Mitchell was born at Grangemouth in Scotland in 1792, the son of a harbour-master, but he was brought up by his uncle. He joined the British Army as a volunteer, aged 16, and received his first commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion 95th Rifles. During the Peninsular War in Spain, Mitchell was promoted to major. He had a recognised talent for draughtsmanship, and after the war he remained in Spain and Portugal to complete sketches of the battlefields. With cuts in government funding, he wasn’t able to finish them for many years, and they weren’t published until the late 1830s (within Wyld’s atlas of the Peninsular War).
In 1818, Mitchell married Mary (daughter of General Blunt) with whom he had 12 children. In 1827, he was appointed deputy to the Surveyor-General of the Australian New South Wales colony, and soon became Surveyor-General himself. He set about exploring the colony and establishing a major road system. He made four expeditions between 1831 and 1846, discovering the course of the Darling river among others, and being first to penetrate that area which became known as Australia Felix. On a leave of absence, he visited England in the late 1830s, and is said to have brought specimens of gold and the first diamond found in Australia. During the same visit he published the diaries of his first three expeditions, and was knighted.
In 1841, Mitchell completed a new Gothic-style family home, Carthona, on the water’s edge in Darling Point, Sydney. Three years later, he was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council. However, he couldn’t marry the roles of a politician with that of a government officer, and he resigned after some months. Increasingly, his survey department came under criticism, and was investigated by a Royal Commission. The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) article on Mitchell provides this overview of his position at the time:
‘The report of the Royal Commission severely condemned the methods and results of Mitchell’s surveying and the administration of his department but it is not a fair summary of his life’s work. The criticism of his surveying technique is largely a priori and neglects both the substantial accuracy achieved, the inadequate and often primitive means at his disposal and the magnitude of the tasks he was required to perform. Mitchell was, however, a poor administrator. He had too many other interests and ambitions and was too often and too long away from his department either in England or exploring the interior. He had also a fatal inability to delegate responsibility to his subordinates with whom his relations were often very bad, and thus, despite enormous labours, he never got ahead of accumulating business. There was also insufficient supervision of surveyors in the field and consequently opportunities for the lazy and dishonest. But Mitchell was not responsible for the shortage of surveyors, the unrealistically large amount of work expected of them and, in particular, the division of the department into salaried and licensed surveyors which itself was a guarantee of inefficiency.’
Towards the end of his life, Mitchell investigated the Bathurst gold fields, visited England again, and patented a propeller system for steamers. Despite the scandal of delays at the survey department, he remained a popular figure in Australia until his death on 5 October 1855. Further information is available from Wikipedia, ADB, and Roma Reilly’s Australian Explorers website.
In his lifetime, Mitchell published the diaries of his four expeditions: Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, with descriptions of the recently explored region of Australia Felix and of the present colony of New South Wales came out in two volumes in 1838; and Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia, in search of a route from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria, came out in 1848. Both are freely available online through various websites, not least Internet Archive. Much of Mitchell’s daily narratives are concerned with describing the landscape, its topography, geography and flora/fauna, searches for food and water, and encounters with natives. Here are several extracts from Three Expeditions.
4 January 1832
‘Continuing due north, we just avoided some thick scrubs, which either on the right or left would have been very difficult to penetrate. The woods opened gradually however, into a thick copse of Acacia pendula, and at the end of three miles we reached the eastern skirts of an extensive open plain, the ground gently undulating. At 4 3/4 miles, on ascending a slight eminence, we suddenly overlooked a rather deep channel, containing abundance of water in ponds, the opposite banks being the highest ground visible. The vast plains thus watered consist chiefly of a rich dark-coloured earth, to the depth of 30 or 40 feet. Unabraded fragments of trap are not uncommon in the soil of these plains, and I imagined there was a want of symmetry in the hollows and slopes as compared with features more closely connected with hills elsewhere. At 8 1/2 miles, perceiving boundless plains to the northward, I changed the direction of our route 24 degrees east of north. The plains extended westward to the horizon, and opened to our view an extensive prospect towards the north-east, into the country north of the range of Nundewar, a region apparently champaign, but including a few isolated and picturesque hills. Patches of wood were scattered over the level parts, and we hastened towards a land of such promising aspect. Water however was the great object of our search, but I had no doubt that I should find enough in a long valley before us, which descended from the range on the east. In this I was nevertheless mistaken; for although the valley was well escarped, it did not contain even the trace of a watercourse.
