to as the Mount Lofty Ranges, extending from the foothills above the Adelaide plains, Mount Barker to the east, Myponga to the south, and northward to Angaston. Both the Kaurna of the plains, and the Ngerringerri of the lakes and southern river regions feared the Peramangk, who were said to be possessed of magical powers and sorcery. Prior to colinisation, there were three explorations of South Australia directly relevant to the fate of the Peramangk, and following articles will provide an account of those expeditions. Particular attention will be paid to early and first contact by these expeditions as an insight into attitudes and consequences of relationship to the indigenous peoples in general, as there is little documentation of first contact specifically with the Peramangk.
Mathew Flinders
Captain Matthew Flinders of the Investigator in 1802, and coincidentally Captain Nicholas Baudin on the Geographe the same year, commanded the first expeditions to undertake comprehensive exploration of the southern coast. Baudin’s explorations were predominately of a scientific nature, with a full compliment of botanists, artists, and other scientific people on board. He naturally created charts and named places as he went. Flinder’s brief was to circumnavigate the continent, mapping comprehensively, and therefore the documentation of his journey was skewed to this end. When western bound Flinders, (an Englishman) and the eastern sailing Frenchman Baudin met in the bay they called Encounter in April of that year, they exchanged charts and wined and dined together, although unbeknown to them, their countries were at war. They also in part accepted the place names each had given the coast during their travels, thus explaining the mixture of French and English names which dot the coast. The Fleurieu Peninsula is a prominent example of features named by Baudin. The Flinder’s Ranges, Kangaroo Island and Mount Lofty are among the most prominent and well known English names which Flinders conferred on the landscape. encounter bay
Encounter Bay

Incredibly, both of these renowned explorers missed the mouth of Australia’s most important river, not far from their historic meeting. In their defence, the Murray meets the ocean via a large lake before meandering around islands in diverse channels, and a long narrow body of water stretches some eighty kilometres to the south-east, sheltered from the ocean by large sand dunes. This body of water is called the Coorong. Sand dunes on both sides of the modest volume of water which constitutes the Murray mouth, as well as a possible sea mist, coupled with the distance from the shore at which the ships would have been sailing, would all have contributed to the oversight by both Commanders.

Some of the earliest sketches of Aboriginal people can be found in Baudin’s collection, and his party’s contact with Aboriginal people was comprehensive, although not so much in South Australia, where the rugged coastline made anchoring difficult. It was established that Kangaroo Island was devoid of Aboriginal people, although subsequent archaeological work has established that it had previously been inhabited approximately 10,000 years ago, when the island was still part of the mainland. No reliable explanation has been proffered as to why such a large and productive island did not have people in numbers living there at the time of settlement. There were, however, a rag-tag band of sealers of various nationality, including Americans, escaped convicts, and the Aboriginal women they had gathered from where ever they could. This included Tasmanian women, and also women from the mainland. These women were taken by force, resulting in a tragic retaliation in later years. This motley crew would have been living on Kangaroo Island when the next important exploration of Southern Australia took place in 1829-30, although Captain Charles Sturt was probably unaware of their presence. For some detail of Sturt’s journey, click here. A little over a year later, the  death of Captain Collet Barker at the mouth of the Murray River added a tragic chapter to Aboriginal/European first contact.

 

The Tower

Warning. This article contains images of Aboriginal people who have passed away.

I have long been a ‘worshipper’ of Mount Barker Summit, if that is not too strong a word. Standing aloof and dominant over the surrounding lush countryside, this sandstone based and heavily wooded outcrop has been the commanding feature of the region for the millennia of black occupation under its original names, ‘Woma Mu Kurta’ or ‘Mountain on the Plain’ for the Ngarrindjeri people of the lower Murray and lakes, and ‘Yaktanga’, or ‘Rocky Head’ by the hills dwelling Peramangk people. But even the white-fellah name was bestowed on the peak before any European had entered the region.

