In 1862 John McDouall Stuart succeeded in crossing the continent from south to north and back again. On his return to Adelaide he received a hero’s welcome.
Stuart rode at the head of a long line of men and horses, his compass resting on a staff, navigating his way across vast expanses of country unknown to Europeans. He charted his track, and planted the Union Jack when he reached his goal. He was ‘exploring’, extending European knowledge of the land, claiming country for the British Empire.
Stuart was a skilled navigator, reliant on his experience, his ability to read the country and the equipment available in the mid-nineteenth century. When I was
putting together the Crossing Country exhibition on Stuart, seeing some of this equipment up close helped me understand the nature of the journeys Stuart led. We are lucky that the ‘Historical Relics’ collection – a collection rich in objects from South Australia’s colonial period – includes compasses, sextants and more, used by Stuart and his companions. Made of wood and brass, steel and leather, these objects survived the long months of travel by pack horse across Australia. A century and a half later, they are evocative evidence of the age of inland exploration.
A compass was a basic navigational tool, carried at all times. William Patrick Auld, who was with Stuart on his 1862 expedition, remembered Stuart’s morning ritual: ‘When every horse was packed we would mount. Stuart would light his pipe – he was very fond of his pipe – take a bearing with his prismatic compass, replace it in the case, and start.’ Stuart used his field glasses and telescope to scan the horizon and see what was ahead – often climbing a hill, and sometimes sending a member of his party up a tree, to get a better view. Stuart’s compass and field glasses are both engraved with his name and the date 1860.
To know where they were, Stuart’s party needed to determine their latitude and longitude, and to do this they used a sextant. On the return trip in 1862, when Stuart’s eyes were failing, this was Auld’s responsibility, and the collection includes both Auld’s sextant and the notebook in which he recorded his observations and calculations.
A sextant is used to measure the angle between the horizon and a celestial object (the sun, moon or a star) to determine the object’s altitude. Auld’s notebook records that he used his sextant to measure the altitude of stars including Betelguese, Capella and Pollux, from which he calculated latitude. He also used his sextant to make lunar measurements in order to determine Greenwich time, which he then used to calculate longitude.
At the end of each day, Stuart mapped the country over which the party had passed and their route. He estimated the distance travelled based on his knowledge of the average rate of travel of his horses over different types of terrain.
Stuart’s maps and accounts of his journey provided the impetus and means for the colonisation of the country through which he had travelled – country already home to thousands of people, already known and named, celebrated in song and story. Stuart’s explorations were the catalyst for great changes, both for the new colonists and for the people who had been living on country for tens of thousands of years.
The objects discussed in this blog are currently on display at the Migration Museum in the exhibition Crossing Country: John McDouall Stuart.