Thomas Mitchell – Australia’s Great Explorer

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.

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2 comments

  1. Dear me. No mention the Hentys so surprised Mitchell by being settled at Portland that he abandoned the rest of his expedition to hurry back to Sydney to claim credit for his discoveries? No mention of Mitchell’s further surprise to discover, on climbing Mt Macedon, that there were settlers on where Melbourne now stands. I suspect Mitchell had a problem that Colonel Light, the surveyor in South Australia, was a better surveyor, and had been so in the Peninsular Wars. Charles Sturt and John MacDougall Stuart may be better explorers, and if not better, then more interesting than Mitchell. Most of the Scots who settled in the Port Phillip district came via the sea or from VDL. The idea they followed Mitchell’s wagon wheel tracks is simply disproved by the fact Mitchell scurried away on horseback from his expedition and left them to manage by themselves. A diary exists from that side of Mitchell’s expedition that certainly throws some cold water on the man’s conceits.

  2. Thanks for your comments.

    The settlement of the Port Phillip District before Mitchell’s expedition is noted in the post, as is Mitchell’s surprise to find the Hentys near Portland and his subsequent return to Sydney. His observations of tents etc. around Port Phillip on the return trip was left out for brevity (this post, like most others on the blog, originally appeared in print in The Scottish Banner). There were already some 177 European settlers in Port Phillip by May 1836, and I’d be very surprised if anyone claimed otherwise. Mitchell’s expedition is significant not because he discovered the existence of the area, but rather had determined its extent and nature, and publicised it widely. Even the Hentys expanded northward on the advice of Mitchell.

    Scots arrived in the Port Phillip District/Victoria via many routes. The settlement of Port Phillip District in the 1830s (earlier attempts, such as David Collins’ failed experiment in 1803, notwithstanding) occurred via three broad streams of migrants — ‘overstraiters’ from Van Diemen’s Land, who first began arriving in the wake of favourable reports from early settlers around 1834/35 (and some from Adelaide); overlanders who travelled south from late-1836 after Mitchell spread news of ‘Australia Felix’ around Sydney (and also in the wake of Bourke’s sanctioning of the settlement); and, finally, migrants from Britain, who arrived both by sea and overland from Sydney. As I say, Scots arrived via all of these routes.

    Those who overlanded to the Port Phillip District usually followed either the Sydney Road, which was surveyed in 1837, or Major’s Line — Mitchell’s exploratory route. You can see some of the wagon tracks around Nareen, for example (where the ground was softer than in other parts), but whether overlanders followed these tracks or simply followed the route on a map is neither here nor there. The bigger picture is that Mitchell’s reports encouraged people to travel from Sydney to settle in the area.

    It is well-documented that Mitchell split his group, as he often did throughout the expedition, on the return trip a bit over a fortnight after meeting the Hentys, leaving behind many of the bullocks, heavier wagons, and a number of his men, including his second-in-command, so that he and a small group could make a quick return to Sydney. In this case it is most likely because provisions were low — Mitchell had intended to be back in Sydney with the party by this time. Mitchell did, however, ride horseback alone from late-October.

    Thanks again for your comments. Feel free to explore the rest of the blog, and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

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