Mystery of ship's captain John Martin (Martini) puzzles Kangaroo Island Pioneers Association historians

WESTERN COVE: Exactly where John Martini and his wife lived at Western River and the cove on Kangaroo Island is not known. Photo: Stan Gorton
WESTERN COVE: Exactly where John Martini and his wife lived at Western River and the cove on Kangaroo Island is not known. Photo: Stan Gorton

This story of retired ship's captain John Martin and his mysterious death on western Kangaroo Island has puzzled historians for years.

What is known by members of the KI Pioneers Association (KIPA) is that captain Martin, or perhaps Martini, died at Western River in about 1871.

The association's Chris Ward said local residents Beverley and Jo-Anne Overton had some knowledge of the captain, and deputy premier Vickie Chapman had an interest as well.

The earliest record, Mr Ward can find of this story is in The Chronicle of March 16, 1933, where he was mentioned as part of a report on the sad death of three local children:

"At Western River, only nine miles from where the foregoing tragedy occurred, (the death of three Snelling children from typhoid in 1866) lived a man and his wife in a shack.

The man was engaged in building a boat. He was taken ill, and there being no medical help at hand, he died.

"His wife dug a large hole in front of the fireplace, and there she buried him, using the sofa on which he died as a coffin. She then walked over 50 miles through dense scrub to Kingscote to report the matter."

Mr Ward meanwhile has also spoken to the late Kangaroo Island author Jill Gloyne about the mystery.

"I spoke to Jill Gloyne about this some years ago and she suggested there could be something on her cassette tapes of the research she had done for her book," he said.

He tracked down the tapes to the council library in Kingscote, but they somehow since disappeared before he could listen to them.

He is unsure how accurate the Christian name of John is.

"There are people named Martini around. They seem to have come from Germany. There are heaps of Martins and plenty of them were called John, but the Biographical Index of South Australians doesn't list any sailors," he said. "They seem to have been miners or agricultural labourers."

He hopes this article might bring someone forward who knows more about the identity of the Martin or Martini couple mentioned in the 1933 report.

Many questions remain including did they visit nearby neighbours - the Hirsts at Snug Cove or the Snellings at Middle River and if so, was it by boat or land?

"The basic facts are he was ill and then died, she stayed and cared for him, and when he was dead she dug a hole and rolled him in and covered him up. Ok!" Mr Ward said

"It is written that the cottage/house had a dirt floor, and presumably the walls were timber. He was buried inside the cottage in a shallow grave."

About 70 years before, explorers Flinders and Baudin left "fowl and pigs" at different sheltered areas around Kangaroo Island for use by mariners.

These feral animals would have proliferated in the years between release and Martini/Martin's death, he said.

"So, the suggestion of the Sheridan family may be correct - dirt floor, hungry pigs - easy for them to dig underneath the door or along the walls, and then to dig up the body sufficiently to feast on the decomposing body."

Mr Ward said it was presumed that his wife probably went to Middle River to the Snelling house for help.

"Think about the very steep county, up to 200 metres above sea level and five deep gullies," he said. "Did she walk?"

Breakneck Ridge and track runs through what is now the Chapman property and this could have taken her at least a day and night to cover the 12 to 15km, he said.

"Did she have a horse and cart?" he said. "If so, for the steep downward slopes, she may have tied a heavy tree branch or tree trunk onto the back of the cart to act as a brake!

"The horse would have had to be strong and well fed to be able to pull up the steep hill, and not get 'run over' by the cart on the way down the steep slope.

"Did she carry feed and water in the spring cart for the horse? Did she have food, water and clothes for herself? Was there a well-worn track to and from Western River and Middle River?"

Maybe they also visited Hirsts at Snug Cove and the Cape Borda lighthouse,but to get to there was another extremely steep hill.

Historians also ponder if she went by sea and was perhaps able to launch the "new" smaller boat he built and sail it.

But there is some evidence the boat wassold at Port Adelaide, so perhaps not.

"Did she re-dig the 'grave' deeper, and leave him in-situ,or did she get help from her neighbours to dig him up, transfer his body to the spring cart?"

The possible land route for Mrs Martini to have travelled if she took her husband's body in the horse drawn cart to Kingscote for burial would have been along a narrow track, possibly hand-cleared by axe.

The track would have gone to Stokes Bay, along the north coast, then inland to Springs Road, a trip of at least a trip of 41km, to where this rough track ended at the "Palm Trees".

From then on she would have used any track wide enough for the horse to walk pulling the cart and her; at the very least it was 25km more to the Pioneer Cemetery, probably 66km in all.

Or was she taken by Snelling in his boat to the Kingscote Pioneer Cemetery, having already arranged for a horse and cart to transfer the body?

"What a lovely mystery," Mr Ward said "We will never know the answer unless there were children or close relatives of either him or her who may know more about this."

Other reports of this story, with variations, have been found in the following publications:

  • Kangaroo Island Past & Present by Kingscote CWA published 1951 (page 41)
  • Time on Kangaroo Island by Alan Osterstock published 1973 (pages 37 & 69)
  • The Story of Kangaroo Island by Alan Osterstock published 1975 (page 47)
  • Kangaroo Island Doctor by Joy Seager published 1980 (pages 41 & 42)
  • This Southern Land by Jean Nunn published 1989 (page 122)
  • You Just had to Deal with it by Jill Gloyne published 1997 (page 79)

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