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The secret agenda of Western Australian explorer, Robert Dale (1809-1853).

Robert Dale's entry in the Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians mentions his arrival at Swan River as a British Army ensign (1829), explorations and land acquisitions, promotion to lieutenant (1832) and return to England (1833). It omits to say that he took to England the smoked head of the slain aboriginal leader, Yagan, and also published a nine-foot-long panoramic view of King George's Sound (1834). My interest in Robert Dale was aroused during research into a supposed secret expedition to Australia's centre. According to the Leeds Mercury newspaper (1834) a British expedition marched inland from the coast in 1832 and discovered a colony descended from Dutch shipwreck victims. Whether or not that expedition occurred and involved Robert Dale remains a mystery. However, his four years exploring, surveying and clearing roads in Western Australia earn him a place in Australian map history. He came from a military family, but back in England he left the army to become a timber merchant in Liverpool. This paper uses evidence from British archives to fill in details of his life before, during and after Australia and to shed light upon his personal agenda.


Robert Dale, an early explorer of Western Australia, deserves more historical attention. The Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians notes correctly that he was born in November 1810 but gives his date of death incorrectly as 1856 instead of 1853 (Erickson & Atkinson, 1988, 2:749; Death Certificate, 1853). The rest of the brief entry is confined to his stay in Australia, 1829-1833. It says that Ensign Robert Dale arrived on 8 June 1829 with the British Army's 63rd Regiment at the newly founded Swan River Settlement. It says that he explored various routes and acquired lands in Western Australia. The entry closes with his promotion to lieutenant in 1832 and his departure for England in October 1833. Slightly earlier historical articles in Australian serials give several more details about his life but include some factual errors (Miller, 1974 & 1979; Carroll, 1985). With the aim of revealing the secret agenda of Robert Dale's life, the present paper constructs a fuller and more accurate biographical picture from research in English and Australian libraries and archives.


Robert Dale was born in November 1810 (during the Napoleonic Wars) in Winchester, England. His father, Major Thurston Dale, was stationed there as aide-de-camp to General William Dyott, who was his uncle. Major Dale's parents were General Dyott's sister, Katherine, and Robert Dale. Both families were landed gentry, the Dales from Ashbourne in Derbyshire and the Dyotts from Lichfield, forty kilometres to the south in Staffordshire. Robert Dale's mother, Helen Matthews, was Irish, as was General Dyott's wife. In addition to official records, diaries kept by General Dyott from 1781 to 1845 provide much personal information (Dyott papers; Jeffery, 1907). In 1809 General Dyott and Major Dale had accompanied British forces to Walcheren, an island off the southwest coast of the Netherlands. However, Major Dale became ill with fever, and General Dyott sent him back to England, fearing for his life (Jeffery, 1907, 1:279-286). In 1810 Major Dale made plans to sell his army commission and thus avoid leaving his family again.

The Dyott and Dale families remained in touch, although it is as yet uncertain where Major Dale's family lived while Robert was growing up. Major Dale's five children were: Helen Katherine, born in 1801, followed at two-year intervals by Frances Elizabeth, Katherine Amelia, Thurston and Robert. General Dyott's three children, Richard, William and Eleanor, were close to them in age. Robert Dale's older brother, Thurston, entered Cambridge University in 1825 to study law. Their cousin, Richard Dyott, was already there, intended for public office or the law. In contrast, the military career that Robert Dale was earmarked for did not require a university education. His formal education ended at age 16, possibly at a private military academy in England like one that General Dyott had attended. Typical studies would have prepared him for his later military activities in Australia: surveying and mapping, topographic sketching, journal keeping and shooting. He also had an observant eye for botany, minerals and soil. General Dyott naturally used his influence to promote Robert Dale's career. As Colonel of the 63rd Regiment, he obtained an ensigncy for Robert Dale in December 1826 (Jeffery, 1907, 1:385). General Dyott's own son, Richard, neglected his studies and had to leave Cambridge University suddenly in August 1827. The Army was the only obvious alternative for him. General Dyott could not get him into the Coldstream Guards, so Richard Dyott also entered the 63rd Regiment as an ensign (Jeffery, 1907, 2:6-7, 13 & 21-22). In 1829, however, the 63rd Regiment received notice of its imminent posting to Australia, typically for four years followed by four more years in India before returning to England (Jeffery, 2:46). General Dyott refused to let his eldest son go so far away for so long and arranged Richard's transfer to another regiment (Jeffery, 2:58-60).