Captain Charles Sturt, who journeyed down (and named) the Murray in the summer of 1829-30, was the first white man to record the sighting of Woma Mu Kurta, although he mistakenly recorded it in his journal as Mount Lofty. Flinders had named Mount Lofty when he mapped the coast in 1802, and as Sturt assumed the twin peaked summit he saw from the lakes was the twin peaked Mount Lofty, he recorded it as such. The loss of his chronometer some time earlier on the journey affected accurate calculation of the position. View more photographs here.

Captain Collet Barker, a compatriot of Sturt’s, was the next explorer to sight the summit a year later, but his view was from Mount Lofty, twenty kilometres to the north-west. It was Barker’s sighting which confirmed the existence of two separate mounts, and following Barker’s tragic death by spearing at the Murray Mouth, it was Barker’s friend Sturt who named the peak after him. Barker died on the 30th April, in 1831, and the summit was therefore named five years before the establishment of the South Australian colony.

The region was one of the first to be farmed, owing to the lush countryside and plentiful water, and the town which grew in its shadow with the same name has long been a regional centre in the sparsely populated Adelaide Hills. The summit was spared the wholesale clearing the surrounding land was subject to, owing to the steepness of its terrain, and poor soil. It therefore became a microcosm of surviving bush, and representative of what had been lost. It was also representative of the countryside the Peramangk had inhabited, and from which they traded and interacted with the Ngarrindjeri.

For more than 150 years the summit was relatively undisturbed apart from a dirt track to the top, two levels of parking, and a short walking trail to the summit proper. From here a 360 degree panorama can be observed, to the southern lakes, Mount lofty and the ranges to the north-west, Callington Hill to the east, and Brukunga to the north. A magnificent sloping valley of fertility leads the eye to the township in the near distance. View more photographs here.

On the northern tail, a quarry saw the first major assault on the mount, although this did not affect the general ambiance of the experience for those accessing via the track. All of this was to change; in 1984. One day while driving up the track I noticed that a trench had been dug along the left side of the road. I was curious about this, but became more alarmed when I read in the Mount Barker Courier that a police communications tower was to be erected. There was no further information, either of location, height, what procedure had been undertaken to allow a tower on the site, or anything at all; yet the work proceeded. One day I discussed the tower proposal with a fiery red headed lady friend of mine, who had a passion for environmental causes, and the ability to inspire both dedicated commitment, and unmitigated hatred.

We considered calling a public meeting, to which we would invite members of the State Government; in particular the Department of the Environment and Planning, the Mount Barker Council, and representatives of the Police to reveal the details of the proposed tower. Within a couple of days, Aurora was on television declaring the summit a ‘Sacred Site’.

I never had any doubt about the summit being an important and significant place for the Aboriginal People, and had in fact taken a group of Warlpiri men from the Tanami Desert community of Yuendumu (300ks north-west of Alice Springs) to the summit when I met them in Mount Barker a couple of years earlier. I had been running a taxi in Mount Barker from my Littlehampton home, and was surprised to pick up the group from the Hotel Barker one night. They had come south to accompany a group of women who were performing ceremonial dancing in Adelaide for a period. (Yuendumu being a ‘dry’ community, they were also taking advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a few beers.) I got to know these very traditional men quite well over the next few days, but never dreamed that I would be living and working in an adjoining community to theirs less than ten years later, but that is another story.  View more photographs here.

In 1984, eight years before the stunning Mabo decision gave recognition to land rights for Aboriginal people, Aurora’s flame-haired statement was analogous to a red rag to a bull. My determination right from the outset was to defend the summit from this intrusion as much as possible, to make the instigators answerable, and in the event that a tower did go ahead, to make such a fuss about it that no one would ever dare to try to erect another. I intended to fight the tower from a local environmental point of view, but an early rising tide of Aboriginal activism and awareness was to envelope the issue, and in the process, to reveal a deep seated sliver of racism and ignorance from a wide range of the community; a community which had never had their ‘right’ to take the land off of the original inhabitants questioned.

