Legacy is a tricky word, it is, as Sturt himself understood, something of a double-edged sword. The simple answer to the question of Sturt’s legacy is of course, that he is, indirectly and often unknowingly, a significant part of our national consciousness.
There’s every chance that in getting here you’ve travelled along the Sturt Highway, crossed the Murray or the Darling. And you’ve probably heard of Charles Sturt University, may have visited Belconnen, the Canberra suburb that takes its name from the property Sturt selected with his 2,000-hectare land grant or the Adelaide suburb of Grange which likewise takes its name from Sturt’s South Australian home nestled in the wetlands not far from Port Adelaide.
Out here in the far west, there are few significant hills, valleys or watercourses that Sturt didn’t christen. Equally iconic names like Cooper’s Creek, the Strzelecki, Broken Hill, and the Barrier Ranges all get their titles from Charles Sturt.
Then of course there are the plants he described on his expedition, most notably Sturt’s Desert Pea and Sturt’s Desert Rose, the floral emblems of South Australia and the Northern Territory respectfully.
But in terms of physical legacy, things left behind by Sturt, there are few. Sturt’s Tree on the shores of Lake Pinnaroo, the tree carving at Depot Glen that marks James Poole’s final resting place and the cairn atop Mt Poole are all that tell of his journey.
Occasionally, that cairn gets mistaken for a memorial built by Sturt for his second in command who and is buried by the creek at Depot Glen after succumbing to the effects of scurvy in July 1845
But it is, in actual fact, a survey marker, the last surviving one of many that Sturt had constructed along his journey, markers that enabled him to meticulously chart his way as he passed through this country.
Those charts and fastidiously recorded co-ordinates were eventually developed into a map by the famous British cartographer John Arrowsmith in 1849 and the combination of what became known as the Arrowsmith Map and the news that Sturt had discovered a potential route inland via the Coopers Creek system that offered a secure water supply led more explorers into the area and eventually settlers who established some of the world’s largest sheep and cattle stations across the far west and north into channel country.
Of course, the other side of that double edged sword is that the opening up of this country has seen it change dramatically. The desert we see now is fundamentally different from the one Sturt passed through 170 odd years ago. And one of the biggest changes has been the provision of standing water in a place where standing water rarely existed. The creation of dams for grazing cattle has allowed animals to survive here that would have simply perished all those years ago.
While Sturt commented that he rarely saw kangaroo on his journey, now they fill a landscape where water is more available. But it isn’t just the availability of water. Dingoes, which Sturt commonly encountered and would naturally prey on the Kangaroo are now almost non-existent thanks to the construction of the dingo fence designed to protect grazing stock.
This combination of European influences has created an ecological imbalance that now sees those Roo’s thrive. And it’s not just the wildlife that’s changed. The plants too, whilst perhaps the same varieties, now exist in a different balance. Hardy perennials like the various saltbush that previously dominated the landscape have been grazed, creating space and allowing plants like these thorny annuals, that would in the past have been secondary species, to proliferate.
And of course, with us came the cats, dogs, foxes and rabbits who have also made this place their home with devastating effect. Which in some ways makes Sturt’s greatest legacy today, or rather his greatest gift, at least out here, this book.
Charles Sturt was a disciplined and meticulous note taker. Every day of those 18 months in the desert, without fail, he would write a minimum of five hundred words, and his journals not only detail the day-to-day challenges he and his men faced on their journey, but his words and simple drawings include descriptions of plants and animals along with renderings of aboriginal villages and observations of cultural practices that give us a priceless insight into the country and culture as it was before European settlement.
And out here at Fort Grey, the place from which Sturt had made his last desperate lunges into the desert in search of his inland sea, those wonderfully precise observations are guiding the work of scientists and locals in the important task of rehabilitating this country.
Replacing animals that had become extinct in the area etc.
Sturt had been defeated by this desert which is hardly a surprise but his expedition secured his personal future and while he will never know how important his journal has become in securing the ongoing transformation of Sturt National Park, it is an invaluable legacy.
Sturt, his beloved Charlotte and their three youngest children sailed from Adelaide in March 1853 for England, taking up a comfortable residence in Cheltenham. He’d often cited his concerns at providing for his children’s future as a driving force behind his inland expedition and so it was that they left Australia to benefit the children’s education. By 1860, all four had been appropriately schooled and each of his three sons gifted military commissions.
Occupying himself in retirement with involvement in the Royal Geographic Society and the Linnean Society where he pursued a study of Australian birds, Sturt sustained his love of Australia maintaining a keen interest in colonial affairs, while never quite letting go of his dream of an inland sea.
“I am still of the opinion, he wrote in later life, that there is more than one sea in the interior of Australia. All I can say is What that I had discovered it.”
Charles Sturt died peacefully in Cheltenham England on the 16th of June 1869. The desert that had defeated him would not be crossed until 70 years after his death. And when it was, of course, no inland sea was to be found.
We tend to think of the people we create statues of, as we have of Charles Sturt, as somehow unchanging, frozen in time like the statues themselves. But Sturt believed his long and inconclusive journey into the interior was trying to teach him something. Each week of that expedition he penned a letter to his wife Charlotte and in one of those letters he wrote
“I should limit my wants to the means I have for attaining them. To cast from me those oppressive thoughts that deprive a man of moral tranquillity and instead stoop to gather life’s blessings.”
No more ambition for ambitions sake, to enjoy what he had regardless of his social position. A lesson perhaps for all of us.