Discovery of the River Murray

The Sydney Morning Herald

28 April 1873

Historical Statements: Discovery of the River Murray.

It has been epigrammatically, and rather bitterly, remarked that nothing is as false as history; but there appears to be, nevertheless, something even yet more unreliable, and that is the traditional date upon which history is often carelessly founded - when fictions are assumed to be facts, after the chief actors mentioned in a story have vanished from the scene of their exploits, and left the events of their lives to be summarized by the ignorant, and expatiated upon by the credulous.

The history of this colony (in a true, philosophical sense) has yet to be written; but any literary man, who may have laid his hand on the mass of materials waiting to be methodically arranged, compared, corrected, and utilized, must have stood amazed at the contradictions and difficulties everywhere bristling up before him - problems that must, notwithstanding, all be satisfactorily disposed of before he can begin the dignified task of an historian.

The would-be historian finds that he must hold himself ready to comb out many a tangle before even the web can be spun out of which he may hope patiently to weave that coat of many colours which shall truthfully represent the glories, the sorrows, and the disappointments of the past.

If, in addition to much leisure and perseverance, he cannot add the virtue of a most absolute impartiality, he had better not attempt it at all.

People wrangle by the hour as to the precise date when the great William Wentworth, G. Blaxland, and W. Lawson forced their adventurous way over the barriers of the Blue Mountains,- an enterprise that took place in the memory of man, the circumstantial details of which must have been personally discussed a thousand times by our late patriot statesman with those who are still living in Sydney.

Yet who knows when Wentworth first scaled those rocky and precipitous gorges beyond Emu Plains? Who can tell us what the whole party was that went with him? Where they camped, and what, from day to day, they saw?

Every fact in that exploration would be material for history, and yet the whole thing is left to us, as yet, little more than a vague and most unsatisfactory tradition. As an historical event, it may be truly said the passage over the Blue Mountains by Wentworth and his friends has never been worthily recorded. Beyond a few meagre facts we know, as a community, next to nothing about it. We want an historian to gather up every stray fact, to search into every old State record, to inquire into every tradition, and out of the whole to give us at least a decent skeleton of our past history.

Analogous to the vague uncertainty that hangs about the first brave exploration by Wentworth and his friends is the mistiness that hovers over the discovery of the river Hume, or, as it is now called, the Murray.

This obscurity some writer in the Yass Courier has (as a warm admirer of the late Mr. Hamilton Hume) attempted to dissipate, but with what success it would be rather hard to say.

Though ably written, there is a manifest partisanship in the whole article which detracts greatly from its value, and leaves many points just as they were. The writer should not suppose that he necessarily exalts the reputation of the late Mr. Hume, when he attacks the veracity and impugns the merit of his equally distinguished fellow-explorer, " Mr. Hovell, of Minto," who under the better known designation of "Captain Hovell,'' at an advanced age, and in the full vigour of his intellect and energies, is still amongst us.

Captain Hovell and his friends say that the misrepresentations of the writer in the Yass Courier are manifold. Hovell's entire statement differs materially from that which has been put forward on the part of the late Mr. H. Hume; and, as it goes far to contradict the account in the Yass Courier, and is quite as clear and circumstantial, it is only fair to Mr. Hovell that it should enjoy an equal publicity.

Captain Hovell says that on the 10th of June 1797, the Yass Plains were first seen by the late Mr. Bradley and the late Mr. John Hume - the brother of Mr. Hamilton Hume, now recently deceased.

The Plains were seen from an eminence which Messrs. Hovell and H. Hume called "Mount Look-out;" and Mr. John Hume himself described, to the Messrs. Hovell and H. Hume, where that mountain would be found from which the plains were to be seen.

Mr. Hovell most distinctly denies that the late Mr. Hamilton Hume ever said to him that he had himself seen these plains.

Messrs. Hovell and Hume (when they started on their exploring expedition) did not go near Cooma, but went through Mundoonan, and so ultimately crossed the Plains, to the Murrumbidgee River.

Another alleged misrepresentation complained of by Mr. Hovell regards statements made as to what took place at the crossing of the Murrumbidgee. Mr. Hovell's statement is that Mr. Hamilton Hume and the man Boyd swam across the river with a small line having a rope attached to the end of it, by means of which the cart (made to serve as a punt) was pulled to and fro across the river. And Mr. Hovell observes (in support of his explicit denial of what is now again declared, as against him, and for Mr. H. Hume) that what he now states has, as a matter of history, been stated by him over and over again years ago, he having before went to Europe in 1855, published a pamphlet giving a true and particular account of all that did take place, both at the crossing of the Murrumbidgee and afterwards.

Mr. Hovell says that the cart used as a punt was his, and not Mr. Hume's, and that it was selected as being the lighter of the two. Boyd, who swam across the River, was '' lent" to the party by Mr. Broughton, of Appin, and is still living near the Tumut; Mr. James Fitzpatrick, (also mentioned) is now, as Mr. Hovell states, living near Campbelltown, and Mr. Hovell declares that these two persons do not endorse all that Mr. Hamilton Hume is now again reported as having stated about his fellow explorer.

Mr. Hovell says there is no truth whatever in the statement that, after the party had crossed the Tumut river, he (Hovell) wanted to keep on the course they had hitherto hold- namely, to the south-west.

The opinion held by Mr. Hovell when they came in sight of the snow-capped mountains was that it would be best for them to keep to the westward until they should reach a more open country, the country over which they were travelling being too rugged for them to cross with their cattle directly down to the plains. Mr. H. Hume concurred in this view, and they carried it out accordingly.

When, however, they came in sight of the Battery Mount, they reverted, by common agreement, to their old course- namely to the south-west, which brought them directly to what was called "Hume River." Mr. Hovell says it is not true that Mr. Hamilton Hume named the river after his father, Mr. Commissary General A. H. Hume. It was named by Captain Hovell, who called it the "Hume River" after his fellow travellor; Mr. Hamilton Hume being the first European who over approached its banks.

There is another alleged misrepresentation complained of in regard to the boat constructed for the passage of that river, and stated to have been made of wattles, &e., by Mr. H. Hume. 'The boat was on the contrary, expressly planned by Mr. Hovell, and made under his immediate direction; and he describes exactly how it was made (with, poles, wattles, and a tarpaulin) somewhat similar to one he had constructed when wrecked in Bass' Straits, on an island in Kent Group in the year 1817.

To judge from Mr. Hovell's description the boat so cleverly made for the passage of the party over the branch of the - "Hume," it must have much resembled what is called a "coracle"- a very primitive sort of basket boat, still, (or very recently) in use on the River Wye in Wales. The truth of the statement made beginning with the words: "At their camp, where the city of Kilmore now stands, &c, &c," is altogether positively denied by Mr. Hovell. He says it has no foundation whatever; that he never heard of it before, and that it is wholly untrue.

The reader will see that these counter statements vary materially affect the historical value of the account which has been published by some friends of the late follow traveller of Mr. Hovell, who tells his own story frankly and fairly, and seems determined to substantiate every particular.

His statements certainly throw a light upon a vexed question in our early history, and deserve to be borne in mind for future reference. It seems, by the way, to be a matter of much regret that two enterprising men (to whom the colony, as follow travellers, owes so much) should over have been at such variance with each other.