MITCHELL, Sir Thomas Livingstone (1792-1855)


MITCHELL, Sir Thomas Livingstone (1792-1855)
explorer
son of John Mitchell of Craigend, Stirlingshire, Scotland, and his wife, originally a Miss Milne, was born on 15 June 1792. At 16 he entered the army as a volunteer, and three years later obtained a commission in the 95th regiment. He was on the staff of the quartermaster-general and studied surveying. He was present at the battles of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Pyrenees and St Sebastion, and became a lieutenant in 1813, captain in 1822, and major in 1826. In February 1827 he was appointed deputy surveyor-general of New South Wales under Oxley (q.v.), at a salary of £500 a year and quarters. In March 1828 he was put in charge of the department as the state of Oxley's health prevented him from carrying out his duties. Oxley died on 26 May and Mitchell immediately became surveyor-general, he had been given the reversion of the position. Governor Darling in a dispatch dated 1 February 1829 said he "could not say too much in favour of Major Mitchell's zeal and qualifications and that his salary had been fixed at £1000 a year including house rent and all other allowances". Two years later, however, Mitchell quarrelled with Darling, who stated in a dispatch dated 28 March 1831, that he considered it was "impossible to carry on the service with any prospect of advantage or hope of success, should Major Mitchell be continued in the situation of surveyor-general", and that Mitchell "had been guilty of repeated acts of disobedience of orders, or disrespectful conduct both to the governor and to the council". This brought a strong censure on Mitchell in a dispatch from Viscount Goderich to Darling's successor Governor Bourke (q.v.).
In the meantime Mitchell had carried out his first piece of exploration. An escaped convict had told a somewhat fantastic tale of a large river in the interior flowing towards the north-west, and Mitchell led an expedition to investigate it. Leaving Sydney on 24 November 1831 he reached and crossed the Namoi on 16 December and reconnoitred the Nundamar Range. He decided to work round the end of it and then followed the Gwydir for about 80 miles. He then went north and came to a large river which turned out to be the upper flow of the Darling. At this point his assistant surveyor, Finch, who had been bringing up supplies, arrived with a story of disaster, the camp had been raided by natives and two of the teamsters murdered. Mitchell was obliged to give up his intention of penetrating farther into the country and returned to Sydney. His next journey had the object of confirming the fact that the Darling flowed into the Murray. He left in March 1835 and first made his way to the head of the Bogan River, and towards the end of April had to spend nearly a fortnight looking for R. Cunningham the botanist, a brother of Allan Cunningham (q.v.), who had wandered from the party and lost his way. He was at first well cared for by the aborigines, but becoming ill and delirious was murdered by them. On 25 May Mitchell reached the Darling. He came to the present site of Bourke early in June, and by 11 July had followed the river for about 300 miles. He had trouble with the aborigines, and on this day was obliged to fire on them; at least three natives were wounded or killed. Mitchell decided to retrace his steps as he felt confident that Sturt had been right in his contention that the Darling flowed into the Murray. Bourke was reached on 10 August, and by the middle of September, Buree. Mitchell hastened to Bathurst ahead of his party as some of his men were extremely ill with scurvy. He was able to send a cart back for them, with fresh horses, and after a stay of three weeks in Bathurst the men recovered.