Robert Dale, however, stayed in the 63rd Regiment and embarked in February 1829 with a detachment of troops commanded by Captain Frederick Chidley Irwin for Western Australia (a voyage of about three and one-half months). They were aboard the Sulphur, the Royal Navy vessel assigned to support the first settlement at Swan River. James Stirling, the former naval officer who was founder and Lieutenant Governor of the new colony, his family and about 200 prospective settlers were aboard a companion vessel, the Parmelia. They arrived at Swan River in early September 1829 (Russo & Schmidt, 1987, 33-35).


Stirling promoted the exploration of Western Australia, especially after the coastal areas settled first proved unsuitable for agriculture (Garden, 1977, 5). He was also following Colonial Office instructions to gather information for the Royal Geographical Society (PRO, CO 1832, 324/87, Hay to Stirling, 9 Jan). During the four years that Robert Dale was in Australia, he was sent on numerous exploring and surveying expeditions. In 1835 Captain Irwin wrote:
 Among those to whose enterprize and
 exertions the colonists are indebted for very
 valuable information respecting their
 territory, it would be injustice to omit the
 name of Lieut. Dale, of the 63rd regiment,
 who has been engaged, perhaps more than
 any other person, in exploring the interior at
 Swan River and King George's Sound.

 To this officer the colonists are indebted for
 the discovery, in August 1830, of the
 country to the eastward of the Darling
 Range, by far the finest district yet
 occupied. His services in the Survey
 Department, to which he was attached for
 several years, were deemed so important,
 that the Governor more than once expressed
 his sense of them, in his dispatches to the
 Secretary of State. (Irwin, 1835, 15)

Stirling published six reports of Robert Dale's expeditions, along with those of other explorers, in 1833 (Journals of Several Expeditions...). The routes of the different explorers appear on a composite map in the rear of the volume, whose detail indicates that they were doing considerable surveying and mapping. Robert Dale also sent his great uncle a manuscript copy of an expedition report, one that mentions discovering and naming the Dyott Range near York, Western Australia after him (Dyott papers; Journals of Several Expeditions, 1833, 53-61).


Stirling's orders to explore the colony looking for agricultural land and other resources probably matched Robert Dale's own interests. He brought agricultural supplies with him and bought more after arriving in Western Australia (SRO, 1829 CSR 15/2). He acquired properties near Swan River, York and Helena (Erickson & Atkinson, 1988, 2:749). The local Agricultural and Horticultural Society (founded at Swan River in 1831) had the aim of developing the area's natural resources (Battye, 1924, 111). North of Albany on King George Sound, Robert Dale and others found patches of good land in the Mt. Barker district 31 miles inland (Garden, 1977, 60). In January 1832 Robert Dale went on an expedition north of Albany trying to locate maize- and rice-like native grains reported by the Aboriginals (Journals of Several Expeditions, 1833, 161-167). It is also likely that the forests of jarrah and karri (native mahogany) in the southwestern part of Western Australia, soon found to be suitable for ship repairs, stimulated his interest in the timber trade.

During October-November 1831 George Moore, a lawyer from Ireland whose farm was near Dale's own Swan River property, accompanied him on a six-week expedition. Moore's published diary says that Robert Dale led a party of settlers and explorers (21 persons altogether) from Guildford (near Perth) eastward about 45 miles to York, an area that he had previously discovered and surveyed (Moore, 1884, 91-93). Stirling showed his support of the venture by accompanying the party on the first day of their journey. Robert Dale went ahead to determine the most direct passable route for the settlers with their wagons, horses and cattle, marking trees to guide them (Moore, 1884, 93). His Irish servant, Private Terrance Sheridan, wheeled an instrument for measuring distance, known as a perambulator (Moore, 1884, 94). Once they had delivered the settlers to York, Robert Dale, Moore, Sheridan and a Mr. Thompson used the town site as a base from which to explore systematically army-style, riding outward 50 miles and back in different directions, before returning to Perth. Along the way both Robert Dale and Moore inspected their land grants.

