Eyre was born into a religious family in Bedfordshire on 5 August 1815, although soon after his family moved to Hornsea, Yorkshire. He was schooled at Louth and Sedbergh, but left at 16 intent on joining the army. Before his papers came through, however, his father suggested Australia as an alternative. He travelled there, when still only 17, with £400 capital, and took work with a sheep farmer in New South Wales (NSW). He tried to establish his own sheep farm but when this failed he turned to overlanding, i.e. driving sheep and cattle from NSW to new settlements in South Australia. This gave him a thirst for exploring. His first expedition lasted six months, and the second, from Adelaide to Albany in Western Australia, a year.
Although this last expedition ruined him financially, Eyre returned to Adelaide something of a hero, and with considerable experience of aborigines. The governor of South Australia, appointed him magistrate and protector of the aborigines. Unlike many settlers, he believed that it was possible for Europeans to co-exist with the aborigines, and he proved a great success in the job. In 1845, he published Manners and Customs of the Aborigines of Australia. That same year, he returned to England and found appointment as lieutenant-governor of the South Island of New Zealand. He sailed for New Zealand at the beginning of 1847, and remained until 1853. However, he was not particularly suited to public office, socially shy and physically awkward, according to biographers; and he was hindered by difficult relations with the settlers and with the governor, Sir George Grey. Adelaide Ormond, who he had met in England, sailed out to marry him in 1850. They would have five children.
In late 1854, Eyre became lieutenant-governor of the island of St Vincent. The couple returned to England on leave in 1857, but Adelaide stayed behind when her husband went back. In 1859, he was appointed temporary governor of Leeward Islands, based in Antigua, before once again returning home the following year. His next appointment was as acting governor of Jamaica, and then, in 1864, as governor-in-chief. The following year, he was faced with a serious riot by hundreds of black people at Morant Bay, and responded by declaring martial law in parts of the country. Government forces dealt with the unrest forcefully, killing or executing over 500 people in the process. George William Gordon, a coloured local politician who had long been a pain in Eyre’s side, was considered responsible for the rebellion, and was soon arrested, tried and hanged. While Eyre was hailed as a hero among the whites in Jamaica, in England he was heavily criticised. A royal commission was set up to look into the rebellion and subsequent events. It proved highly critical of Eyre, and he was dismissed from his post.
On returning home, Eyre’s role in the Morant Bay Rebellion and its aftermath caused great controversy. Some (including Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley) called for him to be indicted for murder; others (such as Charles Dickens and John Ruskin), however, believed he had saved Jamaica for the empire. He managed to avoid prosecution by the government; and he was exonerated in a case brought against him in civil court. Although not offered another post, he did eventually secure a pension, and retired to live a quiet life in Devon. He died in 1901. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Excellent Explorers, or from The Life of Edward John Eyre by Hamilton Hume (1867) available at Internet Archive.
Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966), which bizarrely gives Yorkshire as Eyre’s place of birth and death, gives this assessment of the man: ‘Eyre was stubborn, obstinate, and unteachable. These qualities, however necessary for the explorer of parched continents, were positive disqualifications for an administrator. In New Zealand he could not do much harm - in fact, he was merely a rather pathetic figure of fun - but in Jamaica nemesis overtook him and he played out his tragedy with the world for his audience. But Carlyle’s view of him as a “hero” possibly penetrates further to the truth than his opponents' conception of him as simply the villain of the piece.’
During his time as an explorer in Australia, Eyre kept diaries, and he prepared them for publication while en route to London by ship in 1844. They were published in two volumes by T & W Boone in 1845 under the title Journals of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia, and Overland from Adelaide to King George’s Sound, in the years 1840-1. The volumes are freely available at Project Gutenberg or the University of Adelaide website. Here are several extracts.
27 June 1840
‘In crossing the southern extremity of these large plains, we came suddenly upon a small party of natives engaged in digging yams of which the plains were full; they were so intent upon their occupation that we were close to them before they were aware of our presence; when they saw us they appeared to be surprised and alarmed, and endeavoured to steal off as rapidly as they could without fairly taking to their heels, for they were evidently either unwilling or afraid to run; finding that we did not molest them they halted, and informed us by signs that we should soon come to water, in the direction we were going. This I knew to be true, and about three o’clock we were in front of a water-course, I had on a former journey named the “Rocky river,” from the ragged character of its bed where we struck it.
We had been travelling for some distance upon a high level open country, and now came to a sudden gorge of several hundred feet below us, through which the Rocky river wound its course. It was a most singular and wild looking place, and was not inaptly named by the men, the “Devil’s Glen;” looking down from the table land we were upon, the valley beneath appeared occupied by a hundred little hills of steep ascent and rounded summits, whilst through their pretty glens, flowed the winding stream, shaded by many a tree and shrub - the whole forming a most interesting and picturesque scene.
The bed of the watercourse was over an earthy slate, and the water had a sweetish taste. Like most of the Australian rivers, it consisted only of ponds connected by a running stream, and even that ceased to flow a little beyond where we struck it, being lost in the deep sandy channel which it then assumed, and which exhibited in many places traces of very high floods. Below our camp the banks were 50 to 60 feet high, and the width from 60 to 100 yards, its course lay through plains to the south-west, over which patches of scrub were scattered at intervals, and the land in its vicinity was of an inferior description, with much prickly grass growing upon it.
