the Society's desert explorers

image: 'Unloading camels at Port Augusta', South Australia, c. 1893--
It is perhaps fitting for the first post on our new blog site to reference the Society's first meeting in 1885 and quote from the pages of the RGSSA's own publication known as 'The Proceedings'. The Society's meetings (sessions) were first published in 1886 when we were officially known as the Geographical Society of Australasia
Our 'Proceedings' are littered with true accounts of heroic rescue,
survival and death in the desert.

Actual discussions, opinion pieces and debates at the Society's early meetings about desert exploration in Australia are brought to life in the Proceedings. The 'applause' and 'cheers' from those present are recorded in the text; transporting the reader back into the Society's rooms with the desert explorers of the late 19th century.
Historical texts and illustrations reflect the societal attitudes of their times
References quoted from these texts are not intended to cause offence

By all accounts; the Society's Inaugural Meeting (October 22nd, 1885) held at the Adelaide Town Hall was a gala affair that featured the latest technology:

'The meeting opened with the National Anthem, rendered on the organ by Professor Ives, and a capital portrait of Her Majesty [Queen Victoria] was shown by an oxy-hydrogen lantern.'
Proceedings, 1st session, 1885-6 : p. 31

Proceedings of the Geographical Society of Australasia, South Australian Branch.
Geographical Society of Australasia. South Australian Branch.
Vol. 1, 1st session (1885-86) Adelaide : Spiller, Govt. Printer, 1886
Refer RGSSA catalogue

'View of the King William Street facade of the Adelaide Town Hall', lantern slide, c.1885--
Adelaide Views Collection, State Library of South Australia

Rare photographs
in the RGSSA Collection include: 
Government Offices and Town Hall, Adelaide 
Showing eastern side of King William Street, [1880s]
Refer RGSSA catalogue
Some of our founding members were desert explorers ... 
while other founding members financed expeditions at personal expense, supplying camels, that proved instrumental to the success of early desert exploration in Australia. The Society sent explorers north from Adelaide to Darwin to establish a route for the Overland Telegraph Line, completed in 1872, and across the western desert country to Perth.

The Colony of South Australia was proclaimed in 1836 and was self-governing from 1857 to 1901; the year marking the Federation of Australia. Australia had consisted of six separate colonies before voting to unite in 1901. The colonies where then proclaimed states, forming in a new nation; the Commonwealth of Australia. South Australia governed the Northern Territory from 1863 to 1911.
In the late 19th century, perhaps, the most important service that the Society provided to explorers and commercial traders was accurate topographical information.

Traversing Australian deserts was and still is all about 'chasing' water    

At this time, the Society's maps showed all known charted waterways, creeks and water-holes, and provided other information vital to desert survival, such as, edible and water-bearing native plants that could sustain both man and beast.

'Arrival at water', The Horn expedition (1894)--
Part 1, photograph facing p. 5
Parts 2, 3, 4 of this volume contain beautiful illustrations
as example shown below 
Refer RGSSA catalogue

The Horn expedition (1894) 
Part 2. Zoology, plate 6
images available online from

Also refer:
Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia
Australian Aborigines' water-quest by A.T. Magarey, 1895.
South Australian Branch Session 1894-95
RGSSA catalogue
Available online from the National Library of Australia

the Proceedings offers accurate and authoritative primary research

First-hand accounts provide a detailed picture of the climatic hardships endured by the early explorers who ventured out into the unforgiving inland desert country of Australia that continues to claim lives today.
An outline of the Society's desert explorations is provided on our website that extends the content of this post into the early 1900s.
During the winter of 1939, the Simpson Desert, was explored and named by
the South Australian geologist and explorer,
Dr Cecil Thomas Madigan (1889-1947)
Refer: RGSSA involvement in early exploration
Well before its time, the Colony of South Australia and the Society were socially progressive and sort to conserve all aspects of cultural heritage. Apart from the traditional historical subjects in the Proceedings there are many aspects of cultural interest including; Aboriginal and Afghan traditions, finds of Aboriginal art, the documentation of Aboriginal languages and biographical information for ancestral research.

