Australia

n. A country lying in the South Sea, whose industrial and commercial development has been unspeakably retarded by an unfortunate dispute among geographers as to whether it is a continent or an island.

The Australian Interior

G EOGRAPHERS  have given the name of the “fifth division of the globe” to that immense archipelago, or rather, that mass of archipelagoes which remote geological convulsions have elevated in the Pacific Ocean, between the three continents, Asia, Africa, and America, and whose existence was first revealed to the Western World by the maritime explorations of the Portuguese and the Dutch, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From the epoch when these enterprises commenced, the spherical figure of the earth was established beyond dispute; and after the discovery of America, it became only reasonable to suppose that, in virtue of a law without which our planet could not have maintained its equilibrium in space, there must exist a continent intended to balance those of the Northern Hemisphere. But for many years all the researches of intrepid navigators only led them to the shores of small islands and islets, not a few of which were barren, uninhabited, and swept by the winds of ocean; while others, girdled with palms, enriched with vegetation, and blessed by bland and genial airs, seemed to realize the poetical idea of the Fortunate Islands,

“Summer isles of Eden lying in dark purple spheres of sea.”

At length, however, by directing their investigations towards the less submerged region of the Indian Ocean, and by sailing beyond the great eastern islands which seem to have been formerly connected with the Indian Peninsula, the Portuguese mariners were the first to descry a long line of coast which they did not doubt was that of an  Austral Continent, whose satellites, so to speak, were the previously discovered islands. This supposed continent is still represented in the old maps published at the close of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, by a mass of ill-defined contours, with this indication: Terra Australis incognita. The succeeding voyages of Carpenter, Nuyts, Tasman, and the illustrious Cook, proved that this Austral or Southern Land was in effect a continent, or, at least, an island of extraordinary dimensions, whose coasts alone—and these but a small extent inland—were inhabited by miserable tribes, with black skin, and hideous features, placed at the extreme limit which separates man from the brute. The Dutch navigators, who had first determined the principal outlines of this continent, named it New Holland, but after it passed into the hands of England, it received, as it still preserves, the appellation of Australia.

Take away from this Australian Continent its fertile districts in the south-east, where have sprung up and developed with amazing rapidity the flourishing colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland, and what remains? A country entirely wild, and, one might almost venture to say, an immense Desert. The gloomy aspect and the barrenness of its northern shores, with few exceptions, had repulsed the early Portuguese and Dutch navigators, who little suspected what splendid treasures were hidden among its auriferous sands and rocks. They saw but insufficient rivers and scanty vegetation, and went no further.

None of the rivers of New Holland are navigable to any great distance from their mouths. The want of water is severely felt in the interior, where a treeless desert of sand, swamps, and jungle is intersected by streams called “creeks,” which are dry for the greater portion of the year; yet a belief long prevailed that a large sea or fresh-water lake occupied the centre—a belief founded partly on the nature of the soil, and partly on the circumstance that all the rivers that flow into the sea on the northern coast, between the Gulf of Van Diemen and Carpentaria, converge towards their sources, as if they served for drains to some large body of water.

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AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPE. 
AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPE.

The eastern side of the country is traversed by a great range of thinly timbered down, clothed with grasses and herbage, and rising to an elevation of 3500 feet. These are known as the Blue Mountains, and stretch from north to south over nearly thirty degrees of latitude, from Cape York to Cape Wilson. All their western slopes descend gradually towards the interior, until they are lost in the vast desert plain of the interior.

The streams which flow in this direction either pour their waters into the great rivers, such as the Darling and the Murray, which has an internal navigation of 1800 miles, or lose themselves in the marshes and lakes, which the great summer heats periodically dry up.

Another chain of mountains stretches from south to north along the western coast of Australia, from Point d'Entrecasteaux to Murchison River. A third chain, in the northern region, runs from east to west, between Camden Harbour and the Gulf of Carpentaria. The interior of the country is, as I have already indicated, in all probability an immense plain, thinly sown with trees of the two families of Acaciæ and Eucalypti, and tenanted by the wombat and the kangaroo.

