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Sir George Grey Pioneer of Empire in Southern Lands

Chapter III — Exploration — 1837-1839. ætat 25-27

page 27

Chapter III
1837-1839. ætat 25-27

Objects of the expedition to Hanover Bay—Discovery of the Glenelg River—Second expedition to the "North-West in 1838—Disasters at Bernier Island and Gantheaume Bay—Terrible sufferings of the party on the overland journey to Perth—Discrepancy between the accounts furnished by Lieutenant Grey and Captain Stokes of a particular locality—Explanation by Captain Grey—Substantial accuracy of Grey's account proved by Deputy Surveyor-General Gregory—Appointment as Resident at King George's Sound—Scheme for the improvement of the natives—Departure for England in 1840—Appointed Governor of South Australia.

Queen Victoria ascended the throne on June 20, 1837. It was on the fifth of the following month that Lieutenants Grey and Lushington left England for Australia. The objects of the expedition were manifold. He was to report upon the resources of the country especially with a view to colonization; to familiarize the natives with the British name and character in order to establish more securely the sovereignty of the Queen; and to render some service to science by collecting specimens that might be of special interest to the department of natural history. No work could have been better suited to his tastes and ambitions, and he was appointed to supreme command. Arrived at Simon's Bay he transhipped at once into a schooner of 140 tons, and before the end of the year the Lynher anchored in Hanover Bay with twelve men besides the ship's crew.

Grey's first impressions were decidedly unfavourable. Little vegetation was to be seen from the deck, as he gazed upon the "ruins of hills" in front of him. But after making a few short excursions inland he struck southward, page 28and on March 2, "there burst upon the sight a noble river running through a beautiful country." Forthwith he named it Glenelg, and noted in his diary that the country, though thinly timbered, was admirably adapted for agriculture and commerce. Following its course the party turned eastward, and passed through some rich alluvial tracts in the vicinity of Mount Eyre, where the falls mark the limit of salt water. A strip of good country covered with grass extended beyond Mount Lyell and Mount Sturt, where they were forced to make a considerable detour. On March 30 they reached the limit which may readily be detected on the map, and were forced to turn back for want of provisions. The party had encountered many difficulties owing to the incessant rains and violent storms that prevail in those latitudes from January to April. Night after night they were obliged to pass with little or no sleep, in sodden garments, and unable to keep a fire burning. The myriads of mosquitoes in the low-lying country near the river caused great annoyance, and the boggy nature of the soil made the pace slow and labour-some. Ruston, a breezy old sailor from the Lynher, might be heard at intervals calling for some one to come and give his pony "a heave upon the starboard quarter," or when the case was more desperate, roaring out with mingled pity and alarm, "She'll go down by the stern, sir." Toward the end of January the sheep, horses, and goats began to die off at an alarming rate, partly from exposure; but also because, while feeding, they swallowed a considerable quantity of sand, which in the stomach was rolled into an indigestible ball.

There were also difficulties with the natives. While making observations on this part of the coast Captain King page break page 29had remarked upon their uncertain disposition, which he attributed to the presence of Malays among the aboriginals. In his short excursions from Hanover Bay, Grey had been obliged to shoot over their heads in order to terrify them; but a more serious encounter took place on their way toward the Glenelg River. On February 10, accompanied by two others, he left the main party and struck inland along a ravine. Next day they realized that about two hundred natives were dogging their footsteps, and that two with lighter complexions than the rest were at their head. Having reached the spot indicated on the map, Grey sent one of the men back to mark a tree. A little later the silence of the woods gave place to a clamour of yells and savage cries, and the man was seen rushing back in breathless haste with the natives in full pursuit. The situation was critical, for the terror of the fugitive had inspired the natives with confidence. Seizing his rifle, Grey fired over the head of one leader; but the other came on, and was in the act of fixing his throwing-stick when a ball from the other barrel pierced his arm and he fell behind a rock.

Even this did not deter the natives. Led by the first they advanced hurling their spears, which came whistling past the three men. Most unfortunately at this moment one of the guns became entangled in its cover, and by the time Grey had wrenched it free the light-coloured man was within thirty yards of him. Meantime the spears were coming thick and fast; one he just evaded with a sudden jerk of his body, another fell shivering to the ground after striking the stock of his gun, a third struck him in the leg and he reeled over giddy and faint till, animated by rage and indignation, he page 30made a dash for the rock behind which the leader was hidden. This movement was decisive and fortunate, for the coloured man turned and fled. But Grey was determined he should not escape. Taking aim, he drove a ball into his back which brought him to the ground with a dull thud and a deep groan.

