Reports of Aboriginal Massacres in Port Stephens and Baker’s Island, 1829 – 1834

The Death of Young Moses – Were Aboriginal Massacres committed in Port Stephens and Baker’s Island (i.e., Dempsey Island, Newcastle)?

Whilst searching for a reference to an Aboriginal man named Moses Melmonth (?), friend of Vera Deacon’s late father, Norman Pember, that she mentioned in an interview with Dr Ann Hardy, we located a reference to the allegedly “accidental” death of an aboriginal named Young Moses on “Baker’s Island, near Newcastle.” This was reported in a letter from Mr E.S. Hall sent to the Attorney General John Kinchella on 2 October 1834. In that letter, (published in the Sydney Monitor on the 8th October 1834) Hall reported two massacres committed against the Aboriginal people in Port Stephens and another at Baker’s Island (near Newcastle) that had taken place during the period when Edward Parry was in charge of the Australian Agricultural Company, i.e., from December 1829 – March 1834.

It was later reported in the Sydney Gazette, that Hall’s report was erroneous, and that the only person killed was an Aboriginal by the name of Young Moses, and in that case it appears it was an accidental shooting, and the entire thing a misunderstanding. The articles are located in TROVE, are scanned and transcribed further below. We would be very interested in further investigation of this matter, as Hall’s report appeared genuine, and he was concerned that the matters would be swept under the carpet. The Sydney Monitor continued to call for investigations into the matter up to around March 1835, and then the matters are never heard of again. Young Moses appears on a 1833 blankets list as “absent”, see J.Warner’s ‘Nominal Return of Natives present at the issue of Blankets at Lake Macquarie, and names of those absent in the District, 1833, C.S.I.L (4/6666.3 Reg. No. 33/3623. (reprinted in Gunson, 1974, pp. 263-264). There are no apparent mentions of the incidents in Threlkeld’s correspondence or diaries, but further examination is required.

Having no idea where “Baker’s Island” was located, and after checking a number of early high resolution plans of the Newcastle, and the early Islands that made up what is now Kooragang Island with no luck, we rang Vera at home who told us it was an old name for Dempsey Island, named after John Baker, a gardener squatter settler who located there in May 1830. Vera had located references to him in the Diary of Edward Parry and wrote up the story for the Stockton Historical Society which we have reproduced below with her permission.  There are no maps that we have located to date that record the location of Baker’s Island, but we will keep looking. The map below from 1871 below shows the locations of various islands of the Hunter delta.

Australia East coast New South Wales 1871 Hunter River surveyed by J.T.Gowlland assisted by J.F. Loxton (Courtesy of the National Library of Australia)
Australia East coast New South Wales 1871 Hunter River surveyed by J.T.Gowlland assisted by J.F. Loxton (Courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

Here is some background on John Baker the Gardener by Vera Deacon and reprinted from “PLATTS CHANNEL Continuing Our Historical Row Along the Hunter’s South Arm: by Vera Deacon” in Stockton Historical Society Inc Quarterley Magazines Volume 3 Numbers 1 to 10 April 2001 to July 2003:

John Baker the Gardener.
However, before John and Rosanna died in 1836, a family settled on an island across Platts Channel within sight of their home. Many think that Alexander Walker Scott, MMA Cambridge, the wealthy entrepreneur and naturalist, was the first settler on the islands. That distinction belongs to a man who became well known, even famous in his time, as John Baker the Gardener. One day in late May 1830, aged 34, he rowed up the graceful curve of the Hunter’s south arm looking for a place to settle. He found it and ‘simply squatted’ on Dempsey Island’s southern bank. He had no means to buy land or time to await ‘the bureaucratic process’ of obtaining a land grant.

(Today, the site much changed, is just past Kooragang Wind Turbine Generator and approximately parallel with Kitchener Parade, Mayfield East.)

What events brought John and Diana, from Middle and Steeple Claydon villages in Buckinghamshire, Southeast England, to an uninhabited, lonely island? In England, the Napoleonic wars had caused rising prices and rural depression, which made life for families hard. John, ‘without land ofhis own’ laboured on landed estates. On one, the estate of the Earl ofEssex ‘famous for its fruit trees way back in 1650,’ John perfected his gardening skills. Like so many agricultural workers, John saw a chance of a better life in the colony of Australia. In 1826 he applied to the Australian Agricultural Company, AAC then establishing itself at “Carrabeen”, Carrington, Port Stephens. Good character references won him an offer of a contract as an ‘indentured servant for 30 pounds per year for seven years.’

