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.


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.

The boat voyage soon terminated, for Sturt was as completely baffled as Oxley had been. The channel ceased altogether, and the boat quietly grounded. Sturt could do nothing but return to camp and await Hume's report. All search for the lost river proved vain.

Hume had found a serpentine sheet of water to the north which he was inclined to think was the continuation of the elusive Macquarie. He had pushed on past it, but had been checked by another body of reed beds. It was decided to shift camp to this lagoon and launch the boat once more; but without result, for the boat was hauled ashore again after having vainly followed the supposed channel in amongst reeds and shallows. Again the leader and his second went forward on a scouting trip. Each took with them two men; Sturt going to the north-west, and Hume to the north-east. They left on the last day of December, 1828.

Sturt toiled on until after sunset he came to a northward-flowing creek, in which there was a fair supply of water. Next day their course lay through plains intersected with belts of scrub, and they discovered another creek, inferior to the last one both in size and the quality of the water. They camped for a few hours on its bank, and Sturt called it New Year's Creek, but it is now known as the Bogan River. They were about to pass that night without water on the edge of a dry plain, when one of the men had his attention drawn to the flight of a pigeon, and searching, found a puddle of rain water which barely satisfied them. An isolated hill with perpendicular sides, which Sturt had noticed for some time, now attracted his attention, as being a lofty point of vantage from which to get an extensive view to the west. They accordingly made for it, over more promising country. They reached the hill which Sturt called Oxley's Tableland, but from its summit he saw nothing but a stretch of monotonous plain, with no sign of the long-sought river. That night they camped at a small swamp, and the next morning turned back, Sturt agreeing with Oxley, but without as much reason, that "the space I traversed is unlikely to become the haunt of civilised man." Hume did not return until the day after Sturt's arrival. He reported that the Castlereagh River must have suddenly turned to the north below where Oxley crossed it, for he had been unable to find it. He had gone westward, but had seen nothing except far-stretching plains. After a few aimless and unprofitable ramblings, they made their way again to Oxley's Tableland, and Sturt and Hume, with two men, made a journey to the west, with only a negative result. On the 31st of January they commenced to follow down Sturt's New Year's Creek, and the next day, to their unbounded surprise, came upon the bank of a noble river. From its size and width they judged they had struck it at a point as far from its source as from its termination; but when the men rushed tumultuously down the bank to revel in the water and quench their thirst, they cried out, with disgust and surprise, that the water was salt.

Poor Sturt, whose heart was bounding with joy at the realisation of his fondest hopes in this important discovery of a river which seemed to answer all men's dreams and anticipations, felt the sudden revulsion of despair. One saving thought he had, and that was that they were close to its junction with the inland sea. Meantime, although human tracks were to be seen everywhere, they saw none of the aborigines. Hume at length found a pool of fresh water, which provided them with water for themselves and their stock.

The long-continued absence of rain having lowered the fresh water so that the supply from the brine springs on the banks predominated, was the explanation of the saltness of the water; but Sturt did not know this, and for six days the party moved slowly down the river until the discovery of saline springs in the bank convinced the leader that the saltness was of local origin. Still that did not supply them with the necessary drinking water, and on the sixth day, leaving the men encamped at a small supply of fresh water, Sturt and Hume pushed on to look for more, but in vain, and Sturt was compelled to order a retreat to Mount Harris.

This shows how the exploration of the continent has ever been conditioned by the uncertainty of the seasons. Had Sturt found the Darling in a normal season, he would probably have followed it down to its junction with the Murray, and the geographical system of the east would have been at once laid bare. But it was not in such a simple manner that the great river basin was to become known. Toil, privation, and the sacrifice of human lives, had first to be suffered.

To the river which he had found Sturt gave the name Darling, in honour of the Governor.

The return journey to Mount Harris continued without interruption. At Mount Harris they expected to find fresh supplies; but as they approached the place they could not restrain fears with regard to their safety. The surrounding reed beds were in flames in all parts. The few natives that were met with displayed a guilty timidity, and one was observed wearing a jacket. Fortunately, however, their fears were groundless; the relief party had arrived and had been awaiting their return for about three weeks. An attack by the natives had been made, but it had been easily repulsed. While Sturt rested at Mount Harris, Hume struck off to the west, beyond the reeds. He reported the country as superior for thirty miles to any they had yet seen, but beyond that limit lay brushwood and monotonous plains.