The four explorers subsisted on provisions, game they shot and plants they recognized. During this trip, they avoided contact with the Aboriginals they encountered. By the end of his stay in Australia, though, Robert Dale had learned about the bush skills of the Aboriginals (Dale, 1834b, 6-11). Keeping an expedition journal was an important part of an army officer's work. In July 1832, after returning to the Swan River Settlement from King George Sound where he had been exploring the southern part of Western Australia, Dale visited George Moore and showed him an expedition journal about two hundred pages in length (Moore, 1884, 169).

Governor Stirling returned to England in 1832 to request more support for the struggling Western Australia colony. Although he did not leave for England until August 1832, Stirling had already written to the Colonial Office in June 1831 requesting a leave of absence (PRO, CO 714/11, fol. 10). In September 1831 a petition for more government support had been signed by 100 Swan River residents, including Robert Dale (PRO, CO 18/10). Stirling returned to England in 1832 to report that diminishing immigration and capital were hindering the colony's development (PRO, CO 18/12, fol. 29r). Also, local food shortages in Western Australia had been aggravated by the long distances to sources of supply. At least, that was the official story. The local newspaper had announced in July 1832 that Stirling would be leaving for England soon, adding, "There is a vast deal more in this arrangement than meets the public eye" (Western Australian Colonial News, 1832).

What other factors could there have been? Stirling had alienated quite a few colonists with his high-handed manner of running the colony. Western Australia differed from earlier Australian colonies, because it was founded by free settlers rather than being a convict settlement. The colonists resented Stirling's grants of land to full-pay military officers like Robert Dale (Russo & Schmidt, 1987, 37). Going on leave must have provided relief from Stirling's daily administrative worries, although one personnel problem accompanied him back to England. Stirling had fallen out with Captain Dance of the Sulphur, who wanted to delay the ship's departure due to his wife's illness. When the Sulphur finally departed in August 1832, Stirling refused to dine with Dance, joining the officers' mess instead. Dance later tried unsuccessfully to claim compensation for the unused provisions (PRO, CO 1833, 18/13, Dance to Hay 9 Feb & 4 June, & Dance to Twiss 27 June). The official decision was that Stirling had acted properly. He was knighted in April 1833. The Colonial Office also awarded Stirling his full governor's pay while in England, paid two-thirds of his 600 [pounds sterling] passage back to Australia and agreed that his Australian land grant should be in addition to his salary (PRO, CO 1833, 397/3 Hay to Stewart 8 Jan & Hay to Stewart 12 Feb). Perhaps Stirling's favourable treatment was partly due to his influential in-laws, the Mangles family, who were prominent in shipping and in the East India Company.


Meanwhile back in Australia Captain Irwin, as acting Lieutenant Governor, had appointed Robert Dale as his aide-de-camp at a salary of five shillings per diem (PRO, CO 714/11). The Colonial Office had sanctioned the assignment in January 1832 but decided in February that the wages should be reduced (PRO, CO 1832, 397/3 Hay to Stewart 7 Jan & Hay to Somerset 18 Feb). In November 1832 Robert Dale purchased a vacated lieutenancy. A year later, though, in January 1833 the Colonial Office, while simultaneously showing generosity to Stirling, decided to cut costs at Swan River by eliminating Robert Dale's position as staff officer. The orders were to become effective when the despatches reached the colony, presumably by the summer. The news must have reached Western Australia before 10 August 1833, when Captain Irwin appointed Robert Dale to a different job, surveying and superintending road works near Swan River, still at 5 shillings per diem (PRO, CO 714/11).