Accepted! The family sailed on July 11, 1827 on the barque Frederick and arrived in December at Port Stephens. They came steerage with twenty-two other families. One cabin passenger was accountant William Barton, his salary 500 pounds. His ninth child, Edmund, became Australia’s first Prime Minister in 1901. The ship’s cargo included 8 puncheons of rum, 320 baskets of tobacco, 8 merino rams, 320 French merino ewes, 7 horses and stores.

At Port Stephens the family lived in a cottage near “Tahlee”, Commissioner Parry’s residence and garden. Some ofthe AAC’s 102 assigned convicts laboured under John, ‘as the company’s gardener.’ Troubles, long drought, sheep raids by bushrangers and dispossessed Aborigines and discontented indentured servants beset the AAC settlement. To save money, Parry appointed five wives to wash the hospital clothes. They rebelled. Diana Baker was one. Parry punished their ‘insubordination’ by removing the families’ milk cows, removing every ration except the ‘bare proportion of meat and flour’ due under their contract.

Although separation from the AAC was risky, John Baker reacted and asked verbally and in writing to be released from his contract. Parry ‘gladly’ released him on May 14, 1830 and appointed an assigned convict at a cost of about ‘one third of the present expense to the company.’ Now winter loomed. Insistent necessity drove John, and with his wife Diana, 32, two sons, John 9, William 8 and baby Ann, he built a pioneer’s shelter. More hard toil cleared eight acres. A fenced two acres became an orchard in which John planted his carefully nurtured cuttings of grapevines, fruit trees and seeds.

In June 1831, Diana gave birth to Rebecca Louise the first child born on Dempsey Island. (I wonder if the Baker and Platt children played together when their parents met? Did John exchange orchard cuttings with John Laurio?) Another five children· followed. Only three of six born on the island survived, their ninth child, and third son, Henry Australia Baker born on April 11, 1839 was baptised at Christ Church. ‘Australia’, chosen as a second name, expressed their appreciation of their chosen land .. . ‘a name carried down several generations.’

One hundred years later, the writer lived in a tiny house on Dempsey Island. In the large fenced garden there grew lemons, quinces, apples and a giant China pear tree. My Mother baked many luscious, ginger-spiced pear pies from its fruit! I believe this was part of Baker’s orchard. Maps place it on the I 0 acres John Baker applied to buy at the minimum price of five shillings per acre in 1836. Approved by Sir Richard Bourke in January 1838, the next Governor, George Gipps, signed the Land Purchase title a year later.

In September, 1839, John Gould ‘The Bird Lover’ pitched his observation tent on Mosquito Island. Elizabeth, his artist wife painted the Regent Bower bird “shy in its gorgeous livery of golden- yellow and deep, velvetyblack,’ Ornithologist Gould observes it to be ‘numerous … particularly on Baker’s Island where there is a fine garden.’ He notes the Bower Bird as ‘one of the greatest pests’ which visited and ‘ate the ripening peaches and other fruits, causing … damage and loss.’ (See plate 12 Vol. IV of his “Birds of Australia”.) Gould also addressed a letter to John at Baker’s Island asking for his son to ‘collect birds eggs and give them to Mr Scott at Newcastle’.

The first, Census ofNSW in 1828 records John and family as ‘Servants of A.A. Coy.’ By the 1841 census the small-time ‘squatter’ is listed as a ‘landed proprietor.’ In his wooden house, probably roofed with bark or wood shingles, twelve people lived: eleven were Church of England, one a pagan. A convict, one of three employees, was a ‘ticket of leave man.’ The Maitland Mercury, September 18, 1846 features auctioneer Alex Flood’s advertisement for a land sale on Dempsey Island adjacent to John Baker’s property. It celebrates John as ‘that talented gardener whose fruit and vegetables … please so many palates … always ready to instruct how to dress and keep’ the land.

The years pass and marriages of their children, will, by 1857, add 20 grandchildren, almost all born on Baker’s, by then, Dempsey Island. The growing family moved to the Clarence River- Grafton district history after the huge Hunter River flood of 1857. Diana died in July 1866 aged seventy and she was buried in the Wesleyan section of Grafton Cemetery. As always,
John Baker’s death certificate records him as ‘gardener’ .. He died on July 31, 1874 of ‘old age debility with a last illness of four hours with no medical attendant.’ He was buried in the Old Methodist Cemetery, Maclean. His simple headstone, broken by the years into two pieces, was restored in 1991.