Then came another dramatic change. The tumult ceased, the natives slipped away silently and cautiously as Grey walked toward the prostrate body of the dying man. It seemed again as though he had been suddenly transported to a world where life and voice and motion slept, for all was as still as the grave. He turned to rejoin his companions, leaving the coloured man on the ground where he lay. Thereupon the natives "came from behind the rocks and trees without their spears, crowding round him with the greatest solicitude and tenderness." Then raising him up they bore him away through the forest, "their black forms being scarcely distinguishable from the charred trunks of the trees as they receded in the distance." Grey's wound was serious enough, and it caused him much pain during the journey along the Glenelg; but he suffered most from the reflection of a sensitive mind on the destruction of a fellow-creature even in self-defence.

Despite all difficulties and anxieties, Grey found the work of an explorer much to his liking. He was very responsive to the charms of natural scenery, and in the beauty of a sunset or the grandeur of a starlit night was able to forget the dangers to which his party was exposed, and find recreation for the mind and senses when oppressed by weariness after the long day's journey. Even more page 31sustaining was the serene consciousness that he was rendering service to humanity in a way that marked a step in the realization of his ideal: "I painted in fancy the rapid progress that this country would ere long make in commerce and civilization, and my weakness and fatigue were all forgotten." History has not yet justified his sanguine anticipations.

In September 1838 he reached the Swan River after having dismissed the Lynher at Mauritius. But his instructions had only partly been carried out, and in February of 1839 he left Fremantle with the intention of exploring the coast district. At Bernier Island to the north-west of Shark Bay they disembarked and buried their stores. Thence they set sail for the mainland, and proceeded as far north as the Lyell Range, a little to the south of Cape Cuvier. The country was not inviting, and after many trying experiences in gales, and on the surf-beaten shore, they returned from the neighbourhood of the Gascoyne River to Bernier Island. A gale of wind was blowing; but the passage was successfully made, and having beached the boat Grey started out with Smith and Coles for the depot. They were astonished and somewhat alarmed as they advanced to find provision casks here and there high and dry upon the rocks. The island was low and sandy, and Grey began to suspect that the stores might have been destroyed during the heavy weather. "All lost, sir. We are all lost, sir," exclaimed Coles as they stood over the place where the provisions had been buried. Smith was not precisely of that opinion, however, and Grey retired to a distant rock, where, with the wild sea raging round him, he page 32began to reflect on the best way out of their dangerous predicament. Three courses were open to him: to seek the mainland, and remain there on the chance of seeing a colonial steamer pass; to start at once for the island of Timor; to make for the Swan River. He chose the last, but not without some misgiving, and in order to restore his depressed spirits he "sat down and read a few chapters or the Bible."

After reaching the mainland they turned south and hugged the coast of Shark Bay till they reached Steep Point, where another problem presented itself. Southward for a hundred and twenty miles there was no place where in case of emergency a boat could be beached. Some of the party wished to land at once, and strike for Perth along the coast. Grey decided to go on, and for fifty-six hours they tugged wearily at the oars. By that time they were off Gantheaume Bay, and as some of the men were worn out they decided to try and effect a landing. But as they neared the shore the boat was hurried along at terrific speed till "the breaker we were on curled up in the air, lifting the boat with it, and when we had gained the summit I looked down from a great height not upon water, but upon a bare sharp black rock. For one second the boat hung upon the top of the wave, in the next I felt the sensation of falling rapidly; then a tremendous shock and crash which jerked me away among the rocks and breakers, and for the few following seconds I heard nothing but the din of waves, whilst I was rolling about amongst men and a torn boat and water-kegs in such a manner that I could not collect my senses."

There was no option left them now but to make their page 33way on foot to Perth, which was about three hundred miles distant. When the provisions were portioned out they had for each man twenty pounds of flour and one pound of salt beef. Nevertheless, having just escaped from the jaws of death, the men were cheerful. For some time they passed over indifferent country, but reached a fertile district in the neighbourhood of the Victoria Range. There signs of failing strength began to manifest themselves, and before they reached Water Peak some of the men protested that Grey was travelling too rapidly. But he declined to reduce the pace, and on April 10 the company divided into two parties, Mr. Walker leading the second. Soon afterwards they began to experience the pangs of hunger and thirst, and after crossing the Arrowsmith River Grey shared with the aboriginal Kyber the last piece of damper, and contemplated its disappearance with some satisfaction, for it put an end to the daily conflict in his mind "as to whether he should eat all or reserve a little."

