In the early years of settlement, the Scots made a disproportionate contribution to the exploration and surveying of the Australian continent. A large number of the early explorers had learned their trade in the armed forces during the Napoleonic Wars, and a great proportion of those involved in Australia’s exploration were Scots. Thomas Mitchell was an independent, ambitious Scot who was one of the most important figures shaping in Australian history.
Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell was born on 15 June 1792 at Grangemouth in Stirlingshire, Scotland. Although he was born into a poor family Mitchell was well educated, could read in several languages, and was knowledgeable in many areas of the sciences.
In 1811, he joined the armed forces and served in Portugal where his chief occupation was to produce battlefield maps using his own topographical surveys. The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 and Mitchell continued as a peacetime soldier, a job that he found boring and unsatisfactory. He was relieved, however, in 1827 when an old commander from the army offered him the position of Surveyor-General of New South Wales.
After arriving in Sydney in 1827, and taking the position of Surveyor-General in an official capacity in 1828, Mitchell began the work of planning roads and bridges around Sydney, Paramatta and Liverpool. He also designed new roads south through Berrima as far as Goulbourn and discovered a new descent through the Blue Mountains towards Bathurst.
Mitchell’s most important contributions to Australia were his exploratory expeditions into the interior of the continent. Between 1831 and 1846, he embarked on no less than four journeys into unexplored areas of present-day New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. His third expedition was perhaps the most significant.
Setting out in March 1836 with the intention of exploring the full extent of the Darling River, Mitchell and his party of surveyors had decided by May to instead explore the more promising country around the Murray River.
Travelling along the vast waterway until the end of June, Mitchell was so encouraged by the quality of the land that he turned south-west into what is now Victoria. He was enthralled by what he saw – vast, grassy rolling meadows suited perfectly for the sheep grazing pioneered in his native Scotland – and he named the area Australia Felix, which means fortunate or happy Australia.
Following the Glenelg River southwards, Mitchell and his fellow travellers reached the ocean by August. Along their journey to the mouth of the river, the explorers named and catalogued many natural features of the area. Breaking with tradition, Mitchell often chose names that local Indigenous communities had called mountains, rivers, valleys and so forth. When he came across a grand mountain range near present-day Horsham and Hamilton, however, he was reminded so much of Scotland that he named them the Grampians.
Mitchell arrived at the ocean in August. To his surprise settlers from the convict colony, Van Diemen’s Land, had already crossed the Bass Strait with their livestock and had established their own pastoral runs in the south-west of what is now known as Victoria.
Turning back north-east after sharing supplies with the settlers, Mitchell arrived back in Sydney in November and began spreading news of Australia Felix. Occupation of the area began in earnest as settlers followed the tracks of Mitchell’s heavy carts south-west into the prime agricultural land. And so began the colonisation of what would eventually become the state of Victoria. A large proportion of these farmers were Scots, and by the 1840s nearly two thirds of settlers in the Western District of Victoria were Scottish.
In 1837, Mitchell took 18 months leave while he published an account of his expedition entitled ‘Three Expeditions Into The Interior Of Australia’, a work that proved popular and provided later historians with much information. Continuing with his work as the colony’s Surveyor-General until his death in 1855, Thomas Mitchell is revered and honoured in Australian history. Indeed, today there are countless towns, suburbs, roads, parks, birds, rivers, falls, awards, trains, electorates, lookouts and beaches that carry the name of this famous Scot who, like so many of his fellow Caledonians, was so influential in the early years of the Australian colony.