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Edward John Eyre (1815–1901)

by Geoffrey Dutton

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Edward John Eyre (1815-1901), by unknown photographer, c1860

Edward John Eyre (1815-1901), by unknown photographer, c1860

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6693

Edward John Eyre (1815-1901), explorer and governor, was born on 5 August 1815 at Whipsnade, Bedfordshire, England, third son of Anthony William Eyre, vicar of Hornsea and Long Riston, and his wife Sarah, née Mapleton. He was educated at schools near Rotherham and Grantham, at Louth, and at Sedbergh. He had intended to enter the army, but at 17, at his father's suggestion, he used the purchase money to emigrate to Australia.

In the Ellen he arrived in Sydney on 20 March 1833. Finding no prospects in Sydney, he moved to the Hunter River district where, through the good offices of Colonel Henry Dumaresq, arrangements were made for Eyre to live with William Bell at Cheshunt Park to gain colonial experience in sheep and cattle management, and in July he bought a flock of 400 sheep.

In 1834 he took up 1260 acres (510 ha) at Molonglo Plains, near Queanbeyan; in 1835, in partnership with Robert Campbell, he overlanded 3000 sheep from Liverpool Plains to Molonglo. After difficulties with diseased sheep Eyre arranged to dispose of his Molonglo property, Woodlands, and in January 1837 went to Sydney, where he met Charles Sturt, and raised money to overland stock to Port Phillip. Using Woodlands as a depot, he assembled 78 cattle, 414 sheep, oxen and horses and on 1 April set out, arriving on 2 August in Melbourne where he sold his stock at a good profit. By October he was back in Sydney, 'most anxious to be the first to arrive in South Australia overland from Sydney'; he assembled an expedition and 300 cattle at Limestone Plains, and set out for Adelaide on 3 January 1838. On 15 January he was joined by his overseer, John Baxter, later his companion on exploring expeditions. Eyre followed (Sir) Thomas Mitchell's route to the Wimmera, and then moved on and discovered and named Lake Hindmarsh. In a pattern of disappointment often repeated in his later journeys, he attempted to strike north to the Murray, but was forced to turn back by the lack of water. His attempt to find a direct route from Port Phillip to Adelaide was defeated and he had to follow Joseph Hawdon, along the Murray to Adelaide. He found the Aboriginals 'tractable and friendly'.

After a short stay in Adelaide he returned to Sydney, and by October was on his way to Adelaide again with 1000 sheep and 600 cattle, which after a journey of fourteen weeks he offered for sale in Adelaide while they were held at his station in the River Light valley. The profit on the trip was over £4000, half of which was his. He bought an acre (0.4 ha) of land at Adelaide and built a cottage, but by May 1839 was on the move again, this time on a northern exploration. He reached the head of Spencer Gulf and travelled on towards the Flinders Ranges; striking out from his camp at Mount Arden he finally caught sight of the 'dry and glazed bed' of Lake Torrens: 'The whole was barren and arid-looking in the extreme, and as I gazed on the dismal scene before me I felt assured, I had approached the vast and dreary desert of the interior, or, it might be, was verging on the confines of some inland water, whose sterile and desolate shores seem to forbid the traveller's approach'.

Still determined to explore the possibilities of an overland route to the west, he returned to Adelaide, crossed by ship to Port Lincoln, and on his 24th birthday left Port Lincoln with Baxter and two native boys, crossing to the western side of the peninsula which bears his name. He continued round the coast to Streaky Bay, and then returned by the Gawler Range and Lake Torrens, both of which he named, to the head of Spencer Gulf and Adelaide. Reporting on his labours, Eyre wrote: 'I cannot but regret they have not been more productive of interest and utility to the colonists … During the whole of our course … of 600 miles [966 km] through, I believe, an hitherto unexplored country, we never crossed a single creek, river, or chain of ponds, nor did we meet with permanent water anywhere, with the exception of three solitary springs on the coast'.

