Captain Collet Barker

Mount Barker Summit seen from Pop- Star's garden

Mount Barker Summit seen from Pop-
Star’s garden

English: Lower Lakes of South Australia as vie...

English: Lower Lakes of South Australia as viewed from space in May 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Mount Barker in South Australia is not the only Australian township named in honour of Captain Collet Barker. The other one is in Western Australia, 50 kilometres north of Albany.   Both townships have similarly sized hills nearby from which they derive their names.

The  West Australian town has a population of about 3000, while the population of Mount Barker in South Australia was 12,000 at the 2011 census.  However with adjacent Nairne and Hahndorf  the population of the Mount Barker region is estimated at 26,434 and is one of South Australia’s main growth areas.


Captain Collet Barker was a well-regarded figure in Australia’s early colonial history. He is not so well-known now because after only three years of service in Australia he died rather tragically aged 47 exploring the outlet of the Murray River.He had been a career soldier who served in Sicily, in the Napoleonic Wars against France, and in North America at the Canadian frontier. He came to Australia in 1828 to take charge of the short-lived penal settlement at Fort Wellington on Raffles Bay (on the north coast of the Cobourg Peninsula). A year later his assignment was to the penal settlement in King George Sound in Western Australia; it  was under the command of the Governor of NSW and closed in March 1831 for transfer to Sydney. He gave distinguished service at both locations, maintaining the health of the prisoners, and establishing friendly relationships with the aborigines. He was evidently disappointed when they were ended.

The Governor of the Swan River settlement, Sir James Stirling, objected to the King George Sound penal colony; it was not under their administration. When the Governor of NSW (Sir Ralph Darling) decided to close it and transfer the inmates to Sydney, Collet Barker was asked to take them on the ship Isabella, and on the way to explore the eastern coast of St Vincent’s Gulf, and to determine whether Lake Alexandrina, noted by the explorer of the Murrary River Charles Sturt, had a channel to St Vincent’s Gulf.


He arrived at Cape Jervis on 13 April 1831. He first explored the coast north of Cape Jervix from the Isabella, but found no outlet in doing so.

He then returned to anchor Isabella at Port Noarlunga, and explored the interior defining the landmarks of the future Adelaide settlement. He noted the abundant fertility of the land, with “rich, fat chocolate coloured earth”. He correctly identified Mount Lofty Summit (727 metres) which had been climbed and named by Matthew Flinders in 1802 during his circum-navigation of Australia. He and his officers climbed Mount Lofty and from the Summit, where Matthew Flinders had left a cairn of stones, he was able to identify a bay now known as the Barker Inlet; this he had missed when exploring the coast from the Isabella. Adjacent was the mouth of the Port River, and location of the future Port of Adelaide. He also noted the mouth of a smaller river which he named Sturt River after his explorer friend Charles Sturt.

His remaining task was to extend his search towards Lake Alexandrina, and determine whether or not there was a channel to the Gulf. He sailed south from Port Noarlunga to anchor at Rapid Bay. He then set out overland on foot across the Fleurieu Peninsula to Encounter Bay. At the eastern extremity of the Bay on 30 April 1831, he came across the mouth of the Murray River, and outlet of Sturt’s Lake Alexandrina. Had he been content with this discovery, he would have survived to complete his assignment and to take up his next post to the troubled North Island settlement of New Zealand where his conciliatory attitude might have been invaluable in dealing with the Maori problem.

He made a decision however to extend his exploration to the southern side of the Murrary mouth, but since he was the only one in the party who could swim, he set out alone across the mile wide mouth with his compass strapped to his head. He was observed to reach the far shore, to take bearings with his compass, and to then walk up and over a sand dune. A short time later his men heard a sharp cry, and then nothing. He was never seen again. Eventually when they had given up all hope for his return, the party returned to the ship.

Before moving on, they contacted  Kangaroo Island sealers who requested their Aboriginal interpreter Sally to find out what had befallen Collet Barker. She and two of her relatives are reported to have met with the Ngarrindjeri people of the Coorong. They were told  that three of their number had speared the defenceless Captain Barker several times, and thrown his body into waters of Lake Alexandrina. Unfortunately the kindly Barker paid the price for the past brutality of the sealers and whalers of Kangaroo Island.


