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Stuart Crosses the Continent

Video clip synopsis – There was enormous public and media speculation about whether the Victorian backed Burke and Wills or South Australia's Stuart expedition would be the first to cross the continent's interior.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 5min 33sec
Tags - Australian History, colonisation, Constructing Australia, exploration, national identity, national interest, nationalism, pioneers, popular culture, telegraph, see all tags


Stuart Crosses the Continent

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About the Video Clip


Stuart Crosses the Continent is an excerpt from the film A Wire Through the Heart (55 mins), the third episode of the three-part series entitled Constructing Australia, produced in 2007.

Constructing Australia
Politics, tragedy and conquest combine in stories behind the building of Australia. The Bridge, Pipe Dreams, and A Wire Through the Heart, combine rare archival images with dramatic storytelling in showcasing three landmark events that would allow Australia to mark its place in the world. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Kalgoorlie Pipeline and the Overland Telegraph line were engineering triumphs, but the human drama in constructing Australia is even more fascinating.

Background Information


When John McDouall Stuart and Charles Todd arrived separately in Adelaide in 1839 and 1855 respectively, the British Empire was at its zenith, and young men were flocking to the colonies in search of adventure, fame and fortune. The mother country was six months by sea, and Australia it seemed was six months behind in news and fashion, scientific breakthroughs and new technologies.

Todd, a mathematical talent, took up the position of Government Astronomer. But his fascination for the telegraph soon led him to link a wire from Adelaide to Port Adelaide, cutting information travel time from one day to one minute.

Stuart was an adventurer. At first he worked for wealthy pastoralists, exploring the outback looking for gold, copper, and grasslands. But as he perfected the art of travelling light with few men or provisions, his usefulness took on a more important dimension. He became known as the man who would go where other surveyors could not.

Todd came to see that Stuart was the man who could make the hazardous journey to Australia’s northern most shore, and map the route of a telegraph line that would transform the whole country. It was paramount to Todd and his supporters that Adelaide should be the first Australian city to connect to London.

At the time, most people imagined a vast inland sea separated Australia’s east and west coastlines. There was enormous public and media speculation about whether the Victorian backed Burke and Wills or South Australia’s Stuart expedition would be the first to cross the continent’s interior.

Burke and Wills perished, but Stuart survived, partly because he adapted himself to the arid Australian landscape and was able to read signs of water. He realised that he could follow the techniques used by Aboriginal people who had survived in this harsh land for many thousands of years. Inevitably there was conflict as he crossed (unannounced) tribal lands. In describing one battle he wrote in his journal of the warriors he fought; “They are the finest natives I have yet seen. Tall, powerful and muscular men. Bold, daring and courageous. Not at all afraid of either us or our horses.”

In 1861-62 on his sixth and final expedition inland, and the third attempt to cross the continent, Stuart successfully crossed overland to the northern coast. It was a shocking journey; he suffered from scurvy, stomach ulcers, and became virtually blind from sandy blight (trachoma).

Adelaide celebrated jubilantly on his return, but Stuart sank into a decline from which he never recovered.

In 1870 Todd, using Stuart’s maps, organised and lead three teams to lay overland telegraph wire. Adelaide was linked to London via the undersea cable to Java and then on through India and so Australia was connected to the world.

Classroom Activities

  1. When it was realised there were two exploration parties simultaneously attempting to travel from south to north of the continent, the newspapers began to report it as an inter-colonial ‘race’ for glory between South Australia and Victoria, a race between John McDouall Stuart and a team led by Burke and Wills. Write two different newspaper editorials about this, each in about 350–400 words. The first should be by the editor of an Adelaide newspaper, the second by the editor of a Melbourne newspaper.
  2. Following from the previous activity, plan and write two major newspaper reports of the two events that took place on the same day: the first should be about the Adelaide public’s celebratory welcome to Stuart on his successful journey back from the north coast, as presented in an Adelaide newspaper; the second should be about the burial of Burke and Wills, as reported in a Melbourne newspaper. You should attempt to refer to both events in each report, and to ‘slant’ the historical details towards the interests and feelings of the local readership.
  3. Discuss in class examples of where inter-colonial rivalry of the past continues today as interstate rivalry, and whether the news media today plays a role in fostering this rivalry. Does interstate rivalry of any kind serve a positive or beneficial purpose?

Further Resources


Richard Evans and Alex West, Constructing Australia, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2007