|Advertiser – Adelaide; Saturday January 13, 1990.|
Nothing much fazed Eliza
Arbuckle, not even the hardship of being the first woman to travel up the
Murray. SEAN DAWES profiles a remarkable and courageous woman.
It was late December,
1839, and Adelaideans were fearful. An ambitious expedition led by Governor
Gawler up the Murray to North-West Bend (now the Morgan site) had not
returned. Colonial officials, policemen and surveyors were believed to be
menaced by blacks and, more so, great fear was held for three women.
women in the expedition to prove to London investors the safety of the
Murray Valley, thereby encouraging development of plantations on the
river-flats and a steam-driven fleet to draw trade from NSW.
Also on the journey
would be the South Australian Surveyor General, Captain Charles Sturt, and
the Police Superintendent. Of the women, Charlotte Sturt was first chosen.
Julia, at 15 the eldest daughter of Gawler, stood in for her mother,
while the third was Eliza Arbuckle, ladies’ maid and companion.
The expedition was
assembled during November, 1893. Heavy stores for 30 people were shipped to
Encounter Bay and carted to Currency Creek. There, coastal surveyors prepared
a flotilla of three whaleboats and a ship’s gig to sail across Lake
Alexandrina and upstream through the lake mouth of the Murray to the
To assist the
surveyors return, two drays with extra provisions went north-east from
Adelaide. Completion was planned so the principals might spend Christmas in
Adelaide and, on Proclamation Day, celebrate the colony’s third birthday.
But it was not to be.
left on November 22, 1830, as an elegant month-long jaunt. Even so, the
relative social position of the women was soon established. The first day Mrs
Sturt and Julia drove to Willunga with the Governor in his open carriage,
escorted by Captain Sturt and the governor’s suite, all fully equipped.
Eliza followed in a
light dog-cart. It was driven with just one position, but Eliza consoled
herself that nearby was a sufficiently handsome escort of two mounted
policemen and Henry Bryan, a gentleman aide to Gawler.
It was hard to put
down Miss Arbuckle! She was a proud, canny Scot from Paisley. After her
father died, Eliza left home to avoid a marriage devised by her mother to
bolster the family finances. She emigrated with a Baptist group to Sydney,
where she was employed by the Sturts, traveling with them to Adelaide. At 19,
Eliza was still unwed at a time when girls married young.
Later, sailing over
two days from Currency Creek, across Lake Alexandrina to Poomunda on the
lake mouth, Eliza sat under an awning with the other women. Charlotte Sturt
and Julia were at the stern, both claiming to be the first white women on
the Murray – until Eliza remarked she was nearer the prow!
political aspect of Gawler’s plan was a tractable native community. He sought
to explain to the Aborigines his policy of protection from white abuse and
interpreter, "Encounter Bay Bob", was employed. But Gawler’s grand
intention was blighted even before the expedition started. Outside South
Australia, the Murray Darling natives and white stock overlanders from
Sydney had skirmished for months. A wagon train from Adelaide was burnt
beyond the North-West Bend on October 28-29, forcing the whites to retreat.
Gawler underestimated this news.
continued, culminating when more overlanders – Alexander Buchanan – and his
team, traveled from Sydney droving sheep for sale at Adelaide’s markets and
for stocking the early runs. The travelers were reported to have killed and
wounded natives near the North-West Bend on December 7.
Even so, the first meeting of Gawler with the Milmenrura at Poomunda was amicable. On this occasion, Eliza sailed with Sturt in the gig. Charlotte, Julia and Gawler had arrived earlier and camped, attracting four native families totaling 33 men and youths. As the gig pushed through the reeds a reception line emerged of painted, naked men armed with spears, waddies and towerangs. Urged by Sturt and with two young aides holding her hands, Eliza sprang from the boat, her petticoat flying in disarray. The broken reeds stabbed through her shoes but her pain drowned in the yells of natives beating their shields.
That night, a
corroboree was held around 16 evenly spaced fires. Old men and boys beat a
tattoo on tightly rolled kangaroo skins. Pairs of naked warriors, their faces
and hands ochered white and red, with long white or red stripes down their
limbs and across their ribs, challenged each other in grotesque, ritualized
combat. While Eliza watched, appalled at the pandemonium, a young black,
curious about Eliza’s means of locomotion – seen but fleetingly as she leapt
ashore – wriggled from the corroboree and grabbed her ankles, Eliza tipped
backwards, saved from falling by Gawler. Both watched, amazed, as the
impudent warrior slithered back to his place. "Tommy", as the native
became known, joined the expedition as an additional interpreter.
While the flotilla
sailed across Lake Alexandrina and into the Murray, the wagons, horsemen and
spare mounts of Gawler’s expedition traveled along the northern shore of the
lake, eventually meeting the flotilla sailing north at Wood’s Point, near
John Morphett’s station. Here they saw George Hamilton, from Port Phillip,
rafting sheep and swimming cattle across the Murray. It was November 29,
a week from Adelaide and very much a holiday for the women.
The next 10 days
passed similarly, although danger seemed to lurk everywhere. There were huge
centipedes, ants and snakes. At night, the scrub shrieked and moved.
