CHAPTER 6. CHARLES STURT.
6.1. EARLY LIFE.
Charles Sturt was born in India at Chunar-Ghur, on April the 28th, 1795. His father, Thomas Lennox Napier Sturt, was a puisne Judge in Bengal under the East India Company; his mother was Jeanette Wilson. The Sturts were an old Dorsetshire family. In 1799, Charles, as was common with most Anglo-Indian children, was sent home to England, to the care of his aunts, Mrs. Wood and Miss Wilson, at Newton Hall, Middlewich. He went first to a private school at Astbury, and in 1810 was sent to Harrow. On the 9th of September, 1813, he was gazetted as Ensign in the 39th Regiment of Foot. He served with his regiment in the Pyrenees, and in a desultory campaign in Canada. When Napoleon escaped from Elba, the 39th returned to Europe, but all too late to join in the victory of Waterloo, and it was stationed with the Army of Occupation in the north of France. In 1818, the regiment was sent to Ireland. Here for several years Sturt remained in most uncongenial surroundings, watching smugglers, seizing illicit stills, and assisting to quell a rising of the Whiteboys. It was in Ireland that the devoted John Harris, his soldier-servant, who was afterwards the companion of his Australian wanderings, was first attached to him. In 1823, Sturt was gazetted Lieutenant, and his promotion to Captain followed in 1825.
In December, 1826, he sailed for New South Wales with a detachment of his regiment, in charge of convicts. The moment he set foot on this vast unknown land, its chief geographical enigma at once occupied his attention. Sir Ralph Darling, to whom he acted for some time as private secretary, formed a high opinion of his tact and ability, and appointed him Major of Brigade and Military Secretary.
6.2. THE DARLING.
As soon as an expedition inland was mooted, Sturt volunteered for the leadership, and was recommended by Oxley, who was then on his deathbed. The recommendation was adopted by Governor Darling, and Sturt embarked on the career of exploration that was to render his name immortal.
It was ever Sturt's misfortune to be the sport of the seasons; drought and its attendant desolation dogged his footsteps like an evil genius. Oxley had followed, or attempted to follow, the rivers down when a long period of recurrent wet seasons had saturated the soil, filled the swamps and marshes, and swollen the river-courses so that they appeared to be navigable throughout for boats. Sturt came at a period when the country lay faint under a prolonged drought and the rivers had dwindled down into dry channels, with here and there a parched and meagre water-hole. The following description of his is too often quoted as depicting the usual state of the Australian interior: -
"In the creeks, weeds had grown and withered, and grown again; and young saplings were now rising in their beds, nourished by the moisture that still remained; but the large forest trees were drooping, and many were dead. The emus with outstretched necks, gasping for breath, search the channels of the rivers for water in vain; and the native dog, so thin that he could hardly walk, seemed to implore some merciful hand to despatch him."
[Map. Sturt's Route. Hume and Hovell's Route 1824.]
To Sturt and his companions, who were the first white men to face the interior during a season of drought, the scene may not have seemed too highly-coloured; but, in common with many of Sturt's graphic word-pictures, his description applies only to special or rare circumstances.
In 1828, no rain had fallen for two years, and even the dwellers on the coastal lands began to despair of copious rainfalls. Whenever their glance wandered over their own dried-up pastures, men's thoughts naturally turned to that widespread and boundless swamp wherein the Macquarie was lost to Oxley's quest; and many saw in the drought a favourable opportunity to discover the ultimate destination of these lost rivers. An expedition to the west was accordingly prepared in order to solve the problem under these very different existing circumstances, and Sturt was selected as leader. To Hamilton Hume was offered the position of second in command, and, as the dry weather had brought all farming operations to a standstill, he was able to accept it. Besides Sturt and Hume, the party consisted of two soldiers and eight prisoners, two of the latter being taken to return with despatches as soon as they had reached the limit of the known country. They also had with them eight riding and seven pack-horses, and two draught and eight pack-bullocks. A small boat rigged up on a wheeled carriage was also taken; but like many others carried into the interior, it never served any useful purpose.
The country was by this time well-known, and partly settled up to and below Wellington Vale; but when Sturt reached Mount Harris, Oxley's former depot camp, he had come to the verge of the unknown, and halted in order to consider as to his immediate movements. He consulted with Hume, and as there seemed to be no present obstacle to their progress, it was determined, as Sturt writes, "to close with the marshes."
This they did much sooner than was expected, for at the end of the first day's march their camp was set in the very midst of the reeds. A halt for a couple of days was made, whilst Sturt prepared his despatches to the Governor. On the 26th, the two messengers were sent off to Bathurst, and the progress of the party was resumed. Before the day closed, they found themselves on a dreary expanse of flats and of desolate reed beds. The progress of the main body was thus suddenly and completely checked, and Sturt decided to launch the boat and with two men endeavour to trace the course of the river, while Hume and two others endeavoured to find an opening to the northward.