Crossing the ridge beyond it, to a valley still deeper, which extended under a ridge of very remarkable hills, we met with no better success; nor yet when we had followed the valley to its union with another, under a hill which I named Mount Frazer, after the botanist of that name.
No other prospect of relief from this most distressing of all privations remained to us, and the day was one of extraordinary heat, for the thermometer, which had never before been above 101 degrees on this journey, now stood at 108 degrees in the shade. The party had travelled sixteen miles, and the cattle could not be driven further with any better prospect of finding water. We therefore encamped in this valley while I explored it upwards, but found all dry and desolate. Mr. White returned late, after a most laborious but equally fruitless search northward, and we consequently passed a most disagreeable afternoon. Unable to eat, the cattle lay groaning, and the men extended on their backs watched some heavy thunderclouds which at length stretched over the sky; the very crows sat on the trees with their mouths open.
The thunder roared and the cloud broke darkly over us, but its liquid contents seemed to evaporate in the middle air. At half-past seven a strong hot wind set in from the north-east and continued during the night. Thermometer 90 degrees. I was suddenly awoke from feverish sleep by a violent shaking of my tent, and I distinctly heard the flapping of very large wings, as if some bird, perhaps an owl, had perched upon it.’
31 May 1836
‘I now ventured to take a north-west course, in expectation of falling in with the supposed Darling. We crossed first a plain about two miles in breadth, when we came to a line of yarra trees which enveloped a dry creek from the north-east, and very like Clover-creek. We next travelled over ground chiefly open, and at four miles crossed a sand-hill, on which was a covered tomb, after the fashion of those on the Murray. On descending from the sand ridge, we approached a line of yarra trees, which overhang a reach of green and stagnant water. I had scarcely arrived at the bank, when my attention was drawn to a fire, about a hundred yards before us, and from beside which immediately sprung up a numerous tribe of blacks, who began to jump, wring their hands, and shriek as if in a state of utter madness or despair. These savages rapidly retired towards others who were at a fire on a further part of the bank, but Piper and his gin going boldly forward, succeeded, at length, in getting within hail, and in allaying their fears.
While he was with these natives, I had again leisure to examine the watercourse, upon which we had arrived. I could not consider it the Darling, as seen by me above, and so little did it seem “the sister stream” to the Murray, as described by Start, that I at first thought it nothing but an ana-branch of that river. Neither did these natives satisfy me about Oolawambiloa, by which I had supposed the Darling was meant, but respecting which they still pointed westward. They, however, told Piper that the channel we had reached contained all the waters of “Wambool,” (the Macquarie), and “Callewatta” (the upper Darling), and I accordingly determined to trace it up, at least far enough to identify it with the latter. But I thought it right that we should endeavour first to recognise the junction with the Murray as seen by Captain Start. The natives said, it was not far off; and I accordingly encamped at two o’clock, that I might measure back to that important point.
Thirteen natives set out, as if to accompany us, for they begged that we would not go so fast. Three of them, however, soon set off at full speed, as if on a message; and the remaining ten fell behind us. We had then passed the camp of their gins, and I supposed at the time, that their only object was to see us beyond these females, Piper being with us. I pursued the river through a tortuous course until sunset, when I was obliged to quit it, and return to the camp by moonlight, without having seen anything of the Murray. I had, however, ascertained that the channel increased very much in width lower down, and when it was filled with the clay-coloured water of the flood then in the Murray, it certainly had the appearance of a river of importance.’
