Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/An Australian explorer


It cannot be doubted that, on the first publication of the strangely adventurous narratives of those hardy seamen who, in the last century, explored the mystery of the southern seas, lifted the veil which had till then obscured the “gateways of the day,” and thereby contributed so largely to the national glory, that portion of our teeming population which had scant sustenance and elbow-room at home, must have heard with delight of the existence of

Sunnier isles of Eden lying in dark purple spheres of sea—

wherein abundance and an independence hitherto unknown, awaited all who had the courage requisite to expatriation: and it seems somewhat unaccountable that so many years should have elapsed ere the tide of emigration set toward the new Utopia; and, yet more so, that, while hastening to plant her flag on the great southern continent, England’s first step toward colonisation should have been to convert the fair land into a sewer for the reception and utilisation of the garbage which tainted her social atmosphere.

For a quarter of a century after the establishment of this penal settlement, the colonists were content with the narrow region enclosed between the ocean and the mountain chain parallel to the eastern coast; the vast interior was absolutely unknown; and though the outlines of the continent had been defined by Flinders, as no outlet of any size had been discovered by him—openings in a low sandy coast, so narrow as are generally those whereby the Australian rivers reach the sea, easily escaping observation—it was too hastily assumed that only trivial streams existed, and that the interior was an arid desert. The successful introduction of the merino sheep led to the general adoption of pastoral pursuits by the colonists, and in time the increase of their flocks, and the limited area available for pasturage, incited them to earnest exploration of the surrounding countries. One result of these expeditions was the discovery beyond the Blue Mountains of fertile and well-wooded plains traversed by frequent westward-flowing rivers; and as these ordinarily ran into, and were presumed to be lost in inaccessible morasses, a theory arose that they were eventually drained into a great central sea. The mind is so eager to arrive at definite conclusions, and so prone to generalise alike its knowledge and its ignorance, that in default of proof it is content with theory, and twists what fragmentary facts it may possess into harmony therewith; and a theory tends to discourage those researches which might prove its erroneousness.

In 1831, Captain Sturt, the most distinguished of Australian explorers, crossing the Blue Mountains and embarking on the Murrumbidgee, one of these westward-flowing streams, descended to its junction with one yet larger—the Murray, and this, after flowing west for many hundred miles, was deflected almost at right angles to the south; and, instead of falling directly into the ocean, as Sturt anticipated, expanded into a large, but shallow lake, separated from the sea by a low sandy neck of land, and apparently communicating with it only by a shallow and impracticable channel. This discovery was fatal to the popular theory of an inland sea.

Subsequent examination of the region between the Lower Murray and the Gulf of St. Vincent, led to the foundation of the colony of South Australia, and from consideration of the remarkable facilities for internal trade afforded by the Murray, far-sighted men speculated on the probability of the commerce of New South Wales being at some future time entirely diverted into that channel, to the special advantage of the younger colony. It will be evident on glancing at the map that, as all the streams westward of the mountain chain are affluents of the Murray, the natural outlet for the produce of nine-tenths of the colony of New South Wales is that seaport of South Australia nearest to its mouth. Now, as the value of produce to the producer depends on the cost of transportation to a market, the agriculturist or grazier of that section of New South Wales west of the mountain range, though 1200 or 1400 miles by water from South Australia, is practically much nearer to the markets of that colony than to Sydney, which is but 300 or 400 miles distant; and were Sydney the only market open to him, the value of his produce would decrease with increase of the distance, till it would be unremunerative to send it there at all.

