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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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James (Jimmie) Barker (1900–1972)

PUBLICATION: The Two Worlds of Jimmie Barker, The Life of an Australian Aboriginal 1900-1972, as told to Janet Mathews (Canberra: Aboriginal Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1977)

SEX: Male

BIRTH DATE: July 28, 1900

BIRTH PLACE: Cunnamulla, South-West Queensland

LANGUAGES SPOKEN: English, Muruwari .


  • Mundiwa: an Aboriginal camp on the Culgoa River, where Jimmie moved to live in a tent – and later a tin humpy – when his parents split. (p.1) Jimmie embraced the opportunities to learn from the Muruwari elders that lived at Mundiwa. Despite being a harsh place to live, Jimmie was very reluctant to leave. (p.4)
  • Milroy: a station about seven miles up the Culgoa River from Mundiwa, run by a Mr and Mrs Armstrong. Jimmie moved to Milroy so that his mother could take up a job as a housemaid. While he had resisted the relocation, Barker found new mentors at Milroy to take him camping and educate him. (p.21)
  • Brewarrina: The town where his grandfather lived and worked, (p.2) and where Jimmie first visited when he was called to act as a witness for Peter Flood’s prosecution. (p.44)
  • Jimmie moved with his mother to live in the mission outside of Brewarrina. In 1912, the family moved into the Brewarrina for three months, until the police forced them to return to the mission. (p.61)
  • Jimmie’s experiences at the Brewarrina mission were bitter. Nonetheless, it provided him security and a sense of community.
  • Tullamore: Where Jimmie worked as a labourer on station for four years, having been tricked by the Brewarrina Mission manager into thinking he would be taking up an apprenticeship. (p.87)
  • Lightening Ridge: Where Jimmie moved when he was forced to resign from his job at the Brewarrina Hospital, to mine opals. (p. 171)

Other locations:

  • Cunnamulla: where Jimmie was born, although he has no memories of living there (p.1)
  • Weilmoringle Station: A station near Milroy that Jimmie visited with Maria and Hippia in 1910. (p.40) Jimmie was shocked to see Aboriginal people engaged in harmful behaviours – such as opium smoking, gambling, and chlorodyne drinking – which did not occur in Mundiwa or Milroy.
  • Corella Station: A station where Jimmie spent 12 weeks living and working when he was ten.(p.41)
  • Walgett: Jimmie walked for five days from Brewarrina to Walgett in search of work. (118)


  • n/a


  • Jimmie was always an eager student. While living at Mundawi and Milroy Station, he preferred to associate with older generation, who taught him about the Muruwari language, art, myths, histories and hunting and collecting practices. (p.4-9) This practical education was very useful when Jimmie later lived of the land while droving near Tullamore.(p.100-101)
  • Jimmie’s formal education at the Brewarrina Mission was an overwhelmingly negative experience. The lessons were dull and disorganised, the discipline harsh, and the managers (who doubled as teachers) frequently reminded the students that their progress would be minimal due to their innate inferiority.
  • When Jimmie arrived at the Brewarrina mission, he was illiterate and innumerate. However, he proved to be a quick and conscientious learner. (p.57) Due to the lack of missionary support, Jimmie was forced to direct his own education. As in Milroy and Mundiwa, he chose not to spend his free time playing, and instead practiced his new skills.
  • When his family briefly relocated to Brewarrina, Barker did not go to school, as Aborigines children were not accepted by the mainstream institutions.
  • When he turned 13, Barker was deemed by the mission staff to be old enough to start work. (p.60) From then on he went to school only part-time; however he continued his self-directed learning in his limited free time. (p. 65)
  • When he began his apprenticeship at Tullamore, his formal education stopped altogether. However, with the help of Mrs Bob Lindsay, Jimmie continued his self-directed learning.
  • Jimmie regrets the fact his education has been stifled by his circumstances, and wonders where his passion for learning might have taken him were they different.


