H M Brig Beagle (the famous ship which had previously carried Darwin on his remarkable voyage) dropped anchor in Investigator Road off Sweers Island on July 7, 1841. The word ‘Road’ used in this context means a sheltered piece of water near the shore, where vessels may moor in safety. The Beagle was commanded by John Lort Stokes.
Between the 2nd and 6th of August, this young naval officer in one brief boat journey made another mark on Australia – he named a river, invented an advertising slogan which had an immense impact, set the scene for Burketown and as an hydrographer of note stirred the imagination of more people that he would have thought possible with his talent for ornate prose and real estate promotion.
Stokes is the first historic link between Sweers Island and what was to become Burketown, a link which has persisted until the present day.
The search for fresh water took Stokes and one of the boats from the Beagle into the mouth of a river he called the Albert. The next day he entered a branch and was delighted to find his fresh water. (Beames Brook had to wait for Leichhardt to give it a colonial name.)
Stokes was impressed: ‘... Of the importance of our discovery there could now no longer be any doubt. Onwards we hurried, the influences of the tide being rarely felt and the river preserving its S.W. 1/2S direction, with a width of 200 yards (183m) and a depth of 3 fathoms and a half (6.405m). At the end of three miles, no change was perceptible ...’
Stokes took the boat fifty miles before fallen limbs, lack of provisions and other difficulties made him give up and settle for a walk through the wilderness.
‘... Following up a short woody valley, and reaching the summit of the level … a vast, boundless plain lay before us, here and there dotted with woodland isles … The river could be traced to the southwards by a waving green line of trees … All was lonely and still, and yet even in these deserted plains, equally wanting in the redundance of animal as in the luxuriance of vegetable life I could discover the rudiments of future prosperity and ample justification of the name which I had bestowed upon them “The Plains of Promise”.
Stokes was then at South Lat. l7° 58.5′, East Long. 129° 25′.
Echoing Stokes, though without any knowledge of his boundless enthusiasm, Leichhardt reported on his return from Port Essington in 1845 on the potential ‘… of this fine country …’ if a suitable port could be found to allow ships to moor safely and open it up to trade.
The prospects of wealth and international commerce were very enticing to men like Captain Towns and his associates and others, fresh from failure on the goldfields, who were hopeful of making their fortunes. For the ne’er do wells, it was a frontier where they were free of the usual restraints of a more ordered society.
Australia Illustrated, published in London in 1873 said ‘… Nor is it to the west alone that the riches of the land are confined … as soon as rivers flowing to the Gulf are crossed; other broader, longer and still richer plains are entered upon. Away over to the Flinders vast plains extend … and … away beyond this undeveloped land lie the Plains of Promise … ‘
Burketown and the Plains of Promise were the subject of many promises, most of them not based precisely on fact. Property promoters of time were never at a loss for words, particularly those in Melbourne.
‘… At the Albert River there is … a boundless extent of the most fertile country in this continent ready for the plough..’
Only 300 men putting up eighty pounds each would buy, so they said, ship, provisions for a year, sheep, cattle, builders supplies and farm implements in Prince Albert Land.
The lucky buyers also got, freehold of course, 310 acres of farm land and a half acre block in Burke City.
Miners, gold miners particularly, were to get tools and cartage FREE. After all, the kind man said, there was gold in NSW and gold in Borneo, so it obviously ran underneath, between those points.
This offer was available in 1852. The land was unsurveyed, unseen by the promoter, and indeed unseen by any colonial other than Stokes, Leichhardt, Gregory and Burke and Wills.
The land had not been purchased. It was probably unavailable for purchase – but these were the Plains of Promise.