Australia History: Colonial Exploration and Expansion

Australia never experienced the systematic push westward that characterized the European settlement of America. Exploration and expansion basically took place for one of three reasons: to find suitable places of secondary punishment, like the barbaric penal settlements at Port Arthur in Van Diemen's Land; to occupy land before anyone else arrived; or in later years because of the quest for gold.

By 1800 there were only two small settlements in Australia - at Sydney Cove and Norfolk Island. While unknown areas on world maps were becoming few and far between, most of Australia was still one big blank. It waSx even suspected that it might be two large, separate islands and it was hoped there might be a vast sea in the centre.

The ensuing 40 years was a great period of discovery, as the vast inland was explored and settlements were established at Hobart, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. Some of the early explorers, particularly those who braved the hostile centre, suffered great hardship.

George Bass had charted the coast south of Sydney almost down to the present location of Melbourne during 1797 and 1798. Also in 1798, he sailed around Van Diemen's Land with Matthew Flinders, establishing that it was an island. Flinders went on in 1802 to sail right round Australia.

The first settlement in Van Diemen's Land, in 1803, was close to the present site of Hobart; by the 1820s Hobart Town rivaled Sydney in importance. The island was not named Tasmania, after its original European discoverer, until 1856 when, after the end of transportation, the inhabitants requested the name be changed to remove the stigma of what had been a vicious penal colony.

On the mainland, the Blue Mountains at first proved an impenetrable barrier, fencing in Sydney to the sea, but in 1813 a track was finally forced through and the western plains were reached by the explorers Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson.

Port Phillip Bay in Victoria was originally considered as the site for a second settlement in Australia but was rejected in favor of Hobart, so it was not looked at again until 1835 when settlers from Tasmania, in search of more land, selected the present site of Melbourne.

Perth was first settled in 1829, but as it was isolated from the rest of the country, growth there was very slow. The first settlement in the Brisbane area was made by a party of convicts sent north from Sydney because the (by then) good citizens of that fair city were getting fed up with having all those crims about the place. By the time the Brisbane penal colony was abandoned in 1839, free settlers had arrived in force.

Adelaide, established in 1837, was initially an experiment in free-enterprise colonization. It failed due to bad management and the British government had to take over from the bankrupt organizers and bail the settlement out of trouble.

In 1824 the explorers Hume and Hoy ell, starting from near present-day Canberra, made the first overland journey southwards, reaching the western shores of Port Phillip Bay. On the way they discovered a large river and named it after Hume, although it was later renamed the Murray by another great explorer, Charles Sturt. In 1829, Sturt established how the Murrumbidgee and Darling river systems tied in with the Murray, and where the Murray met the sea. Until that time there had been much speculation that many of the inland rivers might in fact drain the anticipated inland sea.

Twelve years later the colony's surveyor-general, Major Mitchell, wrote glowing reports of the beautiful and fertile country he bad crossed in his expedition across the Murray River and as far south as Portland Bay. He dubbed the region (now Victoria) Australia Felix, or 'Australia Fair'.

In 1840 Edward Eyre left Adelaide to try to reach the centre of Australia. He gave up at Mt Hopeless and then attempted a crossing to Albany in Western Australia. This formidable task nearly proved too much as both food and water were virtually unobtainable and Eyre's companion, Baxter, was killed by two Aboriginal guides. Eyre struggled on, encountering a French whaling ship in Rossiter Bay, and reprovisioned he managed to reach Albany. The road across the Nullarbor Plain from South Australia to Western Australia is named the Eyre Highway.

From 1844 to 1845 a German scientist by the name of Ludwig Leichhardt traveled through northern Queensland, skirting the Gulf of Carpentaria, to Port Essington, near modern-day Darwin. He failed in 1846 and 1847 to cross Australia from east to west, and disappeared on his second attempt; he was never seen again.

In 1848 Edmund Kennedy set out to travel by land up Cape York Peninsula while a ship, HMS Rattlesnake, explored the coast and islands. Starting from Rockingham Bay, south of Cairns, the expedition almost immediately struck trouble when their heavy supply carts could not be dragged through the swampy ground around Tully.

The rugged land, harsh climate, lack of supplies, hostile Aboriginal people and missed supply drops, all took their toll and nine of the party of 13 died. Kennedy himself was speared to death by Aboriginal people when he was only 30 km from the end of the fearsome trek. His Aboriginal servant, Jacky Jacky, was the only expedition member to finally reach the supply ship.

Beginning in Melbourne in 1860, the legendary attempt by Robert Burke and William Wills to cross the continent from south to north was destined to be one of the most tragic. Unlike earlier explorers, they tried to manage without Aboriginal guides. After reaching a depot at Cooper Creek in Queensland they intended to make a dash north to the Gulf of Carpentaria with a party of four. Their camels proved far slower than anticipated in the swampy land close to the gulf and on their way back one of the party died of exhaustion.

Burke, Wills and the third member, John King, eventually struggled back to Cooper Creek, at the end of their strength and nearly two months behind schedule, only to find the depot group had given up hope and left for Melbourne just hours earlier. They remained at Cooper Creek, but missed a returning search party and never found the supplies that had been left for them. Burke and Wills finally starved to death, literally in the midst of plenty; King was able to survive on food provided by local Aboriginal people until a rescue party arrived.

Departing from Adelaide in 1860, and chasing a ?2000 reward for the first south-north crossing, John McDouall Stuart reached the geographical centre of Australia, Central Mt Stuart, but shortly after was forced to turn back. In 1861 he got much closer to the Top End before he again had to return. Finally in 1862 Stuart reached the north coast near Darwin. The overland telegraph line, completed in 1872, and the modern Stuart Highway follow a similar route.