The problem of the rivers
Oxley’s explorations on the Lachlan and the Macquarie — Immigration policy — Oxley in Moreton Bay — Foundation of Brisbane — Lockyer explores the Brisbane River — Explorations of Hume and Hovell — Alan Cunningham explores the Liverpool Range — Sturt’s explorations — He discovers the Darling — Discovery of the Murray — Its exploration to the sea — The naming of the Murray — Mitchell discovers Australia Felix — The Hentys at Portland.
The discovery of a practical route across the Blue Mountains opened the interior of Australia, first to exploration and secondly to settlement. Often the early settler was himself an explorer; for, whilst the names of some men who undertook long and hazardous journeys with the specific object of investigation stand out on the records of history, there were hundreds who contributed to the work of discovery by the process of seeking for good pasturage and water-courses. A great void continent wherein there was not a yard of cultivated land beyond the limits of the small east-coast colony and its few offshoots, awaited revelation. That it was a continent was now known; Flinders had shattered the theory that it was a group of islands. But little more than that was known till after 1813. An area of 2,983,200 square miles, full of incalculable possibilities, lay, as it had lain for an eternity, remote and unavailable, the inviolate sanctuary of ‘cenotaphs of species dead elsewhere.’
George Evans, the Deputy Surveyor-General, showed what might be expected when, following up the path cleared by Blaxland, Lawson, and Wentworth, he discovered the Macquarie and Lachlan Rivers watering the rich Bathurst Plains. In 1815 the town of Bathurst was founded, the first inland town in Australia. Governor Macquarie utilised convict labour to construct a good road across the mountains to this new centre of activity.
From this time commenced a series of explorations which rapidly revealed the inland geography of the continent. The first important name in the story is that of John Oxley. He was a naval officer who had secured the Surveyor-Generalship on the recommendation of Flinders, and who, being young and energetic, was not content to confine himself to his Sydney office, but desired to take the lead in discovery. The problem to which he directed his attention was the course of the two rivers which had been named after the Governor, the Lachlan and the Macquarie. They rose in the Blue Mountains; Evans had traced them for a few miles; they ran westerly; but whither? It took over twenty years fully to discover that these, and a wonderful spread of watercourses of which they formed part, were contributors to the immense basin of the Murray, which, with its principal tributary the Darling, makes one of the great river-systems of the world.
On his journey of 1817 Oxley followed the windings of the Lachlan for hundreds of miles over a dead level plain, through shallow, reedy lagoons, and finally to a point where the river became a succession of stagnant pools leading to a mere damp depression in the earth. The volume of water which had borne his boats in the upper reaches had been sucked up by the spongy soil before it reached the Murrumbidgee. Oxley had, in fact, made an astonished acquaintance with that strange phenomenon of Australia, where nature starts many a fine river but gives it no firm channel wherein to flow, so that the water evaporates from the intense heat of the plains, or percolates into the earth and perhaps helps to fill those subterranean cauldrons of rock which modern pastoralists have learnt to tap with artesian bores.
In the watershed of the Macquarie, which was explored after the baffling adventures on the Lachlan, Oxley found ‘a country of running waters, on every hill a spring and in every valley a rivulet.’ The prospects were so inviting that he led a second expedition to investigate this river in 1818. But here again a broad, deep, vigorously flowing stream flattered the travellers at the beginnings of their journey, and mocked them by disappearing after carrying their boats for about a hundred and fifty miles. It flowed over a great plain, maintained its current through a chain of sprawling pools, and then, as Oxley recorded, ‘without any previous change in the breadth, depth, and rapidity of the stream, and when I was sanguine in the expectation of soon entering the long-sought-for lake, it all at once eluded our further pursuit by spreading at all points from north-west to north-east over the plains of reed that surrounded us, the river decreasing in depth from upwards of twenty feet to less than five feet and flowing over a bottom of tenacious blue mud.’