  • When Jimmie was young, he developed an interest in mechanics, and spent a great deal of time in his workshop. (p.36) When he was ten he began to help out a blacksmiths shop in Weilmoringle, which allowed him to enhance his technical skills.
  • Jimmie did odd jobs while he was living at Corella. (p.41) He began physically demanding work as a mission labourer when he was 13. (p.60)
  • From 1914, Jimmie was selected to work alongside the mission repairman George Brown. Jimmie was prohibited from earning money, however Brown collected a small fee on his behalf and hid it from mission staff. Jimmie and his mother drew from this fund to during more desperate times.
  • When he was 15, the mission manager – Mr Evans – informed Jimmie that he had arranged a technical apprenticeship for him. While Jimmie was hesitant to leave his mother alone at the mission, with her encouragement he decided to take up the offer. (p.87)
  • When Jimmie arrived at his destination in Tullamore, he realized he had been deceived. The position arranged by Mr Evans was not a technical apprenticeship, but farm laboring job.
  • For the next four years Jimmie worked for Mr Lindsay, on the terms that he would be fed and clothed and gives two shillings a week (p. 94) Lindsay threatened Jimmie with imprisonment if he ran away, and told him he would have to tolerate the verbal and physical abuse. (p. 94)
  • As part of his work in Tullamore, Jimmie had to fend for himself while droving for eight months. (p.100-103) While he was incredibly lonely, he preferred this job to his work at the farmhouse: where he worked long hours and was verbally and physically abused. (pp.104-105))
  • When he was 18 it was decided that Jimmie was too old for housework, and he began work on larger projects.
  • After he returned from Tullamore, Jimmie got various jobs around Brewarrina: including mustering for 70 shillings a week (p.113), working as a cook and a drover (p. 112), and pumping water for stock, (p.144) cutting scrub, (p.115) working with sheep, (p.117) and repairing flood-damaged fences for 48 shillings a week  (p.117).
  •  Jimmie returned to the Brewarrina Mission, and took a job as a handyman, despite the low wages, because he was concerned about his mother’s health. (p.119) Jimmie stayed on in this role for 20 years because at the mission he was sheltered from the hostility of settler-colonial society. He later adopted the role of undertaker as well, because he was the only resident of the mission who did not fear the dead. (p.131)
  • When his wife Evelyn died, Jimmie left the mission and got a job in the hotel in Brewarrina. People considered this ironic: unlike many of the other Aborigines who frequented the town, Jimmie avoided alcohol.
  • In 1946, Jimmie got a job as a handyman at the Brewarrina Hospital. He enjoyed the working environment and stayed in this role of 17 year (p.167) until he was forced to resign because of illness and take a pension. (p.170)
  • When he was forced to give up strenuous work at the hospital, Jimmie decided to pursue his interest in opals. (p.171-173) He did not make a great deal of money, as he never found any particularly valuable stones. (173) Nonetheless, he found it an enjoyable way to spend his retirement.


  • Jimmie grew up to believe that Bida-Ngula was the “creator of all things and the supreme-being who could never be looked upon”. (p.30) While Jimmie claims that the Muruwari people were not particularly concerned with the afterlife, it was assumed that they would return to Bida-Ngula after death. (p.31)
  • Jimmie first encountered Christianity at the Brewarrina Mission at the age of ten. (p.30) Barker claims that he, like many at the mission, was open to the new religion. (p.29) However, Jimmie believes the missionaries were largely ineffective in converting residents because of the their bigoted attitudes and authoritarian approach.
  • Jimmie claims that because he was “young enough to adjust”, he adopted many Christian views (p.29). His conflicting Christian and Muruwari affiliations caused Jimmie some confusion, and he attempted to synthesis these belief systems.
    “Through the years my thoughts have been with Bida-Ngulu and also with Jesus Christ: there is a similarity. Why can they not be the same God? In my opinion the Aborigines carried out the principles of their religion better than many Christians.
    I am still divided in my thought where religion is concerned. There are still many living in this area who remember and partly believe in their Aboriginal religion. My attitude bothers me, I feel I must be wrong to believe strongly in two religions, but it is a fact that cannot be altered. It is possible that it applies only to the Aborigines who have been pushed into missions or reserves after having lived a natural life.” (p.68)


  • Aboriginal Institute of Aboriginal Studies: Provided Jimmie with a tape recorder (p.174), and funded the writing of his autobiography.
  • Brewarrina Police: Jimmie visited the Brewarrina Police when he confronted the mission manager, Mr Jones, and was subsequently exiled from the mission. The police helped him to write a letter of complaint to the Aboriginal Protection Board. (p.114)
  • Aboriginal Protection Board: Jimmie believes that the Aboriginal Protection Board had a great deal of control over the lives of Aboriginal people, and that they did not use it to promote Aboriginal people’s welfare. (p.82)
  • When Jimmie became an apprentice all of his wages where paid to the Board, and he had to apply to withdraw it when he finished at Tullamore. (p. 112)
  • Jimmie thought to appeal to the Board when he felt that Brewarrina mission managers where mistreating the residents. However, he knew that ultimately the complaint would come back to the manager, who would deny the accusation, be believed, and subsequently punish or exile the agitator. (p.149)
  • Church of England Home for Girls in Burwood: Where Jimmy chose to send him daughters in 1948, in the hope they would gain an education. (p.168)