Over this vast portion of Australia, which still remains a blank upon the map, numerous expeditions of discovery have been attempted since the earliest days of European colonization. Hardy pioneers—those men who are the real, but obscure, and speedily forgotten founders of empires—have sacrificed their lives in the endeavour to lay down a track across the great island-continent from north to south. Anglo-Saxon enterprise no sooner found itself securely planted on the sea-coast, than it felt that behind it lay a continent to acquire, and the indomitable instinct of the race bade it continue its mission of colonization. During the last quarter of a century, the colonial governments have liberally encouraged these explorations, and the annals of Australian discovery have been illuminated by the names of Eyre (1840), Sturt (1845), Leichardt (1846-48), Kennedy (1848), and M'Douall Stuart (1858-62), second to none among our English discoverers in patience, resolution, and heroic daring.

The problem remained: to cross the central wilderness of Australia, and prove the possibility of a passage from the southern shores to the northern, from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. This problem was finally solved, at no light cost, by the intrepid Burke and energetic Wills.

On the 20th of April 1860, there set out from Melbourne, under the auspices of the Government of Victoria, a small troop of gallant explorers, under the immediate direction of Robert O'Hara Burke, a man well-fitted for his post: born in the county of Galway in 1821, after having served as captain in a Hungarian regiment, he had discharged for several years the duties of inspector of a body of the colonial police.

The second in command was a brave young Englishman, William John Wills, twenty-six years of age, an assistant in the Observatory at Melbourne.

The expedition consisted of eighteen persons, and was provided with horses, camels which had been expressly imported from Arabia, waggons, all kinds of scientific instruments, and the necessary amount of stores and provisions for a protracted journey.

Cooper's Creek, which marked about a third of the whole distance, was fixed upon as place of rendezvous and as the final starting-point. Thither, to save time, Burke and Wills, with six men, six camels, five horses, and some months' provisions, proceeded in advance of the main body; and arriving there on the 13th of December, Burke established a depôt, left it in charge of Brahé, a petty officer, and three assistants, and with Wills, a couple of men (King and Gray), the camels, and one horse, plunged on the 16th into the trackless Australian wilds.[98]

Keeping nearly due north, and near or upon the meridian of 140° E., they traversed, day after day, well-watered plains, with numerous clumps of wood, and tolerable indications of a good grazing country. On the 12th of February 1861, the four travellers had conquered every obstacle, and struck the marshes on the Albert  River, which flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Their goal was reached, and the problem of a connecting route between north and south successfully solved.

The vast Australian solitudes hitherto traversed had presented every variety of aspect, from the stony plateaux and the watery sands where the rivers can keep no regular channel, and where wide spaces of dry bare ground separate great shallows of brackish water, to finely irrigated plains, clothed with herbs or bushes, and promising abundant resources for future colonists. Meteorological phenomena present in these regions the greatest uncertainties: either the dry season is so protracted as to ruin all vegetation, or the rains so thoroughly deluge the soil as by a contrary cause to ensure the same result. These climatic contradictions explain the variations observable in the narratives of the different travellers who have visited the interior. One point, however, is beyond all doubt; the hopeless sterility of Nuyts Land,—that immense sandy tract which, over an extent as yet unknown, is regarded as impassable, and stretches along the southern coast between Spencer Gulf and King George Harbour. As before said, the primary cause of the barrenness of Central Australia is the lack of water—running water and rain water. Yet the most sterile portions lie far nearer the coast than was formerly credited; and monotonous as may be the descriptions of explorers, so far as the landscapes of Central Australia are concerned, we may from to-day consider that, with the exception of certain points, no obstacles exist sufficiently powerful to arrest the expansion of European colonization, in a country especially where cattle-breeding is the principal industry, and the one which takes precedence of all others.

