Many Camden residents and visitors will testify to the beauty of the area. Its lush pasture land, the beautiful summer sun, the changing autumn leaves. But even the most enthusiastic will not venture to say it is the gateway to Utopia. But so thought a handful in the early Sydney colony. In 1798 an expedition was undertaken by a ragtag group from Sydney deep into the surrounding ranges.
The expedition had a unique objective. Many convicts in the penal colony, desperate for freedom, created two myths about what lay beyond the bounds of the Sydney colony. The first and more plausible was that they could find a passage through to China. Although technically possible, the passage is not exclusively on land as they believed, and the supposed length of the journey, 150 miles, was optimistic at best (it is closer to 5000 miles). The second and more fanciful was the belief that beyond the bounds of the colony lived a free white indigenous settlement, where they would be emancipated and where life was easy. It was imagined as the land of Cockaigne, a place of luxury and plenty.
The expedition of 1798 was commissioned by Governor John Hunter as an “expedition of anti-discovery” (Levell, 2008, p.62), specifically to disprove and dispel the myths from persisting. He was not attempting to discover other new parts of Australia, although he kept up that pretense with his superiors, particularly in retrospect (Levell, 2008, p.71).
As striking as the tales are, the real world source is just as fascinating. Those who spread these tales were convicts within the Sydney colony, sick of the hard labour they endured and willing to make the journey into either of these safe havens. Many convicts had died after escaping or, if lucky, managed to find their way back. Dead convicts meant a reduced labour force, but more troubling for Governor Hunter, and Governor Philip before him, was the unrest stirred by the rumours.
Appropriately enough, the man selected to lead the expedition was himself an early settlement convict. John Wilson was convicted of stealing nine yards of velveret in England in 1785 and sentenced to seven years in Australia. He arrived aboard the ship Alexander with the First Fleet. After serving his term he became a “vagabond”, preferring to live “among the natives in the vicinity of the [Hawkesbury] River, to earning the wages of honest industry for settlers”, according to David Collins, deputy judge advocate and lieutenant-governor of the early colony. He did however develop a great knowledge of the Australian bush, and despite his “unsavoury” lifestyle choices, was often called on to partake in expeditions, that is, when they could locate him.
Within a short time most had already turned back, deciding that it was preferable to stay in the relative comfort of the colony than endure the often hostile Australian landscape. The three who continued, only one of which was a convict, faced incredible hardships including starvation numerous times. The only one who remained “well and hearty” was Wilson, with the rest collapsing as soon as they arrived home.
Although farcical in conception, the expedition did provide some unique finds. The one that generated the most excitement at the time was the discovery of a supposed salt deposit that would have removed the need of costly imports into the colony. However, on a second expedition by Wilson, it was determined that the quality of the salt was unsuitable (Levell, 2008, p.70). There was also the first sighting by white people of a koala near Bargo, and the first sighting of a Lyrebird, which was described as a pheasant and resulted in the naming of the area Pheasants Nest. There was also the first recording of a Wombat, with Wilson pointing out the dung to one of his travel companions, although the creature was not actually seen on this expedition.
Although providing for some discoveries on this unique expedition, the main objective of dispelling the escape myths was short lived, with many convicts still attempting to flee the colony. Versions and variations of this paradise myth continued well into the 1820s and 30s, with even the likes of Charles Sturt believing that there was an inland sea in the heart of the Australian continent.
Cambage, R.H. ‘Exploration Beyond the Upper Nepean in 1798’. Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 6, part 1, 1920, pp 1-36.
Levell, D. (2008). Tour to Hell: Convict Australia’s Great Escape Myths. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press.