Who swam across Backstairs Passage?

The file has been accepted in good faith "as is" and has not been fact checked or verified. Accordingly K.I.P.A. cannot accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information contained therein.

Research by Geoffrey Chapman

Fact or fiction? There are at least 5 different versions 

There is a story of a lubra, reported to have been from Ngarridjeri tribe who was captured by sealers and taken to Kangaroo Island, escaped and who, have said to have swum Backstairs Passage. The real facts may be never known. These stories were common on both Kangaroo Island and in the Encounter Bay district. The stories have been often told by early settlers and aboriginals on the Fleurieu Peninsula. One early descendant from the Eatts family of the Yankalilla -Myponga district, claim that their great grandmother swam across the backstairs passage to get way from the sealers based on the eastern end of KI in the 1830’s. Perhaps there was more than one event where the captured aboriginals escaped and tried to swim to safety. 

Unfortunately, most of the stories are based hearsay or unsubstantiated. For example, J W Bull stated he saw the woman, but did not personally interview her. Rev George Taplin who was an Aboriginal Protectorate at Encounter Bay- although put an interesting case, was based on interviews of local aborigines, but never followed up by personally interviewing family members. The only person who might have known the true facts was Fireball George Bates, but his recollections can only be viewed with suspicion. Several local early settlers commented that old George could ‘spin a great yarn, but all his stories always varied, or he refused to elaborate’. Old George was well known for his regular excursions to the mainland for abduction of young aboriginal women and his brutal treatment of them and any of their children. When old George was being interviewed when he was in the Adelaide Destitute Institute, he was very guarded in replies and refused to elaborate on many stories. It should be remembered that after the sealing had finished in the mid to late 1830’s, several sealers were charged with a number of offences by the Tasmanian Government but were never convicted because the magistrates believed that aboriginals could not comprehend the matter of an oath in Courts. This did not deter Robinson, the aboriginal Protectorate on Flinders Island who continue to interview a number of captured aboriginals on their brutal treatment by sealers and whalers-so many sealers and sailors on whaling vessels were most reluctant to disclose any events. 

 The stories are varied: 

1. It was stated by one person she was captured near Cape Jervis- another has it nearer Rapid Bay. If this the case, then she would have been more likely been from the the Ramindjeri or Kaurna tribe. 

2. Mr. J. W. Bull in a report in the early 1840’s is that a the lubra who was reported to have made the swim, was pointed out to him about five years after her swim by some local aboriginals at Encounter Bay and he described her as a fine healthy specimen. Unfortunately, he did not actually speak to her to confirm her story from her own lips. Editor’s note: It was initially thought it coincided with the story with the two sailors who deserted the Cutter “the Dart” 1 in mid-1831 

3. One story from Reverent George Taplin, who spent many years with the natives, gave a very different account of the episode, [which was secondhand], "Many years ago some white sealers on Kangaroo Island stole from Cape Jervis three aboriginal women “Sally”, “Dolly” & “Bess or Bett” which had been recently captured near Victor Harbor. Two of the women had no children, but the third called “Bett” had an infant at the breast. The three aboriginal women captured on mainland making bid for freedom found a small dingey in Nepean Bay and took it and hid it near Hog Bay- One night when their masters were in a drunken slumber , Sally & Dolly set off in a small boat for the mainland and finally reached the Encounter bay coast and returned to their tribes. The one called “Bett” tied her baby on her neck and aid with a log dry log, swam the Backstairs Passage and landed at Tungkillo Beach. One story indicates a group of aboriginal men saw the tracks in the sand leading up into the sandhills and found her and the baby both dead- The bodies were buried in the sand dunes- Another version is that the found her barely alive and was revived and she later joined her tribe. The baby was dead and was buried in the sand dunes 

4. Fireball George Bates once stated: As the result of a raid upon Cape Jervis two gins were captured and taken back to Kangaroo Island. One of then called “Bett” escaped and dived into the sea near Hob Bay and 1 Research suggests it may not have been he cutter “Mary”, but the cutter, ‘The Dart’ 2 either drowned or was eaten by sharks. Statements from other residents at Hog Bay, indicated she was watched until she was out of sight. She did not return to the island and was assumed she had reached the mainland, drowned or was eaten by sharks. Other statements: It has been said that George Bates saw her at the Murray mouth when he was searching for Barker who disappeared there, but this was never confirmed by George. In later years. George Fireball Bates recanted an incident which occurred in about 1831-1832 sailors Thomas and Jack (the two men from the cutter “Mary” were anxious to obtain wives from among the natives, and the party of consisting of Richard Betteridge ,Whaler Tom & Whaler Jack crossed over to the mainland to undertake this chasse aux femmes. 

5. Mr. E. H. Hallack, writing of an interview he had with Mr. Augustus Reeves, from Kingscote quotes: "The story of swimming the channel which constitutes Backstairs Passage is all nonsense. The facts are that a lubra who was kidnapped from Encounter Bay by some whalers, escaped and attempted to swim across, but was unsuccessful, and when recaptured was soundly thrashed for her trouble. Mr. A. Reeves's account was derived from personal discussions with several the old sealers including Old George Bates many years previously, plus Mr Reeves elderly age and health only a few days before his death, his existing depth of memory of accounts and details must be considered. 

6. The Eatts family from Myponga area claim that an ancestor of theirs, swam from Penneshaw to Cape Jervis to escape the brutal sealers in the mid 1830’s. 

Tom Morris

The second person to attempt swim the Passage was in the early 1930’s when a life saver Tom Morris from the Sydney League Swiming Club, Manley, NSW who attempted to swim three times from Penneshaw to Cape Jervis. The first time was on Thursday 29th Dec 1932, who started at 8.30am at snapper point due to a strong easterly swell and currents by 12 noon he had only reached a point between the Yatala shoals and The Pages he had to retire after 6 hours when he got severe cramps .

The second attempt by Tom Morris was on 14th Jan 1933. He started at 9.15 am and was accompanied by Cliff Bates in his cutter “Ada” with Messrs. H P &P Murray on board. There were two other boats accompanying the official party. However, after 6½hours of swimming against the tide and breeze, he had swam over 9 miles and was still 2 miles from Cape Jervis. The third attempt by Tom Morris was on 12th Jan 1934 -this swim has been disputed. It was reported that he was disqualified because as his hand hit the side on the accompanying boat. Official rules for long distance swimming events- ‘you must not be aided or use any props whatsoever until you are on dry land!’. 

The third crossing & first official attempt was made on 6th June 1995, South Australian marathon swimmer, Andrew Martin who completed the “ first recorded solo crossing of Backstairs Passage”, covering the 14.25 km distance in 4 hours 31 minutes 30 seconds. Swimming from American River to Cape Jervis [swimming diagonally across the current rather against sideways]. 

The fourth crossing & second official attempt was made by David Falland from Nuriootpa in 2005, successfully swam Backstairs Passage and according to reports at the time, he swam 35 kilometres to cover the 18km distance because of the tide The fifth attempted crossing : Shane Sanigar from American Beach attempted to swim the 17.4km across Backstairs Passage without a shark cage or wetsuit from Cape Jervis to Penneshaw on 16th April 2019 but the epic swim was called off with less than 2 kilometres to go after a four metre great white shark having a close look at them.

KI Courier 14th January 1933.