Australia in the 1840s


Exploring the Australian continent was often a difficult and risky task for European explorers. They were unfamiliar with the terrain in uncharted areas, suffered from the heat and lacked the knowledge needed for finding the next river or waterhole. Expeditions were always at risk of starvation and attacks by Aboriginal people protecting their families and their land.

Paul Edmund de Strzelecki (1797–1873) was a Polish geologist who named the highest mountain in Australia, Mount Kosciuszko, in 1840. He also named Gippsland after the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps (1791–1847), and mapped the unknown country from the Macalister River to Western Port.

Edward John Eyre (1815–1901) explored the country to the north of South Australia. In 1840, he led an expedition to explore an overland route to the west as 'the discovery of the interior of Australia'. The expedition consisted of six Europeans, two Aboriginal guides, 13 horses, 40 sheep and provisions for up to three months. Additional supplies were sent up to Spencer Gulf to wait for their arrival. Eyre was unsuccessful in achieving his objective at this time. In February 1841, he tried again and failed. However, accompanied by his Aboriginal guide Wylie, Eyre eventually crossed the Great Australian Bight and reached Albany in Western Australia. They nearly died in the attempt and were only saved when a French whaling vessel, the Mississippi, gave them supplies that enabled them to reach Albany.

Aboriginal guides became renowned for their exceptional tracking skills based on their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, including their ability to track animals and locate edible plants, their knowledge of the seasons and how to access sources of water throughout the country. Aboriginal guides would also take on diplomatic roles, paving the way through different Indigenous countries across the continent and sometimes giving up their responsibilities at the borders of different language groups. Sometimes guides assisted voluntarily and often they were forced to do so.

In 1841, Captain John Stokes (1812–1885), commander of the Beagle, surveyed part of the Gulf of Carpentaria. He named the two major rivers in northern Australia, the Flinders River and the Albert River, and confirmed that neither of them flowed from the centre of the continent.

In 1842, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichardt (1813–1848), a naturalist, came to Australia to explore the interior. In 1844, he left the Darling Downs in Queensland for Port Essington in the Northern Territory. His expedition was financed by public subscription. When the expedition ran out of food, two members turned back and another member, John Gilbert, was killed by Aboriginal people. Seven men eventually reached Port Essington in December 1845, having completed an overland journey of nearly 4,830 kilometres. In 1848, Leichardt set out from Moreton Bay for Perth with seven men and this time with two Aboriginal guides. He and his team disappeared and their fate is still unknown.

Other important explorers of this decade were Thomas Mitchell (1792–1855), Charles Sturt (1795–1869), John Roe (1797–1878) and Augustus Charles Gregory (1819–1905), and Edmund Kennedy (1818–1848).


A snapshot of 1848

  • March
    • The Melbourne Hospital, the first public hospital, opened. It was renamed a century later as The Royal Melbourne Hospital.

  • April
    • An expedition headed by Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–48) set out from the Darling Downs to cross the continent of Australia travelling through its centre, but he and his expedition died en route, never to be found.
    • The first detachment of Native Police was transferred from New South Wales to Queensland under the command of Lieutenant Frederick Walker.

  • June
    • 120 Chinese migrants arrived from Amoy under an indenture system to work as shepherds in New South Wales.

  • August
    • The Cape Otway Lighthouse in Victoria was lit for the first time.
    • The Native Police Force in Queensland (sometimes called the Native Mounted Police) was formed.

  • December
    • John Roe (1797–1878) and Augustus Charles Gregory (1819–1905) explored the north-eastern areas of Western Australia.
    • German and Hungarian refugees arrived in the colony having fled political upheaval in Europe. They were known as the 'forty-eighters' as they supported the 1848 revolutions.


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