Upwards, the Rocky river, after emerging from the gorges in which we found it, descended through very extensive plains from the north-north-east; there was plenty of water in its bed, and abundance of grass over the plains, so that in its upper parts it offers fine and extensive runs for either cattle or sheep, and will, I have no doubt, ere many years be past, be fully occupied for pastoral purposes.’
19 September 1840
‘This morning I unloaded the dray of every thing except the water casks, and pitching my tent among the scrub took up my quarters alone, whilst I sent back the man, the native boy, the dray, and all the horses with Mr. Scott to Baxter’s range. As they made an early start, I gave them instructions to push on as rapidly as possible, so as to get the range that night, to rest the horses next day and fill the casks with water, and on the third day, if possible, to return the whole distance and rejoin me.
Having seen them fairly away, I occupied myself in writing and charting during the day, and at night amused myself in taking stellar observations for latitude. I had already taken the altitude of Vega, and deduced the latitude to be 32 degrees 3 minutes 23 seconds S.; leaving my artificial horizon on the ground outside whilst I remained in the tent waiting until Altair came to the meridian, I then took my sextant and went out to observe this star also; but upon putting down my hand to take hold of the horizon glass in order to wipe the dew off, my fingers went into the quick-silver - the horizon glass was gone, and also the piece of canvass I had put on the ground to lie down upon whilst observing so low an altitude as that of Vega. Searching a little more I missed a spade, a parcel of horse shoes, an axe, a tin dish, some ropes, a grubbing hoe, and several smaller things which had been left outside the tent, as not being likely to take any injury from the damp.
It was evident I was surrounded by natives, who had stolen all these things during the short time I had been in my tent, certainly not exceeding half an hour. The night was very windy and I had heard nothing, besides I was encamped in the midst of a very dense brush of large wide-spreading tea-trees and other bushes, any of which would afford a screen for a considerable number of natives. In daylight it was impossible to see many yards in distance, and nothing could be discerned at night. The natives must have watched the dray go away in the morning, and waited until dark for their opportunity to rob me; and most daringly and effectually had they done it. At the time that I lay on the ground, taking the star’s altitude, they must have been close to me, and after I went into the tent, they doubtless saw me sitting there by the light of the candle, since the door was not quite closed, and they had come quite in front to obtain some of the things they had stolen. The only wonder with me was that they had not speared me, as they could scarcely have been intimidated by my individual presence.
As soon as I missed my horizon glass, and entertained the suspicion of natives being about, I hurried into the tent and lighting a large blue light, run with it rapidly through the bushes around me. The effect of this was very beautiful amidst the darkness and gloom of the woods, and for a great distance in every direction objects could be seen as well as by day; the natives, however, were gone, and I could only console myself by firing a couple of balls after them through the underwood to warn them of the danger of intruding upon me again; I then put every thing which had been left outside, into the tent, and kept watch for an hour or two, but my visitors came no more. The shots, or the blue light, had effectually frightened them. They had, however, in their turn, produced as great an effect upon me, and had at least deprived me of one night’s rest.’
20 September 1840
‘Rising very early I set to work, with an axe, to clear away the bushes from around my tent. I now discovered that the natives had been concealed behind a large tea-tree not twenty yards from the tent; there were numerous foot-marks there, and the remains of fire-sticks which they had brought with them, for a native rarely moves at night without fire.
By working hard I cleared a large circle with a radius of from thirty to forty yards, and then piling up all the bushes outside and around the tent, which was in the centre, I was completely fortified, and my sable friends could no longer creep upon me to steal without my hearing them. I spent great part of the day in charting, and took a few angles from the tent, but did not dare to venture far away. At night, when it was dark, I mounted guard with my gun for three hours, walking round outside the tent, and firing off my gun before I lay down, which I did with my clothes on, ready to get up at a moment’s notice. Nothing, however, disturbed me.’
21 September 1840
‘I had been occupied during the greater part of the day in charting, and in the evening was just shouldering my gun to mount guard again, when I was delighted to see Mr. Scott returning with the dray, and the party all safe. They had executed the duty entrusted to them well, and had lost no time in rejoining me; the horses were, however, somewhat fatigued, having come all the way from the range in one day. Being now reinforced, I had no longer occasion to mount guard, and for the first time since the natives had stolen upon me, enjoyed a sound sleep.’
18 May 1841
‘This morning we had to travel upon a soft heavy beach, and moved slowly and with difficulty along, and three of the horses were continually attempting to lie down on the road. At twelve miles, we found some nice green grass, and although we could not procure water here, I determined to halt for the sake of the horses. The weather was cool and pleasant. From our camp Mount Ragged bore N. 35 degrees W., and the island we had seen for the last two days, E. 18 degrees S. Having seen some large kangaroos near our camp, I sent Wylie with the rifle to try and get one. At dark he returned bringing home a young one, large enough for two good meals; upon this we feasted at night, and for once Wylie admitted that his belly was full. He commenced by eating a pound and a half of horse-flesh, and a little bread, he then ate the entrails, paunch, liver, lights, tail, and two hind legs of the young kangaroo, next followed a penguin, that he had found dead upon the beach, upon this he forced down the whole of the hide of the kangaroo after singeing the hair off, and wound up this meal by swallowing the tough skin of the penguin; he then made a little fire, and laid down to sleep, and dream of the pleasures of eating, nor do I think he was ever happier in his life than at that moment.’