On This Day: Explorer Barker Murdered by Racist Aborigines

The story of explorer Collet Barker is little known to current day Australians. His is a story of hope lost in as clear an example of race motivated killing as Australia has ever seen. Barker was an ex-army officer turned explorer. He became a keen student of aboriginal language and culture after his first assignment in Australia was to command a post at Raffles Bay at the extremities of the Northern Territory.

Barker was able to win over the trust of the aboriginal tribe at Raffles Bay, much to the relief of the convicts who were sent to the isolated colonial settlement. Barker had taken charge of a tenuous camp that included survivors from the failed Dundas Fort, NT. In his time there Barker often communicated with the aboriginal people on his own and recorded their names and pronunciations for various objects. Finally, Raffles Bay was abandoned with the 96 convicts, marines, and a handful of family members evacuated to safety.

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Barker was then assigned to command a post at King George Sound in Western Australia in 1829. Again the Briton acquitted himself well, and made amicable relations with the natives of the area. Barker would often accompany the natives on treks through the bush, camping overnight and recording as much as possible of the culture of the Minang people. But the tiny settlement was undergoing rapid political change. Barker’s role at King George Sound was not required by 1831 as the governor of the newly established colony of Swan River (now Western Australia) – James Stirling – looked upon the King George Sound penal settlement dimly, with its military staff assigned by New South Wales .

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Map of Murray River

Barker was ordered back to Sydney, but en-route he was tasked to explore the outlet of the Murray River in South Australia. The explorer and an entourage left Swan River on 10th April 1931, arriving at Cape Jervis in South Australia on 13th April. Over the next two weeks Barker explored the area speaking highly of it’s beauty. By April 30th, they had descended Mt Lofty and found themselves at the mouth of the Murray.

Barker, being the intrepid type saw an opportunity to explore further to the eastward where he could spy sand-hills on the other side of the river mouth. He left his party of Mr Kent and his servants and two soldiers to swim across the river. The remaining members remonstrating and warning him of the dangers. Nevertheless, Barker swam the entire quarter mile to the other side taking close to 10 minutes. The captain then climbed the sand-hills and was seen to be surveying the land taking bearings. He descended the further side of a hill and never returned.

Certain that their leader had met with harm the company camped by the shore for the night, during which their attention was roused by an aboriginal tribe. The tribe had lit a number of small fires in the vicinity of the last sighting of Barker. Through the night women’s voices were heard singing a melancholy tune. At daybreak the pioneers made haste to their vessel. It was decided that they would ask for help from sealers camped at Kangaroo Island.

Returning to the scene of Barker’s disappearance, now the explorers had with them a sealer who had procured the aid of a native woman. Upon meeting up with the tribe she was told the terrible fate of Collet Barker.

The Captain had been stalked at length by three members of the tribe into the water. They had been cautious in approach due to the instrument Barker was carrying. But their hatred soon gained control of all other emotions and intellect. They set upon him and the peaceful Barker was unable to convince them of his goodwill. Realising the intentions of the racist fiends the Captain made for the water. The violent tribesmen gave him no chance. At once a spear was hurled into his hip. Barker fought on, making it to the breakers before the aboriginal men sent another spear forth, striking the Briton in the shoulder. He had no hope as a third spear entered his already disabled body.

The native woman told that the aboriginals then dragged Barker’s body from the water before pulling their spears out and plunging them into his lifeless body countless times. This was pure race hatred.

The aboriginal tribesmen made no attempt to communicate with the white man. They simply resorted to deadly violence. This was a race motivated killing. The tragedy of Barker’s murder is that the aborigines killed a keen student and advocate for Australian aboriginal culture.

Much of what is published above can be accessed at the Trove National Library of Australia online.

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