Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mitchell, Thomas Livingstone

MITCHELL, Sir THOMAS LIVINGSTONE (1792–1855), Australian explorer, born 16 June 1792, was son of John Mitchell of Craigend, Stirlingshire, by the daughter of Alexander Miln of Carron Works. At the age of sixteen he joined the army in the Peninsula as a volunteer, and three years later he received a commission in the 95th regiment or rifle brigade. He was employed for along time on the quartermaster-general's staff, thus obtaining much experience in military sketching, and he was present at Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, the Pyrenees, and St. Sebastian, for which he received a silver medal with five clasps. After the war was over he was sent back to Spain and Portugal on a special mission, to survey the battlefields and the positions of the armies. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on 16 Sept. 1813, placed on half-pay in 1818, came on full pay again in 1821, and served in the 2nd, 54th, and 97th regiments of foot until 1826, when his active career in the army ended. He was promoted to the rank of captain on 3 Oct. 1822, and to that of major on 29 Aug. 1826.

In 1827 Mitchell published his 'Outlines of a System of Surveying for Geographical and Military Purposes,' a useful little work at the time. During 1827 he was appointed deputy surveyor-general to the colony of New South Wales, and in the following year he succeeded to the surveyor-generalship, an appointment he held until his death. During his tenure of office his work was of the greatest possible use to the colony, especially in connection with laying out new roads. In 1830 he completed his survey of the great road to the Western Plains and Bathurst, and although this route was not accepted at the time, the soundness of his judgment is proved by the fact that both the road and railway now follow the track then laid down by him. His survey of the colony was published in three sheets in 1835, a work remarkable for the accuracy with which the natural features are delineated.

Mitchell will, however, be chiefly remembered on account of his four explorations into the then unknown interior of Australia, expeditions which place him in the first rank of the pioneers of that continent. The first exploration was due to the interest aroused in the colony by the fabulous tale of a convict, who pretended that he had discovered a wide and navigable river to the northward of the Liverpool range, and that he had followed it to the north coast. As a search for the mythical stream must in any case settle many important geographical problems, the government accepted Mitchell's offer to lead an exploring party in the direction indicated. He left Sydney in November 1831, and entered terra incognita near where Tamworth and its railway station now stand. Continuing his northward journey, he crossed the Gwydir, and struck the Barwan near the present boundary of Queensland. This was the furthest point he reached, for the murder of two of his party by natives, as they were bringing up a reserve supply of provisions, made a return to the colony a necessity. But during his three months' absence he had pro ved that no great river flowing northward existed in that part of the country, and he rendered it almost certain that all the rivers he had crossed flowed into the Darling.

Mitchell's second exploration was undertaken in consequence of representations from the government at home that a survey of the course of the Darling would be very desirable. Leaving Sydney in 1835, he descended the valley of the Bogan river, the course of which was only partially known, and he reached Bourke on the Darling. During this advance Richard Cunningham, the botanist to the expedition, lost his way and was killed by the natives, although every effort was made to find him. Bourke had previously been reached by Sturt, and that traveller had also discovered the existence of a large river entering the Murray, but the true identity of this stream with the Darling was only conjectural. Mitchell succeeded in tracing the Darling to within a hundred miles of its junction with the Murray, but beyond this point it was not possible to proceed, on account of the threatening attitude of the natives, which had already resulted in a conflict and loss of life on their side. He traced his way back along the bank of this weary river, which at this arid season was not joined by a single tributary for over three hundred miles, and which flowed through a country quite uninhabitable by man or beast, according to our explorer, but for this solitary stream.

Mitchell's third, and perhaps most important, journey was undertaken with the view of definitely connecting the Murray with the Darling. He left Sydney in 1836, descended the valleys of the Lachlan and the Murrumbidgee to the Murray, and then passed along the banks of this latter stream to the mouth of the Darling. He ascended the Darling valley sufficiently far to render it certain that it was in fact the same watercourse that he had descended on his last expedition, and then faced about and retraced his steps up the Murray river. During this advance he had a somewhat serious encounter with his old enemies, the Darling tribe, in which several of the natives were killed. From this point his discoveries became of the first importance. After ascending the Murray to near its junction with the Goulburn, he turned off to the south-west, drawn in that direction by the fine quality of the country. The region he thus opened up was called by him Australia Felix, and it no doubt forms one of the richest tracts in Australia. Continuing his journey in this direction, he struck the Glenelg, as he named it, after the colonial secretary, Charles Grant, lord Glenelg [q. v.], and followed it to the sea. At Portland Bay he found one solitary settler, Edward Henty [q. v.] He returned to Sydney by a route parallel to that of his advance from the Murray, but nearer to the sea. Here he soon came into country more or less known through the travels of Hovell and Hume, and near where Albury now stands. He found the country on the eve of being taken up by colonists. This journey, which lasted over seven months, thus added greatly to the knowledge of a very fertile region of Australia.