1 June 1836
‘The country to the eastward seemed so dry and scrubby, that I could not hope in returning to join Mr. Stapylton’s party or reach the Murray, by any shorter route, than that of our present track; and I, therefore, postponed any further survey back towards the junction of the Darling and Murray, until I should be returning this way. We accordingly proceeded upwards, and were followed by the natives. They were late in coming near us however, which Piper and his gin accounted for as follows: As soon as it was known to them, the day before, that we were gone to the junction, the strong men of the tribe went by a shorter route; but they were thrown out and disappointed by our stopping short of that “promising” point. There, they had passed the night, and having been busy looking for our track in the morning, the earth’s surface being to them a book they always read, they were late in following our party.
Kangaroos were more numerous and larger here, than at any other part we had yet visited. This day one coming before me I fired at it with my rifle; and a man beside me, after asking my permission, fired also. The animal, nevertheless, ran amongst the party behind, some of whom hastily, and without permission, discharged their carabines also. At this four horses took fright, and ran back at full speed along our track. Several of the men, who went after these horses, fell in with two large bodies of natives coming along this track, and one or two men had nearly fallen into their hands twice. “Tantragee” (McLellan), when running at full speed, pursued by bands of savages, escaped, only by the opportune appearance of others of our men, who had caught the horses and happened to come up. The natives then closed on our carts, and accompanied them in single files on each side; but as they appeared to have got rid of all their spears, I saw no danger in allowing them to join us in that manner. Chancing to look back at them, however, when riding some way ahead, the close contact of such numbers induced me to halt and call loudly, cautioning the men, upon which I observed an old man and several others suddenly turn and run; and, on my going to the carts, the natives fell back, those in their rear setting off at full speed.
Soon after, I perceived the whole tribe running away, as if a plan had been suddenly frustrated. Piper and his gin who had been watching them attentively, now came up, and explained to me these movements. It appeared, that the natives entertained the idea, that our clothes were impervious to spears, and had therefore determined on a trial of strength by suddenly overpowering us, for which purpose they had “planted” (i. e. hidden) their spears and all encumbrances, and had told off for each of us, six or eight of their number, whose attack was to be sudden and simultaneous. A favourable moment had not occurred before they awoke my suspicions; and thus their motives for sudden retreat were to be understood. That party consisted of strong men, neither women nor boys being among them; and although we had little to fear from such an attack, having arms in our hands, the scheme was very audacious, and amounted to a proof, that these savages no sooner get rid of their apprehensions, than they think of aggression. I had, on several occasions, noticed and frustrated dispositions apparently intended for sudden attacks, for the natives seemed always inclined to await favourable opportunities, and were doubtless aware of the advantage of suddenness of attack to the assailants. Nothing seemed to excite the surprise of these natives, neither horses nor bullocks, although they had never before seen such animals, nor white men, carts, weapons, dress, or anything else we had. All were quite new to them, and equally strange, yet they looked at the cattle, as if they had been always amongst them, and they seemed to understand at once, the use of everything.
We continued our journey, and soon found all the usual features of the Darling; the hills of soft red sand near the river, covered with the same kind of shrubs seen so much higher up. The graves had no longer any resemblance to those on the Murrumbidgee and Murray, but were precisely similar to the places of interment we had seen on the Darling, being mounds surrounded by, and covered with, dead branches and pieces of wood. On these lay, the same singular casts of the head in white plaster, which we had before seen only at Fort Bourke. It is, indeed, curious to observe the different modes of burying, adopted by the natives on different rivers. For instance, on the Bogan, they bury in graves covered like our own, and surrounded with curved walks and ornamented ground. On the Lachlan, under lofty mounds of earth, seats being made around them. On the Murrumbidgee and Murray, the graves are covered with well thatched huts, containing dried grass for bedding, and enclosed by a parterre of a particular shape, like the inside of a whale-boat. On the Darling, as above stated, the graves are in mounds, covered with dead branches and limbs of trees, and are surrounded by a ditch, which here we found encircled by a fence of dead limbs and branches. [. . .]
The natives were heard by Piper several times during the day’s journey, in the woods beyond the river, as if moving along the right bank, in a route parallel with ours; but they did not appear near our camp, although their smoke was seen at a distance.’