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Mullawirraburka (1811–1845)

by Tom Gara

This article was published:

Mullawirraburka (c.1811-1845), Aboriginal leader, also known as Kertamero, 'King John' and 'Onkaparinga Jack', belonged to the Kaurna people, the traditional occupants of the Adelaide Plains. Born in the Willunga area, south of Adelaide, he was aged about 25 when the first colonists arrived in 1836. His Kaurna name, which translated literally as 'Dry Forest Old Man' (from Mullawirra, the gum forest on the eastern side of the Aldinga Plain, and burka, an old man) indicated that he was a ritual leader of considerable importance.

Mullawirraburka was a skilful warrior, his fighting prowess enabling him to acquire four wives—Koa Warrarto (Maria), Yerrarto (Jane), Kertanya and Kauwadla—more than any other Kaurna man at that time. About 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, he was, according to one settler, a 'finely-built fellow'; another referred to his 'very powerful frame and commanding appearance'. Articulate and intelligent, he was regarded by settlers and the authorities as one of the chiefs or leading men of the local Aboriginal people. Although a number of other Kaurna individuals were identified in the historical records, Mullawirraburka was the most prominent.

After the colonial authorities established the 'Native Location' on the banks of the River Torrens in 1838, Mullawirraburka took up semi-permanent residence there and developed a close relationship with Christian Teichelmann and Clamor Schürmann, Lutheran missionaries based there. Mullawirraburka quickly learned to speak English and was one of several Kaurna men who taught the missionaries the local language. He spent many hours with them, discussing spiritual matters but, like most Kaurna people, he would not accept the Christian teachings; his 'attachment to the superstitions in which he was brought up' was 'invincible', according to one account.

Appointed honorary police constable by the governor in 1838, Mullawirraburka acted as an intermediary between the Kaurna and the settlers, and was regarded by the authorities as the spokesman for his people. He seems to have done his best to keep the peace between his people and the colonists. He was, however, quick to defend his land when rival Aboriginal groups, such as those from Moorundie on the River Murray, visited Adelaide, attracted by the availability of food, tobacco and other goods.

Mullawirraburka died, probably of tuberculosis, on 2 January 1845 in Adelaide, survived by two sons and a daughter. His body was subsequently smoke-dried, in accordance with the custom of southern Kaurna clans, and later buried at Noarlunga, south of Adelaide. A newspaper obituarist observed:

He was always decent and peaceable with respect to the Europeans, and would occasionally submit to labour, but nothing could overcome his habits of vagrancy, or love for wandering in the bush, far away from the haunts of civilized man.
At the time of his death, two of his wives and six of his nine children were already dead, victims, like many other Kaurna people, of introduced diseases and poor living conditions in the wake of their dispossession from their lands by the white settlers. In a sketch by W. H. Leigh, reproduced in 1839, Mullawirraburka was depicted wearing a skin cloak, with hair in long ringlets and a thick beard. A wax portrait by Theresa Walker, held in the Art Gallery of South Australia, showed him with thick, curly hair and a neat beard.

Select Bibliography

  • T. J. Gara, ‘The Life and Times of Mullawirraburka (‘King John’) of the Adelaide Tribe’, in J. Simpson and L. Hercus (eds), History in Portraits (Canb, 1998)
  • South Australian Register, 6 Jan 1845, p 3.

Citation details

Tom Gara, 'Mullawirraburka (1811–1845)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kertamero
  • Onkaparinga Jack

South Australia, Australia


2 January, 1845 (aged ~ 34)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.