Constructing Australia: Stuart Crosses the Continent

Constructing Australia: Stuart Crosses the Continent
Film Australia
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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There was enormous public and media speculation about which group would be first to cross the continent's interior: the Victorian-backed Burke and Wills party or South Australia's Stuart expedition.

'Stuart Crosses the Continent' is an excerpt from the film A Wire Through the Heart, the third episode of the three-part series entitled Constructing Australia, produced in 2007.

When John McDouall Stuart and Charles Todd arrived separately in Adelaide in 1839 and 1855 respectively, the British Empire was at its zenith, and young men were flocking to the colonies in search of adventure, fame and fortune. The mother country was six months by sea, and Australia it seemed was six months behind in news and fashion, scientific breakthroughs and new technologies.

Todd, a mathematical talent, took up the position of Government Astronomer. But his fascination for the telegraph soon led him to link a wire from Adelaide to Port Adelaide, cutting information travel time from one day to one minute.

Stuart was an adventurer. At first he worked for wealthy pastoralists, exploring the outback looking for gold, copper, and grasslands. But as he perfected the art of travelling light with few men or provisions, his usefulness took on a more important dimension. He became known as the man who would go where other surveyors could not.

Todd came to see that Stuart was the man who could make the hazardous journey to Australia’s northernmost shore, and map the route of a telegraph line that would transform the whole country. It was paramount to Todd and his supporters that Adelaide should be the first Australian city to connect to London.

At the time, most people imagined a vast inland sea separated Australia’s east and west coastlines. There was enormous public and media speculation about whether the Victorian-backed Burke and Wills or South Australia’s Stuart expedition would be the first to cross the continent’s interior.

Burke and Wills perished, but Stuart survived, partly because he adapted himself to the arid Australian landscape and was able to read signs of water. He realised that he could follow the techniques used by Aboriginal people who had survived in this harsh land for many thousands of years.

Inevitably there was conflict as he crossed (unannounced) tribal lands. In describing one battle he wrote in his journal of the warriors he fought, 'They are the finest natives I have yet seen. Tall, powerful and muscular men. Bold, daring and courageous. Not at all afraid of either us or our horses.'

In 1861–62 on his sixth and final expedition inland, and the third attempt to cross the continent, Stuart successfully crossed overland to the northern coast. It was a shocking journey; he suffered from scurvy, stomach ulcers, and became virtually blind from sandy blight (trachoma).

Adelaide celebrated jubilantly on his return, but Stuart sank into a decline from which he never recovered.

In 1870 Todd, using Stuart’s maps, organised and led three teams to lay overland telegraph wire. Adelaide was linked to London via the undersea cable to Java and then on through India and so Australia was connected to the world.

You can find all three titles from the Constructing Australia series in the NFSA Online Shop.

Wendy Hughes
Darcy Yuille