An extensive subject index is available to search and or download from the Society's website:
Index of topics
South Australian Geographical Journal
Volumes 1 to 108, 1885-2009 (pdf. file, 1641 pages)

Lord Hallam Tennyson (1852-1928) served as Governor of South Australia, 1899-1902, and was the son of the British poet laureate, Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892). The following extracts from the Proceedings are from the Governor's opening address to the Society's annual meeting in 1899; in part:
I first took a genuine interest in Australian geography when years ago, my family became acquainted with an old lady of a hundred, whose husband had served under Captain Cook, and who had known the famous captain and explorer in her girlhood. ...
"South Australia is the land of canonised heroes of Geographical Societies in general, of such courageous explorers as Sturt, (whose companion in travel, Dr. Brown, I am pleased to learn is still living among us), Babbage, Eyre, Stuart, Warburton, Giles, Winnecke, Tietkins, Wells, David Lindsay and others. ...

The accumulation of the knowledge of your explorers is valuable for yourselves as a matter for your special discussion, and is of special scientific worth to the world. Lately I have been reading with deep interest Professor Spencer's and Mr Gillen's monumental and admirable work, "The Native Tribes of Central Australia." (Cheers)

The Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain look to you to preserve the beautiful ancient nomenclature of places, to pursue your researches as far as you can, and as soon as you can, with regard to the ancient customs, laws, manners, languages, modes of life, religious symbols, rites, beliefs of these Australian aborigines, for they are, as your anthropologists say, an absolutely unique collection of peoples and are evidently fast dying out."--Proceedings, 12th session, June 16, 1899 : p. [5]-8.

Map shows distribution of Aboriginal tribes:
The native tribes of Central Australia 
by Baldwin Spencer ; F.J. Gillen, 1899 
Refer RGSSA catalogue
PDF edition available online from the University of Adelaide
Also refer:
The northern tribes of Central Australia by Baldwin Spencer ; F.J. Gillen, 1904
"This work may be regarded as a sequel to the Native tribes of Central Australia ... 1899"--Preface
Refer RGSSA catalogue

Fig. 83—Thapauerlu, a water-hole in the Murchison Range [Northern Territory] where the Wollunqua snake is supposed to live according to the Warramunga Tribe--p. 252

If I am a kangaroo man, then I provide kangaroo flesh for emu men, and in return I expect them to provide me with a supply of emu flesh and eggs and so on through the tribal totems. At the present day this is the belief of the Central Australian natives. Further still, no man can do anything which will impair his power to increase [the number of] his totem.--Chap. Eating the totemic animal or plant : p. 327

'A very large part of the map of Australia is blank'
At the Preliminary Meeting of the Society, held July 10th, 1885, in the Banqueting-room of the Adelaide Town Hall, Chief Justice, the Hon. Samuel James Way (1836–1916) presided and summarised the exploration of South Australia; in part: 
There are several gentlemen here who will remember the dispatch of Mr. Eyre's expedition and of Captain Sturt's expedition, and later on the expeditions of Mr. Stuart [1815-1866], who is, I suppose the ablest explorer we have ever had in Australasia. Had his literary skill equalled his practical ability as an explorer, he would stand on a pinnacle that no other Australian explorer had reached. ... I see present among us one who made a most adventurous ride on the camel's back to the Western side of Australia from the centre of the colony. I take it that this wonderful expedition of Colonel Warburton [1813–1889] is to be bracketed with the wonderful walk of Mr. Eyre [1815–1901] along the coast of the Great Australian Bight, as the two most adventurous feats in Australian exploration. ...
"Major Warburtons' memorable expedition was dispatched ... at the cost of Sir Thomas Elder [1818-1897] and Sir Walter Watson Hughes [1803–1887]. (Applause) 
We also know that not less than four expeditions were dispatched at the cost of Sir Thomas Elder and to him belongs the credit of having introduced many years ago the camel, which furnished new possibilities, and opened up a new epoch altogether in South Australian exploration. And in this connection no one would like the name of Mr. Goyder [1826-1898] to be overlooked. He has been a practical explorer himself, and he has furnished most valuable advice and assistance to every person wishing to advance geographical science in a practical manner. ... 

Warburton's expedition in the Lake Eyre
region of South Australia, 1866 /
von A. Petermann--

We shall all agree that there is work for the Society to do. If the Society does no more than methodise and make accessible the large stores of information that are distributed in the various Surveyor-Generals' offices in the different colonies, and in the hands of persons who have taken part in exploring expeditions, a very large step will be made towards the advancement of geographical science. A very large part of the map of Australia is blank."--Proceedings, 1st session, 1885-6 : p. 8-9.