However, on 29 September 1833 Captain Irwin and Robert Dale suddenly embarked for England without waiting for Stirling to return. Their departure was unusual, because the rest of the 63rd regiment was about to leave for their next tour of duty in India. A farewell dinner for Captain Irwin, Robert Dale and other departing officers of the 63rd Regiment was reported in the newspaper. At the dinner Dale remarked that he was leaving with regret but added that "...motives of prudence and ulterior prospects had an imperative call on him" (Perth Gazette, 1833).

A combination of factors may have contributed to the decision to return to England. On the official side, it seems that Irwin wanted to present his own account of the events leading up to the slaying of Yagan, an Aboriginal chief, by colonists (PRO, CO 18/14, fol. 363-364). Perhaps Irwin and Dale also hoped to appeal to reinstate the position of aide-decamp and the higher salary.

Robert Dale probably also had personal reasons for returning to England. He may have been anticipating an inheritance from his grandfather Dale, who was over 80 when his will was drawn up in 1830 (Dyott papers, D661/18/20). Also, his oldest sister, Katherine Amelia, had married a prosperous Liverpool timber merchant, Edward Chaloner, in 1830. Perhaps Robert Dale had the idea of joining him in the timber business and exploiting the mahogany forests of Western Australia. In addition, the British government's change of policy in 1831 from awarding land grants to charging settlers for land may have discouraged him from staying on in Western Australia (Garden, 1977, 37).

Finally, Captain Irwin and Robert Dale may have been called back to England by James Stirling, although there is no known official record of this. His reason for summoning them could have been to ensure the continued secrecy of an expedition to central Australia reported in unofficial sources.


Based on research reported to the Society for the History of Discoveries in 2000, it is possible that Stirling had sent Robert Dale on a secret expedition to the centre of Australia during March-May 1832 (Cook, 1999). The expedition party may have landed at Fowler's Bay on the south coast, marched due north to an area near Alice Springs and then returned to the coast. If so, the expedition took place in territory that then belonged to New South Wales. Stirling might have wanted to keep secret the trespass onto the territory of a rival colony. Nevertheless, an anonymous account of such an expedition appeared in the Leeds Mercury newspaper in England in January 1834. It published an anonymous report of the discovery of several hundred Dutch-speaking descendants of shipwreck survivors, who had walked to central Australia from the west coast in the early 18th century. The account went on to say that the expedition, described as originating in Singapore and landing on the northern shore of Australia (possibly to hide its true origin), had been supported by the local government and a scientific society but was being kept secret for unexplained reasons. If Stirling had reported the discovery of a Dutch colony to his superiors in the Colonial Office, their reason for continued secrecy would likely have been the strained relations between the Dutch and English nations, especially in the East Indies. The English were already worried that the French might land on an unsettled stretch of coast and try to claim part of Australia. The discovery of a Dutch colony with a possible prior claim to Australia would have alarmed his superiors in the Colonial Office. If that was one of the reasons why Stirling returned to England, though, no evidence in the official written record has yet been found (Cook, 1999).

Irwin and Dale were treated well by the authorities back in England. Stirling was on the point of returning to Australia when they arrived. They met with him briefly, and he wrote favourably about them to the Colonial Office. Irwin's official report to the Under Secretary of State, dated 2 Oct 1833, explains that one reason for returning was to explain the killing of an Aboriginal chief, Yagan. Irwin also apologizes for overpaying Robert Dale and two other officials (PRO, CO 18/14 fol. 363-364). Nevertheless, his superiors expressed satisfaction with his administration of the Western Australian government, noting: "It will be very difficult to find the means of promoting Captain Irwin; but the credit he has acquired in his recent service will not be lost sight of" (PRO, CO 1834, 18/14 Letter to Lefevre 10 Mar). The plan, one favourable to Stirling, was to send Irwin back to Western Australia as permanent commander of the troops there (PRO, CO 1834, 18/14 Letter to Stanley 11 Mar). That did not happen immediately, and Irwin remained in Britain for some years, promoting the colony through the Western Australia Association (First Report of the Western Australian Association, 1836). Stirling returned to Western Australia in 1833 and stayed there another four years, finally giving up the governorship and arriving back in England in June 1839 (Arrivals, 1839).

