Sturt and the great river system: “Greatest Australian Explorer” [by Professor Ernest Scott, 17 June 1939]

[Editor: This is part five of the “Men who made Australia” series written by Professor Ernest Scott. Published in The Advertiser (Adelaide), 17 June 1939.]

Men who made Australia — No. 5

Sturt and the great river system

“Greatest Australian explorer”

In the fifth article of his series, “Men Who Made Australia,” Professor Sir Ernest Scott deals with a figure whose life and work commend him to the special interest of South Australians. Sir Ernest Scott accepts the verdict of Baron von Mueller that Sturt was “the greatest Australian explorer,” and awards pride of place among his achievements to his voyage down the Murrumbidgee and the Murray.

By Professor Sir Ernest Scott

“Sturt’s Desert Pea.” “Sturt’s Stony Desert.”

There seems to be a stroke of injustice in remembering Charles Sturt, in our nomenclature, by his association with the most hopeless desert in Central Australia, instead of linking his name with the river system which he was foremost in revealing.

True it is that Sturt’s desert pea, with its brilliant scarlet blossom and blue black boss, is a remarkably beautiful flower; but it was not discovered by Sturt. Dampier found it more than a century before his time, and one of its two scientific names. “Clianthus Dampiere,” has therefore historical justification.


The Stony Desert was Sturt’s discovery. He called it an “adamantine plain on which horses left no track.” Mr. Francis Ratcliffe, who describes it from unpleasant personal experience in “Flying Fox and Drifting Sand” — a book of thrilling interest about Central Australia and tropical Queensland — found it to be “more awe-inspiring and desolate than any sand-dune desert could be,” a desert on which “the world became little more than a rolling shingly plain, the lumpy-brown sterility of which accentuated the empty blueness of the sky.” We also have Sturt’s Ponds, a Sturt Creek, a Sturt Bay, a Sturt River, a Mount Sturt, a Sturt street in Adelaide, and a township of Sturt in South Australia; but we have nothing named after him which is significant of the most important achievements of the great explorer that he was.


Captain Charles Sturt came to Australia with his regiment, the 39th, while Sir Ralph Darling ruled, more or less, in New South Wales. He had fought under Wellington in the Pyrenees during the last phase of the Peninsula War, and seen service in Ireland and India. He was bored by humdrum administrative work, and was particularly anxious to elucidate some of the problems, which at that time were baffling, concerning the interior of this country.

Surveyor-General Oxley, ten years before, had discovered the Macquarie River, but was unable to trace it to a termination because heavy rains had flooded the country. The river simply drowned itself in a vast swamp. But 1828 being a drought year, it seemed probable that the Macquarie’s ultimate course could be determined. Sturt undertook the command of an expedition for that purpose, not from love of adventure for its own sake, but from “a wish to contribute to the public good,” as he wrote. His whole career in Australia was animated by that purpose, which he pursued despite bad health, conducing at length to a period of blindness.

The Surveyor-General of New South Wales at this time was Major Thomas Mitchell, himself to become an explorer of high distinction. Unfortunately, he permitted his jealous disapproval of Sturt’s expedition to find vent in print “Captain Sturt had no right to be appointed over the head of our surveyors.” he protested. What was more, “a boat — very suitable, doubtless, for descending Mount York — has been built to sail on the new Australian Caspian.” That boat, however, was very necessary, as events showed.

Mitchell’s petulant ebullition was ill-timed; for in truth Sturt’s journey, with its sequel, was momentous in itself and in its consequences. It unlocked the secret of the great river system affecting New South Wales, Victoria South Australia, and Central Queensland.

The Macquarie, which was explored in the boat ridiculed by Mitchell, suddenly “ceased to exist in any shape as a river,” losing its identity in marshes. But Sturt, advancing from this point through drought-stricken plains, on January 18, 1829, discovered the Darling, “covered with pelicans and other wildfowl.” The water, flowing forty feet below the precipitous banks was salt, but the depth of the surface showed how great a volume must rush through that ravine in rainy periods. “A noble river” Sturt wrote that it was, even as he saw it then.

Sir Ralph Darling thought that little was to be hoped from the country traversed by Sturt. “It appears from the almost total absence of water,” he wrote, “to be altogether unavailable for the purpose of either tillage or pasture.’’ But in pronouncing that verdict the Governor overlooked Sturt’s cautious opinion that “in even moderate rain it might show very differently,” and his testimony that “Our animals have thriven on the herbage; this argues well.” Experience has abundantly proved Sturt to be right.


In the following year Sturt set out again, to explore the Murrumbidgee. which he believed would be found to form a junction with the Darling, and then, probably, flow into the sea.

Again, his opinion was justified; indeed, the results of this expedition were immeasurably greater than had been expected. An old native told him soon after he arrived at the Murrumbidgee that further on there was a large river compared with which that was only a creek.

Sturt, considering the concave direction of the mountains, thought it probable that other rivers falling from them would “later unite in one important and navigable stream.” His deduction was once more correct. Sending his drays back to Sydney, Sturt employed his men in putting together the parts of a boat which he had brought with him — without Mitchell’s satirical disapproval this time — and selected a crew of six to accompany him on what proved to be the most important inland voyage in the history of Australia.

The voyagers started on January 7, 1830, down a stream blocked with fallen trunks and barriers of snags, and darkened by overhanging trees. They had to fight their way cautiously, to avoid dangers which threatened to smash the boat. After a perilous and tiresome week, the Murrumbidgee swept round a curve, and the look-out men called that they were approaching a junction. “Within less than a minute,” Sturt recorded, “we were hurried into a broad and noble river,” and they gazed in silent wonder at the large channel they had entered. Thus they found the Murray.