Sir Thomas Elder was present at this meeting to receive the appreciation of the Society from, amongst others; the Surveyor General, George Woodroffe Goyder and Sir Henry Ayers (1821–1897). Ayers Rock (now Uluru) was named in honour of Sir Henry Ayers by explorer William Gosse (1842–1881) in 1873.
Goyder and Ayers were founding members of the South Australian Branch of the Geographical Society of Australasia. Colonel Warburton and Dr. John Harris Browne, surgeon to Captain Sturt's Expedition, were honorary members.

Also present and founding members were the prominent Adelaide newspaper proprietors; Sir John Langdon Bonython (1848–1939) of the 'Advertiser' and Sir Robert Kyffin Thomas (1851–1910) of the 'Register' and 'Observer'. Both would later act as President of the Society and ardently support the Society's activities in their newspapers throughout their lives.

Sir John Langdon Bonython c. 1935--
Portrait Collection, State Library of South Australia

This research has found that editorials in the Advertiser and the Register of the day often cite the names of individuals not reported in the Proceedings. These newspaper articles are important sources of reference for historical biography, local history and for Aboriginal, Afghan and European ancestry.

Reported in the Proceedings:  
By the lamented death of the late Sir Thomas Elder, this Society has lost one of its oldest and most illustrious members. He had filled the office of vice-president, he was one of our founders, and had ever manifested the warmest interest in the welfare and progress of the Society. To his munificent help the colony at large is indebted for the great work of exploration that has been carried out at various times at his partial or entire cost, under the leadership of Ernest Giles, Major Warburton, Charles Winnecke, J. Lewis, J. Ross, D. Lindsay, and others; thus opening up vast tracts of territory hitherto unknown and untraversed. The one prominent object with Sir Thomas Elder was ever to promote the interests of various societies in every department of science and of art by princely contributions.--Proceedings, 10th session, Annual Report, 17 June, 1987.
Bonython published extensive biographical information in the Advertiser on the death of Sir Thomas Elder, no doubt, gleaned from their shared personal conversations and mutual associates:

Sir Thomas Elder (Obituary). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 8 Mar 1897)
The Late Sir T. Elder (Funeral). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 9 Mar 1897)
Digitised by the National Library of Australia
The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 - 1931) is freely available in 'Trove'
Also refer:

Researchers may find better image quality in our Library's copies:
Articles and photographic illustrations in the Adelaide Observer newspaper
Issues held in the Library, 1843-1904
RGSSA catalogue

Australia's first camel

Nathaniel Edmund Phillipson (1844-1898), spoke about the arrival of the first camel in Australia to the Society's members at Union Hall, Adelaide (November, 1895).

In 1892, he had retired to live in Adelaide; a successful pastoralist who pioneered camel breeding with Thomas Elder at Beltana in South Australia.

Phillipson worked with Afghan cameleers for over 30 years and was conversant in their language.

N.E. Phillipson, c. 1850
S.A. Northern Pioneers, State Library of South Australia

The first importation of camels to Australia was about the year 1846, when Mr. Henry Phillips and his brothers purchased some nine camels at the Canary Islands. Only one of these was landed alive, which afterwards became the property of Mr. [J.A.] Horrocks. This camel [Harry], I am told, was an exceptionally good animal.-- 
"The second lot, namely, 24, was imported by the Melbourne Government in 1860 for the use of the explorations carried out by the ill-fated Burke and Wills.

The third lot, of 120, was imported by Sir Thomas Elder, and they were safely landed at Port Augusta on 17th January, 1866. It is from that date that their real start of usefulness in this colony commences, as they were forthwith employed in transit of goods to various cattle and sheep stations in the interior. These 'ships of the desert' at once proved themselves to be of the greatest value, as they were able to convey supplies during one of the most severe droughts, to which the interior of Australia is subject. 

Two Afghans, Faiz [1848?–1910] and Tagh Mahomet [died c.1896], who were for six years jemidahn [camel suppliers?] for me, on their return to India brought back a consignment of 259 camels, which arrived here in 1884. Since then there have been several lots imported. These men now have some 500 employed in the transit of supplies to the Western goldfields."

'Afghan camel drivers at Beltana Station', c. 1897--
"The first great national work on which the Beltana camels were employed, was in the construction of the Adelaide to Port Darwin (and London) telegraph line in 1872, when one hundred of them were made use of in carrying wire, insulators, provisions, &c. During the severe drought of 1881 a large caravan of these camels was the means of saving the lives of the starving population of the Albert goldfields, near the boundary of South Australia and New South Wales. 