Robert Dale was also well received in England. Shortly after their return to England, on 28 February 1834, Captain Irwin wrote a letter of praise to the Under Secretary of State saying that Robert Dale,
 ... while attached to the Survey Department,
 discovered the country eastward of Darling's
 Range (considered the finest in the
 settlement) & subsequently conducted across
 the range the first settlers of this new district,
 with their carts & establishments. Other
 expeditions of discovery in the Swan River
 and King George's Sound districts were
 likewise conducted by this officer, who has
 separately received from Governor Sir James
 Stirling an expression of approbation, and a
 notification that he had brought under the
 notice of His Majesty's Government the
 services he had rendered to the colony. (PRO,
 CO 1834, 18/14 Irwin to Lefevre 28 Feb)

Almost immediately Robert Dale arranged to have his nine-foot-long coloured panorama of Albany, Western Australia printed by aquatint and offered for sale with an accompanying descriptive booklet (Dale, 1834a). In March 1834 he circulated copies of the prospectus and solicited almost 90 subscriptions from family, friends, military colleagues and government administrators (Dale, 1834a & 1834b). The prospectus says, "This print will be richly coloured from the original drawings, taken on the spot by Lieutenant R. Dale 63rd Regiment. Engraved by Robert Havell" (Dale, 1834a). Robert Havell, Jr. was a London engraver better known for his work on John James Audubon's Birds of America, but he also specialized in panoramic views (Hyde, 1984). The accompanying text describes the Aboriginals of Western Australia and their way of life, as well as the plants, animals and landscape. The dedication to the Royal Geographical Society indicates Robert Dale's intention to contribute to scientific knowledge. The booklet ends by recounting the events leading up to the death of Yagan, the Aboriginal leader slain by colonists. It includes the testimony of a phrenologist, T. J. Pettigrew, who had examined the smoked head of Yagan brought back to England by Robert Dale. The phrenologist concludes that Yagan had been naturally disposed toward "...cruelty, cunning, malevolence, and revenge..." (Dale, 1834b, 15-20). This evidence may have helped to justify the killing of Yagan to the Colonial Office. Robert Dale later gave the smoked head to the Liverpool Royal Institute, and it was not repatriated until 1997 (Sedimentary Systems Research Unit, 1997).

Robert Dale remained on leave until he left the British Army in 1835. The news of his decision to sell out of the army surprised General Dyott, who strongly disapproved. As senior lieutenant in the 63rd Regiment, Robert Dale had good prospects in the army (Dyott papers, 1835, D661/11/2/3/1/13, 5 Nov). Perhaps the sale of his commission, along with 500 [pounds sterling] inherited from his grandfather, who had died in January 1835, enabled Robert Dale to set himself up as a timber merchant in Liverpool later that year. Major Dale, who had inherited his father's estate, complained to General Dyott that he was left with only a small allowance after providing for other members of the family (Dyott papers, 1836, D661/11/2/1/13, 19 Nov). One such arrangement made by Major Dale in late January 1835 was to article his elder son, Thurston, to a lawyer in London for one year, to learn property conveyancing (Dyott papers, 1835, D661/11/2/3/1/13, 27 Jan). However, young Thurston appeared sickly and listless to General Dyott, and, not surprisingly, returned from London before the year was up.


By November 1835 the brothers, Robert and Thurston Dale, had set up in Liverpool as merchants (Dyott 1835, D661/11/2/3/1/13, 5 Nov). When General Dyott and his daughter, Eleanor, visited Liverpool by train in September 1837, Robert gave them a nice lunch at his lodgings. General Dyott expressed hope that he was doing well in the timber business. During the same visit General Dyott found the Chaloners to be very well off, living in grand style in a large home, Oakhill, at Old Swan near Liverpool. Major and Mrs. Thurston Dale had recently moved into a house in an adjacent neighborhood (Dyott, 1837, D661/11/2/3/1/13, 30 Aug.; Jeffery, 1907, 263-265).