The chief difficulty encountered by each exploring party has been the penury of natural products of the soil adapted for human food. The traveller is compelled to carry with him a sufficiency of provisions to last him from his departure until his return. It was this insufficiency of rations which wrought the fatal dénouement of the glorious enterprise of Burke and Wills.

After reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria, there remained nothing more for Burke and his three companions but to retrace their steps to their depôt at Cooper's Creek. But their energies were exhausted, and from the beginning of April their provisions failed them. At the close of ten or twelve days' march, they were constrained to kill a horse. In the following week, Gray succumbed to the excessive fatigue. The three survivors dragged themselves on to the depôt, where they arrived on the morning of the 21st of April. But the men whom they had left in charge had taken their departure that very morning, after waiting long beyond the time originally fixed for their return.

“You may imagine our consternation,” says Wills in his Journal, under the date of April 21st; “four months of harassing marches and privations of every kind had completely exhausted our strength. It was an extremely difficult task for either of us to accomplish a distance of only a few yards. The effort necessary to ascend the smallest elevation of the ground, even without a burden, induces an indescribable sensation of pain and helplessness, and the general lassitude makes one unfit for anything.”

There was no resource now but to rejoin Brahé and his men, if possible. Before quitting the depôt, the latter had left a small supply of provisions, which proved eminently serviceable. On the 23rd Burke, Wills, and King resumed their march, at the rate of four or five miles a-day, in the direction of Mount Despair, which was about sixty miles distant, and where were placed the most advanced posts, northward, of South Australia. A terrible fatality, however, seemed to pursue them; one of their camels, Landa, perished in a bog; the other, Rajah, they were soon forced to kill for food; then they themselves were compelled by sheer exhaustion to return to the depôt, which, meanwhile, had been revisited by Brahé without his discovering a trace of their brief sojourn. Thus abandoned to perish in the Desert, they existed upon the bounty of such natives as they met with, and who occasionally supplied them with a few fish and a little nardoo, an aquatic plant whose pounded seeds the aborigines make  into bread. Such a regimen was insufficient to restore their exhausted strength.

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Burke, Wills, and King in the Deserts of Central
Australia. 
Burke, Wills, and King in the Deserts of Central Australia.

Early in June their afflictions were aggravated by a deplorable catastrophe. The flames of their bivouac fire, driven by a strong wind, reduced to ashes their hut and all that they possessed. There was nothing for them now but to live with the friendly natives who had succoured them. Unfortunately, they had disappeared. It was in vain they attempted to seek them out; Burke and Wills never saw them again.

On Saturday the 29th of June, the latter, utterly exhausted, insisted that his companions should leave him in the wilderness, while they continued their search after the natives. Unwillingly they consented, and taking a solemn farewell of their unfortunate comrade, they dragged themselves away with aching hearts. Four or five days afterwards, King returned with some birds he had contrived to kill, but found Wills asleep in the arms of death. King was now alone, for the intrepid Burke had also fallen a victim to the cruel spirit of the wilderness, resting on the barren ground, with his face upturned to the southern stars. The sole survivor was fortunate enough to fall in with the natives, who welcomed him cordially, and carried him with them from camp to camp. After two months and a half of this strange existence, he was discovered by a relief party sent out from Melbourne, under the command of Mr. Howitt (September 15, 1861), who also gathered the remains of the two gallant but ill-fated leaders, and reverently consigned them to a decent grave.

They had not died in vain. From the shores of Port Philip to those of the Gulf of Carpentaria they had discovered and marked out a practicable route; and when the great Australian colonies shall have pushed forward into the interior, and have occupied the borders of the northern gulf, they will remember with gratitude the brave explorers who sacrificed their lives to effect the passage from one sea to the other.


[98] Journal of W. J. Wills, in locis .

