The Australian explorers/Chapter 9

The Australian explorers by George Grimm
Chapter 9: Kennedy's Disastrous Expedition to Cape York



This chapter is from first to last a tale of woe. The history of exploration, tragic as it has so often been, contains no parallel to the expedition which is now to be described. Of the thirteen brave men who, full of hope, set forth on this memorable journey, only three starved and emaciated shadows of humanity returned to tell the story of their miserable sufferings. The disaster produced in Sydney an impression which was the more saddening as a successful issue had been confidently expected. The leader, Mr. Edmund B. Kennedy, was supposed to be a thoroughly capable person. He had formerly been taken from the Survey Department and placed second in command of the northern expedition of Sir Thomas Mitchell, whose discoveries on the Barcoo and the Warrego he had subsequently followed up on his own account. So great care had been taken in selecting the most promising leader, for this reason, simply, that the colony was now passionately in earnest on this business. The rising importance and threatening attitude of Port Phillip made it more than ever necessary to discover, if possible, a practicable route to some northern port which might serve as an entrepôt for the trade with India. Mitchell, after doing his best, had failed to supply this want. Leichhardt had, indeed, been more successful, for he had actually reached Port Essington; but his track was too rough and circuitous to serve the purpose of commerce. Another effort to reach the same object was now to be made on a modified plan. To simplify the process, it was proposed to land a party of explorers at Rockingham Bay, with instructions to proceed overland to Port Albany, near Cape York, in the extreme north. This was the primary object, and if it could be attained, other advantages might follow in the opening up of new country, and the eventual connection of the survey with those of Leichhardt and Mitchell.

The enterprise commenced with unfavourable omens. The voyage to Rockingham Bay was tempestuous, and extended over the unusual period of twenty-one days. By the 1st day of June, 1848, the adventurers had escaped from the perils of the sea, and committed themselves to the guardianship of a land inhabited as yet only by savages. A hazardous journey of six months lay between them and Port Albany, while their only resource against starvation consisted of 1 ton of flour, 90 lbs. of tea, and 600 lbs. of sugar, together with a few sheep, which were soon almost wholly lost. It was arranged that a relief vessel should be waiting at Cape York to receive the explorers at the end of their journey, and it was promised also that an attempt would be made to communicate with them at Princess Charlotte Bay, if they could engage to reach that place by the month of August. With these arrangements and understandings the Tam o' Shanter spread sail, and left Kennedy with his heroic dozen to battle with difficulties, known and unknown, as they best could. These unhappily commenced at once, and never ceased till nearly all this brave band found rest in the arms of death. The ground on which the landing had been effected was covered with interminable swamps, and five precious weeks were spent in turning these, before any northing could be made. It was the misfortune of this ill-provisioned party to encounter within a short compass nearly all the obstacles which have beset Australian explorers, and these, truly, have been neither few nor small. Scarcely had the maze of marshes been left behind when impenetrable thickets threatened to bar further progress. These first visitors to York Peninsula found the scrubs entangled and interlaced by a new creeper which is now known under the name of Calamus Australis, and this novelty proved to be a scourge of the first magnitude. For days in succession the axe had to be used to cut a passage through this exquisite specimen of nature's lattice-work, and then the severed tendrils, furnished as they were with curved spines, and made the plaything of the wind, kept hooking the flesh of the men at work, who were thus subjected to perpetual annoyance. But a more serious enemy now began to hang upon the rear. The blacks, having assumed a threatening attitude for some time past, at last appeared in strong force, painted and armed for the light. Outward signs of friendship were still kept up; but it was too evident that they were bent on mischief, and only waited a tit opportunity for a decisive assault. When least expected a spear was thrown into the camp, which Kennedy determined to accept as a challenge, and gave battle. This decision was exceedingly unfortunate, as it led to extremities at once. Men like Sturt would have tried every conceivable shift before allowing matters to come to the dernier ressort, and might have gained their object by the mere sound of a gun. But Kennedy ordered his men to load and fire upon the savages at once. Four or five of the ringleaders fell, and the rest retreated for the present; but only to nurse their wrath and meditate revenge. Here was the beginning of another train of sorrows, for the barbarians never ceased to dog Kennedy's steps till their enmity was quenched in his blood.

