Discoveries in Australia
While the English were opening up hitherto unexplored country in America—away in Australia, Englishmen were also discovering new lands to colonise.
Since the exploits of Flinders and the brave passage over the Blue Mountains, much had been discovered about the interior of the country. But it was Sturt's famous descent of the Murray river, that induced England to take up the matter of Australian colonisation more seriously. In the year 1830, he was exploring the waters of the Murrumbidgee, fearing that his journey might end like others in some dismal swamp, when "On a sudden," he says in his own graphic language, "the river took a general southerly direction. We were carried at a fearful rate down its glowing banks, and in such a moment of excitement had little time to pay attention to the country through which we were passing. At last we found we were approaching a junction, and all of a sudden, we were hurried into a broad and noble river."
He was in reality a thousand miles from the mouth of the Murray river, which to-day forms the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria. Dangers were before him. To the ordinary risk of being wrecked on unknown rocks, was added the danger of encounter with natives. More than one white man had already been a victim to their fierce attacks. Now suddenly some hundreds collected on the banks to oppose Sturt's passage. In a shallow reach of the river, they gathered in force, howling and brandishing their spears. Let Sturt again tell his own story.
"As we neared the sand-bank, I stood up and made signs to the natives to desist, but without success. I took up my gun, and cocking it, had already brought it to the level. A few seconds more would have closed the life of the nearest of the savages. At that moment I observed four men upon the left bank of the river. One of them threw himself into the water, struggled across to the sand-bank, and seizing one of the savages by the throat, pushed him backwards." The chief was evidently very angry, stamping with passion and shaking his clenched fist in the faces of his tribe. So ended a scene, which might well have cut short the wonderful descent of the Murray river by Sturt. Soon the 600 natives were looking peacefully at the little ship, as she glided on her way down the unknown stream. After a sail of thirty-two days, Sturt heard waves breaking on the shore, and knew that the mouth of the newly found river must be near. But bitter was his disappointment to find that shoals and sand-banks blocked the entrance, and it was impossible to sail farther. He must return against stream to his headquarters. The fight with wind and current was tremendous. The exhausted crew fell asleep at their oars from sheer weariness, some grew light-headed, until on the seventy-seventh day of labour, Sturt and his faithful crew reached the end of their journey.
When the news reached England, there was great enthusiasm.
"A spot has been found," wrote Sturt, "to which colonists might venture with every prospect of success, and in whose valleys, the exile might hope to build himself a peaceful and prosperous home."
"Colonisation is an imperative duty on Great Britain," cried the poet Coleridge confidently. "God seems to hold out His fingers to us over the sea. But it must be a colony of hope—and not of despair."
On December 28, 1836, the first emigrant ship reached the shores of South Australia and anchored off Kangaroo Island. It was indeed to be a colony of hope. Here were no more convicts, unwilling to work, but a healthy band of English men and women, ready to bear their share in cultivating the rich valley of the Murray river. Other ships followed, and some 200 colonists gathered under an old gum-tree, unfurled the British flag, and took possession of the new colony. And to-day thousands of colonists go forth every year on December 28, to the old gum-tree, on the plains near Adelaide, to celebrate "Proclamation Day." The site of the new capital was soon chosen, and called Adelaide, after the wife of William IV. of England, at her own special request.
Not only was South Australia now claimed as British territory, but the neighbouring islands of New Zealand were claimed too, and colonised. "Very near to Australia," said an Englishman, speaking on colonisation, "there is a country described as the fittest in the world for emigration—as the most beautiful country with the finest climate and the most productive soil; I mean New Zealand."
Already adventurers from Tasmania and New South Wales had sailed across and made their homes there, despite much opposition from the natives. In vain did the old Duke of Wellington declare, that "England had enough colonies." An expedition started off from the mother country to settle in New Zealand, and they called their capital Wellington, after the hero of Waterloo.
Meanwhile Australian colonisation was growing apace. Already a small colony was growing into existence in Western Australia. Colonists had made a settlement round the Swan river and built the city of Perth on the western coast. But this little settlement was terribly isolated from the other colonies in Australia, and in the year 1840, one man made his way right across the great continent from east to west, to see if communication could be established by land between the two.
Eyre, the hero of the expedition, had already made many journeys inland,—some successful, some unsuccessful. He had driven a mob of 300 cattle through unknown country from Sydney to Adelaide, a journey which occupied eight months. He did the same journey again, with 600 cattle and 1000 sheep, in three months, and opened up a new trade-route between the two towns. Then he had sailed to King George's Sound, and led a flock of sheep across 300 miles of unknown country to Perth, thus establishing a trade-route between Adelaide and Perth.
Now he formed the daring plan of establishing, if possible, a trade-route by land across the desert, on the shores of the great Australian Bight—of piercing the continent from east to west. In February 1841 a start was made. The party had already been reduced to John Baxter, "a sound solid Englishman," a black man Wylie, and two companions, pack-horses, provisions, and six sheep. And so Eyre turned his back on home and friends to traverse the thousand miles of hideous waterless desert. It was indeed
Often he had to go for five days without a drop of fresh water. He toiled on over the summit of high unbroken cliffs, at the foot of which broke a sailless sea, blown by furious winds rushing up from the antarctic ice. Horse after horse dropped dead in the sand from waterless misery, the black men complained bitterly and deserted more than once; but Eyre's courage kept the party going.
One night a tragedy occurred, which nearly ended the expedition. They were camping for the night, and Eyre had wandered from the camp with the horses. A cold wind was blowing, scuds drove across the moon, the place was solitary: there were no trees, below roared a rough sea. Suddenly the sound of a gun rang out, and Wylie's voice cried, "Come here! come here!" Eyre ran back in terror, to find the camp had been robbed, Baxter slain, and the two black men had disappeared. He was now alone in the very middle of the Great Bight, 500 miles from help. He looked down at the dead body of his friend and away to the desolate sea beyond—and then in the early morning, he started on again, on, with the new horror of murder dogging his steps. He plodded on another hundred miles, which took a month, so weak had he and Wylie grown, when relief appeared. A French ship hove into sight. Eyre lit a fire to attract notice, and soon a boat was making for the shore, and Eyre—wild, hungry, emaciated—was taken on board and nursed back to life by friendly sailors. Then after another month's walk, he staggered into the English settlement of Albany—his great adventure ended. To-day, the electric telegraph connects Adelaide and Perth by the great Australian Bight.