Robert Dale and Edward Chaloner do not seem to have been business partners. An 1840 Liverpool directory listed separately "Chaloner & Houghton, Timber Merchants" and "Dale & Boydell, Timber Merchants" (Robson's, 1840). An 1843 directory listed the firm of "Chaloner, Houghton & Fleming", while Robert Dale, timber merchant, had his business at 6 Sefton Street and lived at 24 Nelson Street with Mr. Thurston Dale (Pigot and Slater's General and Classified Directory, 1843).

However, mahogany was definitely a business interest that Robert Dale and his brother-in-law shared. In the Descriptive Account accompanying his 1834 panorama Robert Dale had written:
 The Mahogany, (a species of Eucalyptus)
 although at present little known in England,
 is likely soon to become valuable as an
 article of export. Immense forests of these
 trees extend for hundreds of miles on the
 mountains behind the west coast. The wood
 is admirably adapted for ship-building, and
 makes handsome furniture. H.M.S. Success
 was repaired with it--and the report made to
 the Admiralty on her arrival in England was
 so favourable, that a high price was offered
 for its importation for the use of the navy.
 (Dale, 1834b, 12-13)

Chaloner published a pamphlet in 1837 promoting the mahogany trade (Chaloner & Fleming, 1851, iii & 5). In 1851 Edward Chaloner published another book about mahogany, mentioning the main source of supply as Honduras (Chaloner & Fleming, 1851). In it Chaloner thanks Robert Dale for helping the Honduras Committee for the Promotion of the Interests of the Mahogany Trade in 1846 by writing letters to gather evidence about mahogany's suitability for ship building (Chaloner & Fleming, 1851, v & 81- 110). Robert Dale made a voyage to the West Indies and Mexico, partly for business and partly for his health, from March to May in 1850 or 1851. He wrote a book about the trip, and it had the same publisher as Chaloner's book, as well as appearing in the same year (Dale, 1851). Robert Dale described his trip, made observations about the mahogany trade and included topographic views drawn by himself. He comments that the Indian settlement of Mina-Titlan with its palm-thatched mud huts appeared "...a very strange place, resembling one of the newly formed settlements in Australia" (Dale, 1851, 25). He must have been recollecting Albany, the little settlement on King George's Sound of which he had written, "... the houses are low, and built of brick, mud and wood, and thatched with rushes" (Dale, 1834b, 11).

It seems that Robert Dale never returned to Australia, although he retained some property in York, Western Australia. In 1850 it was being managed by R. Dodd and was available for lease (Erickson & Atkinson, 1988, 2:749). His father, Major Thurston Dale, died in 1850, followed by Robert's brother, Thurston, in 1851, and Robert inherited Dove House in Ashbourne. By 1853 though, Robert Dale, ill with tuberculosis, was visiting his mother, Helen, and his unmarried sister, Frances, in the spa town of Bath, and there he died on 22 July (Death certificate, 1853). His will left his property equally to Frances and his surviving married sister, Helen Catherine [Katherine] Shuttleworth. It was to be divided between them after his mother's death and after the repayment of 1038 [pounds sterling] owed to Edward Chaloner (PRO, PROB 11/2178).


The picture of Robert Dale created by this evidence is of a likeable, energetic person. He was on good terms with his family. General Dyott sponsored him in the Army and called him by the nickname, Bob. His grandfather Dale remembered him very fondly in his will. George Moore enjoyed accompanying him on an expedition. Captain Irwin selected him as his aide-de-camp.

Robert Dale was active in different pursuits. Army reports praise his performance as an army officer in Australia. He displayed initiative when leading expeditions and undertaking surveying and mapping. He wrote about Australia and published a topographic panorama he had drawn there. He led in promoting the mahogany timber business that occupied the last 15 years of his life. He lobbied energetically for mahogany's use, as well as travelling to Mexico and writing about the Central American mahogany trade.