In January 1840 Eyre and two companions took sheep and cattle by sea to King George Sound and then drove them overland to the Swan River Settlement. On his return to Adelaide in May he brought with him an Aborigine, Wylie; there he found that a committee had been formed to organize an expedition to explore an overland route to the west. Eyre offered his services and also undertook to find a third of the horses and pay a third of the expenses. (In fact he paid almost exactly half.) Eyre, however, persuaded the colonists that it would be better to attempt to open up the country to the north, knowing from his previous journeys how difficult it would be to drove stock to the west. The objective of the expedition therefore became, in Governor George Gawler's words, 'the discovery of the interior of Australia'. On 18 June Eyre set out from Adelaide at the head of the expedition, which within a week was made up of six white men, including Baxter, Eyre's assistant, E. B. Scott, two Aborigines, 13 horses, 40 sheep, and stores for three months; more stores were sent up to the head of Spencer Gulf in the government cutter Waterwitch, to await the arrival of the overland party.

He struck north from his base at Mount Arden along the Flinders Range, and then in several exhausting thrusts reached Lake Torrens to the west, a southern arm of Lake Eyre to the north, and Mount Hopeless to the east. Disappointed, but with no intention of retiring, Eyre decided 'by crossing over to Streaky Bay to the westward, to endeavour to find some opening leading towards the interior in that direction'. Accordingly he sent Baxter with two men and an Aboriginal to Streaky Bay, and himself took the remainder of the expedition to Port Lincoln. There he sent Scott by boat to Adelaide to request more provisions and permission from his committee to continue to the west. Scott was also instructed to bring Wylie back from Adelaide. By 3 November he rejoined Baxter and his party at Streaky Bay, and they moved on to found a depot at Fowler's Bay.

From there, on the third attempt, Eyre reached the head of the Bight, but the difficulties involved made him decide to send all the members of the expedition back to Adelaide, except for Baxter, Wylie and two South Australian Aboriginal men; with them he intended to traverse the 850 miles (1368 km) to King George Sound, with a determination 'either to accomplish the object I had in view, or perish in the attempt'. With eleven pack-horses, the small party left Fowler's Bay on 25 February 1841. On 12 March they reached good water at what is now called Eucla, 'after having passed over one hundred and thirty-five miles (217 km) of desert country, without a drop of water in its whole extent, and at a season of the year most unfavourable for such an undertaking'. As they continued round the Bight they met with the same difficulties of terrain and lack of water, but by the middle of April they were also suffering severely from cold, as they had had to discard most of their clothing. On the night of 29 April two of the natives murdered Baxter and disappeared with most of the provisions and all the serviceable fire-arms. 'At the dead hour of night, in the wildest and most inhospitable wastes of Australia, with the fierce wind raging in unison with the scene of violence before me, I was left, with a single native, whose fidelity I could not rely upon, and who for aught I knew might be in league with the other two, who perhaps were even now, lurking about with the view of taking away my life as they had done that of the overseer'.  In 1997 the Ngadju-Mirning man Arthur Dimer said it was Eyre who killed Baxter in a fit of rage because Baxter was drunk; the two South Australian Aboriginal people fled in fright and were speared by Mirning people who were observing the expedition’s progress.

For over a month Eyre and Wylie struggled on to the west, until on 2 June at Thistle Cove (near Esperance) they sighted the French whaler Mississippi which picked them up and gave them several days hospitality and replenished their stores, for Eyre insisted on completing his overland journey to King George Sound. Moving on through heavy rains and cold weather, they reached Albany on 7 July. For this incredible journey Eyre was awarded the founder's gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1847. The society also published three of his papers.

On his return to Adelaide, Eyre wrote to Governor Sir George Gipps offering to lead an expedition from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, but instead in October 1841 he accepted appointment as resident magistrate and protector of Aborigines, with a salary of £300, at Moorundie, on the River Murray; there he had notable success in dealing with the Aboriginals. His own words are justified: 'Moorundie was a District densely populated by Natives and in which prior to 1841 no settler had ventured to locate, and where [before I was stationed there] frightful scenes of bloodshed, rapine and hostility between the Natives and Parties coming overland with Stock had been of very frequent occurrence, but where, from the time of my arrival, and up to the date of my leaving not a single case of serious injury or aggression ever took place on the part of the Natives against the Europeans, whilst the district became rapidly and extensively occupied by Settlers and by Stock'. The knowledge accumulated here formed the basis of the Account of the Manners and Customs of the Aborigines and the State of their Relations with Europeans, which Eyre published in his Journals of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia and Overland from Adelaide to King George's Sound in the Years 1840-1, 1-2 (London, 1845). In December 1844 Eyre was given leave and sailed for England, taking with him two Aboriginal boys to be educated in England at his expense. On the voyage he prepared his journals for publication.