There was a particular night for me, which I recall as the hinge around which my reality was to swing over the next few months, but effectively for the rest of my life. I had arranged to visit Aurora this night, with the intention of formally organising the public meeting we had discussed previously. I was at home feeling totally buggered, and telling myself that I didn’t have the energy to take the issue any further, and decided to stay at home. I was still running my taxi service, and the phone rang. The customer wanted a ride from Mount Barker to Wistow, a rare destination, but one which took me past Aurora’s house. I completed my fare, but as I neared her house on my return journey, I was still intending to go straight home. As I passed the house, the headlights fell on Aurora’s cat; dead on the road – run over since I had passed by some twenty minutes earlier.

I pulled over, picked up the cat, and knocked on the door.

“I have some bad news for you.” I said.

“My cat has been run over.” she said.

We dug a hole in her yard, and as we patted the soil down, a bird whistled.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a willie wagtail, the Aboriginal harbinger of death,” she said.

“That’s not the wagtail,” I said, but even as I uttered the words the answering familiar ‘chitter’ came. We went inside, and organised a public meeting.

Over the next few days, we booked the supper room of the Littlehampton Institute, and invited the various parties to to the meeting, planned for a week or so later. I would travel up to the summit daily, and was disturbed to see that the work was continuing apace. At about this time I began writing letters to the Courier, expressing my concern for the integrity of the summit. I learnt  that the Mount Barker Council had initially knocked back the Police Department’s application to erect the tower, but they had been bullied, and informed that they might as well agree, or they would be over-ruled on the decision. The Council complied, with the proviso that the tower should be erected in the upper car park rather than on the very top.

Now on my daily visits to the mount, it became obvious that a huge concrete slab would be poured any time soon. A large square of earth had been evacuated, and steel shuttering was in place in readiness for the pour. We had had no response to our invitations from the officials, and it seemed that the slab would be in place before our meeting took place, rendering it pointless, and allowing us and the community in general to be treated with contempt.

I rang a lawyer (who is now a judge) and asked if there was any way the work could be delayed, and he said that if there was a question of it being an important Aboriginal site, one could contact the Aboriginal Legal Rights Services. He gave me the phone number, and I passed it on to Aurora.

A day or two later I called in on Aurora. She had been busy. Despite a rabid response to her television appearance, Aurora had addressed the South Australian Trades Union Council, and pleaded with them to use whatever means they could to ensure a fair go for the Aboriginal cause in regard to the Summit. The union agreed, but insisted that a picket line needed to be formed, comprising Aboriginal people. To my amazement Aurora informed me that a group which included Aboriginal artist Bluey Roberts, the famous Police tracker Jimmy James, Ngarrindjeri elder and historian Paul Kropinnyerri, and various relatives would be arriving at Mount Barker at midnight: and could I guide them up to the summit in the darkness to set up their camp when they arrived? This I did.

What mere words can express the outrage and hysteria which broke out over the next days, weeks and months? Workers who turned up the next morning found the narrow track to the upper car park blocked by two vehicles and a rough stone wall, a makeshift  ‘wurley’ next to a tree on the track, Aboriginal men, women and children, and the Aboriginal flag draped overhead.

The newspapers, television stations and local media swarmed like flies, and the issue had immediately been transformed from an environmental dispute, into literally, a black and white issue. At home my phone rang hot, and many locals told me that they were against the tower being erected, but would not get involved because of the involvement of the Aboriginals. Furthermore, a line was now being run that those Aboriginal people who were now camped on the summit for what turned out to be for months, were being manipulated by white activists. This was the prevailing climate when a crowd of around sixty people gathered  in the Littlehampton Institute a few days later. I was the mug standing up front hoping to keep order.

There were no spokespeople  of the various authorities we had invited to inform us of the dimensions and ramifications of the tower, although a couple of Mount Barker Councillors were there in an unofficial role. A day or two before the meeting, Aurora told me that a local who was active in organising slide-shows wanted to open the meeting with a presentation. I had seen a show by this man previously, which in that case was predominately focused on the threat of nuclear annihilation, and I was concerned that a slideshow might be unsuitable for the occasion, but Aurora prevailed, and I relented with the proviso it should be kept short.

The lights were dimmed, and a slide and music presentation, focused on the environment,  whatever its ascetic merits, rolled interminably on, until many members of the audience began yelling angrily that this was not what they were there for. Sensing a disastrous start to the night, I killed the show by switching on the lights, and turned to face a hall full of angry people yelling at each other.