On his return journey to Sydney across the Liverpool Plains, Oxley and his party crossed twelve rivers, including the Castlereagh and the Namoi (or Peel). The whole of them had their origin on the west side of the mountains, and flowed inland. What became of them on occasions when their channels carried a full flood of water through their entire length, instead of losing it on the way, was still an unsolved enigma. Oxley, who had been accompanied by Allan Cunningham, the botanist, and by Evans, had completed the longest land journey yet achieved in Australia, a very adventurous and difficult piece of work, much of it in rough country, all of it in country previously untraversed by Europeans.
The discovery of these rich, well-watered plains beyond the mountains opened a new realm. It was now certain that for 500 miles west of Sydney there was land where great flocks and herds could pasture and large communities of people could thrive. From this time the attitude of the British Government towards free settlement in Australia changed. Before the journeys of Evans and Oxley the official disposition had not been encouraging. New South Wales was a penal colony first and foremost, and, as we have seen, Macquarie during his long governorship cared far more about the welfare of the convicts and emancipists than about free colonists. He frankly disliked what he called ‘gentlemen settlers,’ who wanted concessions and were often vexatiously critical. He grumbled that it had become a constant practice ‘for persons who wish to get rid of some troublesome connexions to obtain permission from the Secretary of State’s office for their being allowed to come out here.’ Let them stay in England; he did not want them. The Government in England, too, required ‘satisfactory testimonials and recommendations from persons of known respectability’ before granting permission to persons to emigrate to New South Wales.
But the discoveries on the far side of the mountains changed the point of view entirely. As soon as the news reached England a fresh policy was inaugurated. The Government not only threw down the barriers but began to advertise the attractions of New South Wales as a field for immigration. Newspaper and magazine articles frequently appeared which enlarged upon the opportunities presented by this wonderful, new, unoccupied dominion, where land grants could be obtained so easily and where a small capital would secure for a man a greater stretch of broad acres than were owned by many a prosperous English squire. A new era had dawned. In 1818 Lord Sidmouth said in the House of Commons, ‘the dread of transportation had almost entirely subsided, and had been succeeded by a desire to emigrate to New South Wales.’ Proofs of the change were of frequent occurrence. The emigrant ship as well as the convict transport became familiar in Port Jackson. Australia came to be looked upon as a land of hope and promise instead of as an abode of despair. This great and striking difference was made by the discovery of the plains across the Blue Mountains.
The inflow of immigrants necessitated a change of policy in the classification of convicts. It was evidently desirable to keep Sydney as free as possible from characters who would be likely to give trouble. Consequently it was desirable to find a place along the coast where an establishment might be formed for the handling of bad cases.
In search of such a place, John Oxley in 1823 went north in the Mermaid. He examined Port Curtis, but did not think it suitable. On his return he anchored at Moreton Bay, and there, to his great surprise, met a white man named Pamphlet, who for several weeks had been living with a tribe of aboriginals. Pamphlet had been one of a boat’s crew who had been blown out to sea and wrecked on Moreton Island. One of his four companions had died of thirst, a second had started to tramp to Sydney, whilst the third, Finnegan, was at the time when Oxley met Pamphlet out hunting with the chief of the aboriginal tribe, who had treated the white men with great kindness. On the following day Oxley met Finnegan. From these two men he learned of the existence of a large river falling into Moreton Bay. They had crossed it, and were the discoverers of it. Oxley, guided by Finnegan, examined it for some miles from the mouth, and, congratulating himself on the finding of the largest fresh-water river on the east coast of New South Wales, named it the Brisbane after the Governor.
In the following year, 1824, was founded upon the banks of the Brisbane a new colony expressly for the punishment of convicts who, since they had been in New South Wales, had been convicted of further crimes and sentenced to transportation for them. In 1825 the river was explored for 150 miles by Major Lockyer, who showed how fertile was the soil in the interior. ‘Nothing,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘can possibly excel the fine rich country we are now in.’ A touch of humanity in Major Lockyer’s journal deserves remembrance. He had maintained friendly relations with aboriginals whom he met, and, on taking his departure, desired to purchase a handsome puppy which one of them had in his arms. ‘I offered a small axe for it. His companion urged him to take it, and he was about to do so when he looked at his dog, and the animal licked his face, which settled the business. He shook his head, determined to keep it. I tried him afterwards with handkerchiefs of glaring colours and other things, but it would not do — he would not part with his dog. I gave him, however, the axe and the handkerchief.’
