Letter from Mr. Barber on Hume and Hovell

The Mercury, Hobart

28 May 1873

The following letter from Mr. C. H. Barber, Kiewa River, Ovens District, appears in the Sydney Herald :-

"An article appeared under the above head in your paper of the 28th April, in which grave doubts are thrown upon the truth of certain statements made by the late Mr. Hamilton Hume in a pamphlet published by him in 1855 in connection with the first overland expedition to Port Phillip, and objections are taken against the obituary notice of him which appeared in the Yass Courier.

I, as one of his oldest nephews, who remember the time of that expedition, and knew some of the men engaged in it, and from being a well-known bushman myself know the opinions of bushmen generally upon the merits of its leader and his associate as capable explorers, will ask for space in your columns for a few remarks in justice to Mr. Hume.

The article states that Yass Plains was discovered on the 10th June, 1797, by the late Mr. William Bradley and Mr. John Hume. Mr. John Kennedy Hume, my maternal uncle, and my wife's father, was not born in 1797.

His first attempt at exploration was in 1814, in company with his elder brother, over the Razorback Mountain, through Bargo Brush to Bong Bong, he being such a mere lad at the time that his mother refused to let him go again; but in 1821 he joined his brother, Mr. Hamilton Hume, the late Mr. William Broughton, of Appin, afterwards Burrowa, and my father, the late Mr. George Barber, of Glenrock, in an exploring expedition, when they discovered Yass Plains.

I have frequently heard the four gentlemen speak of the discovery of Yass Plains in 1821, but they always spoke of Mr. H. Hume as leader.

Mr. Hovell admits that Mr. Hume and Mr. Boyd were the first to swim over the Murrumbidgee with the line, having a rope attached by which the punt was drawn across; it is of no consequence whose was the cart which formed the punt, but whose was the idea to rig it and get it across, and the men of the party declared it to be Mr. Hume.

Many of Mr. Hume's relatives, as well as myself, have listened to the men talking of the time "they were out to Port Phillip" - my brother, the younger Broughtons and Kennedys, then like myself, young men, but nearly 40 years ago - and never once did we hear them speak of Mr. Hovell being of the slightest assistance, but the reverse.

The writer of an article in the Herald could never have read Mr. Hume's pamphlet, or he would have seen that three of the men - Boyd, Fitzpatrick, and Angel - endorsed the whole of Mr. Hume's statements, their evidence taken by gentlemen well known in the district, whose only object was to arrive at the truth; and late last year (November 8th), Fitzpatrick (now I believe in comfortable circumstances at Campbelltown), sent a letter to the Yass Courier in confirmation of a letter which appeared in the Australasian of the 20th October, in Mr. Hume's defence, and I cannot think either he or Boyd would now belie themselves.

I have frequently heard Boyd speak of the fright he was in when he and Mr. Hovell got lost at Narrengullen, when Mr. Hume had to fire guns for them, and of his great "funk" when he thought he and Mr. Hovell were about to be lost in the snow, and of many other things not complimentary to Mr. Hovell as an explorer.

Again, Mr. Hovell admits that "Mr. Hume was the first European who over approached the banks of the Hume or Murray River."

This agrees with the statements of the men, that Mr. Hume "was always ahead of his party."

Many of the blacks for years after confirmed it, describing Mr. Hume's appearance accurately, imitating his walk with sticks on their shoulders for guns.

One man at Albury used to tell how he and a number of other boys were hid among the reeds on the river bank at Cumberoona watching the party, frightened out of their wits, until they had crossed and gone.

That Mr. Hume named the river after his father, all his friends - including his father - always believed - a natural compliment for him to pay - but it is immaterial, the naming was easier than the finding.

To a fair and candid mind the evidence in Mr. Hume's favour would be more than sufficient - he had grown up in the bush - was known to be a thorough bush-man, had already made many important discoveries in New South Wales; was invited by the Governor, at the advice of friends who know him well and had explored with him, to lead the expedition; was acquainted with the speech and habits of the blacks; was known to be equal, if not superior to the blacks in the art of tracking (it is not so many years since he showed his powers for tracking in Yass); was Captain Sturt's chosen associate to the Macquarie and Darling, and invited to accompany him a second time; was complimented by Sir T. Mitchell, and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society for his known skill as a bush traveller.

And what has Mr. Hovell, whom your paper calls "an equally distinguished explorer," to offer against this array of well-known facts?

That he was associated with Mr. Hume in an overland expedition to Port Phillip to take the latitudes and longitudes, and with whom he had been in opposition ever since.

That he made a mistake in the part of the bay which they had reached, mistaking the west side for the east - no matter whether Mr. Hume did or not, of that his friends are quite satisfied.

And in 1827, when at Western Port, he thought he had explored to the site of their encampment on the bay in 1824, when he was still on the east side - never having crossed the Yarra nor been near it.

When he received the ovation at Geelong he must have been convinced of his error.

It is not to defend Mr. Hume as an explorer that I write - or that his friends are equally satisfied - but to defend him for a brave upright man, who did his work, but never ran about the country seeking fame, and who never became a courtier.

Had it been otherwise, we should now be hearing more of his discoveries in New South Wales; for I suppose Mr. Hovell does not dispute his discovery of new country as far as the Lakes, or the discovery of the Braidwood country, or the opening of the overland road to Illawarra.

What discoveries did Mr. Hovell make in New South Wales to entitle him to be called an "equally distinguished explorer?

He did not discover the Murrumbidgee - that had been discovered before - nor was he the first to cross it.

Hume and Boyd did that, and by his own admission he was not the discoverer of the Hume or the Murray River.

In justice to Mr. Hume, now no longer able to defend himself, I ask, Sir, for a space in your paper for this letter.

Many of Mr. Hume's friends have been supporters of the Sydney Morning Herald since its first establishment.

Everywhere now throughout Australasia are his relatives or connections to be met with, and they will take care to defend his good name.

I am, Sir, yours faithfully, C. H. Barber.

Gundowring Station, Kiewa River, Ovens District.