In the book about his trip to Mexico, cultural biases do emerge when he notes that the shiftless natives could prosper if only they applied themselves (Dale, 1851, 47). He concludes:
 On the 8th of May we bid adieu to Mexico,
 and we quitted it, impressed with a feeling of
 admiration for the splendour of its scenery,
 the richness of its soil, and the vastness of its
 natural resources; but with a sentiment also of
 regret, that a country so magnificent should
 be so little appreciated by its inhabitants, that
 it did not command that high rank in the scale
 of nations, to which the extent and
 geographical position of its territory
 otherwise entitled it. (Dale, 1851, 53)

This is similar to a comment near the end of the account of the secret Australian expedition in the Leeds Mercury--to the effect that the descendants of the Dutch shipwreck have lost civilized habits and
 ... frequently experience a scarcity and
 shortage of provisions, most probably owing
 to ignorance and mismanagement; and had
 little or nothing to offer us now except
 skins. (Leeds Mercury, 1834)

Robert Dale may or may not have written both passages. The attitude expressed is societal rather than uniquely individual, reflecting the nineteenth-century colonial attitude toward non-Western cultures as inferior. This ethnocentric point of view could have resigned the discoverer of a Dutch colony in central Australia to abandon its members to their fate.

Whether or not Robert Dale actually led a secret expedition to central Australia is peripheral to this paper. James Stirling is most likely to have initiated the expedition, although it would have accorded with Robert Dale's own interests. In the nineteenth century exploring the centre of unknown continents, hoping to find a great river that could become an avenue for trade, was a major object of geographical discovery. Explorers also sought natural resources to trade, harvest or cultivate. Initially excited about discovering the Dutch colony, the writer of the account in the Leeds Mercury loses interest after he discovers they have nothing of value to trade.

Robert Dale's own secret agenda was clearly commercial. It led him from an army career and land acquisition in Western Australia back to Liverpool and the timber trade. In Liverpool circumstances led him to refocus his attention on Honduras as a source of mahogany. He did not make a great personal fortune, and his career was cut short by illness. However, his interests were representative of his day and age. The exploitive attitude toward natural resources, such as timber, that he exemplified underlay colonial development in general. As Australian author, William J. Lines, has pointed out in his recent book about the effects of the timber trade on Western Australia, it was a vision of material progress that was blind to its destructive environmental consequences (Lines, 1998).


Article from the Leeds Mercury; 25 January 1834.



A Correspondent living near Halifax has favoured us with the following interesting communication:--


GENTLEMEN,--A friend of mine lately arrived from Singapore, via India overland, having been one of a party who landed at Raffles Bay, on the north coast of New Holland, on the 10th of April, 1832, and made a two months' excursion into the interior, has permitted me to copy the following extract out of his private journal, which I think contains some particulars of a highly interesting nature, and not generally known.

The exploring party was promoted by a scientific Society at Singapore, aided and patronized by the Local Government, and its object was both commercial and geographical; but it was got up with the greatest secrecy, and remained secret to all except the parties concerned. (For what good purpose it is impossible to conceive :--)

Extract from an unpublished manuscript Journal of an exploring party in Northern Australia, by Lieutenant Nixon.

"May 15th, 1832.--On reaching the summit of the hill, no words can express the astonishment, delight, and wonder I felt at the magical change of scenery, after having travelled for so many days over nothing but barren hills and rocks, and sands and parching plains, without seeing a single tribe of aborigines excepting those on the sea coast, and having to dig for water every day.

"Looking to the southwards, I saw below me, at the distance of about three or four miles, a low and level country, laid out as it were in plantations, with straight rows of trees, through which a broad sheet of smooth water extended in nearly a direct line from east to west, as far as the eye could reach to the westward, but apparently sweeping to the southward at its eastern extremity like a river; and near its banks, at one particular spot on the south side, there appeared to be a group of habitations, embosomed in a grove of tall trees like palms. The water I guessed to be about half a mile wide, and although the stream was clearly open for two thirds of the distance from the southern bank, the remainder of it was studded by thousands of little islands stretching along its northern shores: and what fixed me to the spot with indescribable sensations of rapture and admiration was the number of small boats or canoes with one or two persons in each, gliding along the narrow chanels (sic) between the little islands in every direction, some of which appeared to be fishing or drawing nets. None of them had a sail, but one that was floating down the body of the stream without wind, which seemed to denote that a current ran from east to west. It seemed as if enchantment had brought me into a civilized country, and I could scarcely resolve to leave the spot I stood upon, had it not been for the overpowering rays of a mid day sun, affecting my bowels, as it frequently had done, during all the journey.