On the 7th of March the party struck camp and departed for the Castlereagh River. They found that the flooded stream, impassable by Oxley, had totally disappeared. Not a drop of water lay in the bed of the river. They commenced to follow its course down, and the old harassing hunt for water had to be conducted anew. No wonder that Sturt could never free himself from the memory of his fiery baptism as Australian explorer, and that his mental picture of the country was ever shrouded in the haze of drought and heat.

As they descended the Castlereagh into the level lower country, they were greatly delayed by the many intricate windings of the river and its multiplicity of channels. On the 29th of March they again reached the Darling, ninety miles above the place where they had first come upon it, and they observed the same characteristics as before, including the saltness. This was a blow to Sturt, who had hoped to find it free from salinity. Fortunately they were not distressed for fresh water at the time, and knowing what to expect if the river was followed down again, the party halted and formed a camp.

The next day Sturt, Hume, and two men crossed the river and made a short journey of investigation to the west, to see what fortune held for them further afield. Not having passed during the day "a drop of water or a blade of grass," they found themselves by mid-afternoon on a wide plain that stretched far away to the horizon. Sturt writes that had there been the slightest encouragement afforded by any change in the country, he would even then have pushed forward, "but we had left all traces of the natives behind us, and this seemed a desert they never entered - that not even a bird inhabited."

Back to Mount Harris once more, where they arrived on the 7th of April, 1829. On their way they had stopped to follow a depression first noticed by Hume, and decided that it was the channel of the overflow of the Macquarie Marshes.


The mystery of the Macquarie was now, to a certain extent, cleared away, but the course and final outlet of the Darling now presented another riddle, which Sturt too was destined to solve.

The discovery of such a large river as the Darling, augmented by the Macquarie and Castlereagh, and (so people then thought) in all probability the Lachlan, naturally inflamed public curiosity as to the position of the outlet on the Australian coast. All the rivers that had been tried as guides to the hidden interior having failed to answer the purpose, the Murrumbidgee - the beautiful river of the aboriginals - was selected as the scene of the next attempt. There were good reasons for the choice: it derived its volume from the highest known mountains, snow-capped peaks in fact, that reminded the spectator of far northern latitudes, and thus it was to a great extent independent of the variable local rainfall.

Captain Sturt was naturally selected to be the leader of the Murrumbidgee expedition, and with him as second went George MacLeay, the son of the then Colonial Secretary. Harris, who had been Sturt's soldier-servant for nearly eighteen years, and two other men of the 39th, who had been with their Captain on the Macquarie expedition, also accompanied him, with a very complete and well-furnished party, including the usual boat rigged up on a carriage. This time, however, unlike the craft that had accompanied previous exploring parties, the whaleboat was destined to be immortalised in Australian history.

Settlement had by this time extended well up to and down the banks of the Murrumbidgee, and Sturt took his departure from the borders of civilisation about where the town of Gundagai now stands, almost at the junction of the Tumut River, at Whaby's station. The course for some time lay along the rich river-flats of the Murrumbidgee. The blacks, who of course from their position were familiar with the presence of white men, maintained a friendly demeanour. One slight excursion to the north was made to connect with Oxley's furthest south, made when on his Lachlan expedition; but though they did not actually verify the spot, Sturt reckoned that he went within twenty miles of it, showing how narrowly that explorer had missed the discovery of the Murrumbidgee.

As they got lower down the river they found themselves travelling through the flat desolate country that reminded them only too forcibly of late experiences on the Macquarie. Owing to some information gleaned from the natives, Sturt and MacLeay rode north to try and again come upon the Lachlan. They struck a dry channel, which Sturt believed was the drainage from the Lachlan into the Murrumbidgee. This proved to be correct, as natives afterwards testified that they had seen the two white men actually on the Lachlan.

On the 25th, which was an intensely hot day, MacLeay, who was on ahead, found himself suddenly confronted with a boundless sea of reeds, and the river itself had suddenly vanished. He sent a mounted messenger back to Sturt with these disastrous tidings. Sturt thereupon turned the drays, which were already in difficulties in the loose soil, sharp round to the right, and finally came to the river again, where they camped to discuss the untoward circumstance.

At daylight the next morning, Sturt and MacLeay rode along its bank, whilst Clayton, the carpenter, was set to work felling a tree and digging a sawpit. Progress along the bank with the whole party was evidently impossible. Sturt, however, had faith in the continuity of the river, and announced to MacLeay his intention to send back most of the expedition, and with a picked crew to embark in the whaleboat, committing their desperate fortunes to the stream, and trusting to make the coast somewhere, and leaving their return in the hands of Providence.