Bourke was anxious that the course of the Darling should be definitely settled, and in March 1836 Mitchell, with G. C. Stapylton as second in command, and a party of 23 men, began a fresh expedition. His experiences with aborigines on his previous journey suggested that it would be wise to go in force. It was a dry season, he had been informed at Bathurst that the Lachlan was dried up, and his chief anxiety was how water was to be found. When the Lachlan was reached it was found to be merely a collection of waterholes. On 30 March he discovered the marked tree near which Oxley (q.v.) in 1817 made his turn to the south-east. On 12 May the Murrumbidgee was reached and found to be flowing with considerable rapidity, and the contrast with the state of the Lachlan made Mitchell at first think he must have reached the Murray; but some friendly aborigines were able to make him understand that it joined a larger river farther on. Following the course of the Murrumbidgee the Murray was reached on 23 May. and a week later it was found on taking a north-west course from the Murray that they were approaching the Darling, which was followed upstream until 2 June. Next day, turning down stream, the junction with the Murray was discovered. The party retraced its steps along the Murray until 14 June, when the river was crossed, and the left bank was followed until 27 June. Two days later a south-westerly course was taken across Victoria until the Glenelg was reached and followed to its mouth on the south coast. Turning to the east Mitchell came to the residence of the Hentys (q.v.), near Portland Bay, on 29 August. He hoped to get fresh supplies, but only a small amount of flour could be spared, in addition to as many vegetables as the men could carry on their horses. The journey was resumed in a north-easterly direction, the route passing through the sites of Castlemaine and Benalla, until the Murray was crossed near Corowa on 19 October, and generally keeping in the same direction Sydney was reached in the beginning of November 1836. Mitchell was enthusiastic about the country through which he had passed in the Port Phillip district. Much of it was well grassed and well watered and worthy of the name Mitchell gave to it "Australia Felix". In 1837 Mitchell went to England and published an account of his explorations in two volumes in 1838, under the title, Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia. A second edition was published in 1839. Mitchell was knighted while in England and made a D.C.L. of Oxford. He returned to Sydney in 1840 and in 1842 received £1061 6s. 4d. as a gratuity for his services as an explorer. In 1844 he was elected to the legislative council as one of the members for Port Phillip, and soon was in trouble with Governor Gipps (q.v.), who held that though "the Member for Port Phillip may act as he pleases . . . the surveyor-general of New South Wales must both obey, and support the government".
Mitchell started on his last expedition on 15 December 1845 from Buree with a large number of men, including E. B. Kennedy (q.v.) as second in command, 80 bullocks, 17 horses, and 250 sheep, the last to be used as food. He hoped to find a practicable route to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and also that he might find a river flowing in that direction. He did discover the Barcoo River, which he named the Victoria, on 1 October and considered the discovery to be of great importance. Later explorers found that this river was the headwaters of Cooper's Creek, but Mitchell was able to report the discovery of much land of pastoral value when the expedition returned to Sydney in January 1847. Mitchell immediately obtained 12 months leave of absence and saw through the press the account of his journey, Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia, which appeared in 1848. Returning to Sydney he reported on the Bathurst goldfields, and published a school-book, The Australian Geography, in 1851. In 1853 he again visited England where he patented his boomerang propeller for steamships, which aroused a good deal of interest. in 1854 he published a translation in verse of the Lusiad of Camoens, and he died at Sydney on 5 October 1855. He married in 1818 Mary Thomson, daughter of General Blunt, who survived him. A son, Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, was the author of an anonymous satire in verse, To Bourke's Statue, published in Sydney in 1855, not long before his father's death. To divert suspicion he was as severe on his father as on anyone else, but he afterwards regretted the publication and endeavoured to suppress it.
Mitchell was a somewhat difficult man to work with, one who knew him well spoke of "his aspect dire and haughty gait". His encounter with Governor Darling has been mentioned, but Governor Bourke in 1834 also found cause of complaint, and afterwards when writing to Under-secretary Hay in February 1836 said, "The Surveyor-general is a difficult man to manage. . . . I do my best to keep him and others in good humour, yet within decent bounds". Mitchell was a good army officer and was advanced to the rank of colonel in 1854. In his early days in Australia he was an energetic official, but between 1836 and 1855 he spent about one-third of his time in England on leave. He nevertheless was responsible for an enormous amount of first-rate surveying and road making, and his discovery and employment of David Lennox (q.v.), who built the first bridges worthy of the name in the colony, was of great value. It was unfortunate that a commission appointed in July 1855 to inquire into the workings of his department, gave Mitchell much worry by drawing attention to alleged defects in its organization and procedure, which possibly lowered his powers of resistance in his last illness. For, whatever defects of manner he may have had, Mitchell was a great man, who had given his colony remarkable service as surveyor-general in a period of expansion and progress. His exploratory work was excellent and added much to the knowledge of Australia. He was a fine draughtsman, his plans and models of battles in the Peninsula at the United Service Institution, London, are remarkably good, and his illustrations to his travels also have artistic merit. In addition to the works mentioned Mitchell also wrote Ninety Figures, Showing all the motions in the Manual and Platoon Exercises (1825), Outlines of a System of Surveying for Geographical and Military purposes (1827).
The Gentleman's Magazine, March 1856; Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. XIII, XIV, XVI to XVIII, XXI to XXV; C. W. Salier, Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. XVII; E. Favenc, The Explorers of Australia; Mitchell's own books; W. Moore, The Story of Australian Art; E. M. Webb, The Herald, Melbourne, 26 April 1941.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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