John McDouall Stuart, explorer, was born on the 7th of September, 1815.
John McDouall Stuart was one of the greatest explorers of inland Australia and his achievements go far beyond the ‘been there, done that’ variety. A wee Scot, McDouall Stuart wisnae much to look at, but he had the heart of a lion and an ‘if at first, you don’t succeed, try and try again’ attitude. In fact, Stuart tried and tried and tried again, before he finally succeeded in his goal of traversing Australia from south to north – and getting back to claim his reward. After one practice expedition on which he ended up as second in command, Stuart led a total of six expeditions of his own into Australia’s forbidding interior. As you can read on the John McDouall Stuart Society website, he gets plenty of plaudits. Ernest Favenc, explorer and historian, wrote of Stuart’s unique achievements, stating that “[he] had followed in no other persons footsteps.” T. G. H. Strehlow, of the University of Adelaide called Stuart “a man cast in the mould of a hero.”
With amazing persistence and indomitable courage, Stuart led the first ever European manned expedition to reach the true centre of Australia and ultimately made it all the way from Adelaide to Chambers Bay on the Timor Sea – and back. Using horses and travelling lightly, Stuart is said to have established a ‘new’ method of exploration, but it still took him three ‘goes’ to get to the beach, although there wasn’t a shortage of sand along the way. There’s no denying, though, the wee mannie was determined to go for a paddle in the sea. In addition to his exploratory achievements, Stuart is credited with never having lost a man on any of his journeys, despite the harsh nature of the Australian territorial outback. Furthermore, during six great expeditions with his ‘Companions’, Stuart surveyed, prospected and explored Australia’s potential and as a result, huge areas of the north were opened up for pastoral and mineral development.
When he eventually left Australia, John McDouall Stuart was broken in health and nearly blind, and almost a forgotten man. Later and oddly, there were even detractors who questioned whether he had ever reached the sea in 1862. However, the tree upon which he had carved his initials – JMDS – was positively identified in 1883 and photographed, just for good measure, two years later. Australia’s centre point is known as Central Mount Stuart and the modern transcontinental Australian Highway, the ‘Explorer Highway’ that carves its way from Port Augusta in the south to Darwin in the north, is named ‘The Stuart Highway’ in honour of its trailblazer, John McDouall Stuart.
John McDouall Stuart was born in the Burgh of Dysart, on the 7th of December, 1815. The ‘McDouall’ comes from his having been a fifth son and getting his mother’s surname in front of his own. His Ma and Pa died, when Johnnie was about eleven or twelve, but he was well looked after and managed to attend the Scottish Naval and Military Academy, in Edinburgh, from where he graduated as a Civil Engineer. He worked for a time in Glasgow, as a clerk in a shipping office, before emigrating to Australia, sailing from Dundee on the 13th of September, 1838 and disembarking in South Australia on the 21st of January, 1839.
Adelaide, where Stuart pitched up, was then just a rough settlement of wooden huts and tents and full of settlers needing their newly purchased land surveyed. Stuart readily got a job with the Surveyor-General, who was actually just a Captain; Charles Sturt by name. In 1842, after being laid off Stuart bought his own instruments and gear, and set up as Stuart & Co., offering “architectural, civil engineering and real estate services.” In 1843, he was also working with a fellow passenger and immigrant from Scotland; James Sinclair. Between them, they ran a sheep farm in the Nairne ranges, below Mount Lofty.
Then, in 1844, Stuart got the ‘big break’ that set him on the road to fame, but not fortune, as an intrepid explorer, when Sturt took him on as draughtsman on an expedition. That seventeen-month expedition brought Sturt and Stuart closer than any other Europeans had ever been to the continental centre, but not close enough for Stuart, whose aspiration had been arouses. Stuart also gained some invaluable experience when he encountered Aboriginals, suffered scurvy, surveyed, mapped, and became a cobber of the outback.
When he got back with Sturt, Stuart resumed his surveying and estate agency business for a good ten to twelve years or so and became friends with the men who were to finance his later expeditions; James and John Chambers, and William Finke. The first three of Stuart’s own expeditions were in search of new grazing lands for sheep, gold, minerals, and to survey leases for his sponsors. They took place in 1858, 1859 and 1859-60, and were fundamentally successful, establishing Stuart’s reputation, albeit he found no gold.
Stuart then embarked upon three successive attempts to cross the continent, noting the South Australian Government’s offer of a £2000 reward for the first person to open a route from Adelaide to the north coast. Stuart’s first attempt (his fourth expedition) lasted from March to September, 1860, when he was forced back through lack of supplies and hostile natives. His second attempt set off in November, 1860, three months after a rival attempt organised by the Royal Society and supported by the Government of Victoria.
By the time Stuart arrived back in Adelaide, in September, 1861, having failed once more to dip his toes in the sea, the ill fated adventure of Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, and their ‘cameleers’, had almost made it to the Gulf of Carpentaria (they were halted by swamps, probably as little as 5km shy of their goal) as early as the 9th of February. You could say Burke won “the glorious race” to the north as Governor (Sir) Henry Barkly later described it, however, according to Kathleen Fitzpatrick of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, “[Burke] was a death or glory man and he achieved both.” Burke and Wills never made it back, their tragic expedition the stuff of legend.
On his third (sixth) and last expedition, between October, 1861, and December, 1862, McDouall Stuart found the all-weather route to the north and made it back to tell the tale. Stuart’s expedition was far more than mere exploit as he produced maps and other practical data so others could follow in his footsteps. Stuart eventually got his feet wet in Chambers Bay, east of present day Darwin, at a point much further north than any of his rivals, on the 24th of July, 1862.
Stuart left Australia on the 25th of April, 1864, in poor health, suffering from the efforts and deprivations of his epic journeys. In London, he oversaw Hardman’s editing and publication of ‘Explorations in Australia. The Journals of John McDouall Stuart’ and presented a paper to the Royal Geographical Society. John McDouall Stuart returned to Scotland in 1865, but was soon back in London, where he died, on the 5th of June, 1866. He was buried in the cemetery at Kensal Green.