Sturt: Hero or Strutter?
Did the first British explorer to sail the continent's
embellish his tale of derring-do?
reprinted from The Sunday Mail
In the taming of Australia's harsh and rugged land, Captain Charles Sturt's pioneering journey down the Murray River in January 1830 was always presented as one of the triumphs of British settlement.
Coupled with his later expeditions into central Australia, it led to Sturt being dubbed "the father of Australian exploration". Braving the unknown, heat, food shortages, and potentially hostile Aboriginal tribes, the young British army officer and his crew of seven soldiers and convicts rowed down the Murray in an eight-metre whaleboat from the Murrumbudgee in NSW to Lake Alexandrina in South Australia, where the river eventually flowed into the ocean.
It was an exploration success story, unlike the tragic failure of Burke and Wills, and it was commemorated as such. According to La Probe University historian John Hirst, when Australia celebrated the 50th anniversary of Federation in 1951, the most popular event was the re-enactment of Sturt's journey down the Murray.
It is only more recently that Sturt's Murray journey has been subjected to greater scrutiny and questions raised about whether he was really the intrepid explorer, or, as his critics argue, a self-serving colonial officer who deliberately distorted what happened on the journey to present himself in the most favourable light, and further his ambition of becoming a colonial governor.
Sturt had already made one journey of discovery in 1828 to the Darling River (named after NSW governor Sir Ralph Darling), and a year later the governor asked him to make a further expedition, to confirm whether the south-eastern rivers flowed south into the sea, or whether, as Sturt suspected, they flowed west into an inland sea.
Sturt set sail from Narrandera, on the Murrumbidgee, on January 7, 1830, and the record of the journey was provided in his own account, Two Expeditions into the Interior of South Australia, published in England in 1833. It tells how on January 4, 1830 the boat was swept from the Murrumbidgee into the main stream of the "broad and noble river" that Sturt chose to name the Murray, after Britain's then colonial secretary, Sir George Murray. Sturt reached Lake Alexandrina on February 7 and a few days later the crew rowed back up the Murray, reaching their depot on the Murrumbidgee on April 10.
The main drama surrounded the potentially hostile presence of the Aborigines living along the Murray. Sturt, keen to avoid bloodshed, had established a system of sending Aboriginal messengers ahead to warn other tribes of his impending arrival, but on one occasion he and his men found themselves stranded on a sandbank and confronted by hundreds of angry, war-painted Aborigines.
The essence of the criticism directed at Sturt by author Keith Swan, a former dean of business and liberal studies at Riverina College of Advanced Education, is that Sturt falsified the facts of this encounter, just as he dramatised other details, such as the temporary blindness he suffered, and the party's food shortages, to embellish his story and his own reputation. Similar criticisms are made by Wollongong author Edgar Beale in his book Sturt, the Chipped Idol. Canberra historian Bill Gammage, who studied Sturt's journey to the Murrumbidgee, says that the embellishments were part of a contemporary literary tradition that involved British explorers writing romantic accounts of their feats. "It was still an impressive achievement, says Gammage. "He was determined to get there, and that's a good quality in an explorer."
Historian Jan Penney, who studied Aboriginal tribes along the Murray, believes Sturt did not deliberately falsify his account. "He had two main achievements," says Penney, the chief of Bendigo regional library. "He maintained good relations with Aborigines all down the river, and he kept his men together. He was ambitious and wanted to make his mark in the world—but all explorers are ambitious. He was a genuine, honorable man. I'd like him in my boat."