Six years before this date, Hamilton Hume and W. H. Hovell, in their famous journey to Port Phillip, had crossed the upper waters of the river, and named it the Hume. Sturt named it the Murray after the Secretary of State for the Colonies. He wrote at a later date that he was at the time “in a great measure ignorant of the other rivers with which it connected,” and was of opinion that the name Hume was properly applicable to that part of the river which was above the point of unity with the Murrumbidgee, where “both rivers cease to bear their respective names and form the Murray of my second expedition.”

Sir George Murray, whose name was thus attached to the largest river in Australia, and was in office only a few months, and was in fact no longer Secretary of State when the dispatch announcing the discovery was acknowledged by the Colonial Office.

Nine days after the junction of the Murray and the Murrumbidgee was discovered, another river came into view pouring its waters into the main stream. Sturt felt certain that this was the Darling, which he had found 300 miles away on his first expedition. The surmise proved to be correct. On February 11 the boat reached the bight of Encounter Bay, barred from the sea by sandhills.

It is interesting to observe that the cost of the equipment of the two expeditions which discovered the Darling and put the Murray on the map was £475 15 17, which the Secretary of State certified “will be allowed.” They were very particular about the farthings in those days.


Sturt’s overland journey from Sydney to Adelaide with cattle in 1838 was a considerable achievement then, but much more important was his adventurous expedition into Central Australia in 1844-5.

Previous attempts had been made, notably one led by Eyre, to penetrate to the far interior. They had come to grief at the salt lakes. Sturt planned upon a fresh theory. Observing the flight of birds, he reasoned that the most promising route would be one which followed the line of the Darling northward as far as Menindie, and then struck north-west. He judged that it would be “a fearful but a splendid enterprise.” It certainly was fearful. But it was based upon the reasoning of an observant man animated by intense zeal.

As Sturt watched the birds on their migratory flights while he was camped beside the banks of the Darling, he noted that they invariably moved west-north-west. In South Australia he observed that several species of birds annually came from the north. “Now, although the casual appearance of a few strange birds should not influence the judgment,” he wrote, “yet from the regular migration of the feathered race a reasonable inference may be drawn.” The two lines of migration which he had studied, if they were prolonged, met a little to the north of the tropic of Capricorn. He reasoned that birds which frequented rich valleys or high hills would not settle down in deserts or flat country, and he concluded that the country “to which as a common goal these migrations tended” was probably rich.

His expedition, therefore, made first for the Darling, followed that river as far as Menindie, and then struck north-north-west, in accordance with his theory. For a short while his party had fortune beneath their feet, had they known it, when they rounded Broken Hill. Sturt climbed to the summit of the range to survey the country, but saw “nothing cheering, everything below was dark and dreary, nor was there any sign of a creek.” Not till more than 40 years had elapsed was the first sign of the enormous silver-lead deposits of Broken Hill revealed, when Sturt, and probably every member of his party, were dead.


Nowhere on this terrific journey was there a gleam of encouragement. Intense heat, blistering sand, salt, sickness of men and animals — these were the accompaniments of days and nights of torture for hundreds of miles. The Stony Desert, “herbless and treeless,” “not an object -was visible on which to steer,” “an immense plain where not a feature broke the dead level, the gloomy purple hue” — this was the most depressing feature of this lonely waste. The Birdsville mail track, “in years past probably the most important main stock route in Australia” crosses the desert; those who would have a modern traveller’s account of it should read chapters 13 and 15 of Mr. Ratcliffe’s “Flying Fox” volume.

Sturt’s companions were equally heroic with their leader. The surgeon, John Harris-Browne, was a man of wonderful resource, dauntless courage, and physical strength; and the draughtsman, McDouall Stuart, who has his own distinguished place in the history of Australian exploration, attributed the success which he afterwards attained to the “example of energy and perseverance” of his former commander. Sturt himself paid for his exertions on this journey and that which resulted in the discovery of the Darling, in broken health and partial blindness.

The Baron von Mueller described Sturt as “the greatest Australian explorer,” and by accepting that verdict we do not minimise the qualities of any of the other men who built up our knowledge of Australia in the great days of exploration. His outstanding achievement was not that which was performed at the cost of so much intense suffering, but the discovery of the Darling and the boat voyage down the Murray from the Murrumbidgee junction, to the sea.

Yet the desert journey was no reckless demonstration of exploratory bravado. There was much to be said for Sturt’s theory based upon the direction of the flight of the migratory birds. The argument was attractive, and a fair basis for choosing a route for a journey of exploration in unknown country. It failed because a company of men, horses and cattle, with all the impedimenta of an expedition equipped for months of travelling, have not the winged advantage possessed by cockatoos; and the analogy did not work out in the torrid summer of 1844-5.


Charles Sturt was, considering him on purely personal grounds, one of the most attractive characters of whom we can read in Australian biography. Chivalrous and high-minded, daring and tireless, he was also the gentlest of men. His “rare sweetness of nature,” noted by one who knew him. and his “invariable good temper,” recorded by another, contributed to his success in command.

Eyre described him as “one of nature’s noblemen, generous and unselfish to a degree, always kind and considerate, always sympathising and ready to oblige and help others;” and Harris-Browne found him during the long strain of 17 months in Central Australia “the most genial companion and friend, the most considerate leader.” These humane qualities explain his success in handling the personnel of his expeditions. There were no quarrels where he commanded, and no derelictions of duty are instanced.

Not the least attractive feature of the history of Sturt’s adventure is the character of the man.

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 17 June 1939, page 22

[Editor: The editorial introduction to this article has been italicized, so as to distinguish it from the text written by Professor Scott.]

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