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John Sterry Baker lived an extraordinary life as a runaway convict from the Moreton Bay penal settlement near present day Brisbane who then went on to live with a local Aboriginal tribe for the next almost 15 years in the Darling Downs area. He was probably the first white man the local Aboriginals had ever met. They took him for the returned spirit of a deceased member of their tribe.

John Sterry Baker appears in the Registers of the Prison Hulks moored on the Thames where convicted felons sentenced to transportation were temporarily imprisoned at this time. The register states that he was convicted at the Assize Court at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk on 19 May 1819. His offence was horse stealing and the sentence was for life.

The Ipswich Journal published on Saturday 14 November 1818 records his arrest in Ipswich, Suffolk: "Wednesday last, Charles Rayner and John Sterry Baker were committed to the County Gaol, in this town, by Thomas J. Woodward, Esq. for having stolen a grey mare pony, the property of Samuel Satter, of Wortham."

On June 7 he was sent for transportation to the penal colony at Sydney, NSW, Australia. He was aged just 22.

The Convict Register for Sydney records his arrival on 30 Oct 1819 on the ship ‘Malabar’, a journey of some four and a half months. The ‘Malabar’ set sail on 14 June 1819 with 170 passengers on board. A John Baker appears amongst them. The conditions on board ship had now greatly improved to earlier transport ships where the death toll on such long voyages was often very high and the conditions very harsh. However, the journey was still a very arduous one.

Governor Macquarie records the arrival in his Journal. “Saturday 30th October 1819. This forenoon anchored in Sydney Cove, the vessel Malabar, Commanded by Cap. William Ascough, with 170 male prisoners from England – whence She sailed on the 17th. of June last (touching at Rio Janeiro, which she left on the 17th. of August); Mr. Evan Evans R. Navy, being Surgeon Sup and the Guard consisting of 31 men of the 89th. Regt. commanded by Lieut. Ashhurst of the 34th. Regt. The Guard and Convicts have all arrived in good Health, none of either having died on the Passage. This Ship brings no Dispatches or Passengers. She left the Regalia Private Merchant Ship, at Rio Janeiro." [Convict Ship Malabar 1819]

In 1825 Baker got into trouble again and was sentenced to another life sentence. He was then 27, of medium height, and described as of dark complexion. With others he was sent to the new penal settlement of Moreton Bay, which had been established in 1824. Only hardened criminals and recidivist prisoners were sent to the Moreton Bay Convict Settlement. It acquired a reputation for violence and death from disease.The following year John Sterry Baker ‘went bush’ and was not heard of again for the next 15 years.

The Truth newspaper published in Brisbane in 1951 tells the story of his return. [Trove National Library of Australia]

'Then, one day in 1840, Government officials were astonished when a wild-looking man, with a thick matted beard and long, unkempt hair entered the settlement. Except for his lighter skin, he could have passed for an aboriginal. Haltingly, as if the English words he spoke were rusty from disuse, he announced that he was a runaway convict and had come to give himself up. He could not tell the non-plussed officials how many years had passed since he had run away because he had no record of time. In the years since he had escaped there had been great changes. Convictism had officially come to an end. Most of the long-term convicts had been shipped back to Sydney, and the era of free settlement was at hand.

The officials did not know what to make of Baker. After carefully examining the records for many years back, they found his name. He had been missing 14 years and nine months. They decided to keep him on the estab lishment. He was granted manumission and, because he had a thorough knowledge of the aborigines, he was appointed an interpreter.

After his escape from the settlement in 1825, it was later learned, Baker had wandered about the bush for many days. He was found starving and naked at Lockyer Creek by a party of blacks who fed him with scraps of native food. These blacks belonged to the Upper Brisbane tribe. When the party, with their white captive in tow, rejoined the tribe. Baker was surrounded, and the gestures of the blacks were so threatening, that he expected momentarily to be killed. His life was saved by an old woman of the tribe who recognised him as the spirit of her dead son, "Booralsha," returned to earth.

Life became much, easier for "Booralsha" when he acquired a lubra. Thereafter, the problem of finding food was largely solved for him. His native "wife" did all the foraging and kept him supplied with the choicest tit-bits of the native larder. The tribe which Baker had joined belonged to the neighborhood of Gatton and Laidley, but with other tribes they roamed all over the country now known as the Darling Downs. It is extremely likely, therefore, that Baker was actually the first white man on the Downs.'

Booralsha's return to the settlement was probably because he was tired of living with the blacks and longed for the society of white men again, even if it meant dire punishment. However, it may have been rendered opportune when he was asked to return a brass breast plate given to the Chief of the Upper Brisbane tribe who was called Moppy or Multuggerah.

On one of his visits to Brisbane, Moppy was given by the Commandant a brass breast plate bearing the inscription, "Moppy, King of the Upper Brisbane Tribe." When John Sterry Baker later interpreted the words on the breastplate, the tribe were greatly incensed and insisted he return it to the Commandant.

'For many years, during the pioneer period of free settlement, "Booralaha" Baker gave valuable service as an interpreter. He acted in that capacity at the murder trial of two blacks of the Wangerriburra tribe which lived in the foothills of the Macpherson range. The two blacks, Merridio and Neugavil, were accused of the murder of Stapylton, a surveyor, and his assistant, Tuck, near Mount Lindesay on May 31, 1840. They were taken to Sydney for trial on May 14, 1841 where "Booralsha" acting as interpreter, and sentenced to death. The two murderers were brought back to Brisbane under guard and hanged on July 2, 1841, on a cross arm of the windmill over looking the settlement (today the Old Observatory Tower on Wickham Terrace). Hundreds of natives were brought to the scene to witness the summary vengeance of the white man.

John Sterry Baker died on 17 Jan 1860 in Brisbane, Queensland.

John Sterry Baker was the illegitimate son of Keren Happuch Baker. He was baptised at the small village of Blo Norton in Norfolk, England on 8 April 1798. The parish record states:

"John Sterry natural child of Keren Happuch Baker was baptised publickly"

His marriage, two years before his conviction that sent him to the other side of the world, is also in the Blo Norton register:

"1817 Jun 7 John Sterry Baker singleman of this parish and Elizabeth Huggins singlewoman of the same parish by banns. He put his mark, she signed. Wit: Elizabeth Baker, Thomas Payne"

Assuming that a Sterry was the natural father, the most likely candidate is Simon Sterry who was born in Blo Norton abt 1781.

John Baker Sterry's mother had the unusual name of Keren Happuch Baker [Keren-Happuch is the name of the third daughter of Job in the Old Testament]. She was baptised in Blo Norton on 27 Sep 1781, the daughter of Andrew and Mary Baker. Simon Sterry was baptised on 11 Jan 1781 at Blo Norton, the son of William Sterry and Ann Cattermole. So both would have been about 17 when John Sterry Baker was born.

Simon went on to marry an Eleanor Gill at St Peter's at Thetford, Norfolk on 17 Jul 1810. Nothing further is known about them.

Keren Hapuch Baker married Thomas Holden on 14 Dec 1798 at Blo Norton, only six months after the birth of John Sterry Baker. They had two children, Mary Anne Holden and Karen Happuch Holden. Keren Happuch Holden died as an infant and their mother died two months later, aged only 20 years.

John Sterry Baker would have been aged only two years when his mother died. A rough start to a most eventful life.

[With much thanks to Bron Larner, an amateur historian from Queensland, Australia, for sharing his own research into John Sterry Baker's amazing story.]