CHAPTER 3. JOHN OXLEY.
3.1. GENERAL BIOGRAPHY.
Oxley was born in England in the early part of 1781. In his youth he entered the navy, saw active service in many parts of the world, and rose to the rank of Lieutenant. He came to Australia in January, 1812, and was appointed Surveyor-General.
Throughout his career in Australia, Oxley would seem to have won the friendship and respect of all he came in contact with. Captain Charles Sturt, in the journal of his first expedition, wrote of him as follows: -
"A reflection arose to my mind, on examining these decaying vestiges of a former expedition, whether I should be more fortunate than the leader of it, and how far I should be able to penetrate beyond the point which had conquered his perseverance. Only a week before I left Sydney I had followed Mr. Oxley to the tomb. A man of great quickness and of uncommon ability. The task of following up his discoveries was no less enviable than arduous."
These thoughts were suggested to Sturt when standing at one of Oxley's old camps, and coming from such a man carry great weight.
The following obituary notice of Oxley appeared in the Government Gazette of May 27th, 1828.
"It would be impossible for his Excellency, consistently with his feelings, to announce the decease of the late Surveyor-General without endeavouring to express the sense he entertains of Mr. Oxley's services, though he cannot do justice to them.
"From the nature of this colony, the office of Surveyor-General is amongst the most important under Government; and to perform its duties in a manner Mr. Oxley has done for a long series of years is as honourable to his zeal and abilities as it is painful for the Government to be deprived of them.
"Mr. Oxley entered the public service at an early period of his life, and has filled the important situation of Surveyor-General for the last sixteen years.
"His exertions in the public service have been unwearied, as has been proved by his several expeditions to explore the interior. The public have reaped the benefit while it is to be apprehended that the event, which they cannot fail to lament, has been accelerated by the privations and fatigues of these arduous services. Mr. Oxley eminently assisted in unfolding the advantages of this highly favoured colony from an early stage of its existence, and his name will ever be associated with the dawn of its advancement. It is always gratifying to the Government to record its approbation of the services of meritorious public officers, and in assigning to Mr. Oxley's name a distinguished place in that class to which his devotion to the interests of the colony has so justly entitled him, the Government would do honour to his memory in the same degree as it feels the loss it has sustained in his death."
Oxley died at Kirkham, his private residence near Sydney, on the 25th of May, 1828. Though his judgment was at times at fault, as will be seen later on, he was essentially a successful explorer; for, although he did not in every case achieve the object aimed at, he always brought back his men without loss, and he opened up vast tracts of new country. John Oxley's personality is not very familiar, but the portrait presented to the reader in this volume was taken in the prime of his life, before he suffered the scars of doubtful battle with the Australian wilderness. It has never been published before, and is taken from the original miniature that he presented to Mrs. King, widow of Governor King, in 1810.
3.2. HIS FIRST EXPEDITION.
On this, Oxley's first journey of exploration, Evans accompanied him as second in command, and another man who has left an immortal name was also with him - Allan Cunningham, officially known as King's Botanist. Charles Fraser, well-known in connection with the early history both of New South Wales and of Western Australia, accompanied Oxley under the title of Colonial Botanist. There were nine other men in the party - boatmen, horse-tenders, and so forth; they had with them two boats and fourteen pack and riding-horses. A depot was first formed at the junction of the small creek whence Evans had turned back, and where he had marked a tree with his initials in 1815. There the boats were launched and preparations completed for the final start. On the 6th of April, 1817, Oxley left Sydney and joined his party at the depot on the 1st of May. Thence he soon commenced this most momentous journey in Australia's early annals, eager to penetrate into the unknown, and inspired with hopes of solving the mystery of the outlet of this inland river.
Disappointment marks the tone of Oxley's journal from the start; the exceeding flatness of the country, the many ana-branches of the river, the low altitude of its banks, and the absence of any large tributary streams, above all, the dismal impression made by the monotony of the surroundings, seem to have depressed Oxley's spirit. He appears to have formed the idea that the interior tract he was approaching was nothing more than a dead and stagnant marsh - a huge dreary swamp, within whose bounds the inland rivers lost their individuality and merged into a lifeless morass. A more melancholy picture could not be imagined, and with such an awesome thought constantly haunting his mind there is no wonder that he became morbid, and that the dominant tone of his journal, whilst on the Lachlan, is so hopelessly pessimistic.
"These flats," he says, "are certainly not adapted for cattle; the grass is too swampy, and the bushes, swamps, and lagoons are too thickly intermingled with the better portion to render it a safe or desirable grazing country. The timber is universally bad and small; a few misshapen gum trees on the immediate banks of the river may be considered an exception."