  • In 1911, Jimmie’s mother brought him to live at the Brewarrina mission. At the time, he did not understand the reasons for the move, as they were happy living at Milroy. Jimmie later discovered that his mother had been forced to relocate due to the introduction of a new law requiring all Aboriginal children to attend school. Despite his appreciation of education, Jimmie believes this law had an overwhelming negative effect, as it fractured functional communities.
  • When Jimmie began work at the Brewarrina hospital, the wards were racially segregated, into the general and an ‘Abo ward’. (p.166) In 1945, a new matron was appointed to the Brewarrina hospital, who gradually phased out segregation.


  • While living at the Brewarrina mission, Jimmie’s people subsisted on a “starvation diet” of sugar, flour and tea rations supplemented by hunting. Jimmie realizes, in retrospect, and that he and the other children at the mission were severely malnourished. (p.54)
  • Jimmie and his brother contracted measles when an epidemic broke out at the Mission, and thirty people died.  They were well cared for by their mother, which was fortunate considering that the authorities’ ineffective response to the epidemic. (pp.58-59)
  • When he was 13 years old, Jimmie believes that he was cured of a debilitating illness by an Aboriginal healer named Polly. For days, he suffered from a headache so bad that he “felt delirious and did not want to live.” (p. 75) His mother took him to Polly, and she performed a ceremony to put Jimmie to sleep. He woke free from the headache and feeling unusually energetic. Polly claimed that the ailment was caused by Jimmy chasing Willy Wag-tails. (p.76)
  • In 1963, after Jimmie had been employed as a handyman at the Brewarrina Hospital for 17 years, the doctor informed him that he was too weak to continue with physical work. Jimmie was surprised by the diagnosis, and initially resisted. Eventually, he conceded that he would have to take a pension and find another way to spend his time.


  • William Barker: Jimmie’s father was a German-born pastoral worker. Barker’s parents split when he was five and he moved with his mother and brother to the Mundiwa on the Culgoa River in 1905.
  • His father’s visits to the family in Mundiwa faded out over the next two years, and eventually he moved to a station near Goondiwindi.(p.3) Years later Barker was beckoned by his father to visit him there, however he rejected the offer. (p.3)
  • Margaret Barker: Jimmie’s mother was the daughter of a Scottish man and a Muruwari woman. Jimmie describes his mother as orderly, energetic, and intelligent but uneducated. Despite having a white father and being married to a white man, Jimmie claims that his Grandmother taught Margaret to think like a Muruwari woman, and that she raised her sons to share these beliefs.
  • Jimmie appreciated the difficulties his mother’s endured as a single mother in harsh circumstances.)
  • Jimmie repaid his mother’s devotion by returning to the Brewarrina Mission in 1922 to care for her in her old age. (p.119)


  • In 1918, when was Jimmie was 18, he fell in love with a fellow employee at Tullamore, a domestic servant named Jean. He was thrilled to discover the feelings were mutual, and Jimmie’s relationship with Jean transformed his experience at Tullamore, which had previously been lonely and miserable.
  • Barker planned to return with Brewarrina with Jean, however she died suddenly while visiting her parents.
  • In 1921, while living at the Brewarrina Mission, Jimmie met Evelyn Wighton: a girl of Aboriginal and Maori descent whom he fell instantly in love with. (p.135) Unlike other relationships between mission residents, Jimmie’s courting of Evelyn was neither force nor rushed.
  • When Evelyn had to leave the mission for work, Jimmie wrote to her regularly. However he grew despondent when Evelyn stopped responding. (p.137)
  • Jimmie then fell in love with another woman called May.
  • Jimmie never confessed his love to May, because he felt that he didn’t have the financial security that she had told him she desired in a partner. (p.139)
  • May eventually left the mission, and Evelyn returned. (p.140) Jimmie and Evelyn’s relationship was renewed when she explained that his letters had been concealed from her by her employers. Jimmie and Evelyn decided to wed, however Jimmie found that his all-consuming feelings for May persisted. (p.140)
  • With time, Barker recovered from the heartbreak, and fell back in love with Evelyn. (p.143) They were contently married many years, before Evelyn died giving birth to their sixth child. (p. 160-161)