In 1840, it was ascertained that the mouth of the Murray was not, as at first supposed, absolutely inaccessible, but local conditions seemed unfavourable to any hopes of its ever being commercially useful. The channel connecting the lake whereinto the river expands, with the sea, is choked up by a bar: and this is impassable by other than boats, except when the depth of water is increased by the coincidence of a flood-tide with a flooded condition of the river, and then a very dangerous surf arises from the contest between the tide and the rapid current. The entrance of the river is rendered yet more difficult by the swell ordinarily setting into Encounter Bay, the waves rising all along the coast to the height of fifteen and eighteen feet before breaking; and this turmoil of the ocean only ceases in summer, when a north wind has prevailed for several days. These seemingly insuperable obstacles discouraged attempts to open the navigation of the river for some years after its importance had been recognised; but in 1850, Sir H. Young, the Governor of South Australia, conceived the idea of evading the difficulty arising from the bar by connecting the lake with the sea by canal or railway; so that the produce of the interior, coming down the river, might be conveyed overland from Goolwa, the lake terminus of the channel, to Port Elliott in Encounter Bay for shipment; the distance between the two points being only seven miles. Feasible as this scheme was, it was not favourably received by the citizens of Adelaide; who, finding their private advantage in the existing state of things, and apprehending that their city would suffer were the agricultural produce of the vast region drained by the Murray to find its outlet at Port Elliott instead of by a long and costly land carriage at Adelaide, obstinately opposed the Governor’s plan. Assured of the necessity of providing a direct outlet for the trade of the valley of the Murray, Sir H. Young did not, however, lose sight of the subject; and, at his instance, the Colonial Legislature in 1851 voted large rewards for the navigation of the River Murray under certain conditions; and these were subsequently modified so as to favour colonial enterprise as follows: 500l. to the first steam-vessel crossing the bar; 1000l. additional provided the Darling was attained; and 1000l. additional for the completion of six voyages between fixed points within a year. The solution of the problem could not be longer deferred, and one came forward to solve it who, though a stranger, was by the bent of his genius specially interested in this as a geographical question, and was by mental character and professional pursuits peculiarly qualified to determine it.

Francis Cadell, the descendant of a good Scottish family, was born in February, 1822, at Cockenzie, near Preston Pans, a place of historical note. He was educated in Edinburgh and Germany, but, as is usually the case with those fitted rather for active pursuits than indolent contemplation, his scholastic career was brief; and it may be inferred that a taste for perilous enterprises was fostered in him, as in other boys who take to water as naturally as a duckling, by those narratives of maritime adventure that delighted our own childhood; for when but fourteen years of age he adopted the profession for which his bold and energetic character adapted him, and made his first voyage as a middy in an East Indiaman. This vessel being subsequently chartered by Government as a transport, the lad took an active part in the first Chinese war, being present at the siege of Canton, the capture of Amoy, Ningpo, &c., and winning honour as well as prize-money. When only twenty-two he attained the command of a ship, but he did not intermit his exertions; and, far from being content with the moderate acquirements that masters of merchant vessels are ordinarily satisfied with, he devoted the intervals between his voyages to attaining a practical knowledge of shipbuilding and of the construction of the marine steam-engine in the ship-yards of the Tyne and the workshops of the Clyde. His professional pursuits and his intellectual tastes specially interesting him in geographical questions, he was, when at Para, so impressed by the majesty and mystery of the Amazon, as to be led to speculate on the means of developing the resources of the vast region that it drains; and his vague ideas assumed the form of a scheme for descending the river from its sources amid the Andes, which from lack of encouragement he did not carry into execution.

Arriving in Australia in 1848, and his attention being directed to the navigation of the Murray, then uppermost in the Colonial mind, he carefully examined its mouth and satisfied himself of its practicability. In consequence of this he returned to Australia in 1850 in a ship of his own, and being encouraged thereto by Sir H. Young, immediately set about determining this important question, looking rather to the honour than to any pecuniary reward that might accrue to him; for the sum offered by the Legislature was not only very incommensurate to the service required, but was contingent on success: all the risk and outlay, contrary to the ordinary procedure of Government in such cases, being in case of failure thrown upon the spirited adventurer. After again examining the ever-shifting bar, and when so employed he nearly lost his life by the capsising of his whale-boat (in making a similar attempt in 1839, Captain Blenkinsop and Sir John Jeffries both met with a watery grave), Captain Cadell proceeded to Melbourne, and thence crossed to Swan Hill, on the upper Murray, and accompanied by four adventurous miners, commenced from that point the descent of the stream in a boat of an original and rough construction,—a wooden frame 21.8 feet long, covered with canvas, his launching forth in which sufficiently indicated the dauntless perseverance of the man. In this frail craft significantly yclept the Forerunner, carefully sounding as he proceeded, Captain Cadell accomplished the voyage of 1300 miles to Lake Victoria in twenty-two days under the most unfavourable conditions, the weather being stormy, and the greatest caution being enjoined by the frailty of his bark; her leakiness requiring constant caulkings with fat from the frying-pan; but an accidental rent from a snag having been readily repaired with a thread and needle, proved that there may be compensations in the most unfavourable circumstances.

