“Good country” (Stuart): hunting for the Australian wilderness

The history of colonial exploration in Australia has often been depicted as heroic drama, by turns a tale of extraordinary good luck and terrible tragedy; extremes of fortune mirrored by the landscape, in which either “undulating grazing country”, or “stony desert” may be around the next bend.

The earliest inland expeditions follow a distinct evolution. During the first decades after the establishment of settlements in New South Wales, colonists struggled to get over the Blue Mountains and head west. With a route over the Great Dividing Range well established by 1820, a hunt for the mirage of an inland sea began in earnest. While Charles Sturt’s explorations of 1829-1830 put paid to such a notion, it was a myth that persisted well into the 1850s, and inspired, at least in part, the great expeditions of John MacDouall Stuart, that attempted to traverse and tame the vast interior.

These expeditions were mostly funded by British government bodies eager to establish and expand settlements near sources of fresh water, find land suitable for grazing, and generally exploit whatever natural resources may be there to be plundered. Any scientific studies conducted along the way were usually a means to these ends.

As a result, the first official records of these expeditions appear as ephemeral government issued documents, intended to be presented before British Parliament in so-called Parliamentary Papers; also referred to as “Hansard”, after their printer, or “Blue Papers”, after their distinctively coloured covers. The reports are comprehensive compilations, often including the first appearance in print of related correspondence, lists of supplies and their costs, diary entries, and the first detailed maps of the territory explored. Subsequently forgotten, and apparently rarely filed away, surprisingly few comprehensive collections of these papers survive. The current group comes from the archive of the British Foreign Office Library.

These, often overlooked first accounts of European exploration, are a valuable contemporary testament to the trials and tribulations of the intrepid travelers who undertook their commission. Impelled by the romance of first discovery, and the notion of an untouched wilderness, history has often judged these men harshly. The infamous expedition of Burke and Wills appears here as an exhaustive and condemnatory Royal Commission into the tragic circumstances of their disappearance. Their endeavour, unlike the others, was commissioned by wealthy worthies from the state of Victoria in a spirit of a great race, to compete with the officially sanctioned expedition of John McDouall Stuart, to be the first to traverse the Australian continent from South to North, an account of which is also present.

In stark contrast, meanwhile, to the struggles being experienced “back east”, in 1829, Thomas Peel (1793-1865) delighted in referring to the opportunities, apparent at first glance, inherent in the lush Western Australian coastline. More than two thousand miles away, on the other side of the continent, was the “most important possession to the British interest… too numerous for the undersigned here to set forth”.

Fearful of French colonization in the Pacific, in April of 1826, James Stirling (1791-1865) had been given command of the new HMS ‘Success’ to examine the coast with the idea of establishing a defensive garrison or other settlement that might open trade with the East Indies… “a bill would soon be brought before parliament to provide for its government; private capitalists and syndicates would be allotted land in the proposed settlement according to the amount of capital and the money they spent on fares and equipment; priority of choice would be given only to those who arrived before the end of 1830, and no syndicate or company would be the exclusive patron and proprietor of the settlement” (Crowley).

The chart that accompanies Stirling and Peel’s report, Swan River Settlement… Copies of the Correspondence of the Colonial Department with Certain Gentlemen proposing to form a Settlement in the Neighbourhood of Swan River, in Western Australia, is one of the first published of what would be the Swan River Colony, now Perth, is annotated with useful information regarding topography and vegetation, and colour-coded: green areas highlight land intended for settlers and “public purposes”; yellow areas have been granted to Peel, “on condition of his landing 400 Persons before the 1st of November, 1829”; and red, about 90,000 acres at Geographe Bay, to Stirling himself. The map extends as far inland as “General Darlings’s Range”, named for Sir Ralph Darling, the then Governor of New South Wales.

“abounds in the finest harbours imagineable” (Stirling)

Rather audaciously, on 2 May 1829, Captain C. H. Fremantle of the Challenger took possession, at the mouth of the Swan River, of the whole of Australia which was not then included within the boundaries of New South Wales. Captain James Stirling, would arrive later, with other civil officials, including John Septimus Roe (1797 – 1878), in the store-ship ‘Parmelia’, proclaiming the foundation of the Swan River Colony on 18 June.

Roe thought he would be posted to the new colony in Western Australia for two years, however, he eventually stayed for forty. As Surveyor-General of the new colony, Roe was very influential in the development of Western Australia. “He made surveys of the sea approaches to the Swan River, surveyed the sites of Fremantle and Perth, and “with one sickly assistant” superintended the marking of the town lots and land taken up by the pioneer settlers. He was responsible for drawing up most of the land regulations” (Uren).