The more one regards this heroic venture, the more sublime does it appear. The whole of the interior was then a sealed book, and the river, for aught Sturt knew, might flow throughout the length of the continent. But the voyage was commenced with cool and calm confidence.

In a week the whaleboat was put together, and a small skiff also built. Six hands were selected for the crew, and the remainder, after waiting one week in case of accident, were to return to Goulburn Plains and there await events. It would be as well to embody here the names of this band. John Harris, Hopkinson, and Fraser were the soldiers chosen, and Clayton, Mulholland, and Macmanee the prisoners. The start was made at seven on the morning of January 7th, the whale-boat towing the small skiff. Within about fifteen miles of the point of embarkation they passed the junction of the Lachlan, and that night camped amongst a thicket of reeds. The next day the skiff fouled a log and sank, and though it was raised to the surface and most of the contents recovered, the bulk of them was much damaged. Fallen and sunken logs greatly endangered their progress, but on the 14th they "were hurried into a broad and noble river." Such was the force with which they were shot out of the Murrumbidgee that they were carried nearly to the opposite bank of the new and ample stream. Sturt's feelings at that moment were to be envied, and for once in a life chequered with much disappointment he must have felt that a great reward was granted to him in this crowning discovery. He named the new river the Murray, after Sir George Murray, the head of the Colonial Department. As some controversy has of late arisen as to the question of Sturt's right to confer the name, we here quote his own words, written after surveying the Hume in 1838.

"When I named the Murray I was in a great measure ignorant of the other rivers with which it is connected...I want not to usurp an inch of ground or of water over which I have not passed."

On the bosom of the Murray they could now make use of their sail, which the contracted space in the bed of the Murrumbidgee had before prevented them from doing. The aborigines were seen nearly every day, and once when the voyagers had to negotiate a very ticklish rapid, some of them approached quite close, and seemed to take great interest in the proceedings.

Sturt's thoughts now turned towards the junction of the Darling, and at last he sighted a deserted camp on which the huts resembled those he had seen on that river. On the 23rd of January they came upon the junction at a very critical moment. A line of magnificently-foliaged trees came into view, among which was perceived a large gathering of blacks, who apparently were inclined to be hostile. Sturt, who was at the helm, was steering straight for them and made the customary signs of peace. Just before it was too late to avoid a collision, Sturt marked hostility in their quivering limbs and battle-lusting eyes. He instantly put the helm a-starboard, and the boat sheered down the reach, the baffled natives running and yelling defiantly along the bank. The river, however, was shoaling rapidly, and from the opposite side there projected a sand-spit; on each side of this narrow passage infuriated blacks had gathered, and there was no mistaking their intentions. Sturt gave orders to his men as to their behaviour, and held himself ready to give the battle-signal by shooting the most active and forward of their adversaries.

Mention has been made of a small party of blacks who had been interested in the shooting of a rapid by the boat's crew. Four of these savages had camped with the explorers the preceding night, leaving at daylight in the morning. Sturt imagined that they had gone ahead as peace delegates, and he was thus most anxious to avoid a fight. But the life of the whole party depended on prompt action being taken, and Sturt's eye was on the leader and his finger on the trigger when "my purpose," he says "was checked by MacLeay, who called to me that another party of blacks had made their appearance on the left bank of the river. Turning round, I observed four men at the top of their speed." These were the dusky delegates, and the description given by Sturt of the conduct of the man who saved the situation is very graphic: -

"The foremost of them, as soon as he got ahead 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 him backwards, and forcing all who were in the water on the bank, he trod its margin with a vehemence and an agitation that was 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, was lost in hoarse murmurs."

This episode, unequalled in the traditions of the Australian aborigines, removed the imminent danger; and Sturt's tact, in a few moments changed the hundreds of demented demons into a pack of laughing, curious children, an easy and common transition with the savage nature. But for the intervention of this noble chief, Sturt and his followers, penned within the boat in shallow water, would have been massacred without a chance to defend themselves. Surrounded as they were by six hundred stalwart foes, their fate, save from unreliable native tradition, would never have been known to their countrymen.

During the crisis, the boat had drifted untended, and grounded on the sand. While the men were hastily pushing her off, they caught sight of "a new and beautiful stream coming apparently from the north." A crowd of natives were assembled on the bank of the new river, and Sturt pulled across to them, thus creating a diversion amongst his erstwhile foes, who swam after, as he says, "like a parcel of seals."

