Monday, 15 May 2017

Book Review - Kennedy of Cape York by Edgar Beale

Kennedy of Cape York by Edgar Beale

Adelaide: Rigby, 1977

The story of the exploration of Australia by its white settlers is a truly fascinating one. There are tales of heroism, foolishness, endurance, luck (both good and bad) and first contact with Indigenous Australia, with all the wonder, pain and misunderstanding that followed.

The explorers themselves were a mixed bunch: seekers of fame and fortune, scientists, servants of Queen and Country, land-seekers and adventurers. Edmund Kennedy falls between the stools of servant of the Empire and adventurer. Coming to Australia with a qualification in Surveying, he was soon engaged in Thomas Mitchell's surveying department through the help of a family friend.

He was initially sent to Portland with another family friend James Tyers to conduct survey work in Victoria's South-West, following on from Mitchell's exploration efforts there. While he completed the survey work to a satisfactory standard, he did get himself in trouble by getting a young girl pregnant. They didn't marry (his daughter died at five years of age), and Kennedy found himself recalled to Sydney, if not in disgrace, at least with a cloud over his head. Fortunately for him Mitchell was impressed enough with him to take him on his expedition to try and force a way through from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1845/6.

He acquitted himself well on this expedition, in which Mitchell was sure that he had found a river that would lead to the Gulf, although his party was too low on provisions to follow-up his find. When Mitchell left for England, Kennedy was chosen to lead the party to return to the area to keep exploring.

Kennedy's first expedition as a leader showed him to be determined, conscientious, and brave. The fact that all the members of his this expedition were prepared to accompany him on the Cape York party shows that he must have been a good leader of men. This first foray however was to follow up Mitchell's discovery of the Victoria River, which, in Mitchell's dogmatic fashion, he had described as flowing to the Gulf. Kennedy was however to prove conclusively that the river in fact headed West and became part of the Cooper Creek system, dashing hopes of a watered route from Sydney to the Gulf.

Kennedy's aim to leave the river and dash to the Gulf was foiled when it was found that the caches of food they had left behind on their journey had been raided by Aboriginals. Kennedy always tried initially to be on friendly terms with the Native inhabitants of the land that he crossed, but relations were often fraught, as his party often consumed the water and dispersed the game the tribes relied upon.

His return to Sydney was a trial of survival, as the party nearly died from thirst in their traverse from the Warrego to the Culgoa River, and it was Kennedy's perseverance and intelligence that pulled them through. While the expedition was a failure in its primary goal, the information that Kennedy brought back was valuable in piecing together  the puzzle of the catchments of Outback Australia.

A mere twelve weeks after returning from this expedition, he was off on what was to be his last journey, which was a massive undertaking to explore both the East and West coast of the Cape York Peninsula, and then travel down to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and from there attempt the journey to Sydney from the North. He was sailed to his starting-point in Rockingham Bay, and was to meet up with the ships to re-supply at the tip of the Cape before heading South again.

The expedition became a disaster almost from the outset. The supposed traversible country - which had only been seen from shipboard - turned out to be a maze of mangroves, swamps, rivers and mountains which were hard enough to walk on foot, let alone with wagons, a flock of sheep and horses. Kennedy spent valuable weeks finding a way to get off the coast and over the Divide, all the while using up his food and energy.

He was forced to dump the wagons, and soon he had to divide the party owing to the inability of some to continue. He was then forced to divide his smaller party once again owing to accident. It remained for Kennedy and his native guide Jackey Jackey to try and reach the Cape, find the ship waiting for them and return to rescue those left behind.

The two got caught in the difficult country around the Escape River, and it was here that they were attacked by the local tribe who had a reputation for fierceness, and Kennedy was fatally speared. The fact we now know anything about this is due to the bravery and loyalty of Jackey Jackey, who made it to the rendezvous with the Ariel and led the ship to pick up the only two survivors of the remains of the expedition.

Beale has a great deal of sympathy for Kennedy, and has gone to a lot of work to reconstruct his exploits, particularly in putting together the final days of the ill-fated Cape York expedition. Beale agrees that Kennedy's work does not put him in the front rank of Australian explorers but points out that had his final expedition been successful he would have been mentioned in the same breath as Stuart, Mitchell or Sturt.

Beale has much to say about the poor survey work done by the Marine Surveyors in conveying what the country was like on the Cape York Peninsula, but surely some of the responsibility must fall to Kennedy, who after all could have made his own decisions. However, it seems from this book that Kennedy was not one to change or disobey instructions given to him by his superiors: it was that trait that Mitchell, with his towering ego, liked in Kennedy and a trait which may have led to his ultimate doom.

As Beale notes at the end of the work, while Kennedy's death was a sensation when it happened, he faded into obscurity relatively rapidly, owing to the Gold Rush and other exploration exploits looming larger in the memory of the budding nation.

As an introduction to Kennedy and his achievements, I doubt there is any other book that would do a better job than this one.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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