Was he the greatest of Australian explorers? In 1862 John McDouall Stuart succeeded in crossing the continent from sea to sea. He took off his boots, dipped his feet in the Indian Ocean, and hoisted the Union Jack. When Stuart and his companions returned to Adelaide, they were celebrated as heroes of the age.
They had navigated their way on horseback through vast expanses of country unknown to Europeans, struggling from one water source to the next. Yet the country they travelled through was already home to thousands of people, celebrated in song and story, every feature of the landscape known and named. The intruders and their strange animals were observed, their tracks closely examined.
Stuart’s explorations provided the impetus and means for the colonisation of the country through which he had travelled, and were the catalyst for great changes, both for the new colonists and for the people who had been living on country for tens of thousands of years.
Crossing Country, an exhibition at the Migration Museum in Adelaide, examines the achievements and impact of Stuart and his expedition parties. It locates them within two parallel contexts: the heroic age of inland exploration and the colonisation of central Australia. The exhibition draws on the rich collections of History SA and other state collecting institutions, as well as organisations including the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia and the John McDouall Stuart Society, and private collections.
The visitor can get a close look at items ranging from Stuart’s compass and telescope to his rifle and spurs – and his pipe and smoking cap. Stuart’s ‘Rules for a successful expedition’ set out what he required of his men, and sunglasses, a pannikin, quartpots and tins of jerked meat evoke daily life in the bush. An original silk flag from the official procession which welcomed the explorers home on 21 January 1863 is hung over a photograph of the massed crowds on the day – the largest ever seen in the colony. It was on the same day that the largest crowd ever seen in Victoria assembled for the funeral of Burke and Wills.
One of the most powerful objects in the exhibition in on loan from Museum Victoria: a rare example of a depiction of first contact from an Indigenous perspective. It is a boomerang made by Jim Kite Erlikilyika Penangke, a Lower Arrernte man from the Charlotte waters area, born in about 1865. A special reporter for The Register interviewed Kite in 1913 and described the boomerang as depicting ‘the coming of McDouall Stuart’, with Aboriginal men ‘creeping up’ to get a closer look at these strange-looking creatures and their packhorses.
Crossing Country is illustrated with sketches from two of Stuart’s expeditions, sketches which convey a vivid sense of both the landscape and the day-to-day activities of Stuart and his companions. Botanist and artist David Herrgott, who accompanied Stuart on his second expedition, filled a sketchbook which is now in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales. Stephen King was one of the party who accompanied Stuart on his final, successful, expedition in 1862, and his sketchbook recording that journey is now in the State Library of South Australia. It includes sketches of the triumphant hoisting of the Union Jack after the expedition made the northern coast – and of Stuart being conveyed in a stretcher slung between two horses on the return journey when he was too ill with the effects of scurvy to ride.
Stuart the explorer. This unfinished sketch shows Stuart with his leggings, cabbage-tree hat and staff. It was drawn by David Herrgott on the 1859 expedition. Image courtesy of State Library of NSW, PXB 128