  • Barker had six children, Jack, Billy, Roy, Bert, Margaret and Mary, who were all born while he and Evelyn were living at the Brewarrina Mission. They also unofficially adopted George Kearney, who lived with the family from the age of nine. (p. 152)
  • While his wife was alive, having a large family was not a strain on Barker.
  • However, after Evelyn died in childbirth, the welfare of his children became a source of stress for Jimmie. (p.160-161)
  • Financial difficulties meant that Jimmie’s older sons had to find work, and his daughters were sent to live with irresponsible relatives. (p.147)
  • After numerous unsuccessful applications, Jimmie’s daughters were eventually accepted to the Church of England Home for Girls in Burwood in 1949. This came as a relief to Jimmy, as while he missed his children, he was content with the knowledge they were being cared for and receiving an education.


  • Billy Barker: Barker’s younger brother, and closest childhood friend up until 1911, when they began to drift apart.
    “We seemed to agree with one another ‘s ideas and spent most of our time together. After this year Billy had more playmates and our interests began to differ. “ (p.42)
  • Jimmy Kerrigan: A very traditional Muruwari elder, who was Barker’s greatest mentor at Mundiwa, and probably his great uncle. (p.9) Kerrigan carried Barker on his shoulder during hunting trips (p.5) and “spent countless hours” explaining Muruwari customs and myths to him. (p.8)
  • Peter Flood: The a self- appointed ‘king’” of the Muruwari. (p.19) He was considered to be a leader by non-Aboriginal authorities, and reputed to have killed number people by magic. The Muruwari people did not take Flood seriously, (p.20) however Barker liked him because he sang him special songs and treated his illnesses. (p.44)
  • Barker became increasingly cynical of Flood when he used to visit the Brewarrina Mission, particular when he had to stand as a witness after watching him hack Peter Wellington with a tomahawk. (p.43)
  • Hector Kerrigan: Jimmy Kerrigan’s brother, who saved Barker’s life when he almost drowned at Milroy station.
  • Maria and Hippia: An elderly couple who Barker spent most of his spare time with while he lived at Milroy. (p.45)
  • Mr Evans: a particularly brutal and prejudiced manager and teacher at the Brewarrina mission.
    “Evans was one of the worst; it was horrible to have to it still and just watch his cruelty to those children. As I was quite good at school-work I did not have so much ill-treatment.” (p.65)
  • Mr Evans manipulated Barker into taking a position as a farm labourer in Tottenham, by making him believe it was a technical apprenticeship. (p.88)
  • Mr Lindsay: Barker’s employer at Tottenham, who treated him very harshly. Lindsay’s attitudes towards Barker did soften somewhat over the course of his employment.(p.104) Before Barker left Tottenham, Mr Lindsay offering him advice, and gave him his silver pocket watch. (p.108)
  • Barker left Tottenham on good terms with his employer. (p.111) However, when he returned to the Mission and withdrew his earning from the Aboriginal Protection Board- just 30 pounds after four years- he suspected Mr Lindsay had exploited him. (p.113)
  • Mrs Bob Lindsay: The sister in law of Mr Lindsay (Barker’s boss in Tottenham), who treated Barker with kindness and provided him with reading material.
  • Mrs Bob Lindsay also nursed Barker’s wounds when he was assaulted by his boss, (104-105) and supported his relationship with Jean (p.107)


Traditional Murumuri society:  