In 1846 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of New Zealand on a salary of £800 and a living allowance of £400, with headquarters at Wellington. The withdrawal by Governor (Sir) George Grey of this living allowance, and the substitution of a small forage allowance, caused a bitter quarrel between Grey and Eyre. Their relations became steadily worse; although Eyre acted foolishly on some occasions, Grey behaved in such an extraordinarily domineering fashion that Eyre's situation was intolerable. He returned to England in 1853 and in 1854 was appointed lieutenant-governor of St Vincent in the West Indies where he remained until 1860, when he became acting governor of the Leeward Islands. During this period he proved himself a capable and humane administrator.

In 1861 he became acting governor of Jamaica, and in 1864 he was appointed governor-in-chief. For three years in the vicious political atmosphere of Jamaica Eyre had had only temporary authority, but despite unpopularity he was not a bad governor; then, on 11 October 1865, he was faced with a serious riot at Morant Bay. Interpreting this as the first step in a general rebellion, Eyre declared martial law in the county of Surrey, except for Kingston, and the armed forces began an orgy of reprisals which by the end of martial law on 13 November had led to the killing or executing of 608 persons, the flogging of 600, and the burning of 1000 dwellings. George William Gordon, a coloured member of the legislature, whom Eyre and many others considered to be the instigator of the so-called rebellion, was arrested in Kingston (where there was no martial law), taken to Morant Bay, tried by court martial and hanged on 23 October. Eyre was hailed as a saviour in Jamaica but speedily denounced as a murderer and a monster of cruelty in England. A royal commission found that Eyre had acted with commendable promptitude but unnecessary rigour. He was relieved of his governorship and recalled to England, where he became the centre of intellectual warfare between the Jamaica Committee supported by J. S. Mill, Thomas Huxley, Thomas Hughes, Herbert Spencer and others and the Eyre Defence Committee supported by Carlyle, Charles Kingsley, Tennyson, Ruskin and others. Proceedings were brought against Eyre three times, but each time dismissed; Eyre's interpretation of martial law has become a celebrated case in legal history. In a public speech at Bow Street Eyre defended himself in a very dignified account of his actions, but otherwise, until his death, he maintained a stoical silence. The poignant contrast remains between the friend of Wylie and humane protector of the Aboriginals in Australia, and 'the monster of Jamaica'. The obstinacy that gave him his endurance as an explorer was his undoing as a governor in Jamaica; yet he had been a successful governor in Antigua and the Leeward Islands. Perhaps the key to Eyre's later actions may lie in those unhappy years in New Zealand when Grey overrode his authority and undermined his confidence.

In 1872 the British government ordered payment of Eyre's legal expenses, and in 1874 Disraeli's ministry gave him a pension as a retired colonial governor. He retired to Walreddon Manor, near Tavistock, where he lived in seclusion until his death on 30 November 1901. He was buried in Whitechurch churchyard, near Tavistock, survived by his widow, Adelaide Fanny, daughter of Captain Ormond, R.N., whom he had married in 1850, and by four sons and a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Hume, The Life of Edward John Eyre (Lond, 1867)
  • W. F. Finlason, Justice to a Colonial Governor (Lond, 1868)
  • W. F. Finlason, Report of the Case of the Queen v. Edward John Eyre (Lond, 1868)
  • W. L. Mathieson, The Sugar Colonies and Governor Eyre, 1849-1866 (Lond, 1936)
  • M. Uren and R. Stephens, Waterless Horizons (Melb, 1941)
  • B. Semmel, The Governor Eyre Controversy (Lond, 1962)
  • G. Dutton, The Hero as Murderer (Melb, 1966).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Dutton, 'Eyre, Edward John (1815–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Edward John Eyre (1815-1901), by unknown photographer, c1860

Edward John Eyre (1815-1901), by unknown photographer, c1860

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6693

Life Summary [details]


5 August, 1815
Whipsnade, Bedfordshire, England


30 November, 1901 (aged 86)
Tavistock, England

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