After presenting the friendly native with some acknowledgement and refusing presents to the others, the pioneers examined the new river. The banks were sloping and well-grassed, crowned with fine trees, and the men cried out that they had got on to an English river. To Sturt himself the moment was supreme. He was convinced "that we were now sailing on the bosom of that very stream from whose banks I had been twice forced to retire." They did not pull far up the stream, for a native fishing-net was stretched across, and Sturt forbore to break it. The Union Jack was, however, run up to the peak and saluted with three cheers, and then with a favouring wind they bade farewell to the Darling and the now wonderstruck natives.

As they went on, the party landed occasionally to inspect the surrounding country, but on all sides from their low elevation they could see nothing but a boundless flat. The skiff being now only a drag upon them, it was broken up and burnt for the sake of the ironwork. On account of the damage to the salt pork caused by the sinking of this boat, the strictest economy of diet had to be exercised, and though an abundance of fish was caught, they had become unattractive to their palates. The continuation of the voyage down the course of the Murray was henceforth a monotonous repetition of severe daily toil at the oar. The natives whom they encountered, though friendly, became a nuisance from the constant handling and embracing that the voyagers had, from purposes of policy, to suffer unchecked. The tribes met with were more than ordinarily filthy, and were disfigured by loathsome skin diseases. After twenty-one days on the water, Sturt began to look most anxiously for indications of the sea, for his men were fagging with the unremitting labour and short rations, and they had only the strength of their own arms to rely on for their return against the current. Soon, however, an old man amongst the natives described the roaring of the waves, and showed by other signs that he had been to the sea coast. But more welcome than all were some flocks of sea-gulls that flew over and welcomed the tired men.

On the thirty-third day after leaving the starting-point on the Murrumbidgee, Sturt, on landing to inspect the country, saw before him the lake which was indeed the termination of the Murray, but not the end that he had dreamt of. "For the lake was evidently so little influenced by tides that I saw at once our probable disappointment of practical communication between it and the ocean."

This foreboding was realised after examination of Lake Alexandrina, as it is now called. Upon ascertaining their exact position on the southern coast, nothing was left but to take up the weary labours of their return; the thunder of the surf brought no hopeful message of succour, but rather warned the lonely men to hasten back while yet some strength remained to them.

Sturt re-entered the Murray on his homeward journey on the 13th of February; and the successful accomplishment of this return is Sturt's greatest achievement. His crew were indeed picked men, but what other Australian leader of exploration could have inspired them with such a deep sense of devotion as to carry them through their herculean task without one word of insubordination or reproach. "I must tell the Captain to-morrow that I can pull no more," was the utmost that Sturt heard once, when they thought him asleep; but when the morrow came the speaker stubbornly pulled on.

Three of these men, it must be remembered, were convicts; yet, despite their heroic conduct, one only (Clayton) received a free pardon on their return, though Sturt did his utmost to win fuller recognition of their merits.

In such a work of generalisation as this, space will not permit of a detailed account of the return voyage, but on the 20th of March they reached the camp on the Murrumbidgee from which they had started. The relief party were not there, and there was nothing left but to toil on, though the men were falling asleep at the oars, and the river itself rose and raged madly against them. When they reached a point within ninety miles of the depot where Sturt expected the relief party to be, they landed, and two men - Hopkinson and Mulholland - went forward on foot for succour. They were now almost utterly without food, and had to wait six dragging days before men arrived with drays and stores to their aid.

One little item let me add; the boat being no longer serviceable, was burnt, Sturt giving as a reason that he was reluctant to leave her like a log on the water. What a priceless relic that boat would now have become!

Sturt received but scant appreciation on his return from this heroic journey. His eyesight was impaired and his health was failing; but instead of obtaining much-needed rest, he was sent to Norfolk Island, with a detachment of his regiment. There the moist climate still further prejudiced his health, though he was able to quell a mutiny of the convicts, and to save Norfolk Island from falling into their hands. Governor Darling too proposed that Sturt should be sent as British Resident to New Zealand, but filled with the love of continental exploration, he would not leave Australia, to the satisfaction of the fossils of the Colonial Office, who did not know of him, and promptly appointed Busby. Even Sir G. Murray, after whom the river had been named, had never heard of the river.

In 1832 or a little later, the temporary loss of the sight of one eye forced him to go to England on leave, when he also bade adieu to his regiment, which was ordered to India.

While in England, he published the first of his maps and books, but his eyesight totally failing him, he retired from the army, July, 1833. Sturt's eyesight, although never the same as before, was gradually restored to him, and on September the 21st, 1834, he was married at Dover to Charlotte Greene.

We must now take leave of this distinguished man, until he reappears in these pages as an explorer of Central Australia.*

*[Footnote.] See Chapter 12.