The progress of the expedition was slow and unsatisfactory. Cases of individual sickness occasioned irritating delays, and physical hindrances became more frequent than e'er. A considerable part of the route lay between the spurs of the range which would have to be crossed before Cape York was reached. It was with great difficulty that the drays carrying the provisions had been brought over the rugged country, and it had sometimes been necessary to lower them into the ravines by means of ropes. As the journey ahead looked still more precipitous, it was judged impracticable to take them much further, and with great reluctance Kennedy resolved on exchanging this mode of conveyance for pack-horses. Everything that could be spared was accordingly abandoned, for the animals were now too poor to carry heavy loads. In this manner and under such difficulties a fresh start was made. Amid so many discouragements only one gleam of hope sustained the heroic adventurers. They were now nearing Princess Charlotte Bay, the appointed rendezvous for themselves and the succour which was promised from the sea. But they had been delayed too long to admit of this assistance being confidently relied on. August was fixed as the time of meeting, but October had now come, and they began to be uneasy lest the vessel should have given them up and returned. These fears, as the issue proved, were only too well founded. The hapless wanderers, standing on the precipices of the range, scanned the inhospitable coast for miles around this lonely trysting-place; but instead of the wished-for help, now a question of life and death, they were met by nothing but blank despair. With heavy hearts the explorers again set their faces towards Cape York, now knowing for certain that they must either reach this goal or lay their bones in the wilderness. Unhappily, the difficulties of travel thickened more and more, and it became painfully evident to Kennedy that he would have to leave the greater part of his men and strike out with all speed, in the hope of returning with assistance. Provisions, too, had become alarmingly short, and under any circumstances starvation seemed all but inevitable. The camp was now on Puddingpan Hill, in the vicinity of Weymouth Bay, and it was determined to leave eight men in this depôt for the present. All the provisions that could be spared were 28 lbs. of flour and a couple of horses, which were only walking skeletons. Kennedy reckoned on reaching Port Albany in about a fortnight, and started with a light party of four men, including an aboriginal of tried fidelity named Jacky Jacky. The remainder of this history is derived from the barely intelligible language of poor Jacky. It appears that for the first three weeks very unsatisfactory progress was made, much precious time being lost in consequence of a gun accident. One of the men being thus rendered unfit for travel, and another required to nurse him, Kennedy resolved to divide his party a second time. He accordingly left three men near Shelborne Bay, and, with only Jacky to accompany him, determined to make a life-and-death struggle to bring succour from Port Albany. But his own strength was rapidly failing, and the hostility of the blacks, who had so long hung upon his rear, was daily assuming a more deadly aspect. This misfortune was the more to be regretted as this tedious and toilsome journey was almost at an end. From one of the heights Kennedy caught a glimpse of Port Albany, with its neighbouring island, and pointed them out to his dusky companion. But his life's journey was still nearer its close. The blacks were gathering in hundreds. An ineffectual attempt was tried to elude their vigilance by camping in the scrub without a fire, but they again made their presence known by hurling the deadly spear. Jacky made a rush to rally the horses, which, frantic with their wounds, had begun to dash through the scrub, and, on returning, found his master had been speared, surrounded, and robbed. A feeble resistance was offered to the assault of the savages, but it had little effect, and was soon over. Jacky thought Kennedy was dying fast, and asked if he was now going to leave him. He said he was fatally wounded, and, having given a brief order concerning his papers, breathed his last in the arms of his faithful attendant. Such was the end of Mr. E. B. Kennedy, a man who has left his mark on our history, and will be honoured by posterity as one of the most heroic, if not the most judicious, and certainly the least fortunate, of the Australian explorers.

Jacky, being now alone, and more dead than alive, made his way as best he could to Port Albany. His progress was sometimes less than a mile per day, but he struggled on in the hope of finding the promised vessel. Almost six months had passed away since the party of thirteen disembarked at Rockingham Bay. It was within two days of Christmas, and those in charge of the ship were debating with themselves whether it was worth while waiting any longer, when a poor emaciated creature was observed to drag himself from the forest and make signs to the vessel. Being conveyed on board, his tale of woe was soon told, in such words as he could use. The gravity of the situation became apparent immediately, and the order was given at once to hoist sail for Shelborne Bay, in the hope of being able to rescue the three men who had been left at Pudding-pan Hill. The search was unsuccessful. No trace of these unfortunates could then, or has ever since been discovered. There still remained the depôt at Weymouth Bay, where the necessities of the eight men left there could not be otherwise than urgent in the extreme, if they were still alive. All haste was made to the rescue. The eight were all found, but six of them were dead. The two survivors were more like ghosts than human beings of flesh and blood. The tale of miseries which they had to relate was heartrending. In addition to the lingering horrors of starvation, they had to endure incessant attacks from the blacks, who, knowing they had them in their power, enjoyed a savage delight in prolonging the distress of their victims. Yet it appears that the half-dozen eventually died of hunger, a fate which the survivors must inevitably have shared if relief had been much longer delayed. Having been too weak to bury their dead companions, this sacred duty was performed by the ship's crew, who thereafter hastened homeward with the miserable remains of Kennedy's heroic but ill-starred expedition.