The land party
followed the western bank, pacing the flotilla. The girls went ashore on
islands, naming one for Julia, which now supports Swanport bridge, and
gathered rocks, fossils, flora and fauna. Mrs Sturt was pregnant with her
third son but, like Julia, she rode with the men through the scrub and on
the river flats.
The tension of travel
came at evening when finding and clearing a safe spot for the night was
utmost in everyone’s thoughts. Once, Gawler and four horsemen rode too far
ahead of the flotilla and lumbering carts. Both parties spent an anxious
night camped 20Km apart, lighting signal fires that neither saw. Even so,
Eliza and Julia often wandered from camp and one evening were suddenly
surrounded by warriors. These Aborigines were also intrigued by petticoats
and feet. The girls suffered an impertinent examination until they diverted
them with a pair of scissors, from Eliza’s sewing kit, and a piece of paper.
As an encore, the girls trimmed the warriors’ beards and packaged the
snippets, slowly retreating and waving, before running for sanctuary. That
night, natives fired the grass and were driven off by gunfire.
Later, Eliza and
Julia found three native women with their babies in a cave. They admired
the children, trying to establish contact, but the mothers were too afraid.
The girls also saw
two burial places. One was like a low table upon which the bound and painted
corpse sat spear in hand. In the other, the corpse lay on the ground,
covered with lapped branches stuck in the earth.
from the North-West Bend on December 9, the expedition met a party of
whites; - the drays sent previously to aid the return had met the overlander
"Buchanan". Sturt questioned him about native hostility, and Buchanan replied
that there were no problems, having written in his diary that he did not
shoot any blacks. The entry had been made to cover his savagery, and his
failure to forewarn Gawler of his actions combined with a natural hostile
response from local Aborigines was to lead to further death and distress.
The voyaging portion
of the expedition finished. The women and most of the men relaxed, while
Gawler rode out for a three-day expedition with Sturt, Bryan, a policeman and
two surveyors. Eliza mostly read, savoring Bryan’s developing friendship with
the poems of Thomas Moore, which they had read together beneath the massive
The next night,
natives torched around the camp. Each evening clouds piled high but no rain
relieved the month-long dry.
Two days overdue,
Sturt returned with three companions. They had drunk horse blood to survive.
Minutes later Gawler arrived. He had separated from Bryan, leaving his aide
to walk with a lame horse. The young man did not return.
For six days the
expedition searched scrub and river, locating Bryan’s clothes, saddle,
telescope and a note, but no horse. His footprints vanished in sand, neither
Bob nor Tommy finding another trace. Eliza wrote that
was a sacrifice to Gawler’s policy.
Mt Bryan, just east
of Hallett, in the State’s Mid-North, is named after the young man.
The prolonged search depleted supplies and three horses died. The surveyors sailed away downstream. Possessions and equipment were abandoned and dispatches sent to Adelaide.
For eight days the
remainder of the expedition struggled towards Gawler Town, cutting through
scrub, freeing wheels, crossing rocky hills and seeking sustenance from
stations and overlanders’ camps along the way. While Charlotte and Julia
rode point with the leaders, resting for lunch and camping at night, Eliza
rode atop a baggage wagon. She barely reached each night camp before
leaving on the next leg.
On the sixth day,
blistered, thirsty and hungry, Eliza’s wagon drivers lost the trail in
roaring windstorms. That night, Isaac Smith, lighting a signal fire with
gunpowder, shredded his face and blinded an eye. Eight persons prepared for
death, praying and reading a Bible. But Eliza had faith, she wrote in her
diary: - “Thy bread shall be given, thy water shall be pure.” - Sturt found
them the next day. He reprimanded the men before heading to Gawler Town,
where he gave Eliza teaspoons of milk and water.
It was December 28.
Eliza and Isaac departed last, arriving late at Government House, Adelaide.
Mrs Gawler offered the young woman the full hospitality of the House, but
Eliza took only a drink of water. Eliza then walked away alone to Sturt’s
home (her employer’s house). Along the way she wondered if perhaps it was not
her destiny to travel and work in high society, but time to consider marriage.
Not only had Tommy, the Milmenrura, caused embarrassment by inquiring
around the expedition for whom she was intended, while making no secret of
his own conjugal interest, but Eliza had received proposals from a policeman
at the North-West Bend and from a surveyor when they survived to Gawler Town.
Maybe marriage was her fate.
Eliza continued east
along Rundle St, calling to a tinsmith for more water. She was friendly with
the young proprietor, William Davies, and, although at first he did not
recognize her, eventually he walked her home. There and then he proposed and
Her marriage, however,
was unsuccessful. In Eliza’s autobiography, The Story of an Earnest Life, she
has titled a chapter Sad Experience of Wedded Life.
She later returned
to Scotland, establishing a life as a missionary and teacher with the Church
of Christ, traveling the world and returning to Australia several times.
The excitement of
travel seemed, at last, to fulfill her.
The journey that had
sparked her imagination 150 years ago led to many benefits for the young
colony of South Australia. Despite Eliza’s labour and distress, the death of
Henry Bryan and Isaac’s dreadful injuries, the expedition was one of the
first steps in the settlement of the Murray River and the establishment of
viable transport routes between South Australia and the Eastern States.
The fear that had
surged through Adelaide in 1839 was worth it, after all.
Return to Homepage.