Early in 1824, Governor Brisbane, desiring to obtain information about the country to the south of Sydney — that is, the part now known as Victoria — conceived the strange idea of landing a party of convicts near Wilson’s Promontory or Cape Howe, providing them with equipment for a long journey, and directing them to make the best of their way to the shores of Port Jackson. If they arrived safely they were to receive ‘suitable rewards and indulgences.’ If they died on the way that would be their misfortune. But he was dissuaded from this plan, and instead of it he gave some assistance to an expedition led by Messrs. Hume and Hovell.
The party started from Hume’s residence at Lake George in October 1824, crossed the rivers Murrumbidgee, Hume (Murray), Mitta-Mitta, Ovens, and Goulburn and reached the western arm of Port Phillip near the site of Geelong. They made a mistake as to their whereabouts, and upon their return a report was published from information supplied by them wherein it was stated that they had reached Westernport. The mistake was of some importance when in 1826 Governor Darling sent out the expedition to occupy Westernport in suspicion that the French under Dumont D’Urville intended to do so. Messrs. Hume and Hovell had traversed excellent country, and, had their report indicated that it lay to the west of Port Phillip, the expedition of 1826 would undoubtedly have been directed to settle there instead of at Westernport, where, after investigation, the conditions were not deemed to be suitable for permanent occupation. Quite a different verdict would have been returned had the expedition directed more of its attention to Port Phillip. It is very curious to observe how little was known in 1825 of the work of the earlier explorers. When Brisbane received the report of Messrs. Hume and Hovell he wrote to London: ‘It is my intention, as soon as I have the means, to send a colonial vessel to Westernport to have it explored, as it seems to have escaped Flinders and others.’ The Governor was wholly unaware that the port was discovered by Bass in 1798, and that it had since been thoroughly explored and mapped by Murray, Grant, Barrallier, and Robbins, in the first decade of the century.
Allan Cunningham, not less keen as an explorer than as a botanist, fought his way across the Liverpool Range in 1827, penetrated the Darling Downs, and discovered the Gwydir, the Dumaresq, and the Condamine Rivers. Where did they flow? Between the Condamine in the north and the Goulburn in the south was a distance as great as from the Orkneys to Lands End. Nobody suspected that all the intervening rivers, and some more to the west not yet discovered, belonged to the same riparian scheme. That great discovery had yet to be made.
The problem of the rivers was taken in hand by one of the most heroic and daring of Australian explorers when Captain Charles Sturt applied himself to it in 1828. Sturt had come to the country with his regiment, the 39th (Dorsets) in the previous year, and at once became fascinated by the question of what became of the large streams which Oxley had navigated, and which Hume and Hovell had crossed. It was speculated that they poured their waters into a great inland sea. If that were true, where was that sea? Sturt wrote that he undertook his series of toilsome explorations from ‘a wish to contribute to the public good’; ‘I should exceedingly regret,’ he said, ‘if it were thought, I had volunteered hazardous and important undertakings for the love of adventure alone.’ The spirit of his work was entirely in accord with that profession.
For three years previously to 1828 Australia had been severely afflicted by drought. Crops failed and stock died for lack of grass and water in districts where there was abundance in normal seasons. If there were well-watered areas in the interior, beyond the zone which had hitherto been examined, it was urgent that they should be found.
Sturt’s expedition was therefore equipped by Governor Darling with the view of following up the channel of the Macquarie. It was pursued in a boat as long as there was a sufficient depth of water, and then the explorers started off on horseback, travelling a full month over barren, sun-baked, drought-smitten plains, till suddenly they found themselves on the precipitous banks of a river which gleamed forty feet below them. They had found the Darling. The water in it, to their deep disappointment, was brackish, but there were fortunately occasional pools of drinkable water with which they could refresh themselves and their cattle. The parched beds of the Bogan and the Castlereagh were examined before the party were compelled to beat a retreat back to the Macquarie.