Mitchell went on leave to England in 1839, and the value of his services was recognised by his being knighted, and he received the honorary degree of D.C.L. at Oxford. He returned to Australia in 1840, and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel on 23 Nov. 1841. In 1844 he was elected as a member of council to represent Melbourne, but on its being indicated to him that his vote as government officer was required by the government, he resigned his seat.

The dangers attendant on the navigation of the Torres Straits made it appear very desirable to open an overland route to the gulf of Carpentaria, especially with the view of facilitating the trade in horses with India. Mitchell's fourth expedition was undertaken with the object of ascertaining if a practical road could be found. He left Sydney in November 1845, accompanied by E. B. Kennedy as second in command, and by W. Stephenson as naturalist. He first ascended the valley of the Narran, a river which had quite recently been discovered by his own son; then, entering quite unknown land, he traced the Maranoa up to close to its source, and thence struck across more difficult country to the head waters of the Belyando. After tracing this river for some two hundred miles towards the sea, and after coming to the conclusion that it must join the Siittor river of Leichhardt [q. v.], he retraced his steps to the Belyando. Hence he struck out again in a north-westerly direction, and discovered the sources of the Barcoo. He felt certain—but in this he was in error—that this must be the great river flowing into the gulf of Carpentaria, along the banks of which the great road to the north would be found. He traced the Barcoo to within a few miles of the point where it turns in a south-westerly direction, and he thus found nothing to shake the confidence of his belief. This was his furthest point, and he returned to civilisation in January 1847, after an absence of over a year.

Despite Mitchell's mistaken supposition, this last journey only served to confirm his high reputation as an explorer. On all his expeditions, which made great additions to Australian botany, he was accompanied by a comparatively large number of followers, (twenty-nine men on the last occasion), and all the details were carefully thought out beforehand. The rank and file of his expeditions always consisted of convicts, who almost invariably did good service in the hope of a free pardon as a reward; but that such men should have been led for so many months without any serious disturbance must be attributed to the personal qualities of their chief. A man of great personal courage, he had a somewhat imperious manner and temper, and spoke out so fearlessly that he made many enemies. He was evidently impressed with a strong sense of justice towards the natives and hated cruelty to animals. In 1851 he was sent to report on the Bathurst goldfields. He again visited England in 1853, and patented a new screw-propeller for steam-vessels called the 'Boomerang,' respecting which he published a lecture delivered at the United Institution. He died at his house, Carthona, Darling Point, 5 Oct. 1855. The cause of his death was variously attributed to worry concerning an inquiry that was being held on the department under his charge, or to exposure while on his last expedition. He married in 1818 a daughter of Lieutenant-colonel Blunt. His son Roderick (1824-1852) was engaged in surveying to the north of New England (New South Wales), and was appointed to the command of the expedition in search of Leichhardt, but was drowned on the passage from Newcastle.

Mitchell, a fellow of the Royal and Geographical Societies, was a man of much literary culture. He published a technical work, 'Outlines of a System for Geographical and Military Purposes,' 1827, besides two volumes recounting his explorations, which, though accurate and painstaking, somewhat reflect the monotonous character of the country and of the methods of travel described. Their titles ran: 'Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, with Description of the recently explored Region of Australia Felix, and of the present Colony of New South Wales,' London, 1839; ' Journal of an Expedition into Tropical Australia in search of a Route from Sydney to the gulf of Carpentaria,' London, 1848. Other of Mitchell's published works were:

  1. 'Notes on the Cultivation of the Vine and the Olive and on the Method of Making Oil and Wine in the Southern parts of Europe,' 4to, Sydney, 1849.
  2. 'A Trigonometrical Survey of Port Jackson.'
  3. 'Australian Geography, with the Shores of the Pacific and those of the Indian Ocean,' Sydney, 1850.
  4. 'The Lusiad of Camoens closely translated,' London, 1854; written in a small clipper during his last voyage to England round Cape Horn.

[Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. vii. 1837; Annual Register, 1855; Mitchell's Works; Gent. Mag. 1856, i. 301; Heaton's Australian Dict. of Dates.]