Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions

Edward John Eyre, Journals of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia and Overland from Adelaide to King George’s Sound, in the Years 1840–1; Sent by the Colonists of South Australia, with the Sanction and Support of the Government (London 1845)

eyre1-00.jpgI imagine most people think of the journals of nineteenth-century British explorers of the Australian continent as raw material for historians and creative writers, rather than works to be read for their own sake. In fact, the journals were generally written up on the long sea voyage back to Britain, not raw at all, and most if not all of them were intended to give pleasure to the general reader as well as information to actual and prospective colonisers. If one test of a work of literature is whether it lives on in the mind of the reader, then I have some evidence for Eyre’s Journals. It’s more than 40 years since I read it, and this morning I woke up with this passage running in my head:

It was a dreamy kind of feeling, and I could have let the sands of life drain away to the last grain.

I was pleased to find the complete two volumes on Project Gutenberg, so was able to check the quote, and its context. It turns out, of course, that my memory was inaccurate – the original is much better. Here’s part of the entry for 17 May 1841 culminating in the part I was misremembering – the ‘we’ referred to are Eyre and his sole companion for this part of the journey, the Aboriginal man he calls Wylie:

Our stage to-day was only twelve miles, yet some of our horses were nearly knocked up, and we ourselves in but little better condition. The incessant walking we were subject to, the low and unwholesome diet we had lived upon, the severe and weakening attacks of illness caused by that diet, having daily, and sometimes twice a day, to dig for water, to carry all our fire-wood from a distance upon our backs, to harness, unharness, water, and attend to the horses, besides other trifling occupations, making up our daily routine, usually so completely exhausted us, that we had neither spirit nor energy left.

Added to all other evils, the nature of the country behind the sea-coast was as yet so sandy and scrubby that we were still compelled to follow the beach, frequently travelling on loose heavy sands, that rendered our stages doubly fatiguing: whilst at nights, after the labours of the day were over, and we stood so much in need of repose, the intense cold, and the little protection we had against it, more frequently made it a season of most painful suffering than of rest, and we were glad when the daylight relieved us once more.

On our march we felt generally weak and languid – it was an effort to put one foot before the other, and there was an indisposition to exertion that it was often very difficult to overcome. After sitting for a few moments to rest – and we often had to do this – it was always with the greatest unwillingness we ever moved on again. I felt, on such occasions, that I could have sat quietly and contentedly, and let the glass of life glide away to its last sand. There was a dreamy kind of pleasure, which made me forgetful or careless of the circumstances and difficulties by which I was surrounded, and which I was always indisposed to break in upon.

Another great moment is on 6 July  1841, when Eyre and Wylie reach their goal, the town of Albany. It’s a brilliant example of the mechanism described by Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark where a white writer uses – in this case – an Aboriginal character to embody some aspect of himself that he can’t acknowledge. This extract begins just after the two exhausted travellers see the apparently deserted town, the rain ‘falling in torrents’:

I was startled by the loud shrill cry of the native we had met on the road, and who still kept with us: clearly and powerfully that voice rang through the recesses of the settlement beneath, whilst the blended name of Wylie told me of the information it conveyed. For an instant there was a silence still almost as death – then a single repetition of that wild joyous cry, a confused hum of many voices, a hurrying to and fro of human feet, and the streets which had appeared so shortly before gloomy and untenanted, were now alive with natives – men, women and children, old and young, rushing rapidly up the hill, to welcome the wanderer on his return, and to receive their lost one almost from the grave.

It was an interesting and touching sight to witness the meeting between Wylie and his friends. Affection’s strongest ties could not have produced a more affecting and melting scene – the wordless weeping pleasure, too deep for utterance, with which he was embraced by his relatives, the cordial and hearty reception given him by his friends, and the joyous greeting bestowed upon him by all, might well have put to the blush those heartless calumniators, who, branding the savage as the creature only of unbridled passions, deny to him any of those better feelings and affections which are implanted in the breast of all mankind, and which nature has not denied to any colour or to any race.

Upon entering the town I proceeded direct to Mr Sherrats’, where I had lodged when in King George’s Sound in 1840. By him and his family I was most hospitably received, and every attention shewn to me; and in the course of a short time, after taking a glass of hot brandy and water, performing my ablutions and putting on a clean suit of borrowed clothes, I was enabled once more to feel comparatively comfortable, and to receive the many kind friends who called upon me.

He’d have us believe he only mentions the ‘wordless weeping pleasure, too deep for utterance’ to make an anthropological point. For the son of a Bedfordshire vicar, feeling ‘comparatively comfortable’ is quite enough, thank you very much.

This is the book that Patrick White was reading during London Blitz when the idea for Voss came to him.


6 responses to “Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions

  1. Moved beyond measure by your memory, Jonathan, which for so long retained the imagery if not the exact words – and by the scene which you have chosen beside to share with your readers. I do not wish to disturb these human feelings – but then I wonder at the fact that in 2016 we can strap Indigenous children/teenagers into restraints in a chair and deny their humanity by cloaking their visage beneath a ghoulish hood. Come again, Edward John EYRE – we need you to speak to the hearts of politicians and turnkeys!


    • But I’m pretty sure I would have got it close to word perfect 20 years ago, Jim. And I had misremembered that it was Wylie who snapped him out of the lethargy – on the contrary it’s his good old Protestant work ethic that keeps them both going. Paradoxically, after spending some time in Australia being a comparatively benign figure in Aboriginal–coloniser relations, Eyre went on to be a governor in the Caribbean with a murderous reputation – as in Geoffrey Dutton’s The Hero as Murderer.


  2. I’ve read some of this journal too Jonathan. I agree that many of these journals are good reading. I didn’t know that about Voss though.


    • On the subject of celebrity readers of Eyre (apart from you and me, that is, Sue), Francis Webb said in a note on his ‘Eyre All Alone’: ‘Eyre’s personal journal is infinitely more dramatic than this poem can pretend to be.’


  3. I liked your misremembered line better. Start a poem with it?


    • Oh no, Edwina. He used ‘glide’ and ‘glass’ and ‘pleasure’, especially ‘pleasure’. Trimming some of the Victorian wordage, you get, ‘I could have let the glass of life glide away to its last sand. There was a dreamy kind of pleasure, which made me forget the difficulties by which I was surrounded.’ It’s such fabulous description of quiet despair.


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