Exploration of this vast and arid continent has been rendered a comparatively easy task with these wonderful animals, when with horses the same attempts proved a failure, and an imminent risk to the lives of the explorers, as evinced by all the records of explorations, including those by Colonel Warburton, Ernest Giles, W.H. Tietkens and the Elder Scientific Expedition, 1891-92. The latter had thirty-three pack and eleven riding camels. These camels, notwithstanding that they were heavily laden, accomplished the extraordinary feat of 537 miles in 34 days without a drink, when the country was suffering with a three years' drought..." 

Ernest Giles Expedition, 1875
Previous explorations with horses proved disastrous
Giles subsequently used camels
Giles is shown with Saleh, an experienced Afghan cameleer
General Collection, State Library of South Australia

Afghan traditional beliefs
Camels do not perspire like other animals, which doubtless assists them to some extent to go so long without water. However, if much fatigued in extra hot weather, they perspire in one small patch about the size of a five-shilling piece at the back of the neck, which is like ink. A drop of this, the Afghans allege, is deadly poison. ... 
"The camel's upper lip is of considerable length, and is divided like a hare's. I think I must tell you a short story or tradition as to the cause of this, which was told me by an Afghan (who like all Afghans, are Mohammedans) as a proof of one of the miracles worked by their Prophet Mohammed.

Mohammed on one occasion being hardly pressed by a large army of his enemies was compelled to go up a gorge into a sort of pound in the ranges. As this was at night, his pursuers decided to camp at the entrance of the gorge till daylight, making certain that they had captured Mohammed and his followers. But Mohammed and his party returned in the small hours of the morning, the former causing the camels to pass noiselessly through the enemies' camp without disturbing anyone, and on getting clear of this critical position he dismounted and kissed his camel on the lips, when the upper lip of all the camels parted, and in commemoration of this miracle camels have moved noiselessly and have had hare lips ever since."--Phillipson, N.E. Camels in Australia. Proceedings, 9th Session, 1895-6 : p. 83-92.

Phillipson's address covers many aspects of camel behaviour, including, their endurance and suitability for Australian desert conditions, reflecting: 'no one can feel affection for a camel like he can for a horse or a dog'

Phillipson also mentions 'a very clever and exhaustive work about camels' by Major Arthur Glyn Leonard:
'The camel : its uses and management', 1893.
Available online from the Internet Archive Digital Library
This address was concluded by 'showing a few views on the Beltana Run, where large numbers of camels have been bred, and from which place so many exploring parties have obtained their camels, and taken their final departure for the interior'.

To assist researchers wanting images of this period, the lantern slides mentioned above, are described in detail in the Proceedings but it is unclear if they are existent. Most of the Society's early sessions concluded by showing lantern slides and are described in the Proceedings. Also refer to the 'Library Additions' published in the Proceedings for descriptions of photographs and other artefacts gifted to the Society's Library--15th session, 1901-1902; 16th session, 1902-1903.  

Afghan camel drivers at Beltana
possibly during the strike,
25 January, 1870--

Phillipson, N.E. Camels in Australia. Proceedings, 9th session, 1895-96
This address was published by the Society as a pamphlet in 1895:

Refer RGSSA catalogue

To assist with Afghan ancestral research:
Newspaper articles on Trove include:
The murder of Tagh MahometEastern Districts Chronicle (York, WA : 2 May 1896)
Obituary for Tagh MahometWestern Mail (Perth, WA : 31 Jan 1896)
Tagh Mahomet's willKalgoorlie Miner (WA : 3 July 1897)

the 'trouble with Harry'  

'Travelling though the bush and sandridges, August 30',1846
[J.A. Horrocks expedition]
by S.T. Gill (1818-1880)--

Samuel Thomas Gill painted this watercolour in 1846 while on an ill-fated expedition with John Ainsworth Horrocks (1818-1846).  

Gill depicts himself leading Horrocks and Bernard Kilroy with 'Harry', the camel, and their hunting dog. Gill noted in his diary: 'Left the hills and crossed in our course many red sandy and thickly scrubbed ridges. As yet we met with no feed or indications of improvement.'--Australian sketchbook by S.T. Gill 

The camel Phillipson referenced as an 'exceptionally good animal' was 'Harry'; a one-humped dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius) highly suited to Australian desert conditions. The two-humped Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus) are more suited to mountain desert regions and were rarely imported into Australia.

