European Exploration of the Kimberley
There is some uncertainty as to exactly when the first European contact was made in the Kimberley but that contact was obviously made from the coast as European exploration of the globe and the search for new resources extended south. The thousands of years of uninterrupted aboriginal occupation was quickly brought to a conclusion once the first explorers and settlers arrived.
Maritime Exploration of the Kimberley
Although the first officially recorded European visit to the Kimberley coast was by Abel Tasman in 1644, Macassens, in search of the sea slug trepang and other undocumented visits may have preceded Tasman. William Dampier made his first visit as a crewman aboard the Cygnet in 1688 and documented some of early observations on the life and customs of the aborigines around the cape Leveque area. He returned in 1699 on the Roebuck and collected samples and made several observations on the botany of the region. The Coast was surveyed in a rudimentary manner by the French explorer, Baudin in 1801 and 1803 but it wasn't until the surveys of Philip Parker King that the coastline was mapped with any degree of accuracy. King made 3 detailed voyages between 1818 and 1823 and named many features of along the coastline. During his 1820 voyage on the ship Mermaid he was forced to careen and repair the boat for 16 days at a place now called Careening Bay.
Members of the crew recorded the visit by inscribing the ship's name on a large boab tree close to the beach.
Boab tree at Careening Bay
Land Based Exploration of the Kimberley
Following the exploration and mapping of the Kimberley coast a series of important exploratory expeditions were launched that would eventually open up this vast and isolated region.
The first land based exploration of the Kimberley was carried out by a young British army lieutenant, George Grey. The original plan for the expedition was to travel overland from the Kimberley to the Swan River colony and he landed with a large party at Hanover Bay late in 1837 just as the wet season was commencing. Conditions were extremely taxing and the country extremely rough and difficult to traverse with horses. Relations with the local Worora aborigines broke down and Grey was wounded with a spear on an encounter with a group. Grey's party only penetrated about 50 km south of Hanover Bay before the decision was taken to abort the expedition. The party retreated back to Hanover Bay and was evacuated by HMS Beagle under the command of John Stokes.
Although Grey's expedition could be considered a failure his journals form an important record and he was to first European to record the distinctive Wandjina paintings of the Kimberley region.
Cave containing Wandjina paintings first documented by George Grey in March 1838
Wandjina paintings reproduced in Grey's Journal
The reports of Grey and Stokes describing the favourable aspect of the land around Camden Harbour, south of Hanover Bay, led to the first attempted settlement in the Kimberley. A group of settlers from Victoria arrived by boat in late 1864 bringing sheep with them with a view to establishing a pastoral industry. However conditions were harsh, feed for the stock limited and during the dry season water was scarce. Some members of the community, including an infant died and the venture was abandoned late in 1865.
Ruins at Camden Harbour
Grave on Sheep Island, Camden Harbour
In 1879 Alexander Forest led a major exploratory party into the Kimberley from Beagle Bay. The intent was to penetrate to the northern extremities of the region and the party successfully crossed the Oscar Ranges but found the King Leopold too difficult for their horses. The party was eventually recovered from Walcott Inlet, retreated by sea to the Fitzroy River and then, skirting the Napier Range eventually headed east to meet up with the Overland Telegraph Line in the Northern Territory.
Enroute to the telegraph Line he crossed both the Ord and Victoria Rivers and his favourable report on the pastoral potential of the land was the trigger for the establishment of the cattle industry in the Kimberley Region.
As well as the burgeoning cattle industry other developments were taking place that would transform the Kimberley. The pearling port of Broome was established in 1883 and Derby was surveyed in the same year. The gold discovery in Halls Creek in 1885 led to arrival of thousands of prospectors although the boom was short lived. Although the cattle industry was now well established in the southern part of the Kimberley nothing had been developed north of the King Leopold Ranges and this region remained largely unexplored.
Bradshaw had taken up extensive land for pastoral purposes, sight unseen, in the area of the Prince Regent River and established an exploratory expedition to assess the prospectivity of the land. He led a small party out of Wyndham heading initially north and then west toward the Prince Regent River. Bradshaw's navigation skills appeared to be lacking as the party ended up in the Roe and Moran River's approximately 50km to the north of the land he had taken up. In April 1891 he noted some unusual rock art of a form and apparent age greatly different to the Wandjina figures previously described by Grey. These enigmatic figures were subsequently referred to as "Bradshaw" paintings, now more commonly referred to as "Gwion Gwion" paintings.
In 1892 Bradshaw and others did establish a cattle run called Maragui close to the foot of Mt Trafalgar at the entrance to the Prince Regent River but the venture was short lived and suffered the same fate as the abortive Camden Harbour settlement.
Original panel of Gwion Gwion paintings located by Joseph Bradshaw in April, 1891, and the sketches from his journal (photo courtesy of M Cusack)
Frank Hann travelled and explored extensively throughout Australia and in 1898 set out from Derby to explore the northern part of the Kimberley and possibly take up land for cattle. He successfully crossed the King Leopold Ranges and was favourably impressed by the pastoral potential of the basaltic country around Mount House and Mount Elizabeth. Although he eventually did not take up any land himself he discovered and named the Adcock, Charnley and Isdell Rivers but did not explore the northern part of the Kimberley.
The rapid development of the cattle industry in the southern and eastern Kimberley together with other developments in the region prompted the State Government to commission the Chief Inspector Surveyor, Frederick Slade Brockman, in March 1901 to complete the mapping of the Kimberley. Brockman's party comprising 8 Europeans and 2 Aboriginal prisoners from Rottnest left Wyndham on April 2, 1901 with 70 horses and provisions for 6 months. Amongst the group was the Government Geologist, Andrew Gibb Maitland and Dr F M House, a naturalist and botanist. The party initially headed south, following the Chamberlain River before turning west and reaching the Walcott Inlet before heading north eventually reaching Napier Broome Bay close to the present town of Kalumburu.
Reaching the mouth of the Drysdale River they followed the river south before returning to Wyndham in November 1901. In total the expedition covered more than 2300km in a little over 6 months and named a number of rivers and prominent hills and ranges. There were no injuries to any of the party and although only limited numbers of aborigines were encountered good relationships were maintained with the indigenous inhabitants.
Dr House recorded and photographed many significant aboriginal art sites and numerous birds species but surprisingly there is very little recorded on the geological observations made during the trip.
The Brockman expedition essentially completed the exploration of the Kimberley and led the way for the establishment of the missions and extensions of the cattle industry into this more remote section of the region.