Eyre, The Forgotten Explorer by Ivan Rudolph


The Forgotten Explorer


The Forgotten Explorer

by Ivan Rudolph


Lake Eyre, Eyre Peninsula, the Eyre Highway, County Eyre, Eyre Creek, Port Eyre, Eyre Flat, Mount Eyre, Eyre Island, Eyre Waterhole, Eyre’s Lookout and the Town of Mount Eyre are some of the names commemorating Edward John Eyre, one of the youngest and most intrepid explorers and his achievements, in South Australia. We all know these names or have heard of them but what about the man himself. Many books and articles have been written about him but none better than this latest work by Ivan Rudolph.

In his latest biography Ivan has shown how this idealistic young Englishman, still in his teens, when he arrived in New South Wales to seek his fortune, became a rugged frontiersman, taking up farming and later overlanding cattle to Melbourne and Adelaide.

Edward John Eyre, son of Rev. Anthony and his wife Sarah Eyre, was born in August 1815 in Whipsnade, Bedfordshire, England. He soon proved a fearless and adventurous young lad who preferred being outdoors to social gatherings. At the age of 17 he set sail on the Ellen for Australia with £400 raised by his family, a new suit of clothes, some agricultural equipment and seeds.

After a voyage of four and a half months and a short stay at Hobart he arrived at Sydney on 28 March 1832. After several months looking unsuccessfully for a job he went bush and on 21 June experienced his first bush camp. He loved it and would spend several hundreds of nights under the stars during his stay in Australia.

Within a month he had bought 400 sheep and before turning 18 was assigned two convicts and another four after his birthday, including one named John Baxter. After shearing he made a profit of £70. Feeling confident about further prospects he bought his own property, which he called Woodlands. This was no success story. After three years of super-human effort it had ruined him financially.

He now tried overlanding. His first trip was from Sydney to Port Phillip. While in Sydney he met Charles Sturt who told him about the new convict-free province of South Australia, something he liked and wouldn’t forget. After four months of hard going, often through virgin country, he arrived and was able to sell his sheep for the price he wanted but it took another month before he got rid of his cattle. After paying back Robert Campbell and his son Robert, who had put up most of the money, he was left with a tidy profit and ready for his next adventure.

This time he planned to overland stock to Adelaide, the first to do so. He already knew that Charles Bonney and Joseph and John Hawdon had the same idea and were already on the road. However by taking a shorter route he expected to beat them to it. On 20 December 1837 he started and after a horrendous trip reached Adelaide on 12 July 1838, having lost the race.

Once in Adelaide he took quite a liking to the embryo town, bought land, both in town and country and planned to settle down. After all he was now 23 years old. He even planned to open a butcher shop. He also liked Adelaide society and found the ladies very attractive. Being a bit of a Ladies’ man he often kept up dancing until five in the morning. However in August he was on his way again to rescue Sturt’s overland party.

On 5 December 1838 he commenced his second overland trip from Sydney to Adelaide, driving 1000 sheep and some 500 head of cattle. The trip was completed in half the time and showed a profit of £4000, half of it was his. From his journals and achievements Ivan Rudolph has been able to show what kind of a man Eyre was, what made him tick, what did he want most of all? Wealth or fame?

According to Ivan, Eyre was just too restless, too driven by an innate feeling of ambition and a desire to distinguish himself, rather then the mere acquisition of wealth. The pugnacious youth who, aboard the Ellen had got into two fistfights had matured into a steely, purposeful leader who preferred diplomacy and negotiation to the use of force.

Using his overlanding profits he now decided to investigate the land north of Adelaide. Once again he took Baxter. It would be similar to overlanding but more scientific, keeping careful records and produce maps. He sought advice from Sturt and studied Matthew Flinders’ accounts and maps. They started on 1 May 1839 with Baxter drunk as usual.

While up north he took a great interest in the Aboriginal people. He respected their way of life and did not try to convert them, either to religion or the white’s way of life. Sadly for everyone concerned it was a disappointing journey. No grazing or agricultural land was discovered. To show at least something for his efforts and money he turned southeast for the River Murray where good land was located. One exceptionally promising area he named Moorundi and told his men he would build a home there one day.

After two months they were back in Adelaide. Within a very short time he bought a large block of land at Moorundi with Osmond Gilles as partner and a much smaller block at Light River with Charles Bonney. Other explorations followed to Port Lincoln on Eyre Peninsula, so named later by Governor Gawler. From there he set out for Streaky Bay, naming Mount Hope, Lake Newland, Baxter Ranges, Gawler Ranges and Lake Torrens. This was followed by a sea-trip to Western Australia with stock from South Australia to be overlanded from Albany to Perth.

