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.