Charles Sturt’s Journey Down the Murray, 1829-30

Captain Charles Sturt, of the 39th Regiment based in N.S.W. was the next officially sanctioned explorer to venture into the unknown of Southern Australia. His party of soldiers and convicts, after setting out from Sydney on 3rd November 1829 with a dray and horses to explore the interior to the west, took to the major river, previously discovered, called the Murrumbidgee.

A whaleboat which had been carried on the dray was assembled, and a smaller boat was constructed in the bush by Clayton, a convict who was also a carpenter. Taking his companion George Macleay – soldiers Fraser, Harris and Hopkinson, and convicts Clayton, MacNamee and Mulholland, Sturt instructed the remainder of the party to wait for two weeks before decamping to a previous depot, and on the 7th January, 1830, set off into the unknown.After many mishaps over the next few weeks, including the sinking of the small boat (subsequently refloated and repaired) when it hit a submerged log, resulting in the loss and damage of valuable stores, and encountering some dangerous rapids, the river was eventually blocked by a log jam as the course narrowed. Finally, after finding their way through the log jam the next day, the river widened, and they were able to glide effortlessly on smooth water between grassy and wooded banks. When this major river merged with another from the north, which Sturt correctly judged to be the Darling, the upper reaches of which he had explored on a previous expedition, Sturt named the new merged river the Murray, after Sir George Murray, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The befriending of some Aboriginal people, who provided much useful information about the river flows, was to prove crucial.The steady flow of the river, and the use of a sail facilitated the westerly, and eventually south-western journey, past towering red cliffs, giant river red gums, and vast wetland forests. Profuse birdlife and fish provided nourishment on the way. A life threatening encounter with hostile natives was a major crisis. Approaching a sand bank, which enabled a narrow thoroughfare, the party were confronted by a large number of spear wielding warriors, who seemed intent on attack. Manning their rifles, Sturt’s party feared for the worst as the boat drifted closer. Suddenly, a native from the other side of the river dived in the water, swam across to the warriors, and with much gesticulation and persuasion, calmed the would-be attackers, allowing the party to pass safely. It was a group Sturt’s party had earlier befriended who had saved their lives.Sturt’s journey along the Murrumbidgee and River Murray systems was a journey through heavily populated Aboriginal lands. The life sustaining water flow provided infinite sources of fish, crustacean, and bird and animal life. Many groups befriended Sturt and his party, and would follow them along the banks for days on end, camping nearby at nights, dancing corroborees with some members of the exploration party joining in, and trading food for tomahawks and other small gifts. They informed Sturt as to the nature of the route ahead, including the wide watercourse now known as the Murray, and the dramatic sweep of this mighty river towards the southern coast, thereby putting an end to Sturt’s vision of a vast inland sea. Sometimes groups of up to 150 would keep company with the party, and the group which threatened Sturt’s party were estimated at more than 600. Sturt estimated that the party had encountered approximately 4,000 natives during this seminal expedition.

Sturt’s description of the group which threatened the party is intriguing:

“As we sailed down the reach, we observed a vast concourse of natives…….. on a nearer approach, we not only heard their war-song, if it might so be called, but remarked that they were painted and armed, as they generally are, prior to their engaging in deadly conflict………”

“We approached so near that they held their spears quivering in their grasp ready to hurl. They were painted in various ways. Some who had marked their ribs, and thighs, and faces with a white pigment, looked like skeletons, others were daubed over with red and yellow ochre, and their bodies shone with the grease with which they had besmeared themselves. A dead silence prevailed among the front ranks, but those in the back ground, as well as the women, who carried supplies of darts, and who appeared to have had a bucket of whitewash capsized over their heads, were extremely clamourous.”

Many early explorers told of encountering natives decorated with ‘war paint’ and that judgement would seem to have been vindicated by hostile behaviour which followed, but it is far more likely that large groups of painted natives were preparing for the most important of ceremonies, a concept the explorers would have had little knowledge of. It would have been the innocent intrusion of the white man which caused the hostility. It is common even to this day, for women to smear their bodies and their heads with white ochre, or pipe clay, during funeral rites, and from Sturt’s description of the party which threatened him, it could well have been the funeral of an important elder which had been interrupted.

The extent to which the party and the Aboriginal guides formed a rapport is best summarised by a selection of Sturt’s entries.

“On the following morning, they accompanied us down the river, where we fell in with their tribe, who were stationed on an elevated bank a short distance below–to the number of eighty-three men, women, and children. Their appearance was extremely picturesque and singular. They wanted us to land, but time was too precious for such delays. Some of the boldest of the natives swam round and round the boat so as to impede the use of the oars, and the women on the bank evinced their astonishment by mingled yells and cries. They entreated us, by signs, to remain with them, but, as I foresaw a compliance on this occasion would hereafter be attended with inconvenience, I thought it better to proceed on our journey, and the natives soon ceased their importunities, and, indeed, did not follow or molest us.”