I immediately announced that if people were going to conduct themselves in that manner there was no point in holding a meeting, and I would be walking out. The crowd quietened down, and despite the dearth of any new information due to the lack of officials, the general concept and known facts were discussed somewhat civilly for awhile, but I knew I had to introduce Aurora, the ‘spokesperson’ for the Aboriginal people, and when I did the mood changed dramatically.

Predictably, Aurora was accused of manipulating  the Aboriginal people, of being a self appointed spokesperson, and of ‘beating up a phony sacred site’. When asked why there were no Aboriginal people at the meeting, she replied that  they did not want to be subjected to white racism. The meeting eventually struggled to a finish, with little civility, more heat than light, a standard of debate and discussion set in stone, and a paucity of information which was to set the tone for the whole sorry story. More pics here.

Now it was war. The police never addressed a single public meeting throughout the dispute, and were obviously pissed off that anyone, let alone trades unions, Blackfellows, and ‘greenies’ should dare to question their authority. They quickly determined that the key to their quest for the erection of the tower was to convince the Aboriginal people to relent, whereupon the union ban would be lifted, the tower erected, and the rest could ‘go jump’.

Further complicating matters, Paul Kropinyeri asked me to pass on a letter he had written to the already hostile Mount Barker Courier, in which he referred to white people using the summit like a ‘cesspit.’ Because of the hostility I was getting on the phone and wherever I went in the community, I held the letter back. When I told him this, he went very cold on me, and we were never close after that. I submitted the letter the following week, but it was never printed.

Meanwhile, the shuttering for the base was removed, and eventually, the hole filled in.

For the next few months a motley mixture of visitors trooped up to the summit. Many were supporters, many were hostile. Mini-buses of Aboriginal kids visited, as did Northern Territory Aboriginals, politicians, louts, and everything in between. A very dominant presence was that of the police. Jimmy James of course, was a police tracker, extremely famous for the cases he had helped the police with. He had tracked lost kids, escaped convicts, criminals, and was feted in South Australian newspapers and media. He was a Pitjantjatjara man from South Australia’s far north, but had married a Ngarrindjeri woman, so became a relative by marriage to Bluey Roberts, who to some extent was taught some of Jimmy’s skills. I was disgusted therefore, to observe a police Aboriginal liaison officer telling Jimmy that the Police had ‘lost respect’ for him, because of his stand.

Now the dispute ground on, for month after month. The weather grew colder, and a small group of three local whites, (including Aurora) and the Aboriginal group negotiated with the Police. Opposition politicians flayed the Government for not getting the tower erected, the Courier editorialised mercilessly against the protesters, and when Paul and Aurora formed a relationship, even my communication with her became more remote. I continued to write letters to the Courier, all of which were printed, and even managed to get a one-on-one  meeting with the Minister for Planning and Environment. He milked me for information while he devoured some Kentucky Fried chicken, and dismissed me curtly when he had finished. The dispute was going no-where, but neither was the tower.

Eventually, having camped on the summit for months, the protesters moved back to their homes. They left in place the wurleys they had built, and the odd bits of furniture they had gathered. This stuff was soon scattered and thrown about, and  the Courier was soon on the spot, photographing the ‘mess’ and lambasting the protestors for rubbishing the summit. One day I opened the Adelaide Advertiser, and read that the Government had decided not to build a tower on the mount, and would find a suitable alternative.

I rang Aurora, to express my delight, though her response was muted. I should have paid more attention to the final paragraph in the article referring to ‘further discussions continuing’. The next day I read that a tower would be erected on the summit, but a higher one, on the lower car park. I was furious, and I let Aurora know it.

Eventually the terms of the agreement, and to some extent the pressures applied emerged. A major component of the debate revolved around the safety of the public, especially in light of the devastating Ash Wednesday bush-fires preceding the dispute. An anthropological survey was promised, and a plaque in recognition of the Aboriginal prior occupation and significance was to be erected. Areas would be landscaped, and the upper car park would be closed to vehicles. The tower was to be erected in the centre of the lower car park.

