Welcome to Corner Country, a place of stark natural beauty, an area rich in indigenous and European history, of deserted goldfields, historic outback settlements, magnificent sunsets and the home of the Sturt’s Steps Corner Country.
From here it’s possible to recreate for yourself the path taken by the first Europeans to set foot in this vast desert wilderness, to call in on some of the key sights that Captain Charles Sturt and his party of 16 visited as they stepped off on one of colonial Australia’s boldest and most dangerous exploratory endeavours, an epic trek into what was then a deeply mysterious interior in search of Australia’s fabled inland sea.
But just who was the man who led that expedition, the man they called the gentleman explorer, and why was it that in his late 40’s, a happily married father of 4, he chose to embark on a fantastical quest from which, even he admitted, there was every chance he may never return.
Charles Napier Sturt was born on the 28 April 1795 in Bengal, British India, one 8 sons, of thirteen children in total born to Thomas Sturt, a magistrate with the East India Company and his wife Jeanette Napier.
As was customary for the children of the colonial upper-class Charles was shipped out of India at the age of five to live with relatives in England whilst being educated, attending a preparatory school before being sent to Harrow in 1810.
Sturt, whose name will be always part of Australian history, was, in adulthood, 5 feet 11 inches tall, had brown hair, bright blue eyes, an aquiline nose, and what was described as a rather sensitive, humorous mouth.
The Sturt’s and the Napier’s were Dorset County families of high standing, landholders with “Good names” as they said in the day. And whilst his paternal grandmother was well-connected, she was also a compulsive gambler and she passed her financial recklessness on to her children with all fifteen Sturts being distinguished by their “good looks, grace, fine manners, and the fatal habit of being in debt.”
The order of the day for man of Thomas Sturt’s standing was to provide his sons with higher education and to establish them in a profession. But Thomas, in typical Sturt fashion, had unsuccessfully speculated on an Indian bank and its failure had gravely affected his finances. So, despite his social standing, young Charles would not receive a university education, nor the start in life he felt he deserved and it set in him an obsession with money and status that would continue throughout his life, one that would, as we will discover, lead him into this desert in 1844.
Luckily Charles had an aunt who was a consort of the Prince Regent and despite the family having no military history, in 1812 she managed to acquire young Charles an ensigncy with the 39th Regiment of Foot. During 1814 he saw action in France against Napoleon, was then posted to peacekeeping duties in Quebec, Canada, then returned to France as part of the allied occupation of Northern France. From 1819 he served as a garrison soldier in Northern Ireland, and it was there, poorly paid, surrounded by fellow officers living on family allowances and unable to enjoy the life of a gentlemen that his bitter resentment at his father’s financial inabilities reached new heights. In a letter to his cousin Isaac Wood, he wrote:
“Good God! When he knows that I cannot encroach upon his allowance he trifles with my character. Do, my Dearest Friend, find out some means of saving me. I am in really in such agitation at the situation in which I stand that I scarcely know what to say or do…”
Peacetime had meant Sturt was nearly 28 before he reached Lieutenant, 30 before being promoted to Captain. His rank was lowly, as was his pay. He was unmarried and, in an age when men of his class were expected to “make their mark”, he had little to show for himself. And when he found that he was to oversee the transportation of convicts to the fledgling colony of NSW in 1826, whatever hopes he had held for himself seemed utterly dashed.
But as the Mariner, with her cargo of 75 mainly Irish convicts swung to port and entered the heads of Sydney Harbour, by his own admission, he was instantly captivated.
“With mingled feelings I gazed for the first time upon the bold cliffs at the entrance to Port Jackson, however I did not anticipate anything equal to the scene as we sailed up that noble and extensive basin. In a climate so soft one barely requires a dwelling, and so enchanting few have left it but with regret, the spirits must needs be acted upon and the heart feel lighter.”
From a young age, Sturt had been considered a dreamer. And if those dreams had been suppressed by his military experiences, that first year in Australia reignited them in a way that would forever alter his life.
Within six months of his arrival, he was appointed military secretary to Governor Ralph Darling and with his liberation from the direct rigidity of the army and the experience of life in what was a largely unknown continent, those dreams began to re-emerge. Sturt began to see exploration as his calling. With it would come the “credit” he desired, coupled with the prospect of financial reward. Money, status and at last the chance to “climb the ladder.” And Darling, who as it happened was related by marriage, would become his sponsor.
Again, to his cousin on 10th November, 1827, he wrote:
“The Governor-General has appointed me his military secretary but in February I take an expedition into the interior to ascertain the level of the inland plains and to determine the supposed existence of an inland sea. This will not be unattended with danger however, it is a most important trust, and if I succeed, as I anticipate, I shall earn some credit…in no case could a career more honourable than that of discovery have been open to me when I landed on Australian shores.”
Sturt undertook two expeditions for Darling and discover he did. First the Darling River and then the Murray. And those journeys into the unknown were both conducted with polish and bravery. He also proved a popular leader of men with four of those who had spent five months with him under difficult conditions during his first expedition enthusiastically joining him on the second.
Sturt also demonstrated a meticulous care for detail. Having studied surveying whilst on duty in France he charted every bend along the rivers he explored with the compass bearing and length of every reach: these charts still exist, and their accuracy is extraordinary.
And when he returned to Sydney after his expedition down the Murray, he was celebrated with The Sydney Gazette gushing in its tribute:
“Captain Sturt has inscribed his name in indelible characters upon the records of our history, and will occupy a respectable rank among those heroic men to whom the world is indebted for geographical knowledge.”
Sturt had, in the fledgling colony of NSW at least, made his mark. He had status, but the rewards were not forthcoming and when he returned to England in 1832, he did so not simply as a man who had seen more of inland Australia than any other European, but broke and determined to bring to Her Majesties Government’s attention the importance of his discoveries. He sold his commission in 1833 for the not insubstantial sum of 2,000 pounds, published an account of his travels and, after much bureaucratic wrangling, was awarded a grant of 2,000 hectares in NSW. In June of 1834 he married the daughter of a family friend, Charlotte Greene, and sailed again for Australia.