  • Barker’s autobiography began as a project to record the Murumuri language. In the process, he also recalled their dances (p.37-38), the rules of hunting (p.6-11) and collecting food (p.4-12), the methods of finding water (p. 47-48) and making a fire (p.48), the mourning rituals (p.50) and initiations ceremonies (pp.50-51), inter-tribal relations- including corroborees, fighting and sneak attacks- (78-79), outbreaks of jealously and fighting (144-145), totem animals (p.181) the taboos surrounding menstruation and pregnancy (176), gerontocratic principles, (p.176-176) and the belief spirit lights (p.179-181).  He also makes observations about the nature of life ‘in the bush’.  (p.46)
  • At the conclusion of his story, Barker reflects on the decline and disappearance of many of these practices and protocols in his lifetime.  He claims that the “spontaneous feeling for dancing” disappeared in 1910 (p.38), the use of natural fisheries, totems and marriage rules faded in the 1920s (p.182), and the practice of food sharing soon after that (p.182). Only a few practices, such as the use of smoke to confuse spirits, persisted after that. (p.182)
  • Jimmie was a keen student of traditional Muruwari practices as a child, and as an adult found return to the bush reinvigorating. As such, he laments the decline the Muruwari way of life.
  • At the same time, Jimmie is critical of many traditional norms, some of which he claims are holding Aboriginal people back in settler-colonial society. Jimmie believes that Aboriginal people’s poverty is exacerbated by their short-term thinking; their tendency to share their earnings (p.135), and their poor work ethic.(p.191)
    — “Sometimes a man comes home from work with a cheque for, say, one hundred dollars he cashes the cheque at the first opportunity, spends some of it, gives away a lot more, and within hours it is all gone. He uses very little of it for himself. This attitude goes back to the basic Aboriginal tradition of sharing with one another and of having no thought for the future. Only a small number of dark people are careful with their earning and so ensure that they have some money in reserve.” (p.135)
    • “My impression is that at least half the Aboriginal people are very lazy….These traits are not helping the Aboriginal. He should fight for himself and realise that he must work before he can achieve any measure of success.” (p. 191)
  • Jimmie also believes that Aboriginal people have an incomplete understanding of hygiene, and are not capable of looking after their possession. (p.184) Jimmie described sexual jealousy as a pervasive and persistent force in Aboriginal society. With the breakdown of traditional marriage laws, he claims that sexual jealousy has become increasingly destructive. (p.145)
  • Jimmie makes it clear that he is offering this critique of traditional Aboriginal society in the hope that his contemporaries might be able to seize the opportunities that were increasingly available to them in settler-colonial society. (p.192)
  • Jimmie also notes his own contribution to the decline of traditional practices, as he refused to burn his mother’s possessions following her death in 1922.
  • The tensions between Muruwari and settler-colonial ideas left Jimmie feeling conflicted and confused: a feeling that he claims is felt by many of generations. (p.181)

Mission life:

  • Jimmie details the conditions he experiences growing up on the Brewarrina mission. These include the harsh, physical discipline (pp.53-54, 56), meager rationing (p.54-55), the crowded quarters (p.55), the string of careless, exploitative, and punitive managers (p. 56, 66, 133), the fights (78) and the protocol of courtship and marriage (135)
  • Jimmie believes that, where conditions and attitudes different, he and the other residents of the Brewarrina mission might have had an easier time assimilating into the general community.
  • When Jimmie returned from Tullamore, he found the Brewarrina mission to be in a degraded condition, because the manager – Mr Jones – was an alcoholic.
  • As an employee of the mission, Jimmie was better treated than other residents. However, he was still frustrated by his powerless position. (p. 160) While some residents planned violent retaliation, Jimmie convinced them that this would only result in their imprisonment. (p.159)
  • Eventually, Jimmie publicly opposed Mr Jones, and was subsequently expelled from the mission.

Social problems:

  • At the end of his book, Jimmie offers his assessment of the breakdown Aboriginal society in New South Wales. Barker considers alcoholism to be the central problem facing Aboriginal people. Indeed, he sees it as such a problem that he expresses pessimism about the future of Aboriginal people.
  • Jimmie claims that men on remote stations worked for months without breaks, and then descended on the town and spent their earnings of alcohol, to the neglect of their family. Jimmie believes that the fact that alcohol was prohibited on the missions meant that those who drank even small quantities were banished, and moved to join these heavy drinkers in town. (p.134)
  • Jimmie states that Aborigines have become so associated with alcoholism that police would arrest those seen near hotel. He believes that this constant discriminations spurned many non-drinkers to drink.(p.134) He warns against other policies which may harm Aboriginal people’s pride and prevent their integration in settler-colonial society, such as settling them in towns or removing their children.
  • Jimmie contrasts the behavior of Aboriginal drinkers with his own moral code, which he managed to maintain even in the most trying environments: particularly his time in Tottenham.


  • In 1968 Janet Mathews and Barker began work on a project to record the Murawari language, which turned into a more general history of the Murawari people. Barker recorded 110 tapes on his own, and 50 with Mathews. He died suddenly in 1972, and Mathews ordered and edited his tapes and presented them in autobiographical form. (pp.xi-xii)

This person appears as a part of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13. [View Article]

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This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

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Citation details

'Barker, James (Jimmie) (1900–1972)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


28 July, 1900
Cunnamulla, Queensland, Australia


7 July, 1972 (aged 71)
Brewarrina, New South Wales, Australia

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