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Barlow, Billy (c. 1825–c. 1860)

by Libby Connors and Alex Bond

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Billy Barlow (c. 1820s–?), Gubbi Gubbi headman and resistance leader, was born in the 1820s, the decade when British officials authorised the invasion and occupation of what would become the city of Brisbane. He was associated with country around Pine Rivers, Caboolture, and Bribie Island, and his descendants continued this connection to country; an Aboriginal man, most likely his grandson, also known as Billy Barlow, and a female descendant, Alice Cobbo, lived in the Burnett region. His female descendants married into the Cobbo, Embrey, Hatton, Hutton, and Bond families. Fred Embrey, an elder at Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement, South Burnett, shared cultural knowledge with the anthropologist Caroline Tennant-Kelly in the 1930s, thus continuing Barlow’s legacy.

During the 1850s Barlow worked as a shepherd and dugong fishermen. The European trade in dugong oil was dependent on Aboriginal labour. Barlow and a Bribie Island man, Diamond, worked for Robert Collins, a European settler who earned his living from dugong hunting. Barlow also repaired boats and undertook cedar logging and rafting for the settler Tom Petrie. As the European population increased and the number of old settlers from convict days declined, Barlow was increasingly referred to by whites as ‘Doctor Ballow.’ It was under this name that his most authoritative acts became part of Queensland’s pioneer legends and history. David Ballow, a Scottish medical doctor, had been appointed a magistrate in Brisbane in 1848, but there is no known connection between the two men.

Barlow was one of more than twenty Aboriginal men and women who were alleged to have attacked Andrew Gregor’s Pine River station in October 1846. However, he did not come to prominence until 1852 when three young Gubbi Gubbi men recently released from jail sought his help. Before returning to their Mary River country, the men, Mickaloe, Perika, and Darryguree, approached Barlow, then working as a shepherd at Darby McGrath’s station, for help in exacting payback for their incarceration. Subsequently one shepherd on the station was killed and another had his hut plundered. The markings on a spear found in the plundered hut were identified by police as belonging to Barlow and a warrant was issued for his arrest in August 1852. The reward notice described him as ‘a good looking man’ (NSW Government Gazette 1852, 1248) with a long nose and a missing front tooth. The police did not succeed in making an arrest until 1 February 1853 but he was released without charge on 22 February.

At some point during the 1840s Barlow had joined Dundalli and the Aboriginal men of Bribie Island in their fight against the European invaders. Bribie Islanders were at the centre of the Aboriginal resistance around Brisbane from 1843 until at least 1859. Their success in removing white settlers, missionaries, timber rafters, and cattlemen from their country was remarkable. When town police patrolled the northern shores of Moreton Bay adjacent to Bribie Island, smoke signals advised the different camps of their pending arrival on country. The local press despaired that the region was ‘one dreary waste of bush entirely abandoned to the blacks’ (Moreton Bay Courier 1854, 2). Following Dundalli’s arrest in 1854, Barlow was increasingly named in newspaper reports as the headman responsible for the attacks. The colonial historian J. J. Knight described him as ‘a kind of hero’ who ‘shared equal honors’ with Dundalli as the ‘head of the … Bribie blacks’ (Knight 1898, 311).

The Bribie Islanders’ successful eviction of Europeans from a coastal strip from Sandgate to Bribie Island in the years 1853 to 1858 was constantly decried by the press and government officials in Brisbane. The native police force was deployed to the area; however, between 1855 and 1857, its size was reduced. When recruitment for the force recommenced, Barlow sent a clear message of Aboriginal opposition. An Aboriginal trooper sent north to procure recruits in November 1857 did not get as far as Caboolture before he was ‘attacked by the notorious aboriginal “Dr Ballow”’ (Moreton Bay Courier 1857, 2). Aboriginal women tried to stem the trooper’s blood loss with clay, their traditional treatment for wounds, but Barlow had severed the man’s arm at the shoulder and he died the next morning. White settlement in this coastal area was not enabled until a native police camp, led by Lieutenant Frederick Wheeler, was established at Sandgate.

