On Saturday the 10th of August 1844, 10 years to the day since Australia’s only freely settled colony had been declared, this is the corner of Currie and King William Streets in Adelaide was alive with activity. Along King William Street here were 11 saddle horses, 32 bullocks, a flock of 200 sheep and 5 drays piled with scientific equipment and provisions gathered ready to begin its lumbering journey north into what was then the unknown. But it was the rear of the column that drew the greatest attention because there stood a lighter carriage upon which was nestled a 21-foot whaleboat.
And for the fledgling colony of South Australia, it was a day of great anticipation.You see, without the benefit of free convict labour to develop the colony along with a fair share of financial mis-management, South Australia had been struggling, and having been declared officially bankrupt just 3 years previous the colony continued to sit dangerously on the brink of economic collapse. Sturt’s expedition into the interior had raised hopes of securing the colony’s future, of new opportunities, of the discovery of a nirvana of agricultural land that the colony’s growing band of intrepid free settlers would readily exploit. And Sturt himself was quietly and determinedly elated.
“My party is splendidly equipped and if the veil is to lifted to disclose the features of the interior, it shall be done now…”
That Saturday had been declared a public holiday and that morning, Sturt and his 16 companions had been the guests of honour at a sumptuous breakfast attended by 250 of the colonies best at Stocks Stores in Grenfell Street, and for almost two hours Sturt was regaled with speeches a plenty.
Newspapers of the day reporting on the gathering pronounced the guest of honour a “most humane and highly gifted man willingly throwing himself upon the perils of the interior” and described “Spontaneous applause” when the Governor, Captain George Grey, began his speech by addressing Sturt as “the father of Australian exploration.”
Amidst cheers he went on:
“Considering the number of years that have passed since Captain Sturt’s former expeditions, we might well be proud of such a man whom no one yet has been able to equal. Though fourteen years have elapsed since Captain Sturt’s voyage down the Murray, no discovery has been made of equal importance to those that have been achieved by Captain Sturt himself. And I can only hope now, as he goes forth in maturer years, that he might be the only man to surpass the exploits of the expeditions of his early endevours.”
Then Grey proceeded to outline the expedition’s terms of reference – to discover whether there existed a chain of mountains running parallel to the Darling River that would cause a further watershed within the interior and subsequently to investigate any rivers running inland from waters tumbling down these mountains.”
The breakfast concluded with a toast proposed by Sturt’s friend and South Australia’s first Commissioner of Police Major Thomas O’Halloran:
“Though not so young as some fourteen years ago, when this fair Province was discovered by him, he, nevertheless, as you see, retains all the vigour and energy of his younger days, with the same manly fortitude and calm, well-regulated mind for which he has ever been noted.”
Then he invited all present to rise with “brimming bumpers and full hearts to drink – health and happiness to our honoured guest.”
And with that the colonies finest strode down to Currie Street.
It was around 1pm when Sturt, still in top-hat and tails, mounted his horse a led the hulking procession forward at a walking pace, King William Street lined with men, women and children cheering as they passed before crossing the Torrens and northward to glory. It was without question a heady experience.
But Sturt didn’t continue north that afternoon. Instead, he rode with his team until around 3 and then returned here to his home on what was a tidy property of a little more than 380 acres and is now at the centre of the Adelaide suburb of the same name. The Grange.
The orders authorising the expedition had arrived late and Sturt had had just 6 weeks to consider and then requisition his supplies and to interview and then select the men who would join him on his expedition. He returned here to catch his breath, put his affairs in order and to spend some precious time with his family. And it is here that we find the true motivation behind the expedition.
When Sturt had moved to South Australia in 1839 after 2 years of trying his had as a a squatter in Mittagong on the Southern Highlands of NSW and at Belconnen, his grant of land near what is present day Canberra he was somewhat feted, welcomed as a founding father. He had accepted an offer from South Australia’s Governor Gawler to become the new colony’s Surveyor General, and it seemed to Sturt, that at last he had landed in a place where he was valued and hi position was secure. But his satisfaction and security would be short lived.
“Charles is full of difficulties”, his mother wrote in 1833, “created in large measure by his extreme diffidence. He has too much delicacy of feeling to push his own interests sufficiently. I hope he will now take courage and bestir himself.”