This map, Discoveries in Western Australia, by John Arrowsmith (1790-1873), is based on Roe’s earliest surveys of the region, made between 1830 and 1832; but also shows the tracks of fellow explorers from 1829-1832, who are now commemorated by local landmarks and towns. The accompany report, serves as a detailed history of the colony from its inception, and is a glowing advertisement for emigration. At the time, the colonial population of Perth was counted at 590, with the whole of Western Australia at 2032.

“decisive of the general character of the Australian interior” (Sturt)

Augustus Charles Gregory’s (1819-1905) family was one of the earliest to settle at the Swan River Colony in Western Australia, and he is fondly remembered there for his invention of an apparatus that operated the first lighthouse on Rottnest Island. He served an apprenticeship with Surveyor-General John Septimus Roe, and after a series of successful surveying expeditions in northern Western Australia was chosen to lead an imperially funded scientific exploration across the north of Australia.

With “eighteen men, including his brother Henry, Ferdinand von Mueller and other scientists he sailed from Moreton Bay in August 1855 and in September reached the estuary of the Victoria River. After initial set-backs Gregory led several forays up the Victoria River and traced Sturt’s Creek for 300 miles until it disappeared in desert. Turning east, the party explored the Elsey, Roper and Macarthur Rivers, crossed and named the Leichhardt and then travelled to Brisbane by way of the Flinders, Burdekin, Fitzroy and Burnett Rivers. In sixteen months, the expedition had journeyed over 2000 miles by sea and 5000 by land. The natural resources discovered did not measure up to expectations, but Gregory was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society and his report later stimulated much pastoral settlement” (Waterson).

Accompanied by John Arrowsmith’s map of the route, Map of part of Australia, Shewing the Route of the North Australian Expedition in 1855 & 1856, the expedition confirmed the presence of a vast inland desert at the red centre of Australia. The paper includes a detailed commentary, and speculations on evidence for previous existence of an inland sea, by Captain Charles Sturt, who had explored some of the same “great desert” from the south, in 1845.

Fixing the Centre of the Continent of Australia

In Darwin, in the Northern Territory of Australia, stands a memorial at the northern end of the Stuart Highway, which traverses Australia from Port Augusta in South Australia. The iconic highway is named after the Scottish explorer, John McDouall Stuart (1815-1866), who migrated to South Australia in 1815. His first experience of surveying the unforgiving red centre of Australia came in 1844, when he joined Charles Sturt’s expedition. The “seventeen-month journey revealed only desolation” (Morris).

The first publication of John McDouall Stuart’s own monumental map, on three sheets, of the vast, sparse, and unforgiving center of Australia, Plan of Discovery by John McDouall Stuart shewing his route across and fixing the Centre of the Continent of Australia, With alterations and additions to July 7th 1861 is appended to his equally rare report of his ultimately unsuccessful fourth and fifth (of six) expeditions attempting to traverse Australia from South Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria, in a race against Burke and Wills’ expedition from Victoria.

Stuart led six attempts to cross the centre of Australia from South to North. The current report prints his journals covering the fourth and fifth expeditions, in which he reached and named the McDonnell Ranges and the Finke River; Stuart also raised a British flag at what he considered to be the centre of Australia. Exceptionally rare, the complete map is only known in one other example.

“the glorious race across the continent” (Sir Henry Barkly)

The disappearance of legendary Australian explorers Burke and Wills, is a tragic tale of hubris and mischance of epic proportions emblazoned into the heart of every Australian. Two maps: Map of the Eastern Part of Australia. Showing the Route of Mess.rs Burke and Wills, from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria [and] Map of Mr. McKinlay’s Route, in search of Mess.rs Burke and Wills, in Sept.r and Oct.r, 1861, accompany the censorious official report.

The signal intent of the expedition, commissioned by the state of Victoria’s worthies on a whim, in the spirit of sporting endeavor rather than scientific exploration, was to compete with the ambitions of South Australian explorer John McDouall Stuart, to be the first to traverse the Australian continent from South to North. The choice of local policeman, Robert O’Hara Burke (1821-1861), as totally inexperienced leader, was: “inexplicable if exploration were the real object, but excellent if it were exploit. Burke was a death or glory man and he achieved both” (Fitzpatrick).

Burke and Wills did, technically, achieve their goal, but at a terrible cost: with an expenditure of more than £60,000, the lives of seven explorers, and an unknown number of indigenous people.

The real hero of the hour was John McKinlay, who led the relief mission. Unlike Burke and Wills, he mapped his route and made useful discoveries. His party was the second to cross the continent from south to north and, like Stuart, he never lost any of his men.