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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

On This Day, 16 July; Charles Sturt died

On this day in 1869 a man regarded as a hero of Australian exploration died in England. There were times in his life when it seemed as though his woeful lack of aptitude at politics and financial management might overshadow his other achievements, but at the end he was widely and respectfully consulted on Australian issues - these included the preparations for Augustus Gregory's successful Northern Australian Exploring Expedition of 1854.
Sturt's, or Thargomindah, Nightshade, Solanum sturtianum, Broken Hill.
Named by Ferdinand von Mueller, perhaps the greatest of all Australian botanists,
in 1854, just after Sturt had left Australia for the last time.
Sturt was born in Bengal, to a judge employed by the East India Company (in those days it apparently didn't seem at all inappropriate to retain your own judges!). Presumably it didn't pay very well, as there wasn't enough money for Charles to go to university in England; as was fairly normal in such circumstances he joined the army instead, seeing action in Spain and Canada and serving in occupying forces in Ireland and France. At the age of 32, still a relatively lowly captain, he landed in New South Wales where he was appointed military secretary to Governor Darling, and thus met, and was inspired by, established explorers such as Cunningham, Oxley and Mitchell. His first expedition, in 1828, along the Macquarie, Castlereagh and Darling Rivers in a fierce drought summer, set the tone for future such work in three ways. These were that there was little of importance to the colony in the lands he traversed (his Murray trip later was the exception), and his care for, and courtesy towards, the men under him - and Aboriginal people he encountered - was exemplary. Additionally, he was a meticulous collector of specimens for science along the way, which of course is a major qualification for him being the subject of today's posting.

The following year he undertook what was to be his most successful expedition, and one which made his name. They followed the Murrumbidgee to its junction with the Murray, which he named, not realising that Hume and Hovell had already called it the Hume well upstream; actually he had a pretty fair idea, but the governor had expressed his wish to have something significant named for the British Secretary of State for the Colonies. 
Junction of the Murrumbidgee (opposite) and Murray Rivers.
Sturt and his party were the first Europeans to see this impressive confluence, in 1829.
They proceeded in a whale boat, which they had carried in sections, for another 1200km to the sea, which the river reaches having flowed through the mighty Lake Alexandrina. 
Mouth of the Murray, near Goolwa, South Australia.
Currently it is open, though for most of the last decade it has not been.
 Then, living on flour and parrots, they rowed back against the flood... The glare rendered him blind for months afterwards, but he was granted land near where Canberra now stands. Even more importantly to him, he was famous and respected. However his lack of business nous let him down, and he had to turn to pioneering a route along the Murray by land to overland cattle to the hungry new colony of Adelaide. 

Turpentine Bush Eremophila sturtii, found across much of arid Australia.
Named by the great Scottish botanist Robert Brown, who Sturt asked to describe his collections form his 1844 expedition.
He moved to Adelaide, but again things didn't go well for him, and in 1844 at the age of nearly 50 he undertook one last epic expedition. Encouraged by stories he'd heard when he first arrived, he was a firm believer in the Great Inland Sea; it existed all right, but he was a good 20 million years too late for it. At Depot Glen in far north-western New South Wales they became trapped for 6 months on the only waterhole anywhere around - and were remarkably lucky to find it! The effects of heat and drought were horrific. He reported "every screw in our boxes has been drawn, and the horn handles of our instruments, as well as our combs, were split into fine laminae. The lead dropped out of our pencils... our hair, as well as the wool on our sheep, ceased to grow, and our nails had become brittle as glass. The flour lost 8% of its original weight .... and we found it difficult to write or draw, so rapidly did the fluid dry in our pens and brushes." Scurvy racked them, and the second-in-command, James Poole, died of it. Nonetheless, when rain did finally come, he pushed on rather than retreating, finally being defeated by the dunes of the Simpson Desert. They returned to Adelaide after 18 months, his health destroyed.
Sturt's Desert Rose Gossypium sturtianum, Alice Springs.
This superb member of the cotton genus is the Northern Territory floral emblem.
He was by now a committed Australian, but still felt obliged to return to England where he believed his children needed to be to ensure their futures. He lived out his days peacefully enough, though he was always short of money.

In addition to the plants mentioned above which were named for him (and others which were so named, but later found to have been already described), the best-known is undoubtedly Sturt's Desert Pea (also called just Sturt Pea) Swainsona formosa, the state emblem of South Australia, though it is found in all the mainland states except Victoria. However, although it has had various scientific names from collections in different parts of the country (including ones honouring William Dampier and John Oxley) it was never called formally for Sturt. Nor was he the first to record it - indeed William Dampier had done so back in 1699 on the north-western coast, and Cunningham had reported it from both there and western New South Wales. It seems however that Sturt first brought it to the public attention, when he found it near the site of the present Broken Hill during his great 1844 expedition. He reported it "in splendid blossom on the plains. It was growing amidst barrenness and decay, but its long runners were covered with flowers that gave a crimson tint to the ground." 
Sturt's Desert Pea Swainsona formosa, Broken Hill.
This is from near the site in the Barrier Ranges where Sturt found it flowering profusely,
and brought it to the public's attention.

There are much worse ways to be remembered.



Susan said...

Another terrific overview of an historic character. I really enjoy reading these.

Duncan McCaskill said...

Most interesting. The Sturt name is all over SA and I got quite a bit of this history at primary school in Adelaide, but of course I didn't pay attention. Sturt's accounts of the land around lower Murray given in London gave the impetus for the establishment of the colony of South Australia.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for your kind words Susan - they are appreciated. I'm certainly not a historian, but I love trying to get a feel for how our understanding of the land developed.

Good to hear from you Duncan; I well remember the dominance of 'Sturt' in Adelaide. (In fact the Sturt footy club was the arch enemy for a Norwood boy, but that's another story.) You're right about Sturt's reports on the Murray being influential, but that was largely in Governor Hindmarsh's mind; Sturt had actually said that the mouth area was not suitable for a town. The preferred sites from London were either Kangaroo Island or Boston Bay (ie Port Lincoln).

Boobook said...

A most interesting blog Ian, with fantastic photos as usual.

Ian Fraser said...

Hello Boobook and thanks for that. I love hearing from people I've not heard from before, as well as from old friends!

Mel said...

What a story! I really enjoy these little snippets of the Adelaide historical figures and especially Charles Sturt because living in the area, you just kind of grow up with the name but never putting a story to to it. Thanks for that!

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Mel! Yes, I grew up there too, and the story of his trip down the Murray and back always gripped me. I hope I can offer you other things that interest you from time to time.

Wilson McOrist said...

Hi Ian,

Your blog came up while I searched for background information on members of Sturt's 1829/30 party, which included a 'Fraser'.

(I am researching for a book.)

Do you have any background info on Sturt's party: Hopkinson, Fraser and John Harris, and the 3 convicts, John McNamee, Joseph Clayton,and William Mulholland?

Or do know of any resources that may be able to help me?


Wilson McOrist