As his mother alluded to, Sturt had always found pushing his own barrow unpalatable, and yet despite his discomfort, one has to say, he’d given it a good shake. During his second expedition he’d named the river Murray after then Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Sir George Murray in the hope that it would advance his cause only to find that Sir George had been moved on from the position before news of the discovery reached England. And he’d done so despite almost certainly knowing that it was the same river William Hovell had named after his travelling companion and Sturt’s good friend Hamilton Hume 6 years earlier. Clumsy.
In 1833 he wrote to Sir Ralph Darling detailing his “painful and perplexing” situation with regard to whom he would dedicate his book chronicling those two early expeditions.
“My father and friends think it is expected that I should address the dedication to Lord Goderich, as a possible means of throwing myself upon his good offices…that it might influence him to some measure in my favour.”
Goderich had for a time succeeded Murray as Colonial Secretary. Sturt felt he owed a debt to Darling and that to dedicate the book to him was fitting. But hi ham fisted almost reluctant ambition got the better of him and Goderich got the nod. Sadly, for Sturt, Goderich resigned the post before the book was published. Unfortunate?
But in South Australia, Sturt’s awkwardness or hesitancy our perhaps just plain political ineptitude, scaled new heights.
In 1841, Sturt’s friend and supporter Governor George Gawler was recalled and Captain George Grey, 17 years younger than Sturt and a man whose principal claim to fame was two ill planned and nearly fatal expeditions in Western Australia was announced as his replacement.
Despite Grey’s appointment having been confirmed, at the encouragement of a number of Adelaide’s senior colonists, Sturt belatedly offered himself for the position. He closed that letter with a paragraph that in retrospect he may well have regretted.
The appointment of Captain Grey, an officer much my junior in years and experience, would place me ass a subordinate to him in a situation which I could not but fell embarrassing and humiliating…Although I have pressed my claims I would assure your Lordship that Captain Grey, in the event of his arrival, shall receive my best assistance.
It’s likely that Grey knew of Sturt’s letter and was somewhat threatened by Sturt’s standing both as an explorer and respected colonist. It wasn’t an ideal start to a working relationship. Grey had been appointed to resurrect the colony’s economy which often brought the two men to loggerheads. And for his part, it appears he treated Sturt with a contemptuous disregard which a man of Sturt’s character found unsettling. On two occasions Grey offered Sturt the position of Colonial Secretary only to withdraw the offer on both occasions. Then, in early 1843, under instructions from London Grey cut Sturt’s salary by a third. He was incensed.
From his desk here at Grange he wrote to the colonial secretary in London:
“I would entreat your Lordship to remove me to some other Colony and to some office more in unison with my past employment…” Adding: “Taking all the circumstances attending my residence in this Province into consideration I cannot but express my deep regret I ever landed on its shores.”
Sturt’s pride was dented to be sure. But at a time when men of a certain class were expected to be ambitious, Sturt seems to have struggled with the concept. He gave ambition a good shot but he always appeared, as his mother said, just a little disinterested, late on the scene and just plain awkward. Fame and social standing may have been the currency of the day but for Sturt, it was the erosion of his financial security that appears to have had a deeper significance. He was doting father of 4, immensely proud of his three sons, Napier, Charles and Evelyn and determined to provide them with a life that befitted their breeding, unlike his own father who he always felt failed him. And so, in order to secure his financial position and ensure his sons futures he decided to turn again to what he knew best. Exploration.
On March 5th, 1844 he wrote to his friend, the former Governor of NSW Sir Ralph Darling, expressing those very sentiments.
“It would be better for me to run the risk of allowing my bones to blanch in the desert than to remain where I am without any prospect of future advancement: I may yet live to make up by personal exertion for the want of Fortune and may elevate myself to that position amongst my friends in England from which my limited means have hitherto kept me.”
Sturt wrote his will on the 14th of August fearing he may not return and perhaps the last thing he packed as he left to re-join his expedition on the following day was this. A Union Jack embroidered by the daughter of his friend, South Australia’s first Chief Justice Charles Cooper, one he hoped would fly from the mast of his whale boat as he skimmed the surface of his inland sea. In writing to Miss Cooper to thank her for the gift, Sturt made his motives abundantly clear.
“I go to this task for the good of those I hold dear, oh dear how dear to me. I would lay my head on the cold ground never to raise it again if it were for their good.” And with that, he was off.