After 1854 Barlow’s role as an enforcer of Aboriginal law became more prominent, the settler press reporting on his actions against Aboriginal men deemed complicit in Dundalli’s incarceration and execution. There is strong evidence that he also settled grievances against individual whites that Dundalli had not had time to resolve. In the months following Governor Sir George Gipps’s recall to London in July 1846, white on black sexual assaults and shootings by town police and settlers around Brisbane had escalated, prompting the new governor of New South Wales, Sir Charles FitzRoy, to call an inquiry into racial violence in 1847. As a result of political pressure from William Duncan, the sub-collector of customs, the inquiry received rare testimony of sexual violence against Aboriginal women, enabling some of the perpetrators to be tentatively identified. Individuals were named only by occupations, but in the same month Peter Glynn, an ex-convict, admitted in court to sexually assaulting a ten- or eleven-year-old Aboriginal girl from Stradbroke Island. Following Aboriginal customary law, retribution was meted out against these men over many years, including by Barlow in 1857. That January Glynn was among a party of six settlers who set out on a river expedition in search of stands of cedar. Barlow and two other Aboriginal men volunteered to guide the white men to the prized timber. Numerically stronger than Barlow’s group and armed, the loggers followed Barlow’s instruction to proceed up the Caboolture River. Towards late afternoon on the second day, Barlow insisted that some of Glynn’s party land so that he could show them a patch of cedar, but soon afterwards ordered two of them to return to the boat to move it further upstream. Having engineered the situation so that Glynn and one other settler, Peter Grant, were alone in the scrub, Barlow and his two companions overpowered them and justice was exacted. Grant was killed and Glynn was left for dead. Badly injured, Glynn survived, only to drown a few months later after falling into the Brisbane River while intoxicated.

When the body of Robert Collins, the dugong hunter that Barlow had worked for, washed ashore near Luggage Point in January 1859, Barlow was blamed for his murder. The bodies of Collins’s two white companions had still not been found in May when the Moreton Bay Courier reported that ‘Doctor Ballow, his brother and their sons, murdered Collins’ (1859, 2). However, Constance Campbell Petrie later claimed that all three men were actually killed by Billy Dingy and another Aboriginal man as punishment for the rape of their wives and abduction of their families. According to Petrie, to secure Aboriginal workers, Collins had announced that he had a warrant for ‘Dr Ballow’s’ arrest’—a threat that succeeded in getting Dingy and other Aboriginal people on board his vessel. Therefore, although Barlow himself had no direct part in Collins’s death, loyalty to him had been used as a weapon to lure Aboriginal people on board, and, after their wives had been sexually assaulted, Dingy and another Aboriginal man had emulated Barlow in protecting their families and defending their law.

It is not known when Barlow died. Overturning pioneering myths about ‘Ballow the murderer’ (Age 1857, 5) and ‘Barlow … the savage’ (Eight Years’ Resident 1876, 56), his actions reveal him to have been a strong leader who not only survived but also confronted the worst brutalities of settler colonialism. Further, his life story points to a community of Aboriginal men who, like him, upheld Aboriginal customary law in the defence of Aboriginal women, children, and country.

Select Bibliography

  • Age. ‘New South Wales.’ 18 March 1857, 5
  • Eight Years’ Resident. The Queen of the Colonies: Or, Queensland as I Knew It. London: Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1876
  • Knight, J. J. In the Early Days: History and Incident of Pioneer Queensland. Brisbane: Sapsford & Co., 1898
  • Moreton Bay Courier. ‘Domestic Intelligence.’ 21 November 1857, 2
  • Moreton Bay Courier. ‘Local Intelligence.’ 7 May 1859, 2
  • Moreton Bay Courier. ‘Local Misgovernment.’ 28 October 1854, 2
  • New South Wales Government Gazette. ‘Reward.’ 17 August 1852, 1248

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Libby Connors and Alex Bond, 'Barlow, Billy (c. 1825–c. 1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/barlow-billy-29905/text37021, accessed 14 June 2021.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012