Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sturt, Charles

STURT, CHARLES (1795–1869), Australian explorer, was born on 28 April 1795 in the Bengal Presidency, where his father, Thomas Lenox Napier Sturt, of an old Dorset family, was a puisne judge in the East India Company's service. His mother, Jannette, daughter of Dr. Andrew Wilson, was descended from the border families of Scott, Kerr, and Elliott. Educated first at Astbury in Cheshire, and later at Harrow, and with a Mr. Preston near Cambridge, Sturt obtained a commission as ensign in the 39th regiment on 9 Sept. 1813. In February 1814 he joined the 1st battalion of the 39th regiment, then serving in the second army corps under Sir Rowland Hill (Viscount Hill) in the Pyrenees, and fought at Garris, at the passages of the Gaves, at Orthes, Garin, Aire, and Toulouse. Later in that year he saw service in Canada during Sir George Prevost's operations at Chazy and on Lake Champlain. Returning to Europe on Bonaparte's escape from Elba in 1815, Sturt with his regiment entered Paris, and remained for a time with the army of occupation in the north of France. From 1819 to 1826 he served in Ireland, and took an active part in some stirring episodes during the ‘Whiteboy’ riots. He became lieutenant on 7 April 1825, and captain on 15 Dec. 1825. In command of a detachment of his regiment he arrived at Sydney in May 1827. There he was appointed to the staff of Sir Ralph Darling [q. v.], governor of New South Wales, as military secretary and brigade-major, acting also for a time as Darling's private secretary.

Between November 1828 and April 1829, in command of a government party of eight men, and accompanied by Alexander Hamilton Hume [q. v.], Sturt thoroughly examined the hitherto impenetrable marshes of the Macquarie, and, after forcing a way through them and crossing vast plains, discovered the Darling. Though the saltness of this river at several distant points after a long drought checked further advance, Sturt proved that it received those westward streams from the Blue Mountains (the Macquarie, Castlereagh, and Bogan), whose destination had hitherto been undetermined. According to Arrowsmith, he at this time explored 1,272 miles. In November 1829, accompanied by George (afterwards Sir George) Macleay [q. v.], Sturt led an expedition, for further investigation of the Darling, along the unknown course of the Murrumbidgee, till stopped by vast reed-beds. Here a depôt was formed, and two boats were built, in one of which Sturt and Macleay, with six men, embarked. The other was soon swamped on sunken rocks, and with it were lost all provisions except flour, tea, and sugar. Five days of risky navigation through a narrowing channel brought the party to a broad river, named by Sturt the Murray. Its parent stream was later identified with the Hume, so named by Hume when discovered and crossed by him in 1824 at a point three hundred miles higher up. But to Sturt the Murray river solved the problem of the whole south-eastern water system. So clearly did he read its meaning that on presently reaching the junction of another river he rightly assumed that to be the Darling. Thirty-three days after entering the Murray he crossed Lake Alexandrina, and found its outlet to the sea impracticable. A survey of the coast dispelled all hope that some vessel might be on the look-out, and want of provisions forbade him to explore the fine region now in view. Notwithstanding the adverse current and rapids and the dangers from hostile tribes, Sturt and his seven companions spent on the desperate return voyage only seven days more than had been occupied by their downstream course. Each man had to subsist on a daily pound of flour and a weekly quarter-pound of tea. Sturt and Macleay shared fully in every peril and privation, toiling at the oar from dawn to nightfall. They reached the depôt late in April 1830, all in very weak condition; Sturt was nearly blind. Arrowsmith computes the distance explored, to and along the Murrumbidgee and down the Murray to the lake, at 1,950 miles, and considers that by the opening up of these rivers and of their junction with the Darling over two thousand miles of water communication were given to the world.

For some months in 1830 Sturt was employed in Norfolk Island on trying services, for which he received the thanks of the New South Wales government. The effect of continued strain on his health and eyesight then obliged him to seek advice in England, and ultimately, on 19 July 1833, to quit the army. During this forced inactivity, and while still too blind to read, he published in 1833 the ‘Journals’ of his first two expeditions in 1828 and 1831, ‘with observations on the colony of New South Wales’ (2 vols.).

In 1834 he married Charlotte Christiana, daughter of Colonel William Sheppey Greene, military auditor-general, Calcutta, and, returning to Australia, settled in New South Wales. In May 1838, in charge of the third ‘overland’ party with cattle for South Australia, and eager at the same time to further geographical research, he traced the Hume from where Hume had left it, till, after joining the Goulburn, the Ovens, and the Murrumbidgee, it becomes the Murray. He explored much country along the latter river, till at Moorundi he struck westward and crossed the Mount Lofty ranges to Adelaide, noting specially the fine mineral promise of the mountains. This expedition was followed in September by daring attempts to enter the Murray mouth in a whaleboat. His report on the dangers of that estuary, by dispelling visions of a new capital at Encounter Bay, raised the price of land round Adelaide twenty-five to thirty per cent.

