The relationship between Australia’s early settlers and explorers and our first nations people was a complex one, as in many ways it continues to be today. And all too often on those early expeditions into the interior, contact that began with a mutual sense of curiosity and wonder could and all too often did turn to violence. And During Sturt’s time, the man responsible for two such violent encounters was also the man he considered his nemesis, NSW Surveyor General, Sir Thomas Mitchell.
Mitchell had assumed the role of the great Australian explorer after Sturt’s initial forays into the interior and in July 1835, a member of his party that was exploring the lower reaches of the Darling, a river that Sturt had discovered 5 years previously, fatally shot Barkindji man, woman and a child near present day Menindee, in a fight, rather sadly, over the non-payment of a negotiated fee for sexual services. The payment in question, a kettle.
In May 1836, hearing that Mitchell was camped on the banks of the Murray near what is present day Euston, a party of Barkindji tribesmen moved along the river to confront him over the incident. Mitchell decided against negotiation and instead ordered his men to attack the group in a pincer movement forcing the “savages,” as he referred to them, into the river where his men continued shooting for some time as the group desperately tried to swim to the opposite bank, killing an undisclosed number.
Mitchell, in an act of the grandest colonial arrogance, elected to name a small hill near the site of that massacre Mt Dispersion. Of course, the opposite could be said for Burke and Wills. So determined was Robert O’Hara Burke that he would have nothing to do with the “mean spirited and contemptable blacks” he encountered on that ill-fated expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria that he refused help that was offered on so many occasions by local tribes’ people and ultimately perished. Sturt would not make the same mistakes.
Before he left Adelaide, he had his men sign an agreement insisting that they:
“be diligent and attentive not only in the duties which may be assigned to them individually, but to make themselves generally useful and to promote to the best of their ability the success of the Expedition.” He also urged the men to “…treat any Aborigines they met with Kindness,” and stressed that any contact with Aboriginal women was forbidden and if it occurred it would be punished with “the very utmost severity.”
And from the beginning, it seems his instructions to his men had proved effective. Early in the expedition, by the Darling he wrote:
“Our conduct to the Natives has been kind but firm and there is a positivity to the intercourse between the men and them.”
Although in those early days, he continued to maintain a degree of caution.
“Our camp is formed to be as compact a possible. I placed 2 drays on each side of the square and the boat dray at the bottom. The light cart and the tents fill the face. A dog is chained to each dray and there are six men on guard all night, two of each patrolling the camp every two hours.”
Yet he continued to engage whenever possible. Sturt knew that without friendly relations with the locals, his dream of finding the inland sea was doomed. And whilst the Thomas Mitchell incidents of 10 years previous had created an awe amongst the tribes at the power of European weapons which was of some value, fighting his way across the continent was not an option.
Each of Sturt’s 5 bullock drays carried a tonne and a half of stores and equipment and amongst that combined 7 tonnes was a sizable stash of blankets, knives and tomahawks, peace offerings Sturt would produce at every encounter.
While Mitchell’s brutal blunderings had left a pall across southern Australia, an impression of volatility and hostility that made the men genuinely apprehensive and indeed fearful of the native peoples, Sturt’s kindness toward the Barkintji at Menindee, and the way it had been generously reciprocated, quickly eased whatever fears they had.
James Brock, the expeditions armourer and bird collector kept a secret journal in which he wrote:
“Mitchell’s account of these tribes was that they were regular fire eaters. The fact is he used them badly, and he had cause to dread them. We pursue a course of kindness towards them and find them altogether as friendly.”
And it would appear that word of that decency and respect spread. If any of our first nations people had have wanted, for whatever reason, to act with hostility toward the party, to ambush or attack them, it wouldn’t have been difficult. With 5 bullock drays and 200 head of sheep they were hardly inconspicuous. The dust thrown up by their slow, lumbering progress would have been visible for miles, but invariably their encounters were characterised by a mutual respect. Caution yes, curiosity absolutely, but more often a lack of fear bordering on familiarity.
“A solitary native approached our camp today. At first the dogs rushed viciously up the hill and attacked. The old Native, however, held them at bay until we ran to his assistance. He was a little alarmed but soon became tranquil and is now sleeping soundly at one of the fires – a singular instance of confidence in us.”
