The North Australian Expedition of 1855 – 1856 was an indirect descendant of a decision to reallocate convicts to a new colony that might profitably employ them in development of the Far North. It also had its roots in the Great Northern Dreaming which was nourished by thoughts of ‘…linking the new cities of the “Southland” of mystery with the “Spice Islands”, India, China, and Japan that lay to the North, and also the link to the Americas and Europe, and also in the strong hints of mineral wealth to be had there, particularly – gold. ‘
At the Royal Geographic Society in London on 23rd May 1853 the eminent geologist Sir Roderick Murchison addressed its members’…on the future of a continent now doubly interesting to scientist and speculator, its “gold” came before “its geographical exploration” in the title of its paper. Yet as befitted the occasion, listener’s minds were brought back to the mystery of the continent’s heart. Whatever lay there – pasture, desert, inland sea or gold – remained unknown, more than sixty years after first European settlement. Exploration was still the cry, and the societies’ main business was to rally support for the expedition being planned.’
At that point the Northern Expedition was launched; but it was May 21st 1855 before two members of it, Thomas Baines, artist and storeman, and J. Wilson, geologist, disembarked in Sydney to meet their leader, Augustus Gregory. Other members included Joseph Elsey, a doctor, Dr Ferdinand von Mueller, botanist, and James Flood, assistant gardener.
The plan was to proceed by ship up the east coast, round Cape York and disembark men, supplies and horses at the mouth of the Victoria River. Then to explore the northwest region about its delta and head waters. Gregory had chartered two vessels, the Monarch and the Tom Tough; the first to transport livestock and the latter as tender to the expedition. They sailed from Sydney on 18th July 1855. Gregory had also agreed to seek signs of Dr Leichhardt, missing in that area since April 1848.
The Monarch grounded twice in the Brisbane River, once travelling up to berth, the second time on leaving. Both vessels arrived off the Victoria by 15th September, and the Monarch proceeded to Singapore.
On 21st June 1856, his work for the North Australian Expedition completed, Gregory set out to find a way back to the Albert River and the east coast settlements. The Tom Tough under Mr Baines set sail for Coepang to resupply and then head for the mouth of the Albert to meet him.
Gregory and his companions set out on June 21st. For the next sixty days ‘… water was scarce, ravines were numerous, plants and snakes were poisonous, and Gregory’s main concern was for his thirty four horses.’ They found no gold nor any trace of it.
Gregory explored the region of the Victoria River with great thoroughness, and made the crossing from the Victoria River to the Gulf of Carpentaria with unexpected speed.
A little downstream from the two creeks that jointly formed the Albert River and ‘in accordance with arrangements made with Mr Baines, I marked a tree … wrote a note … informing him that we intended leaving other memoranda at the junction of the salt water arm of the river, and then continuing without delay on our route to Moreton Bay.’
Mr Baines chartered another boat in Coepang, the Messenger, but arrived too late at Sweers island and after some time returned to Sydney. An officer sent by the British Government, as they had not heard from Gregory since the departure of the Monarch, chartered the Torch, a paddle steamer, in Sydney and headed for the Albert River. The Torch eventually returned to Sydney without finding Gregory.
Meanwhile Gregory had continued his journey, concluded on his arrival in Brisbane on 5th December 1856. A truly historic expedition for a great explorer.