Their sufferings became acute when on April 14 they reached the Hill River. The weather was warm and they had been without water since morning. Night passed and another day, but still no water! The following morning there was a light dew on the bushes, and they tried to relieve their thirst by sucking it; but it was altogether inadequate, and soon disappeared. The men were now so weak that every few hundred yards they sat down, and begged Grey to wait. By two o'clock they had only advanced eight miles, and then they lay down upon the earth groaning with pain. Grey tottered away in search of water accompanied by Kyber, but they returned unsuccess-page 34ful. The situation was desperate. They had thirsted "with an intense and burning thirst" for three days and two nights, and during that time had been taxing their rapidly diminishing strength with great exertion under the fierce rays of the sun. The leader felt that the time had come for a last desperate effort, and turning to his men he explained to them that matters had become so critical that in the event of any one of them being unable to proceed, it could not be expected that the others would halt. He therefore exhorted them to exert their energies to the utmost and make a last bold struggle for their lives. Feebly and with much pain they responded; but deliverance was at hand.

They had not staggered along very far before they detected native footprints in the sand. Hope sprang to their breasts at once, and Kyber, with his instincts to guide him, was already moving in the direction of a bed of reeds. Thence he made a sign to Grey, who came up and found him with his head buried in the mud. It was not long before the others joined them, and falling prostrate they buried their faces too. "Thank God!" they murmured in the intervals of swallowing a few mouthfuls of the liquid mud; and they protested "that it was the most delicious water, and had a peculiar flavour which rendered it far superior to any they had ever tasted!"

Only those who have travelled over waterless tracts under the burning rays of an Australian sun and found relief when at the point of exhaustion can realize the feelings of the men. And Grey's relief was the greater because he had also been oppressed with a sense of responsibility for the page 35lives of his fellows. Feelings of gratitude stirred his nature to its depths, and retiring a little he first of all returned hearty thanks to his Maker for the dangers He had brought him through. Then seizing his gun he tottered off with a light heart in search of food. But though the game was there he could not take aim, and he was about to give up the attempt in despair when a flock of black cockatoos came toward him. Firing into their midst one fell. Kyber plucked and roasted it; part of it was eaten and the remainder kept for future use.

On April 21 Grey reached the cottage in which a Mrs. Williams resided. At that time there lived in Perth a crazy Malay known to the Swan River settlers by the name of Magic. As Grey entered at the door Mrs. Williams exclaimed, "Why, Magic, what is the matter with you?" Suffering had wrought such havoc with Grey's appearance that when he saluted his friends m Perth they begged pardon and asked him who he was. Even the Governor did not recognize him, and could hardly believe that the emaciated creature before him was Captain Grey. Relief parties were sent out at once, and all the travellers reached Perth eventually, with the exception of Smith, who was buried on the sea-shore, a little to the south of the river which was called after him.

Two separate expeditions had been conducted by Lieutenant Grey in Western Australia. In the first he had explored the country in the vicinity of Hanover Bay and the Glenelg River, in the second he had explored land to a distance of 420 miles north of the Swan River of which only sixty miles immediately to the north of Perth had been page 36previously known. On his return from the first expedition Grey reported to the Governor at Perth that some of the land near the banks of the Glenelg River was admirably suited for the purposes urged upon him by the Imperial Government; and the Governor informed the Colonial Secretary that from the reports furnished by Lieutenant Grey he thought the place would be found admirably adapted to the growth of sugar and cotton. With the full reports of the expedition before him, the Secretary of State arrived at a different conclusion, and in an enclosure accompanying the dispatch in reply to Governor Stirling, Lieutenant Grey was informed that the "reports which you have sent home are not, in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, sufficiently encouraging to justify the further prosecution of your researches." Before this dispatch reached Perth, Grey had set out on the second expedition which so nearly cost him his life.

The immediate results of that, so far as settlement was concerned, were even more unsatisfactory. Of the more fertile tracts of country indicated on Lieutenant Grey's map special mention was made of a district between the Moresby Flat-topped Range, and a range of hills to the south-west; and, ere long, a scheme was afoot for the settlement of the country. Meantime, however, Captain Stokes sailed along the coast northwards, and travelled inland at some places to make observations. The reports which he furnished threw discredit on the account given by Lieutenant Grey, for in regard to this particular district the observations made by Captain Stokes were correct. Grey's mistake is easily explained, but it was most unfortunate; for the project in page 37favour of a settlement in the vicinity of the Victoria Range was abandoned in favour of another in the vicinity of Cape Leschenault which ended in failure.