That old native remained in the camp at Depot Glen for a number of days and together they talked as best they could around the campfire each night. But as with any interaction Sturt had with the locals, those campfire conversations always drilled down to a singular question. That of the inland sea. And whether it was a case of the language barrier or a confusion around dreamtime stories that told of such a body of water, a body of water we know actually did exist as little as 50,000 years ago, or perhaps the difference between a European and an Indigenous conception of time and distance or, more likely, Sturt’s own unshakeable conviction that the inland sea must exist, those exchanges often resulted, for Sturt at least, in a reinforcing of that belief.
“He had been greatly attracted to the boat and explained to the men that it was topsy turvy and pointed to the northwest as the place where it would be wanted, making motions of swimming and explaining the roll of waves, and that the water was deep.”
There’s every chance that man was describing the ocean off the Kimberly coast, but for Sturt, it was simply confirmation of what he so desperately wanted to believe.
Amongst the numerous descriptions of encounters with the various tribes’ people they came into contact with on his travels, two in particular stand out.
The first is from a journal entry written the 12th of December 1844, at the time Sturt and his party were camped at Flood’s Creek.
After some trouble and a walk of a couple of miles succeeded in bringing up a woman who was dreadfully alarmed. But I gave her a knife and explained to her that if her and her people would come to the camp, I would give them something to eat. They came in about an hour afterwards, the most wretched and abject I have seen. One of the men had Syphilis most dreadfully and is very near Death’s door. How this complaint comes to exist in this remote spot, where the population is so thin, it is difficult to say.
While the European settlers in Australia had a strong resistance to diseases such as bronchitis, measles, chicken pox and even the common cold – exposure to those diseases was often fatal to Aboriginal populations.
We now know, as Sturt could not have possibly known, that even before Europeans began arriving in the Southern States of Victoria and South Australia, up to a third of the population of the eastern Australian tribes had already been killed by an epidemic of smallpox that had spread from Sydney in the early 1800’s. And Sturt would also have been unaware that that epidemic had spread along trade routes that had been in use for millennia.
Following the movements of their ancestors to exchange goods and technologies, our First Nations people travelled astounding distances along coastal estuaries, catchment areas and river systems, all of which acted as roadways that, in the right season, allowed them to crisscross the continent often moving deep into the interior. And those European diseases, of which Syphilis was one, inevitably came with them.
Sturt was unwittingly recording the spread of a disease, one of many, that by some estimates would together kill over 50% of our indigenous population before the turn of the 20th Century. The second of those encounters perhaps best exemplifies the mutual respect that existed between Sturt and the various tribes he encountered on his journey through this country. With Sturt and his small party of 4 having just been turned back after a final push towards the interior across the Stony Desert, his horses nearly done, his party ravaged by thirst and hunger he entered the Coopers Creek near what is now Innaminka.
We reached the hill and on gaining the summit were hailed with a deafening shout by 300 or 400 natives, who were assembled in the flat below… Several of them brought us large troughs of water and when we had taken a little, held them up for our horses to drink; an instance of nerve that is very remarkable. For I am quite sure that no white man, having never seen or heard of a horse before and with the natural apprehension the first sight of such an animal would create, would deliberately have walked up…and placing the troughs…against their breast, have allowed the horses to drink with their noses almost touching them.
They then offered us roasted ducks and some cake. When we walked over to their camp, they pointed to a large new hut and told us we could sleep there, but I had noticed a little hillock on which there were four box-trees, and had already determined to remain. On my intimating this to the natives they appeared highly delighted. When the natives saw us quietly seated in our camp they came over and brought a quantity of sticks for us to make a fire, wood being extremely scarce.
It’s impossible to speculate as to how close to death Sturt and his small band were but they were certainly in bad shape. What is certain is that the kindness and respect he had shown those aboriginal people he had met over the year that he had been in the desert had been rewarded. But he also was aware of the cost of his expedition.
Some years later he would write:
“While I have the consolation to know that no European will follow my track into the Desert without experiencing Kindness from its tenants, I have to regret that the progree of civilised man into an uncivilised region is almost invariably attended with misfortune to its original inhabitants.
Not long after that encounter on the Cooper, Sturt would begin his retreat from the desert after 15 long months. And his acute observations of the aboriginal people and their customs would be the difference between the party’s safe return or an untimely and ultimately painful death.