Australian sketchbook [picture] by S.T. Gill [1864]
25 prints : chromolithograph, col. ; 29.1 x 43 cm
RGSSA catalogue
Available online from:
The tragic circumstances surrounding Horrocks' untimely death were reported in the Proceedings:
In 1846 Mr. J.A. Horrocks, of Penwortham [Clare Valley, South Australia] organised a party to explore north of Lake Torrens. He had the only camel then in the country [Harry], which was imported by him. His line of travel over the Flinders Range is marked by the pass still bearing his name. After a time he reached Eyre's old camp at Depot Creek … but a sad end came to his journey at this camp. On the morning of the 26th August, 1846, while loading the camel for departure, his gun, carelessly slung across his shoulders, went off, and discharged its contents full in his face. His frightened companions rapidly returned for medical aid; but, five days after the accident, poor Horrocks died at the early age of twenty-eight years.--Inaugural address by Sir Samuel Davenport, Proceedings, 1st session, 1885-6 : p. 81.
The story goes that Harry was shot by station hands in 'order that nobody else be injured' but not before he had bitten an Aboriginal stockman [?].

While Horrocks lay mortally wounded he wrote to Mr. E. Platt, Hon. Secretary of the Northern Expedition explaining in his own words the circumstances of the accident (September 8, 1846). His letter was published decades later in the Advertiser and can be read online:

The Late Mr. A. J. Horrocks
The South Australian Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 29 May 1888)
Also refer:
ABC Radio National podcasts, including:
Ships of the Desert: Camels in Australia
ABC Radio National, 21st November, 2010

'Seldom has sorrow been so general in South Australia'--
the Advertiser, 19th July, 1897

In 1897, the British Empire was celebrating sixty years of Queen Victoria's reign; her Diamond Jubilee. However, South Australia was focused on searching the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia, for two missing explorers who had set out in 1896 as part of the Calvert Scientific Exploring Expedition (1896-1897). It took some five months to locate the bodies of Charles Frederick Wells (1849-1897) and the 18 year old George Jones (d. 1896).

Calvert Expedition, 1896-1897--
General Collection, State Library of South Australia
Standing (left to right): G.L Lucas, Dervish Bejah, Alec Magarey (not a member of the party)
Sitting: C.F Wells, L. Wells, G.A Keartland 
Members of the expedition were Larry Wells (leader), Charles Wells (his cousin and second in command), George Jones (mineralogist and photographer), George Keartland (naturalist), James Trainor with Dervish Bejah and Said Ameer (camel drivers) and 20 camels.

Our annual report, 1897, records:
The names of Charles F. Wells and G. L. Jones must be added to the list of those explorers who have heroically done their best in the path of duty and have died in harness. They lost their lives in the terrible region south of Joanna Spring, victims of excessive heat, want of feed for camels, and want of water. They died on November I2th, 1896, and the bodies were found by Mr. L. A. Wells [cousin of Charles], leader of the Calvert Expedition, on May 29th, 1897. The remains will be removed to Adelaide.
"Mr. Charles Wells was a thorough bushman, a genial, sympathetic, and true man. He endeavoured heroically to perform the work he undertook, and was beaten only by difficulties which were beyond his control.
It is touching but grateful to know that he was able with loving hands to render the last services to his younger companion before he himself passed away. …
It will ever be a consolation to them to know that thousands of hearts all over Australia are moved to sympathy with them in their hour of trouble."--Proceedings, 10th session, June 17, 1897

Calvert expedition : the lost explorers : a large funeral, impressive ceremonies
Adelaide Advertiser, 19th July, 1897
Available online from the State Library of Victoria

for Afghan ancestral research

'Afghan children', c. 1910--Photograph by Mrs. A.M. Hopewell 

RGSSA Exhibition Catalogue, 2013 (pdf file, 28 pages)
Afghanistan: a colonial exposure and Australia's immigrant links from 1859
RGSSA catalogue
Also refer:
ABC Radio National podcasts, include:
Nomads: the Aboriginal descendants of the Afghan camel drivers
ABC Radio National, 28 April, 2007
To view our catalogue records for this post:
Please enter the title of the publication in the search box
on our online catalogue
All external links retrieved September, 2018
Researched and posted by Sandra Thompson
RGSSA remote cataloguer

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