Mount Barker Summit, the peak Sturt saw from Lake Alexandrina and thought by him to be Mount Lofty, was named in his honour by Charles Sturt. There are two memorials to Captain Collet Barker, one at Mount Barker, and the other in St. James’s church in Sydney.

The information provided by Captain Barker’s exploration influenced the choice of Adelaide for the South Australian Settlement five years later in 1836 at Holdfast Bay.

Barker, Collet (1784–1831)

One of the numerous Friends of the late Captain Collet Barker has handed us the following, which we insert with pleasure.

A handsome and very appropriate memento has been erected to the memory of this brave and amiable, but unfortunate soldier, by the officers of his regiment, on the north side of St. James’s Church, opposite that of Sir James Brisbane, and bearing the following inscription on a white marble slab

Sacred to the memory of
Captain Collett Barker,
of His Majesty’s 39th Regiment of Foots,
who was treacherously murdered
by the Aboriginal natives,
on the 30th April, 1831,
while endeavouring,
in the performance of his duty
to ascertain the communication
between lake Alexandrina
and the Gulf of Vincent,
on the south-west coast of New Holland,
in token of esteem
for the singular worth,
and in affectionate remembrance
of the many virtues of the deceased.
This tablet is erected
by Colonel Lindesay
and his brother officers.

The Monument is surrounded by frieze, and with the inscription, reflects credit on the feelings and good taste of his companions in arms, while, like the character to whom it is sacred, it bears the stamp of intrinsic worth.

Our readers may recollect the melancholy circumstances attending the death of Captain Barker a few particulars we have obtained of his career, may not prove altogether uninteresting at this time.

Captain Barker entered the service in 1806, an Ensign in the 39th Regiment, and joined the 2nd Battallion in Malta, where he remained until that corps was ordered to the Peninsula; he was there actively employed with his regiment throughout the whole of those arduous and glorious campaigns, terminated by the victory of Thoulouse. In 1814, the 39th formed a part of the division of the army ordered to embark at Bordeaux, for America, where it was actively employed on the Canadian frontier. On the breaking out of hostilities in 1815, it returned to Europe, but did not arrive till after the battle of Waterloo. Captain B. remained in France, his regiment forming part of the Army of Occupation till 1818. In 1825, after 19 years active service as a Subaltern, he was obliged to purchase his Company. He arrived in this Colony in Aug. 1828, and three weeks afterwards was ordered to take the command of the settlement at Raffles Bay; there, Captain Barker, by his mild and conciliating conduct, opened a friendly intercourse with the natives, a measure which had baffled the attempts of two former Commandants. On the breaking up of this settlement in 1829, in consequence of orders from Home, Captain B. was removed to King George’s Sound. The removal was felt as a severe disappointment by Captain Barker. The object of establishing a station on our northern coast, had been to open a friendly communication with the Malays; and immediately on his having accomplished this object, and while in anxious expectation of remaining to witness the advantages consequent on a commercial intercourse with those people, Governor Darling abandoned the project. At King George’s Sound, Captain B. remained 16 months, when that settlement was handed over to the Swan River Government. In returning, he was directed by the Government to complete the survey of the outlet of Lake Alexandrina, discovered the year previously by Captain Sturt and it was in the execution of this duty, at the moment he attained the abjoct of his mission, that he fell the victim of his zeal and assiduity; being murdered by the natives in an excursion which, unhappily, he made alone.

Among the many amiable traits of Captain B’s character, may be instanced his generous conduct to his widowed sister and her orphan family, to whose welfare he sacrificed every consideration for himself, and who in him have lost a father.

It may be a source of some consolation to those, and other of his relatives, to know that his character is appreciated and his virtues recorded in the land which terminated his honourable career; and though no stone marks the place of his final rest, yet, the memento to his worth erected in St. James’s Church, will not suffer his name to be forgotten in a land where many of his comrades will reside, and among whom his many virtues will be cherished, so long as memory performs its office.

Original publication

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