The Flora of the Australian Plains

T HE  Deserts of the Australian interior have been laboriously traversed, not, as we have seen, without much suffering, and even sacrifice, by a handful of intrepid travellers, who have proposed to themselves simply the solution of certain geographical problems. It will therefore be understood that we owe to them only a few incidental notices of their botanical features. For an accurate examination of these the pioneers of commerce have neither the means, the opportunities, nor the requisite scientific knowledge. As far as its flora is concerned, the Australian interior is wholly “virgin soil,” a new botanical world, perhaps, awaiting the advent of a Columbus. Only the littoral districts have been satisfactorily explored; and here, in the south, we meet with the names of Labillardière, Robert Brown, Gaudichaud, D'Urville, Sieber, Lesson, Cunningham, and other eminent botanists. To these celebrated names we must also add those of Dr. Mueller, Director of the Botanical Gardens at Melbourne, Sir William Hooker, and Mr. Bentham. Their united labours have provided the public with a vast amount of curious and authentic information, and have established the fact that the botany of New Holland, like its zoology, has a physiognomy peculiarly its own, and that many, nay, most of its vegetable species, are not less characteristic than its strange and astonishing animal types. One is almost tempted to adopt in sober earnest what Sydney Smith said in humorous exaggeration, that, “in this remote part of the earth, Nature (having made horses, oxen, ducks, geese, oaks, elms, and all regular and useful productions for the rest of the world) seems determined to have a bit of play, and to amuse herself as she pleases.”[117] Undoubtedly she has indulged in the most wayward and eccentric forms. If there exist any relations between the vegetation of Australia and that of any other part of the globe, it is certainly with the districts of Southern Africa which lie near the Cape of Good Hope that Australia exhibits the greatest affinity. It would seem as if these two continents in some remote age had not been separated, as they now are, by “leagues of salt water,” but that their vegetable species had been able to propagate themselves freely from the one to the other.

According to Richard, the approximative number of species distinguished by botanists amounts to about five thousand; but so many  discoveries have been made of later years, that we may raise the estimate to seven thousand. While the Australian plants are distributed among numerous families, each of the latter comprises but a very limited number of individuals. The predominant plants belong, in the main, to these families or orders:—Leguminosæ, Compositæ, Myrtaceæ, Gramineæ, Cyperaceæ, Filices, Proteaceæ, Epacridæ, Orchidaceæ, in a proportion which varies, moreover, according to the various districts explored.

The fertility of the soil, and the climatic conditions of the southern shores of the Australian continent, are highly favourable to the introduction of new species. Our English settlers have availed themselves to the utmost of this circumstance, and have cultivated on a large scale all the most useful fruit trees and vegetables of Europe, and others imported from tropical climes; so that mingled in the same prolific gardens may be seen the fig-tree and the banana, the guava, the orange-tree, the olive, and the apple—cabbages, potatoes, turnips, peas. Even the vine has been successfully naturalized, and its manufactured products are not inferior in excellence to the famous Rhenish wines.

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Vegetable Life in Victoria.

1. Rosea gracilis (Arundo conspicua).   3. Hectia Pitcairniæfolia.
2. Astelia Banksii.                            4. Xanthorrhœa arborea. 
Vegetable Life in Victoria. 
1. Rosea gracilis (Arundo conspicua ).   3. Hectia Pitcairniæfolia.
2. Astelia Banksii.   4. Xanthorrhœa arborea.