The discovery of the Darling was of capital importance. Though Sturt found it in a drought season, when the water was low and salt, and for considerable stretches the bed was quite dry, yet it was evident that those steep banks, down which the cattle could not safely be taken, sometimes held a great, deep, raging river. Here was a new problem. Whence did this river come? Whither did it go?
In 1829 the intrepid Sturt attacked the river problem at a fresh point. Hume and Hovell had crossed the Murrumbidgee on their overland journey to Port Phillip. The direction of this river’s flow and that of the Darling seemed to indicate that the two formed a junction somewhere. The speculation was well founded, and the new journey was to prove itself one of high historical interest.
Sturt left Sydney on November 3, and struck the banks of the Murrumbidgee near Yass on November 23. There it was a rapid, foaming stream, fresh from the snowy mountains to the east. Its banks were followed until the water shallowed into reed-beds. Then Sturt, with undaunted resource and energy, decided to leave. his cattle and stores, put together a whaleboat the planks and parts of which he had brought with him, and set out to explore the further course of the river in it. He selected seven of his party to accompany him, three of them soldiers of his regiment, three convicts, all men upon whose devotion and courage he could implicitly rely. At seven o’clock in the morning on January 7, 1830, commenced the very remarkable voyage which was to prove the junction of the Murrumbidgee and the Darling with the Murray, and was to trace the whole course of that great waterway to the sea.
After a dangerous and exciting journey of a week, piloting the boat through formidable barriers of snags, suddenly and unexpectedly the river current took a southern course. At two in the afternoon of January 14, the boat shot out of the Murrumbidgee into a broad and noble river with such force that the explorers were ‘carried nearly to the bank opposite its mouth,’ while they ‘gazed in silent wonder’ upon the large channel they had entered. Nine days later a new and beautiful river was found pouring itself into the main stream, and Sturt felt sure that this was the Darling, which he had discovered, a salt and shrunken ribbon of water, 300 miles to the north-east, on his previous journey. The identity was not completely established till some years later, but Sturt’s reasoning in 1830 was really sufficient to make the point clear.
The boat was carried down by the current until the Murray emptied itself into the great lake at its mouth, and the explorers saw to the westward of them the blue waters of Encounter Bay. Sturt gave to the great river the name of Sir George Murray, who happened to be Secretary of State for War and the Colonies for a few months in 1828-30. He was a man whom the Duke of Wellington took into his Cabinet because he liked him as a soldier, but who is described by an English historian as one who ‘had given no signs of any capacity in debate and had displayed no qualifications for administering a civil office.’ Murray had even ceased to be a minister before the news reached England that his name had been given to the trunk of the great river-system of Australia.
The total cost to the Government of equipping the expedition from which so much resulted was £265 19s. 4 3/4d.
Alexander Hume, the leader of the expedition of 1824, claimed that the Murray was simply the lower part of the river which he had discovered and named after himself; and, really, he was quite right. True, he had not explored it for more than a few miles, nor could he have done so consistently with carrying out the plan upon which he was engaged; whereas Sturt had followed it for 1,750 miles from its junction with the Murrumbidgee to the sea. But that fact does not detract from the soundness of Hume’s claim; and though the river is likely to carry the name of Murray perpetually, there does not seem to be any better reason for thus celebrating an obscure politician (who, when questioned late in 1830, did not know who Sturt was or where the river was) than that it is too well established to be altered.
Sturt’s two great journeys of 1828-30 were the most important pieces of inland exploration in Australian history. Others may have had more exciting adventures and endured greater hardships. Sturt himself in his expedition from Adelaide in 1844 — to be discussed hereafter — did a more desperately brave thing. But the discovery of the Darling and the exploration of the Murray to its mouth; the laying down upon the map of the main arteries of the enormous spread of river-veins which take the water from 414,253 square miles of territory — double the area of France; the opening of a new, rich, well-watered province for British colonization — this was the consummate achievement of Sturt’s career as an explorer. Withal, he was a kind and considerate gentleman, ‘brave as a paladin, gentle as a girl,’ a leader of men who was followed by his chosen band in any risk because he was trusted and beloved. Exposure, privations, anxiety, and severe labour on these expeditions brought on bad health and a period of blindness; and he never received adequate recognition and honour for what he had done.
