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European discovery of the River Murray system: Collet Barker’s exploration in Gulf St Vincent

As a result of Sturt's expedition Captain Collet Barker, who was returning to Sydney from his station at King George Sound, was asked to divert to Cape Jervis and St Vincent Gulf, [Sturt: St Vincent's gulf] there to survey the coast and the immediate interior. He arrived at Cape Jervis on 13 April 1831. His first task was to determine whether there was a channel from Lake Alexandrina to the Gulf. After an extensive examination of the eastern side of the Gulf, no such channel was located.

Barker's men then landed and proceeded to explore the country inland from what is now Port Noarlunga. The appearance of the land was fertile, ...a rich, fat chocolate coloured earth (Sturt, Charles Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia during the years 1828, 1829, 1830, and 1831... London, Smith Elder, 1833; vol. 2, p. 233).  Ascending Mt Lofty, they were able to examine a great area and Barker saw an indentation on the coast that he had missed in his coastal survey. This was the Port River and Barker Inlet. Returning to the coast and his ship Isabella, Barker examined this inlet and also discovered a small river that he named for Sturt. Again the land was noted as abundantly fertile.

Barker then sailed south and landed in the vicinity of Rapid Bay from where he travelled inland some distance, and from a high vantage point saw Lake Alexandrina and its outlet. He and his party reached the Murray Mouth on 29 April. Barker then decided to cross the channel to examine the country beyond, and as he was the only member of the group who could swim, determined to do it alone. The channel was judged to be a quarter of a mile wide and the tide was running strongly. With the compass strapped to his head, he swam across and was seen to take several bearings, before descending the far side of a sandy hill. He was never seen again.

The men on the western side of the mouth heard a sharp cry and then nothing. They waited anxiously for some time and then decided to return to the ship in Rapid Bay. There it was decided to seek assistance from the sealers on Kangaroo Island, who accompanied by an Aboriginal girl, Sally and two of her relatives, endeavoured to find out what had happened to Captain Barker.

With Sally acting as interpreter, it was revealed that three Aboriginals had speared Barker. Unarmed and defenceless he was unable to resist and after being speared many times over, his body was cast into deep water. The attack on Barker is generally believed to have been the result of years of brutality on the Ngarrindjeri people of the Coorong by the itinerant sealers and whalers based on Kangaroo Island. The irony is that Captain Collet Barker had a reputation as a humane friend of the Aboriginal people as was evident in his previous posts at Raffles Bay and King George Sound.

Further reading

The report of Barker's work on the Fleurieu Peninsula was published by Charles Sturt in his Two expeditions into the interior of South Australia during the years 1828, 1829, 1830 and 1831..., London, 1833, reprinted in facsimile 1963

Barker, Collet. Commandant of solitude: the journals of Captain Collet Barker, 1828-1831, John Mulvaney and Neville Green, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press at the Miegunyah Press, 1992


Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition See: Barker, Collet

Gutenberg project of Australia: Charles Sturt - text for Two expeditions into the interior of South Australia during the years 1828, 1829, 1830 and 1831 See: Vol 2, Chpt. VIII

Barker Monument, Mt. Barker
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Barker's expedition
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