By 1996 over 1700 descendants were recorded in the family history. Wonderful people who now extend into almost every section of Australian life. The story of Australia!


The reports relating to the (alleged) massacres at Port Stephens and Baker’s Island are transcribed below:


Attorney General, &c. &c.
Sydney, October 2, 1834.


From the numerous atrocities practiced on the Ab-origines of this Colony from time to time by the Colonists, and the spirit of party generated in favour of the agressors, by their friends and connexions after such practices, I am of the opinion, that all such aggressions should be transmitted to His Majesty’s Secretary of State through the Governor, in order that investigation may take place through the direct authority of the Home Government. But as such a mode of proceeding might be suppoed by some to reflect upon the Governor of the Colony, and as His Excellency General Bourke is not a person to be suspected of indifference in the cause of humanity, I shall lay before you certain illegal acts lately practiced towards the Ab-origines of this Colony, in order to your prosecuting the aggressors in due course of law.

In th first place, certain of the officers and agents of the New South Wales Agricultural Corporation settled at Port Stephens, attacked, shot at, and pursued the black natives belonging to their Grant of Land, until they were driven beyond the same. These natives being thus driven from their own lands to the lands of the tribes beyond, were doubtless slaughtered by the latter for the intrusion. This took place during the residence of Sir Edward Parry at Port Stephens, and with his knowledge, but I do not say with his knowledge at the time; much less with his approbation at any time. Nevertheless, I consider it represensible in Sir E. Parry as the head of the Corporation at Port Stephens, as a Magistrate, and above all as a Gentleman professing christianity with more strictness than other men, that he did not furnish you with all the circumstances which came to his knowledge by public and private report or otherwise, of the transaction, but left the Colony, and the atrocities in question, unenquired into, and of course unpunished.

I now beg to apprise you therefore, that if you direct a Bench of Magistrates to assemble at Sydney for the purpose, and send to Port Stephens for the servant’s free and bond of the Company, ten at a time, and examine them separately; execising in the enquiry time and patience; that you will, before you get through the first score, learn sufficient to convince you, that certain servants and officers of the Port Stephens Corporation, as before alleged, have slaughtered and maimed with muskets, powder and ball, numbers of the black natives of the lands there; contrary to law, and from a cause quite inadequate to the massacre which has been promiscuously made of the unoffending portion of the natives; who were hunted down, shot at, and slain, without having the cause of such unusual violence explained to them.

I have further to inform you, that Mr. Brooks, Magistrate of Newcastle, did early in August lass, grant three Warrants under his hand and seal, to certain constables, to search after “take, and bring in, dead or alive,” certain black natives in the said warrants named. And, in consequence, the constables proceeded to shoot at, wound, and kill a band of nearly twenty black natives of both sexes and all ages on Baker’s Island near Newcastle; and in particular to shoot at and kill in cold blood after he was made a prisoner, a certain black native, commonly called Young Moses; a man familiar with the people of Newcastle, and often employed by hem in sundry sorts of labour.

I have also to inform you, that after Mr. Brooks had heard the particulars of the atrocity, he summoned twelve men, and in the absence of a Coroner, held himself a sort of Inquest, swearing in the witnesses. The witnesses had either been tampered with, or were not present at the massacre above stated as having taken place at Baker’s Island, for they made statements quite different to the real facts.

This I distinctly state; and if you summon the jorors of the Inquest (so called) before a Bench, they will inform you, that the evidence given before them, was different to what they now verily believe to be the truth.

I therefore accus Mr. Brooks, of acting illegally, and without due regard to life and limb, in having granted the three warrants above alluded to “to take and bring in the black natives therein named dead or alive;” & request you will enquire into this and the above circumstance, both of them, without delay, and do in all respects; what the law may require to be done, without regards to persons or circumstances.

I have the honor to remain,
Sir, your most obedient
humble Servant.