In indicating the most curious indigenous plants of New Holland, we shall more particularly confine ourselves to those of Victoria, one of the best known districts, and perhaps also one of the most extensive, most diversified, and most picturesque. The plains are, in general, sufficiently grassy and fertile, especially in those parts which border on the brooks and rivers. The plants most extensively distributed belong to the Gramineæ and Cyperaceæ; we find, among the former, the Pennisetum fasciculare, a great number of Poaceæ, and the Arundo conspicua ; in foliage and general appearance the latter presents some striking analogies with the Pampas Grass; among the Poaceæ predominates the Cyperus vaginatus, a common object on the banks of the river Murray in those parts which are subject to frequent inundations. A strong tenacious netting is made from the fibres of its leaves. To these herbs we have to add some flowering plants, such as the star-like Lobelias ; numerous species of  mint (as Mentha AustralisM. satureioidesM. grandiflora, and M. gracilis ), from which an essential oil is extracted for use in the manufacture of perfumes; the Sida pulchella  and Lavatera plebeia, of which stout fibre or solid thread is made, the fibres of Australian flax (Linum marginale ) being adapted to the same purpose. The Restias, a curious rush-like order of endogens, also inhabit these moist places: as do the Kingias, very common grasses; the Astelia Banksii, a species of Liliaceæ, with grass-formed leaves and a strong tenacious stem; and the Xerotes longifolia. The Nardoo (Narsilia macropus, or, as it is sometimes called, N. salvatrix ), whose spores and spore-cases are pounded by the native Australians and made into  bread or porridge, is a kind of cryptogamous plant, with leaves formed of four folioles, like those of a truffle. It abounds in the low grounds and inundated districts, especially on the banks of the Murray. Finally, the Stag-horn (Acrostichon grande ), a gigantic mushroom, clings to the branches of the great trees.

Small bushy clumps are scattered over the plains, and flourish with peculiar vigour along the water-courses. They consist of various shrubs. The traveller will not fail to notice a whole series of Leguminosæ—ChlorozomaPultenæaViminariaMirbelia,Podolobium  (all are shrubs of exceeding elegance, and now form the rare ornaments of our English gardens); of Epacridæ—Epacris stipheliaE. leucophogon, and others, which have also been imported into our home-parterres; a great number of Euribias, a genus of subfrutescent Compositæ, of which a few are rendered interesting by their heathlike foliage; the Pimelea axiflora, whose supple and tenacious bark is fashioned into bands and straps; the Myrsine variabilis, with its woody stems and drupaceous fruit; the Aralia crassifolia, a singular shrub, with long, narrow, and very rigid leaves; the Callistemon salignum  (vulgarly called “stonewood”), employed for xylographic purposes; the Casuarina equisetifolia,[118] or “Swamp Oak”—also called “Cassowary Tree”—a lofty tree, with very durable wood, long, slender, drooping, emerald-green branches, and conical fruit, inclosing small winged nuts; various species of Melaleuca, yielding the green aromatic oil called cajaputi or cajeput oil, valuable as a stimulant or antispasmodic; finally, some Cordylines, or 'Tis, plants of the natural order Liliaceæ, and nearly allied to the Dragon's Blood Tree, attaining a height of ten to fifteen feet, with a berry-like fruit, and lanceolate leaves of a reddish hue, which afford a nutriment for cattle, thatch for houses, and whose fibres are frequently made into cloth. The root, when baked, is much used as an article of food, and the fermented juice yields an intoxicating beverage.

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Vegetable Life on the Australian Plains.

1. Doryanthes excelsa.
2. Aralia crassifolia.
3. Dryandra repens.
4. Cordyline congesta. 
Vegetable Life on the Australian Plains. 
1. Doryanthes excelsa.    
2. Aralia crassifolia.
3. Dryandra repens.
4. Cordyline congesta.

The dry, rocky, arid, and sandy districts, which may be compared to the Landes of Brittany, are clothed with a peculiar vegetation. The strangest plant, which is also the most widely distributed, is undoubtedly the Xanthorrhœa arborea,[119] forming a conspicuous feature in the dreary landscape, and when stripped of its leaves resembling a black man holding a spear. The leaves afford good fodder for cattle, while the natives eat the soft white centre of the top of the stem. They yield two kinds of fragrant resin—one of a yellow colour, balsamic and inodorous, called Botany Bay; and the other red, called Black Boy Gum. The tree—which the settlers have christened “Black Boy” and “Grass Gum”—has a thick trunk, encrusted in a thick coating of the persistent basis of old leaves, glued together by the yellow or red resin with which the plant abounds, and usually burned and blackened outside by bush-fires. The leaves are long, wiry, and grass-like, and are borne in a dense tuft at the top of the stem, hanging gracefully all around it. Their long flower-stalks aspire from its centre, sometimes growing as high as fifteen or twenty feet, and carrying aloft a thick cylindrical flower spike.

