An Englishman who is best remembered on the other side of the world in Australia – a nation which he helped explore and map – was born 200 years ago today, on September 5th, 1818.
Edmund Besley Court Kennedy, was born on Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, the son of a Colonel in the British Army. Educated on the island, he was fascinated by tales of exploration and became interested at an early age in surveying – exploring and mapping unknown regions and their geographic features.
A prominent naval officer who was a friend of the family offered to find him employment in Australia once he obtained the necessary qualification in surveying, which he did through studying at Kings College London. In late 1839, at the age of 21, he set out on the four-month sea voyage to Australia, arriving in Sydney in March 1840.
There he began work as assistant surveyor for New South Wales, working under Sir Thomas Mitchell. After six months learning the ropes, he set out on a 450-mile overland journey to Melbourne, then another 220 miles to Portland Bay, the oldest European settlement in the state of Victoria. He would spend the next three years there, honing his skills, before returning to Sydney.
Having earned the respect of his boss, Kennedy was considered ready for his first major expedition. In 1845 he set out with Mitchell and a party of 30 men to explore the uncharted territory of north-eastern Australia, looking for a major river which Mitchell believed would flow into the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the northern coast. Despite slow progress, they eventually found a river, which Mitchell named ‘Victoria’ after the British sovereign. Having finally exhausted their supplies, they returned to Sydney after 14 months, in January 1847.
Mitchell was impressed with Kennedy’s leadership and technical skills during that first expedition and after just a month back in Sydney authorised him to lead a second, smaller expedition in the same area to further plot the course of the river.
Kennedy and eight men set out in March 1847, but after long months of exploration discovered the river did not flow towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, as Mitchell had theorised. Instead it flowed into Cooper Creek, one of Australia’s best-known rivers. After it was found to be a tributary rather than a major river, it was renamed the ‘Barcoo’, the Aboriginal name which Kennedy had learned during the expedition.
By now the most experienced explorer of Australia’s north-east region, Kennedy was assigned a third expedition, to find and plot a way to the Gulf of Carpentaria and explore the unspoiled wilderness of Cape York Peninsula. Its ultimate aim was to establish a new trading port. In April 1848, now aged 30, Kennedy set out with a party of 12 men and their supplies, initially sailing from Sydney up the coast to disembark at Rockingham Bay after almost a month at sea.
Heading inland, they soon found the terrain almost impassable, with mangrove swamps, mountains, lagoons, rivers and thick rainforest. After nine weeks they were just 40 miles inland and only 12 miles north of their landing point. Things began to deteriorate when several supply carts had to be abandoned in a bog and the party was two months late for a planned rendezvous with a supply ship, which in any case found no safe place to land at the planned location.
By mid-November, with the men and horses weakening, it was decided to leave eight men behind at Weymouth Bay. The remaining four, plus their Aboriginal tracker, would push northwards up the coast towards the next rendezvous with a rescue ship at the tip of Cape York, still several hundred miles away. Disaster struck again when one of the four accidentally shot himself. Badly wounded, he was left behind near Shelburne Bay with two of the others to care for him.
Now only Kennedy and his tracker, known as Jackey Jackey, pressed on, hoping to make the rendezvous and return to rescue the other 11 men. Travelling light, they made good progress, but soon realised they were being shadowed by local indigenous people. Around mid-December they were suddenly attacked. Kennedy was speared several times and died in Jackey Jackey’s arms.
Despite being wounded himself, Jackey Jackey carried on alone and without supplies, making it to the supply ship some 10 days later, on December 23rd. He was able to direct the crew back to Shelburne Bay, but a search party failed to locate the three men left there, only finding a few of their belongings. From there they proceeded to Weymouth Bay, but of the eight men left behind there, just two had survived.
The rescue ship returned to Sydney in May 1849, where tales of Kennedy’s ill-fated final expedition and heroic death quickly spread. Several districts, places and roads are named in honour of Kennedy, including the Edmund Kennedy National Park, in Queensland. His faithful tracker, who was rewarded with a solid silver inscribed breastplate and a £50 gratuity, is also remembered in the names of several places, including Jackey Jackey Airfield.