John Kent

One of the stories from the 2011 project: Who were they? People who shaped Victor Harbor and for whom our parks and reserves are named.

photo of Kent Reserve

Kent Reserve covers almost three hectares on the foreshore overlooking Encounter Bay. Originally a traditional camping ground of the Ramindjeri people, it was named after Englishman John Kent, a storekeeper with the 39th Regiment under the command of Captain Collett Barker, later explorer.

Kent first served in Raffles Bay (east of present day Darwin) with Captain Barker. In August 1829, they both sailed on the brig Thompson to the Swan River Settlement in Western Australia. Kent was stationed there as head of the Commissariat at King George Sound (Albany) until the withdrawal of the regiment in 1831.

Kent accompanied Captain Barker and Dr T B Wilson on various expeditions within Western Australia. He was honoured in 1829 when a 140 km long river located in the south coast region of the state was named after him.

Most notably, in South Australia, Kent was part of the group that accompanied Captain Barker immediately prior to his death on Hindmarsh Island in 1831.

In March 1831, the regiment was recalled to Sydney. Captain Barker was asked to conduct further exploration of the southern coast and the Murray mouth on the way. This expedition, eventually fateful, was to follow up on Charles Sturt’s epic 1829–30 journey down the length of the River Murray.

Captain Barker and his party, including John Kent, anchored near the mouth of the previously unknown Onkaparinga River and ventured inland. They discovered and named the Sturt River after Barker’s friend Charles Sturt, and climbed Mt Lofty summit. From there, they sighted the inlet, which eventually became 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 previously mistaken for Mt Lofty. Sturt later named this prominence Mt Barker after his friend Barker.

On the 27 April, Barker and his party sailed into safe anchorage at Yankalilla Bay and set out on foot across the Fleurieu Peninsula to the beach at present day Goolwa. They then continued onto the mouth of the Murray, arriving late on the afternoon of 29 April. The group camped for the night, and next morning Barker, the only strong swimmer in the group, made his fateful decision to swim across the mouth. He undressed, and, with a compass strapped to his head by John Kent, set off.

Captain Barker took almost ten minutes to swim the 200-metre channel. When he reached the opposite shore, he climbed a large sand dune, estimated to be more than 60 feet high, took some readings, waved to his comrades, and disappeared over the dune, never to be seen again by white men.

The remainder of the party, Barker’s batman, Commissariat Officer Kent, two soldiers and two convicts waited apprehensively for Barker’s return.

Sturt recorded Kent’s version of the event:

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 except two who crossed the 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 irreparable 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 what was supposed to have killed him. They landed at or near the rocky point of Encounter Bay, where they were joined 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 this 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 precision 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.

John Kent’s association with Barker is suitably acknowledged in the naming of Kent Reserve. Nearby another reserve on the corner of Bay Road, is named for Barker.

Acknowledgements

  • City of Victor Harbor: ?Community Land Management Plan
  • Early Navigators of South Australia: Captain Collet Barker, April 1831
  • http://historysouthaustralia.net/Nav.htm
  • Explorers’ Diaries of Western Australia http://www.explorationswa.com.au
  • RGSSA Memorials ?http://www.rgssa.org.au/
  • Commandant of Solitude by Mulvaney and Green, 1992
  • History in Portraits: Biographies of Nineteenth Century South Australian Aboriginal People by Simpson and Hercus, 1998.