At this stage myself and some other defenders of the summit called another public meeting, this time on the mount, and to which I again invited the various parties once more to advise the public as to the size of, the use of, and the impact on the mount. All of my invitees refused to attend. In frustration I built a dummy, and dressed it in a keystone cop uniform, and covered it with a sheet. When I was attacked for having the temerity to call the meeting I explained that I simply wanted the authorities, for the first time, to address the concerned public, and I whipped the sheet off the dummy and announced that “This is the only representative we could get”, to yells of outrage.

The mayor of the day announced that he hadn’t been invited to attend, and I responded by saying that I had spoken to the council engineer who had flatly rejected my invitation earlier that day. We then tried to pass a resolution condemning the Government, the Police, and the Courier, but the resolution failed to pass. At least I had tried to utilise some semblance of democracy throughout the fight, no-one else had. During the meeting, the man responsible for the quarry which still scars the northern ridge, informed me that “The Dreamtime is over, Bob.”

There is no doubt that the pressures applied to the group were enormous, but to have come so close to stopping it then relenting, was devastating. To cap it off, I rang the copper in charge of the tower’s erection, and asked him why the old concrete base which was used near the quarry site for a tower, years earlier, was not considered a suitable alternative site. To my amazement, he did not know of this location, and had ‘thought’ the quarry tower was on the summit proper.

Parts of the agreement were kept, but there was an attempt to locate the tower not in the centre of the car park, but on a corner to one side. I noticed and reported the excavations, and the union bans were on again. Finally the tower was erected in the centre of the park. More photos can be seen here.

It looms there to this day. When it was erected there was one building, now there are three. It is now twenty metres higher than first promised. Because of the extra height, stabilising  cables were attached. The bases of the cables had to be protected, so mesh wire cages were erected around them.  But I believe there it ends. My original goal of fighting to the finish was accomplished, and I don’t believe there will ever be another attempt to erect a tower on the summit. Indeed, I sometimes hear crazy ideas about a lease running out, and the tower being removed, but that is a wish too far for me.

Today, councils fly the Aboriginal flag, and the traditional owners are acknowledged. Monuments are erected, and the respect for Aboriginal culture is greater than it has ever been. That status has been accomplished due to many battles fought long ago (especially Mabo) by brave people like Aurora, like Bluey Roberts, Paul Kropinyeri, and their families. And, god bless him, Jimmy James. He deserved better.

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 Dawdle

It is six days short of two months since I lobbed in Darwin, but finally, tomorrow, the eighteenth of June, I shall be flying to Croker Island. Here I will meet the residents, learn what I can of their culture, and share what I can of their history which my research has revealed, hopefully a productive and mutually satisfying experience all around.
The pace of things up here is fine by me. I have done research on the Macassan culture and their search for the trepang in the waters of Raffles Bay during Barker’s time as Commandant. I have come across the booklet of the Historical Society’s expedition to Fort Wellington in 1966, and I have found out all I can of the Iwaidja people, prior to actually meeting them. During the last few days I have found some photographs on line of the Iwaidja, taken in the 1880’s by the Police Inspector Paul Foelsche. I have copied some of these images into my lap-top, and if it is appropriate, I will show the people of Croker these images of their ancestors, as well as sharing with them the stories recorded by Collet Barker in his journals of 1827-28, and of his interaction with the Iwaidja of that period.
I have also squeezed in a trip to Katherine while John and Sue were up here on a visit, done some jamming at the Nirvana night spot, watched a movie under the stars, and dined on the wharf as the sun sinks and the moon rises. Darwin is a great spot to go slow, and the weather is magnificent, not exceeding 33 degrees maximum, or 20 odd degrees minimum.

Tomorrow, at nine thirty a.m., I fly out of Darwin for Croker Island via Goulburn Island, which means a good look around on the way, and when I return from Croker, in a week or thereabouts, my northern mission will be complete, and I can look forward to going back home to the Adelaide Hills, where the maximum temperatures seem to be somewhere between twelve and fifteen degrees. Did I just write that???!!!!