Why has one of Australia’s most successful explorers been relegated to history’s back pages?

John McDouall Stuart was undoubtedly one of the greatest of Australian explorers.  In 1862, after three attempts, he finally succeeded in crossing the continent from sea to sea, and lived to tell the story.  An experienced bushman, he navigated his party on horseback through vast expanses of country unknown to Europeans.  On arrival, he took off his boots, dipped his feet in the Indian Ocean, and hoisted the Union Jack.  When he and his companions returned to Adelaide they were celebrated as heroes of the age.  21 January 1863 was declared a public holiday, and the largest crowd ever seen in Adelaide thronged O’Connell and King William Streets to see the mile-long procession.  They filled balconies, perched on rooftops and cheered and cheered. 

Ironically, on the same day of his procession, the largest crowd ever seen in Melbourne gathered for the funeral of Burke and Wills. Burke and Wills’ ill-fated expedition enshrined them in public memory.  However, Stuart’s party of explorers managed to return home in one piece.  Despite the harsh conditions, and struggling from one water source to the next, he never lost a man.  So why has he been relegated to history’s back pages?  Are Australians more interested in failure than success?  Or is the issue eastern-states bias?  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.  His journey paved the way for colonisation, and laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Overland Telegraph Line - and eventually the highway that now bears his name.

The exhibition Crossing Country –John McDouall Stuart, which closes on Sunday 27 October, provides a fascinating insight into his great expeditions and nineteenth-century exploration.  It features significant objects, from Stuart’s trusty compass, a ration of jerked (dried) beef, a pair of sunglasses worn by one of his expedition companions, to his smoking cap and pipe.  Another significant artefact is a boomerang, on loan from Museum Victoria.  Made by Lower Arrernte man Jim Kite Erlikilyika Penangke, it depicts the coming of McDouall Stuart and features Aboriginal men ‘creeping up’ to get a closer look at these strange creatures and their packhorses.  It is a rare example of a depiction of first contact from an Aboriginal perspective.

The exhibition is on at the Migration Museum and closes on Sunday 27 October 2013.  A free guided tour by exhibition curator Mandy Paul and John McDouall Stuart Society president Rick Moore will be held on Sunday 13 October at 2pm.  Get in quick and book your place by emailing mpaul@history.sa.gov.au or calling 8207 7570.  Limited to 30 people.