Among the lowlier plants are found a few Hectias, such as the Hectia Pitcairniæfolia, one of the Bromelias, very curious from its mode of vegetation; and the Stipa crinita, a very common grass. The leaves of the latter have been manufactured into paper of tolerable consistency.

The sandy and colder tracts are the habitat of the annual or perennial Compositæ, distinguished by their smooth and shining flowers. On the other hand, the dry rocky surfaces are besprinkled with inconsiderable woods, or rather thickets, formed in part of the Santalum acuminatum, whose nutritious fruit are called “peaches” by the colonists; the Santalum persicarium, or sandal wood; several Nitrarias,[120] with edible fruits; a great number of Acacias, notably the Acacia verticillataA. sophora, and A. doratoxylon, whose very hard wood is employed in the fabrication of javelins; a considerable series of Proteaceæ, particularly the Banksia AustralisB. serrata, and B. integrifolia, so characteristic in aspect and foliage; and a few Eucalypti,[121] or “Gum Trees,” of small stature—among others, the “Traveller's Tree,” or Eucalyptus oleosa.[122] Its roots extend horizontally, and retain a quantity of water sufficient to quench the wayfarer's thirst in the hour of need. All the Eucalypti are curious trees, with entire and leathery leaves, affording an unusual amount of aromatic oil. Many of the species abound in resinous secretions; some attain a great size, with trunks of from 8 to 16 feet in diameter, and 150 or 160 in length. The Eucalyptus resinifera —“Red Gum” or “Iron Bark Tree”—reaches to an elevation of  150 to 200 feet. When wounded, a red juice flows from it very freely, hardening into irregular, inodorous, and transparent masses in the air, and furnishing as much as sixty gallons from a single tree.

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Vegetable Life on the Australian Plains.
1. Acacia verticillata.
2. Casuarina equisetifolia, or Black Boy Tree.
3. Corypha Australis, or Australian Palm. 
Vegetable Life on the Australian Plains. 
1. Acacia verticillata.   2. Casuarina equisetifolia, or “Black Boy Tree.”
3. Corypha Australis, or “Australian Palm.”

Finally, I may refer to the Dryandra, whose foliage is very graceful, and its conformation very varied. Sometimes it is found as a bush, three to seven feet high; and sometimes, as in the Dryandra repens, creeping along the ground.

On the more temperate heights the traveller encounters some plants of a fantastic character: as, for instance, the Doryanthes excelsa, with its upright gigantic leaves, more than 6 feet long, and from 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches broad; from their centre rises a strong stalk, 15 or 18 feet high, terminated by a compact and voluminous cluster of great deep-red flowers. There, too, are found the magnificent arborescent ferns, Alsophila Australis  and Dicksonia Antarctica. The trunk of the former aspires to a stature of 25 to 90 feet; that of the second, to 12 to 28 feet; and in both the stems are terminated by a cluster of immense flowers, which give to these plants a quite distinctive character.

Nor must we quit the Australian Flora and its marvels without alluding to the Corypha Australis, which begins to make its appearance at the mouth of the Snowy River. It is a gigantic palm, growing solitarily, or in thin groups, in low, cool, and even moist places. Its trunk probably attains to 140 feet in height; and the top of its stem is crowned by a gorgeous crest of fan-shaped leaves, which are employed in the manufacture of straw hats.


[117] Sydney Smith, in Edinburgh Review, for 1819.

[118] Order, Amentaceæ.

[119] Order, Liliaceæ.

[120] Order, Malpighiaceæ.

[121] Order, Myrtaceæ.

[122] The same name, “Traveller's Tree,” is applied to the Urania speciosa.