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» John McDouall Stuart (1815-66)

John McDouall Stuart (1815-66)

Royal
John McDouall Stuart
Illustrated Australian Mail, 25 August 1862

Stuart was Burke's great rival in the quest to cross the continent from south to north. A surveyor by profession and an experienced explorer, he was also considerably better qualified for the task. In March 1860, while the Victorian Exploring Expedition was still in preparation, Stuart set out on his first attempt to cross the continent, and travelled deep into the north before being forced to turn back by short supplies and hostile Aborigines. He returned to Adelaide in October, and in marked contrast to proceedings in Melbourne, had organised and set out on his next expedition within a month.

When news of Stuart's promising first attempt reached Melbourne in October 1860, Burke was at Menindie, and the Exploration Committee actually debated whether to pass this information on him. Several Committee members were in favour of keeping him in the dark. Did they fear - correctly as it turned out - that Burke would do something rash, stung by the closeness of his rival?

Stuart was still making a steady progress north when, on or about 9 February 1861, Burke and Wills tasted salt water in a mangrove swamp, the closest they got to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Burke had won his race. Stuart remained unaware of this, and it would probably have made no difference to him had he known - he was, unlike Burke, a professional explorer. His progress on this journey was blocked by impenetrable scrub and he was forced to return to Adelaide.

Despite having been in the outback for nearly a year, Stuart set out on his third attempt to cross Australia in October 1861, after barely a month's rest and preparation. He was completely successful and returned to a procession and banquet in his honour in Adelaide, on 21 January 1863 - the day Burke and Wills' bones were being buried in Melbourne.