Australian Explorer – Major Thomas Mitchell

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Portrait of Major Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (c. 1830s)

Major Thomas Mitchell was Surveyor-General of New South Wales during the 1830s and 1840s. He made four long expeditions during this time. The most significant was his third expedition where explored, chartered and named much of Western Victoria.

Thomas Mitchell was born in Scotland in 1792. He had served in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars, where he his excellent skills as a surveyor and map-maker saw him involved in forward survey and intelligence. He was to continue to use his military title after migrating to Australia with his wife and young family in 1827.

The Expedition of 1836

Major Mitchell was sent by Governor Bourke in 1836 to check on Charles Sturt’s earlier report that the Darling River flowed into the Murray and to map both rivers. Wearing full military uniform, he set out on 19 March 1836 with a large party of 27 men.

He located the rivers and then spent time mapping the watercourses. It was not without its impact on the indigenous inhabitants, however, with at least one clash that resulted in no fewer than seven Aborigines being shot dead.

Mitchell was an excellent sketcher and writer, and he recorded the scenery, flora and fauna of the Murray region. One of the native birds, the screeching Major Mitchell Cockatoo, was named after him.

At one point on the river, it was the swans which disturbed Mitchell’s sleep. He named the place Swan Hill – now a large regional city.

Western Victoria

Ignoring the Governor’s instructions, Mitchell then decided to head southwest into a region which was totally unexplored by Europeans. He was keen to be a trailblazer and not just follow in the footsteps of previous explorers.

His single-mindedness paid off on this occasion. His journey from the Murray to the Southern Ocean took him through the magnificent Western Victorian landscape which he named Australia Felix (or Happy Australia).

The party crossed the Avoca River on 9 July, named by Mitchell after the river of the same name in Ireland. The explorer was excited by the magnificent countryside as he continued to travel southwest: “Of this Eden, I was the first European to explore its mountain and streams — to behold its scenery…certain to become, at no distant date, of vast importance to a new people.”

Despite the toll the journey was taking on some of his men, Mitchell continued to press on at a hectic pace. He climbed a large ridge in Western Victoria which he named the Grampians, after a range of mountains in his native Scotland.

By 18 July the party had reached a river Mitchell called the Wimmera. A few days later, he climbed to the highest summit of a rocky outcrop he named Mount Arapiles (now a challenging mecca for rock climbers from around the world).

Reaching the Coast

By the end of the month, they had reached the south-west west of present-day Victoria.

The explorer was clearly delighted in being the first European to explore this large expanse. He was therefore astonished when his Aboriginal guide found pieces of tobacco pipes and a glass bottle.

As they continued around a bay, Mitchell recorded in his journal: “I was struck with the resemblance to houses, that supposed grey rocks under the grassy cliffs presented.” The rocks rwere actually houses. They were part of a large farming enterprise which had been established a few years earlier by the Henty brothers.

The Hentys had travelled direct from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), becoming the first permanent settlers in what is now Victoria.

Mitchell was surprised to find the Hentys and they were equally surprised with the visit from the Surveyor-General of New South Wales.

Settlers Follow

With fresh supplies from the Hentys, Mitchell started heading home along the line of present-day Hamilton, Maryborough, Castlemaine and Benalla. His carts cut such deep tracks in the soil that they remained for years, and became known as Major Mitchell’s Line and were used as boundaries by the squatters who soon rushed this rich country.

One more surprise awaited Mitchell as he made a short journey to Mount Macedon on the way back north. From the summit he could see the shore of Port Phillip Bay and a mass of white objects which could have been either tents or vessels. It was, in fact, the new settlement at the site of Melbourne, begun by John Batman and John Pascoe Fawkner

After returning to Sydney, Mitchell was honoured for his discoveries but was also strongly criticised at an enquiry into the Aboriginal deaths.

Within months of his return and report from Australia Felix, squatters were rushing to this area which as Western Victoria is still a rich agricultural region.

Mitchell’s status grew as he published his journals in England and undertook further exploration in Queensland.

He was knighted in 1841 and when he died in 1855 he was given a state funeral in Sydney.

Sources:

  1. Mitchell, Thomas Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia
  2. Clark, Manning History of Australia Penguin, Melbourne (1996)
  3. Peel, Geoff “Explorers” in Geelong Advertiser, 14 April 2003