Article image from the National Library of Australia's Newspaper Digitisation Program

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser
Saturday 11 October 1834, page 2

Since the publication of our last number, we have heard from good authority, that that part of Mr. Hall’s letter to the Attorney General, respecting the shooting of the Aboriginal Natives on Baker’s Island, near Newcastle, is erroneous. Our authority is one of the jury who sat on the inquest; and he informs us that the evidence adduced was to this effect: petty pilfering had been carried on to a considerable extent, for a long time, by some of the natives on Ash Island, and Baker’s Island. Some of the servants of the settlers there were set to watch for, and apprehend the aggressors; one of whom, accidentally meeting with the servant of Mr. PLATT, who was armed with a gun, watched his opportunity, and attempted to take it from him; in the struggle the gun went off and the native was killed, but there was not a little of evidence to show that the death was other than accidental. With respect to the indiscriminate shooting at the natives which has been alleged to have subsequently taken place; we are assured that the report originated in the circumstance that some seamen belonging to the brig Craigevar, remained on Baker’s Island during the night after the native was shot, for the protection of the family on who premises the accident took place, and discharged fire-arms at intervals, in order to deter other natives from approaching the neighbourhood, to take revenge for the death of one of their brethren. Mr BROOKS, though present at the inquest, took no part whatsoever in the examination of the witnesses, but merely gave evidence, as a surgeon, respecting the cause of the death of the deceased native. This transaction is altogether distinct from what is alleged to have taken place at Port Stephens; though, from its being mixed up with the latter affair, in Mr. HALL’S letter to the Attorney General, it would appear to be merely a part of a regularly organized system to destroy the aborigines.

Article image from the National Library of Australia's Newspaper Digitisation Program
Article image from the National Library of Australia’s Newspaper Digitisation Program

Sydney Monitor

Wednesday 24 December 1834 p.3

The Black Natives.

Difference between them and whites in the apprehension of the Government.

The Government Gazette of Wednesday last, announces a reward for the apprehension of a part of aboriginal natives, who are charged with the commission of some desperate outrages in the neighbourhood of Hunter’s river. We hope that the wretches will be speedily captured, but we cannot help repeating our oft expressed opinion, that such instances of brutality by the native are, nine times out of ten, the consequence of previous aggressions committed on them and their women by the whites.” – Sydney Gazette, 22 Nov.

We wrote a public letter to the Attorney General, informing him of the slaughter of the black natives, by the people in the territory of the Australian Company and at Baker’s Island. We hear of nothing being done; at all events, no reward is offered for the apprehension of the white slaughters.

But when the blacks commit depradations on the whites without slaughtering them wholesale as the whites have slaughted the blacks, then we see rewards offered.

Thus does this government proclaim by its deeds (which is more eloquent then words), that it puts a difference between a black sking and a white skin; that the life of a man black is not equal in the eyes of God and the law, to that of a white man; and consquently, that to pay 20 millions to free the negroes of the West Indies, was not an act of justice, but of superfluous and imbecile philantrophy.


Sydney Monitor
Saturday 28th February 1835 Page 3

EXECUTION. – Yesterday morning an aboriginal named Mickey Mickey, who has been convicted of rape and robbery in the district of Brisbane Water, was executed pursuant to his sentence. Mickey said very little the whole of the morning, but to outward appearance he seemed fervently to join in some prayers which the Rev. Mr. Threlkeld had translated into his language. Upon arriving in the execution yard he became very timid, but when he had repeated a short prayer in his own language after Mr. Threlkeld, he ascended the ladder with a firm step, the drop fell, and Mickey ceased to exist. Several of the blacks under sentence of transportation were in the yard, and appeared extremely frightened, but there was nothing said by any of them to Mickey. The death of Mickey was demanded by justice; but justice equally demands that the agressions which have been committed on the blacks (not forgetting Port Stephens and Baker’s Island) should be immediately enquired into.


Sydney Monitor
Wednesday 4th March 1835 page 2

The Ab-origines and our Attorney General.

Our Attorney General has lately filed information against some of our Ab-origines for divers crimes committed in divers places. They have been tried and convicted and are to be transported to an island in Bass’s Straits, whither the Ab-origines of Van Diemen’s Land are sent in voluntary banishment. One has been hanged.

On the eighth of October last, we addressed a letter to the Attorney General in this Journal, informing him of a party of black natives at Baker’s Island near Newcastle have been fired at and grievously wounded (one of whom died of his wound) by a party of respectable Colonists, headed by a constable, who carried with him a sort of mock warrant executed by Mr. Brooks of Newcastle, J.P. directing all whome it might concern to bring in “dead or alive,” certain blacks in the said warrant named.

The murder committed under this sham warrant is not the less murder in the eye of English law, because a mock instrument was signed with the name of a Justice of the Peace.

We now ask the Attorney General if the Ab-origines of New South Wales are beyond the pale of English law when they are murdered or otherwise maltreated?


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