Australia in the 1860s


The South Australian Government awarded the explorer, John McDouall Stuart (18151866) a £2,000 prize for being the first person to cross Australia from south to north. He did so in 1860, in preparation for the laying of the Overland Telegraph Line. With 12 men and 49 horses, he reached the north coast of Australia after setting out from Adelaide. During the expedition, scurvy and desert glare affected Stuart so badly that at one point he had to be carried on a stretcher. A monument is erected to him in Victoria Square in Adelaide.

In August 1860 Robert O'Hara Burke (18211861) and William John Wills (18341861) left Melbourne to cheers from 15,000 citizens at Royal Park to explore and map the land between western New South Wales and the northern Gulf of Carpentaria. The expedition consisted of 14 men, 25 camels, horses and 20 tonnes of baggage. By November the party had reached Cooper Creek in Queensland. Burke left behind four men at this camp under the command of William Brahe with instructions to return to Menindee if he had not returned in three months time. Burke and Wills reached their objective, arriving at the gulf, but it had been a difficult journey.

The return journey was equally difficult, with storms, stifling humidity and rain. Charles Gray died, camels died and equipment was abandoned. When they staggered, starving, into camp, they found the provisions that Brahe had left for them that very morning, buried beside a tree with a note carved into the tree trunk telling them where to dig. In turn, Burke and Wills left a note buried in the cache indicating the route that they would take south to Mount Hopeless, where there was a police outpost. Search parties were sent out looking for them but Burke and Wills died en route. King lived with an Aboriginal group until he was discovered by a rescue party led by bushman Alfred Howitt (18301908). In 1863, Burke and Wills were given a state funeral, the first in Victoria, and their story was immortalised in song, poetry, sculpture and paintings.


A snapshot of 1868

  • January
    • Transportation of convicts to Western Australia ended.

  • March
    • The Queensland Parliament passed the Polynesian Labourers Act 1868 (Qld) to regulate the employment of Pacific Islanders recruited through 'blackbirding'.
    • The attempted assassination of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, by Henry James O'Farrell at Clontarf, a suburb of Sydney.

  • May
    • An Indigenous Australian cricket team became the first Australian sports team to tour overseas.

  • September
    • John King, the only surviving member of the Burke and Wills exhibition, was found living with an Aboriginal group.
    • Public Schools Act introduced compulsory schooling in Tasmania.


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