On 17 June 1840 he started his Great Northern Expedition. Sturt presented him with a Union Jack, embroidered by some of the Adelaide ladies to be planted in the Centre of Australia. This time he named Mount Deception, Termination Hill, Mount Serle and Frome Creek. From the summit of Mount Serle it seemed to Eyre that Lake Torrens stretched all around the Flinders Ranges like a horseshoe. Highly disappointed he named another two mountains, Mount Distance and Mount Hopeless.

On 6 November 1840 Eyre set out for his most daring and gruelling expedition via the Nullarbor Plain to Albany, some 1800 kilometres to the west and summer approaching rapidly. It was this expedition which would make Eyre famous. Determined to find an overland route to Perth he left Adelaide with a small party. Using Eyre’s own journals and other sources, Ivan Rudolph has described this journey in gripping detail.

Beset by a difficult and harsh terrain, sand, a constant lack of water, low food rations, heat and later cold, fatigue, privation, disappointments, horseflies, hostile Aborigines and dangerous dissent among his companions, Eyre still achieved his ambition and found a way across the Nullarbor.

After a tantalisingly slow journey they made their way via Fowlers Bay and Denial Bay and after an additional supply by sea Eyre, Baxter, and his Aborigines, Cootachah, Neramberein and Wylie made their final attempt for Albany on 25 January 1841 with a temperature of 45 degrees in the shade.

After two months of almost impossible sufferings, the murder of his friend Baxter and the plundering of their guns and food supplies by Cootachah and Neramberein, Eyre and Wylie were left to cover another 750 horrendous kilometres to reach their goal. The fact that they survived at all was the change encounter with Captain Rossiter of the French whaler Mississippi.

Instead of staying on board Eyre felt duty bound to continue his track to Albany regardless of all setbacks and hardships encountered so far. After two weeks rest Eyre and Wylie left on 15 June with new clothes, food and other essential supplies to tackle the last 450 kilometres. As it was now winter they faced cold and rain, wet ground and suffered swollen feet and legs from the wet and no dry place to sleep.

Three weeks later they finally reached Albany. On 13 July Eyre returned by ship to South Australia arriving at Glenelg on 27 July 1841, 391 days after he had left. Shortly after Eyre was appointed Police Magistrate and Sub-protector of Aborigines and stationed at Moorundi to try and keep the peace between Aborigines and overlanders after the massacre at Rufus River.

His relationship with Aborigines of all ages was extraordinarily good. Newspapers recounted with awe his success in bringing peace along the Murray River. He was tolerant of weakness, humane in all his dealings, compassionate towards those who were hurting, and forgiving of those who set themselves against him. Whole Aboriginal families would visit him at Moorundi and leave their children with him while they visited distant tribes. A true mark of their trust in him and of their friendship.

Within a short time all hostilities ceased and Aborigines and settlers were reconciled. Eyre’s methods and success were much appreciated and before long he was send to Port Lincoln where relations between Aborigines and settlers had deteriorated and murders committed on both sides. Soldiers and police had been unsuccessful and Alexander Tolmer did little about it. Eyre was able to achieve the results everyone had hoped for but few believed would be possible.

In November 1842 he was back again at Moorundi successfully irrigating and farming his property. He now began a crusade to change the law regarding the unacceptability of Aboriginal testimony in court. Once more he was successful in his determined efforts and the law was changed in 1844. Another cause he fought for was the disruption to the Aboriginal way of life caused by white settlement on their traditional lands. This resulted in 1851 in all pastoral leases having a clause that gave Aborigines the right to access, hunt and live on pastoral properties.

The years of exploring had been detrimental to Eyre’s health and on 17 December 1844 he left for England to recuperate. While on leave he planned to publish two journals, one giving an account of his Great Northern Expedition and the other describing the lives of the Aborigines of South Australia.

During the long voyage he prepared his two-volume Journal of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia, comprising 960 pages, which was published four months after disembarking in England. His second publication The Manners and Customs of the Aborigines and the State of their Relations with Europeans was published the same year, a staggering achievement. With it Eyre’s contribution to Australia had effectively ended.

Wealth he never got and fame only for a short time in South Australia. Eyre never returned to Australia but in 1846 he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand’s South Island. He eventually married Adelaide Fanny Ormond, a marriage which would last more than fifty years. In 1865 he was appointed Governor of Jamaica. He died on 30 November 1901, aged 86.

Eight years in the making, Eyre The Forgotten Explorer will be very hard to put down. Ivan Rudolph’s fascinating and gripping biographical account, which reads like a novel will, more than any previous publication, ensure that Edward John Eyre no longer will be a forgotten explorer.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Eyre, The Forgotten Explorer, by Ivan Rudolph,
with colour illustrations, Bibliography and Index,
is available at $39.99 from
Ivan Rudolph


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