The Age of (Inland) ExplorationJune 11, 2014

John McDouall Stuart, Scottish explorer, was Phileas Fogg in the flesh.

Born in Dysart, Fife, Scotland, he came to South Australia in 1839, when the state was a three-year old colony of the United Kingdom. Not much was known about the interior, except for the belief that there was an inland sea beyond the Blue Mountains. Could Australia be an archipelago? Most won't dare to mount an expedition, uncertain of their chances of survival. But adventure and heroic exploration won them over.

By the nineteenth century, the kingdoms of Europe have discovered most of the regions beyond the continent, but there were some unsolved mysteries. For instance, the origin of Nile became a competition, as anyone who would be able to locate the source of this body of water would gain fame and fortune. This had a far-reaching effect within the British Empire, spurning those who lived in Australia to explore the inner area. After all, the map of the island continent back then showed a blank space in the middle.

In 1828, Charles Sturt, who was part of the European exploration of Australia, formed a group that departed at the Mackierie River, located northwest of Sydney. Sturt found what would be Darling River, named after Sir Ralph Darling, Governor of New South Wales, and then two arid areas, namely Sturt Stony Desert and (the bigger) Simpson Desert. By this time, the native of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire suffered from scurvy. He returned to London to recover, leaving his draughtsman, whom he appointed to continue what he started. He was no other than Stuart.

Stuart came to the right place at the right time. Despite the poor backing of the government of South Australia, he managed to traverse the mainland from south to north and return. This made a huge impact, one of which was the setting up of overland telegraph line. It wasn't smooth sailing, though.

"The biggest obstacle that Charles Todd faced was that he really had very little idea about the terrain on which the line was to be built," said historian Stuart Traynor. "No white men had travelled along the proposed route since explorer John McDouall Stuart's epic crossing of the continent in 1862. Normally on a project of this type he would have sent surveyors to map out the route, but due to the 18-month time frame this was not possible. So he sent ahead (explorer) John Ross to check the terrain, but he was only a little ahead of the construction team."

Communication to home became faster. (Australia was part of the British Empire, so Australians called Britain "home".) Stuart Highway, a main road connecting Darwin, Northern Territory and Port Augusta, South Australia, was next. During Stuart's fourth expedition, he stumbled upon a mountain peak in southern Nothern Territory. (His team tried to determine the exact location of Australia's centre.) Stuart first named it Central Mount Sturt, in recognition of Sturt. But it was renamed Central Mount Stuart. The Scot became richer and more famous.

Stuart died on June 5, 1866.

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