The Surveyor-General of New South Wales, Major Thomas Mitchell (he had been appointed to that office in 1828), did not conceal his jealousy and annoyance that Sturt was chosen to command the expeditions to solve the river problem. He himself was keen to attain fame as an explorer, and thought that the task should have been entrusted to him. But there was plenty of valuable work still to be done in this field, and Mitchell had abundant opportunities of proving his own worth. His first expeditions were to the upper Darling country in 1831 and again in 1835, when he found the great river not low as Sturt had seen it, but flowing full and sweet-watered through richly grassed country. He now discovered that Allan Cunningham’s Gwydir and Dumaresq were tributaries of the Darling. The fragments of streams found by one explorer after another, and marked in thin, disconnected streaks upon their maps, were becoming linked up.
In the following year, 1836, Mitchell planned his most famous expedition. He was instructed to find out whether the Darling was the same river as Sturt had found flowing into the Murray. He was somewhat doubtful of Sturt’s reasoning; his jealousy apparently made him hope that Sturt was wrong. But even before he reached the point of junction he realized that the Darling was indeed a tributary of the Murray.
The problem was solved, and if Mitchell had returned to Sydney when he realized that his allotted task was done the expedition of 1836 would have fallen short of being very important. But after working up the Murray for about a fortnight, he crossed over to the south side of it, camped at Swan Hill, kept moving southerly, and ascended Mount Hope and Pyramid Hill. There he had a Pisgah-sight which fascinated him. All around him the explorer saw a magnificent stretch of fresh country, quite different from that to which he had been accustomed in New South Wales. He threw up his hands in rapture. Moses had never entered the Promised Land, but he, Thomas Mitchell, beheld a perfect Paradise rolling in green and golden glory before his eyes, and was to be the first to traverse it. ‘As I stood,’ he wrote, ‘the first intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains, as yet untouched by flocks and herds, I felt conscious of being the harbinger of mighty changes there; for our steps would soon be followed by the men and the animals for which it seemed to have been prepared.’ Into ‘this Eden’ he believed that he was the first to break.
But in that he was mistaken. When he had led his party by easy and pleasant stages through the western district of Victoria, had discovered the Glenelg River, and had started on his homeward route, he suddenly obtained a glimpse of Portland Harbour, and there, to his great surprise, he beheld a brig lying at anchor, and what he at first took for grey rocks proved, on examination through his telescope, to be a cluster of comfortable huts on the shore.
For, in December 1834 — that is, a year and nine months before Mitchell appeared upon the scene — the Henty brothers had taken up their unauthorized abode at Portland, with flocks, herds, poultry, and a serviceable whaling ship. Fruit-trees and vines were growing, garden flowers and vegetables were flourishing, and fields were under cultivation in Australia Felix before the explorer who called the country by that name set out from Sydney. The brig in the bay was the Hentys’ vessel, the Elizabeth; and while Mitchell was enjoying the hospitality of these pioneers a hunchback whale came into the bay and afforded an opportunity to him of witnessing an exciting chase. ‘It was not the least interesting scene in these my Australian travels,’ wrote Mitchell, ‘thus to witness, from a verandah, on a beautiful afternoon at Portland Bay, the humours of the whale fishery and all those wondrous perils of harpooners and whaleboats of which I had delighted to read as scenes of the stormy north.’
And these were not the only precursors of settlement in Victoria at this very time. In the year before Mitchell started — in June 1835 — John Batman had steered a boat up the river Yarra and exclaimed, ‘This will be the place for a village’ when he contemplated the site of Melbourne. The village had actually been founded, and men were living in it, unknown to and unauthorized by the authorities in Sydney, at the very time when, to the westward of them, Mitchell, travel-worn but still elated, was leading his expedition back across the verdant valleys of his Eden.
Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 118-132
[Editor: Changed the double quotation mark after “dead elsewhere.” to a single quotation mark, in line with the opening quotation mark and the style used elsewhere in the chapter.]