and 

“The old men slept very soundly by the fire, and were the last to get up in the morning. McLeay’s extreme good humour had made a most favourable impression upon them, and I can picture him, even now, joining in their wild song. Whether it was from his entering so readily into their mirth, or from anything peculiar that struck them, the impression upon the whole of us was, that they took him to have been originally a black, in consequence of which they gave him the name of Rundi. Certain it is, they pressed him to show his side, and asked if he had not received a wound there–evidently as if the original Rundi had met with a violent death from a spear-wound in that place. The whole tribe, amounting in number to upwards of 150, assembled to see us take our departure. Four of them accompanied us, among whom there was one remarkable for personal strength and stature.–The 21st passed without our falling in with any new tribe, and the night of the 22nd, saw us still wandering in that lonely desert together. There was something unusual in our going through such an extent of country without meeting another tribe, but our companions appeared to be perfectly aware of the absence of inhabitants, as they never left our side. It happened that Fraser and Harris were for guard, and they sat up laughing and talking with the natives long after we retired to rest. Fraser, to beguile the hours, proposed shaving his sable companions, and performed that operation with admirable dexterity upon their chief, to his great delight.”

The reward for the foresight and friendship struck up with the river people, and Sturt’s dramatic description of the tense situation and resolution are also best summed up in his own words.

“I took up my gun, therefore, and cocking it, had already brought it down to a level. A few seconds more would have closed the life of the nearest of the savages. The distance was too trifling for me to doubt the fatal effects of the discharge; for I was determined to take deadly aim, in hopes that the fall of one man might save the lives of many. But at the very moment, when my hand was on the trigger, and my eye was along the barrel, my purpose was checked by McLeay, who called to me that another party of blacks had made their appearance upon the left bank of the river. Turning round, I observed four men at the top of their speed. The foremost of them as soon as he got a-head of the boat, threw himself from a considerable height into the water. He struggled across the channel to the sand-bank, and in an incredibly short space of time stood in front of the savage, against whom my aim had been directed. Seizing him by the throat, he pushed backwards, and forcing all who were in the water upon the bank, he trod its margin with a vehemence and an agitation that were exceedingly striking. At one moment pointing to the boat, at another shaking his clenched hand in the faces of the most forward, and stamping with passion on the sand; his voice, that was at first distinct and clear, was lost in hoarse murmurs. Two of the four natives remained on the left bank of the river, but the third followed his leader, (who proved to be the remarkable savage I have previously noticed) to the scene of action. The reader will imagine our feelings on this occasion: it is impossible to describe them. We were so wholly lost in interest at the scene that was passing, that the boat was allowed to drift at pleasure. For my own part I was overwhelmed with astonishment, and in truth stunned and confused; so singular, so unexpected, and so strikingly providential, had been our escape.”

This dramatic intervention by a native befriended just days earlier, took place just short of the intersection of a large stream from the north, which Sturt correctly surmised to be the Darling River, the upper reaches of which he had previously explored.

A further seventeen days of the journey followed, with the constant advice and assistance of the river people. Some insights into the journey ara again best summarised in Sturt’s own words.

“I had been suffering very much front tooth-ache for the last three or four days, and this day felt the most violent pain from the wind. I was not, therefore, sorry to get under even the poor shelter our tents afforded. McLeay, observing that I was in considerable pain, undertook to wind up the chronometer; but, not understanding or knowing the instrument, he unfortunately broke the spring. I shall not forget the anxiety he expressed, and the regret he felt on the occasion; nor do I think McLeay recovered the shock this unlucky accident gave him for two or three days, or until the novelty of other scenes drove it from his recollection.”

and

“Shortly after this, eight of the women, whom we had not before noticed, came down to the water side, and gave us the most pressing invitation to land. Indeed they played their part uncommonly well, and tried for some time to allure us by the most unequivocal manifestations of love.”

and significantly:

“In the course of the afternoon the old man joined us, and got into the boat. As far as we could understand from his signs, we were at no great distance from some remarkable change or other. The river had been making to the N.W., from the commencement of the fossil formation, and it appeared as if it was inclined to keep that direction. The old man pointed to the N.W., and then placed his hand on the side of his head to indicate, as I understood him, that we should sleep to the N.W. of where we then were; but his second motion was not so intelligible, for he pointed due south, as if to indicate that such would be our future course; and he concluded his information, such as it was, by describing the roaring of the sea, and the height of the waves. It was evident this old man had been upon the coast, and we were therefore highly delighted at the prospect thus held out to us of reaching it.”

The old man’s information proved correct, with the river’s course swinging to the south on 3rd January. When seagulls were sighted on 4th, the party realised that the ocean was nearby, but on the 9th they entered a large lake, and the journey to the sea proved more complicated than imagined. 

“I was very anxious, at starting on the 3rd, as to the course the river would take, since it would prove whether the little old man had played us false or not. From the cliffs under which we had slept, it held a direct N.W. course for two or three miles. It then turned suddenly to the S.E., and gradually came round to E.N.E., so that after two hours pulling, we found ourselves just opposite to the spot from which we had started, the neck of land that separated the channels not being more than 200 yards across. I have before noticed a bend similar to this, which the Murray makes, a little above the junction of the supposed Darling with it.”