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Strachan, John (1846–1922)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

John Strachan (1846-1922), shipmaster and explorer, was born in Montrose, Scotland, son of John Strachan, engineer, and his wife Sarah, née Delarne. His family moved to England in 1853; he studied engineering but ran away to sea, served the North in the American civil war, sailed in the India-Japan trade, went whaling in the Arctic, was naval adviser to the feudal Japanese prince of Higo till 1869, and managed guano workings on Baker Island near Hawaii. As mate of the Rita he arrived in Tasmania on 25 April 1872 and established country lodges for the Good Templars society. He married Alice Sarah Henrietta Plummer at Launceston on 3 March 1875, and managed guano workings at Bird Island in the Coral Sea for the Anglo-Australian Guano Co. From there, he visited Torres Strait in the Alice Maude in September.

Strachan settled in Sydney and in 1884 replaced George Morrison as correspondent for the Age in New Guinea. With four companions he entered the Mai Kassa River on 6 May and, after much fighting and the loss of one man, returned to Saibai Island on 3 June. His reports aroused violent criticism, especially of his use of an improvised torpedo. Supported from Sydney he sailed with eighteen men on 17 September in the Herald, followed the Mai Kassa again for 100 miles (161 km) , returned to the coast and explored the Gulf of Papua. Back in Sydney on 20 January 1886 his claim was disallowed for 500,000 acres (202,345 ha) of the area explored. He lost on a cargo to the Kimberley goldfield, traded in the Dutch East Indies, explored round McClure's Gulf in Dutch New Guinea and returned to Cape York on 2 March 1887. He took his claim to England but was described by the Colonial Office as 'excitable and rather ignorant'. His book Explorations and Adventures in New Guinea (1888) was ridiculed by geographers.

Strachan returned to Sydney in 1889. In his Envy he traded for some years round Borneo and the Dutch East Indies. In 1896 he sued the Launceston Daily Telegraph because of a story it had published about his early life and won £2000. Defeated by Billy Hughes in the New South Wales general election of 1898, he is in a chapter of Hughes's Crusts and Crusades (Sydney, 1947) as 'Captain Alistair'. Imprisoned for debt in North Borneo in November 1902 he pleaded in vain for Commonwealth intervention in his pamphlet Capt. John Strachan JP and the British North Borneo Company (Sydney, 1903). He lost to Joseph Cook in the Parramatta election of that year.

Strachan lost a High Court action in 1906 against the Commonwealth for detention of his ship at Daru in Papua, and in 1909 was charged by the Germans with illegal recruiting in New Guinea. He then retired, wrote an anti-German pamphlet and in 1916 presided over an anti-German league. A last political fling for Parramatta in 1917 brought 26 votes. Survived by one son he died of chronic cystitis in Sydney on 30 August 1922, aged 76, and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Rookwood cemetery.

Strachan's long letters appear in many archive repositories. In his forty years in the news he was frequently described as an adventurer but he was no scoundrel.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • A. Wichman, Nova Guinea, vol 2 (Leiden, 1910)
  • Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, 1886-88
  • Scottish Geographical Magazine, 1888
  • W. E. L. H. Crowther, ‘The development of the guano trade from Hobart Town in the fifties and sixties’, Royal Society of Tasmania, Proceedings, 1938
  • Argus (Melbourne), 18 June 1884, 19 June 1885
  • Queenslander, 16 Apr 1891
  • Examiner (Launceston), 10-12 Sept 1896
  • Brisbane Courier, 11-31 May 1909
  • ‘Adventures in Australian seas’, Lone Hand, Feb 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8, 15 Jan 1916
  • Griffith papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • H. Poett diary (National Library of Australia)
  • CO 422/4/18, 39, 232, 7/645.

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Strachan, John (1846–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/strachan-john-4650/text7679, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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