Assured by the result of this trip, Captain Cadell, on August 17, 1853, successfully crossed the dreaded bar and entered the lake in the steamer Lady Augusta, of 90 tons burthen and 40 horse-power, which he had built at Sydney. On the 25th August the Lady Augusta, with a tender of 87 tons burthen lashed to her, pursued her journey up the Murray,—Sir H. Young and several other gentlemen interested in the enterprise being on board,—reached Swan Hill on the 17th September, and after proceeding alone a couple of hundred miles yet higher, retraced her way with her consort, heavily freighted with local produce, and arrived safely at Goolwa on October 14, having run over 3000 miles within 50 days. The breadth of the Murray between the lake and Swan Hill averaged 200 yards, and its depth 3 fathoms; above the Wakool the bends were sharper and more frequent, the breadth less, but not the depth, though there were many snags. Further acquaintance with the periodical changes whereto it is subject was needed to determine whether the Murray was thus easily navigable at all seasons, but this expedition proved that it was open to steamers for many months in ordinary years. The importance of this discovery could scarcely be exaggerated; the establishment of steam communication on the Murray practically quadrupled the value to the colonists on its upper waters of their wool and other produce, the transportation of which to Melbourne by ox-teams previously took from three to six months, according to the season and condition of the river crossings. The inhabitants of the three colonies testified their sense of his services by presenting Captain Cadell with a gold candelabrum, and the Legislature presented him with a gold medal commemorative of the auspicious event.

Captain Cadell continued for some time to run his vessel regularly on the Murray, a higher point being attained at each successive trip; but she was quite inadequate to the greatness of the traffic that was being developed; and conceiving that there was a fair field for commercial enterprise, Captain Cadell took a prominent share in the formation of a Company for navigating the River Murray; for which two steamers, the Albany and Gundagai, were built in Glasgow, sent out in pieces to Port Elliott in the first vessel which had ever arrived at that place from Europe, and being carried across to Goolwa were there set up and launched on the lake. In one of these, Captain Cadell, in October, 1855, reached Albany on the upper Murray, a point 1740 miles from Goolwa, whereto the river is navigable during half the year. In 1856 he explored the Edward River, which, branching out of the Murray, rejoins it lower down after a course of 600 miles. In 1858 he succeeded in reaching in his steamer Gundagai on the Murrumbidgee, 2000 miles from the sea, and in the very heart of New South Wales, after a month’s voyage. In 1859 he proceeded up the Darling beyond Mount Murchison.

As if these toilsome explorations were insufficient fully to engage his thoughts, this indefatigable man was at the same time pondering various schemes; for inland navigation in other parts of the Australian Colonies, for irrigating the Billibong district by a canal from the Murrumbidgee; for the canalisation of the Darling; and lastly, for rendering navigable the River Latrobe and the lakes wherwith it is connected in Gipp’s Land.

Largely as Captain Cadell’s labours contributed to the development of the resources and to the prosperity of Australia, and loud as were the acknowledgments of the people he had benefited, he himself derived very little substantial rewards from them. The sums granted in aid of his explorations by the local legislature were utterly inadequate to cover the expenses they involved, and in his eagerness to serve the public, his attention was distracted from those commercial pursuits which might have been combined with and would have amply rewarded his exploratory labours; but, perchance, the mental habit which is required for the accumulation of wealth is rarely associated with real genius, which is in its essence noble and disinterested. His has been the fate of most pioneers in all ages; others having watched the results of his discoveries and the development of his plans, reaped the fruits of his adventurous explorations in an easy manner. It is not creditable to the Australians that, after wearing out the best years of his life in their service, and expending his means in enterprises whereby they have so greatly benefited, this remarkable man should have been enforced to retreat into the wilds, and begin life again as a settler, near Mount Murchison. The least they could have done would have been to bestow on Captain Cadell a present of land on one of the great rivers wherewith his name will ever be associated. Such is the gratitude and justice of the world; probitas laudatur et alget. While Drake, the object of whose piratical expeditions was his personal enrichment, remains a national hero; Cadell, who has conferred an inestimable benefit on a great Continent, is left to begin the world in a new sphere. We believe, however, that a memorial is now under the consideration of the Legislative bodies of South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales for a grant of land commensurate with his merits, near the scenes of his labours; and we hope that, for the credit of those three great colonies, this suggestion may soon be carried into effect, Captain Cadell being now a much poorer man than he was thirteen years ago, when he first devoted his time and attention to exploits which have proved of inestimable benefit to an immense continent, but have brought himself only an empty fame.