In 1839 he brought his family to Adelaide, where he entered on an active official career. On 3 April of that year, after the resignation of Colonel William Light [q. v.], the first surveyor-general of South Australia, Sturt had accepted that post at the request of the governor, Colonel George Gawler [q. v.], who was not aware that meantime the home government had appointed Captain Frome, R.E., to the same office. On the arrival of the latter officer in the colony, Sturt on 2 Oct. was made assistant commissioner of lands. The work of the survey, as well as that of allotting the land to settlers, was at that time particularly difficult in the new ‘province.’ Sturt and Frome did excellent work in reducing to order the chaos of the first rush of settlers, and the two men were fast friends while thus working together and throughout their lives. On 29 Aug. 1842 Sturt was moved to the post of registrar-general, and in January 1843 he volunteered to explore the centre of the continent, but his orders were delayed till dangerously late in the following year of drought. Yet he started in August 1844 with Mr. Poole and John Harris Browne and twelve other men, taking as draughtsman John McDouall Stuart [q. v.] (who in 1862 finally crossed the continent). The Darling was followed upwards from its junction with the Murray, 176 miles to Cawndilla. Thence Stanley Range was crossed into the depressed northern interior. The party suffered greatly from want of water. No rain fell from November to July. In January 1845, at latitude 29° 40′ and longitude 141° 45′, a good creek was found in the Rocky Glen, and at this depôt they remained for six months. They dug underground chambers for relief from the heat, and to make possible Sturt's writing and mapping. The officers were attacked by scurvy, of which Poole died. Sturt's precaution in taking sheep with his party proved invaluable in saving life. On the first rainfall in July, Sturt sent home a third of his party, moved forward the depôt, and rode sixty-nine miles westwards. Here progress was stopped by a large lake-bed, dry but for salt pools, yet too soft to cross. This lake is now known in its two branches as Lake Blanche and Lake Gregory; and, though not joined to Lake Torrens, as Sturt supposed, it yet forms part of the same remarkable series of central salt lakes. Baulked in a direction which in a better season might have led him to success, Sturt, on 14 Aug., with Browne and three men, set out for the north-west. On the 18th he discovered the watercourse named by him Strzelecki Creek, after Sir Paul Edmund Strzelecki [q. v.] Though partly dry, it contained large pools of water, and was sufficiently important for him to follow it up for over sixty miles. Crossing in succession three smaller creeks at distances of from fifteen to eighteen miles apart, Sturt and Browne plunged into a terrible district of sand ridges and stony desert, till at latitude 24° 30′ they were forced back by want of grass and water. On their return on 3 Oct. to their depôt at Fort Grey, they had ridden over nine hundred miles in seven weeks. After six days' rest Sturt, with Stuart and two fresh men, on 9 Oct. went north-eastwards, and, crossing Strzelecki Creek, he, on the 15th, discovered some forty miles further, in good country, Cooper's Creek, a fine stream. Then, turning northwestwards, they were again baffled by sand ridges and hopeless desert. Before returning to the depôt Sturt followed up the Cooper for over a hundred miles. But it was left to the later explorers, Kennedy and Gregory, to prove that the Cooper, the Strzelecki, and their dependent ‘creeks’ all form part of one lacustrine delta, whose upper waters, found by Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell [q. v.] in Queensland on 14 Sept. 1845, were by him mistaken for the Victoria of the north. This river is now known as the Cooper or Barcoo.

On returning to the depot Sturt fell ill with scurvy, but by long trying stages gained the Darling—270 miles distant—and finally, after an absence of nineteen months, his party arrived at Adelaide. Arrowsmith puts the mileage of this expedition at ‘over 3,450,’ and says that Sturt attained to within 150 miles of the centre of the continent. In 1849 he published his ‘Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia, 1844–1846, with a notice of the Province of South Australia in 1847’ (2 vols.).

But Sturt's explorations were only episodes in his active life. From 1839 to 1842 he held his appointment of commissioner of lands. From 1842 to 25 Aug. 1849 he was registrar-general, with a seat in the executive and legislative councils, and from 28 Sept. 1845 he was also colonial treasurer. On 25 Aug. 1849 he became colonial secretary, and held that office till the close of 1851, when he retired on a pension granted by the colony. In March 1853 he returned with his family to England, and till his death on 16 June 1869 he lived at Cheltenham, maintaining to the last his keen interest in Australian exploration, and actively aiding by his counsels in the preparations of later expeditions. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical and of the Linnean Societies, and in May 1847 the former society presented him with their founder's gold medal. In 1869 he was nominated K.C.M.G., but he died without receiving that honour. He left four children—three sons and a daughter. Colonel Napier George Sturt, R.E., is the eldest son.

The chief results of Sturt's explorations were the general survey of the largest river system of Australia and the opening up of South Australia and of its extensive water communication; while he was the first traveller, for a long time the only one, to approach the centre of Australia. The volumes in which he recorded his journeys, written amid hardships and under the drawback of impaired eyesight, aim at no literary effect, yet charm by their vivid narrative. They contain many illustrations from his own hand which give proof of his artistic talents, and especially of his rare skill in drawing and colouring birds and animals. His attainments in various branches of natural science, especially in ornithology and botany, were considerable. His fellow explorers, Eyre and Harris-Browne, wrote with enthusiasm of the qualities which enabled him to pursue among savages a path never stained by bloodshed.

Duplicate portraits of Sturt by Crossland are respectively in the council chamber at Adelaide and in the possession of Miss Sturt. Another portrait by the same artist hangs in the art gallery, Adelaide. A crayon drawing, executed by Koberwein in 1868, is now in the possession of Colonel Napier George Sturt. Of two busts by Summers one is in the art gallery at Adelaide, and the other belongs to C. Halley Knight.

[Capt. Sturt's Journals, &c., above mentioned, also some manuscript papers by him and a manuscript Journal of his ‘overland’ journey down the Hume and Murray; Royal Geographical Society's Journals, vols. xiv. and xvii. (1847); Cannon's Historical Record of the 39th Foot; Address by Sir Samuel Davenport at Inaugural Meeting of the South Australian Branch of the Geographical Society of Australasia; Napier's Colonisation; Hovell and Hume's Journey of Discovery in 1824; A Short Account of the Public Life and Discoveries in Australia of Capt. Sturt (reprinted in 1859 from a South Australian paper); John Arrowsmith's maps and memoranda.]

B. M. S.