Lieutenant Grey was wrong in the details of his observations; yet when Surveyor-General Gregory went north in 1849 he furnished a report which proved that, in the general estimate, his account was substantially correct. Where, then, did the mistake occur? It was explained by Grey himself after the observations of Captain Stokes had been made public. After the wreck at Gantheaume Bay, Grey had to work with a Kater's compass and a chart compiled by Captain King. He was obliged, therefore, to assume his latitude; and, as there are several peaks very much alike in the Moresby Flat-topped Ranges, he mistook Mount Fairfax for Wizard Hill. The distance between them is about twelve miles, and Grey's latitude was wrong to that extent. But if on his map Mount Fairfax be placed where Mount Wizard is marked, the descriptions of the districts which he and Captain Stokes traversed in common are almost identical.

Later discoveries show that the country over which Grey and his party travelled is very patchy, as he explained in his report; but recent events have fully justified the optimistic accounts concerning the better portions. The Midland Railway runs from Perth to Geraldton, and much of the land that is being unlocked by the Company has been found suitable for pasture and agriculture, and at a recent sale in Perth brought from 25s. to £2 10s. per acre.

After Grey's return from the second expedition Governor Hutt, who had succeeded Governor Stirling, wrote to the page 38Secretary of State recommending that 2,560 acres should be granted to Grey as a reward for the services which he had rendered to the State, and pointed out that his Council had unanimously agreed, and that it was the custom in Western Australia to make similar grants to successful explorers. Lord John Russell replied that it was impossible to comply with this request because of existing regulations.

Meantime Grey had been appointed Resident Magistrate at King George's Sound in succession to Captain Sir Richard Spencer, R.N. The duties of that office were associated for the most part with the administration of native affairs, and in recommending Grey for the position Governor Hutt had testified to "his thorough acquaintance with the language, manners and customs of the natives, and the respect and esteem with which, by his conduct and treatment, he had inspired them."

Captain 1 Grey entered on his duties with zeal. Within a year he had compiled a vocabulary of the language of the aboriginals in the neighbourhood of King George's Sound, and prepared a scheme for the civilization of the native tribes in Australia which he transmitted to the Imperial authorities about the middle of 1840. In that scheme, emphasis was laid on two points in the management and control of natives: the recognition of their rights as British subjects, and the possibility of their improvement by means of educational institutions and regular industry.

He pointed out that, under the system which then obtained in Australia, the natives were regarded as British page 39subjects in all matters which affected the property and persons of Europeans; but that in their dealings with one another they were allowed to follow their own barbarous customs. Against this he contended that as soon as the natives were declared British subjects they should be given to understand that British laws were to supersede their own, and that they should have the right of appeal against their own customs to the Resident officers, who would protect them against the violence of their fellows. He also proposed that counsel should be appointed by the Government to defend natives, as they had no chance of being tried by their peers in the courts. He foresaw that the educational benefits arising from such a system would be considerable; but he also urged that schools should be established and maintained for their instruction.

Industrially the natives were at a disadvantage: the demand for their labour was uncertain, and they were inadequately paid. He proposed that, in the vicinity of towns, they should be regularly employed in making new roads, and repairing old lines of communication. In the country they might be employed as servants to settlers. If the Governor and the Protector of the aborigines were satisfied that the settler was doing something to educate the natives in his district, they might reward him with a grant of land or remission of fees. So, too, the native who worked with a settler for three years might be given a grant of land.

The Imperial authorities, ever anxious to safeguard the interests of the native races of the Empire, were impressed by the genuine interest which Grey manifested in their page 40welfare; and the Colonial Secretary expressed his appreciation of the vocabulary of the language of the aboriginals which he had prepared. But Grey was engaged in another and more important work, which he ultimately published in two volumes, giving an account of his explorations in North-West and Western Australia. In 1839 he married the daughter of Captain Sir Richard Spencer, and about the middle of the following year he left Australia for England, which he reached on September 20. Before he had time to see his volumes through the press he received a communication from Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the Colonies, informing him that the condition of South Australia was critical, and that Her Majesty's Ministers had decided to offer him the control of the administration of the province. It was a splendid opportunity for a man who dreamed as Grey had dreamed of a New World where the grievances of the Old World might be redressed. His plans soared up like fire. He sold his army commission, and after some preliminary arrangements had been made with the Secretary of State he set out once more for Australia, with a good record behind him and a difficult but inspiring task before him.

1 Grey was raised to the rank of captain in June 1839, and appointed Resident at King George's Sound in August of the same year.