The story of Australia — XX
Sir Thomas Mitchell
Search for a mythical river
Sir Thomas Mitchell was born at Craigend, Stirlingshire, in 1792. At an early age he joined the army in the Peninsula as a volunteer, and three years later he obtained his commission; subsequently receiving the Peninsula medal with five clasps for services on the field. He was commissioned to prepare plans of the battle fields, and his work was much admired, and used for the instruction of students at Sandhurst Military College.
In 1827 he was appointed Surveyor General of New South Wales, as successor to John Oxley. On taking up office he began to lay out and construct roads, and make personal surveys of the main southern and the western highways, which were in urgent need of improvements.
A convict’s tale
The story of the organisation of Mitchell’s first expedition makes interesting reading. Among the most notable convicts at that time was George Clarke, who was generally known as George the Barber. This convict managed to escape, and passed beyond the bounds of the settlement, and joined a band of aborigines in the region of Liverpool Plains. He remained with them some time, but the natives, hearing that he was wanted by the police for cattle stealing, brought him back to civilisation, and he was lodged in Bathurst gaol. Probably, with the object of escaping the punishment in store for this he told a remarkable story of his adventures.
He stated that to the northward of Liverpool Plains he had discovered a large river, which the natives called the “Kindur.” This he had followed until it led him through the heart of Australia to the north coast, where, he asserted, he had had a good view of the sea.
The story aroused popular excitement, and most people believed that it ought to be verified by sending out a special expedition at the expense of the Government. Sir Patrick Lindesay, then acting Governor, readily granted the request, and instructed Mitchell to make all necessary arrangements. Mitchell left Sydney on November 24, 1831, with a party of 15 men, two volunteers, with 17 horses, carts, and canvas boats.
Saved from death
On December 20 they reached the Peel River, and on December 22, the Namoi. So far the story had been confirmed for the convict had mentioned the latter. Mitchell, therefore, made it known to the authorities in Sydney, so that Clarke, might have the benefit. This criminal had not received his freedom when his information was acted on, and knowing that it was false, he had managed to escape, but was recaptured and sentenced to death. Mitchell’s letter came at a very opportune time, and the sentence was cancelled.
Mitchell now proceeded north-east, but found the mountains to be impracticable, and was compelled to return to his former camp. He determined to launch a canvas boat and make an effort to sail down the Namoi, but snags and shoals foiled the attempt. He now worked his way round the range and came on to the lower course of Cunningham’s Gwydir, which he followed for a distance of 80 miles. He then turned north, and in January he discovered a river called by the natives Karaula (Macintyre).
Attacked by natives
Was this the Kindur at last? Further exploration proved this stream to be one of the head waters of the Darling, and, therefore, useless for the purpose of one who was seeking a channel to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Mitchell now determined to make a bold dash into the interior, but his hopes were dashed by the news brought by his assistant, Finch, who had been sent back for fresh supplies. He reported that his camp had been attacked by natives, supplies carried off, and two of his men killed. Mitchell had to abandon any further exploration, and on July 11, when 100 miles from the junction of the Murray and Darling, the party started on the return journey, and eventually reached Sydney in safely.
George the Barber had led Mitchell on a wild-goose chase, yet the expedition had opened up a vast extent of pastoral country, and on the whole, was satisfactory as an exploring enterprise.
The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 28 October 1934, p. 29