"On reaching the bottom of the hill in my return to our party at the tents, I was just turning round a low rock, when I came suddenly upon a human being whose face was so fair and dress so white, that I was for a moment staggered with terror, and thought that I was looking upon an apparition. I had naturally expected to meet an Indian as black or brown as the rest of the natives, and not a white man in these unexplored regions. Still quaking with doubts about the integrity of my eyes, I proceeded on, and saw the apparition advancing upon me with the most perfect indifference: in another minute he was quite near, and I now perceived that he had not yet seen me, for he was walking slowly and pensively with his eyes fixed on the ground, and he appeared to be a young man of a handsome and interesting countenance. We were got within four paces of each other when he heaved a deep and tremulous sigh, raised his eyes, and in an instant uttered a loud exclamation and fell insensible on the ground. My fears had now given place to sympathy, and I hastened to assist the unknown, who, I felt convinced, had been struck with the idea of seeing a supernatural being. It was a considerable time before he recovered and was assured of my mortality; and from a few expressions in old Dutch, which he uttered, I was luckily enabled to hold some conversation with him; for I had been at school in Holland in my youth and not quite forgotten the language. Badly as he spoke Dutch, yet I gathered from him a few particulars of a most extraordinary nature; namely, that he belonged to a small community, all as white as himself, he said about three hundred; that they lived in houses enclosed all together within a great wall to defend them from black men; that their fathers came there about one hundred and seventy years ago, as they said, form a distant land across the great sea; and that their ship broke, and eighty men and ten of their sisters (female passengers?) with many things were saved on shore. I prevailed on him to accompany me to my party, who I knew would be glad to be introduced to his friends before we set out on our return to our ship at Port Raffles, from which place we were now distant nearly five hundred miles, and our time was limited to a fixed period so as to enable the ship to carry us back to Singapore before the change of the monsoon. The young man's dress consisted of a round jacket and large breeches, both made of skins, divested of the hair and bleached as white as linen; and on his head he wore a tall white skin cap with a brim covered over with white down or the small feathers of the white cocatoo. The latitude of this mountain was eighteen degrees thirty minutes fourteen seconds south; and longitude one hundred and thirty-two degrees twenty-five minutes thirty seconds east. It was christened Mount Singapore, after the name and in honour of the settlement to which the expedition belonged."

A subsequent part of the journal states further, "that on our party visiting the white village, the joy of the simple inhabitants was quite extravagant. The descendant of an officer is looked up to as chief, and with him (whose name is Van Baerle), the party remained eight days. Their traditional history is, that their fathers were compelled by famine, after the loss of their great vessel, to travel towards the rising sun, carrying with them as much of the stores as they could, during which many died; and by the wise advice of their ten sisters they crossed a ridge of land, and meeting with a rivulet on the other side, followed its course and were led to the spot they now inhabit, where they have continued ever since. They have no animals of the domestic kind, either cows, sheep, pigs or any thing else; their plantations consist only of maize and yams, and these with fresh and dried fish constitute their principal food, which is changed occasionally for Kangaroo and other game; but it appears that they frequently experience a scarcity and shortness of provisions, most probably owing to ignorance and mismanagement; and had little or nothing to offer us now except skins. They are nominal Christians: their marriages are performed without any ceremony: all the elders sit in council to manage their affairs; all the young, from ten up to a certain age, are considered a standing militia, and are armed with long pikes; they have no books or paper, nor any schools; they retain a certain observance of the sabbath by refraining from their daily labours, and perform a short superstitious ceremony on that day all together; and they may be considered almost a new race of beings."


The research reported here was conducted in collaboration with Les Hiddins and Andrew S. Cook, both of whom provided inspiration and invaluable support. Grateful thanks are also due to the staff, in England, of the National Army Museum, the Public Record Office and the Staffordshire Country Record Office and, in Australia, of the J. S. Battye Library, the National Trust of Australia (Western Australian Branch), the Royal Western Australian Historical Society and the State Records Office of Western Australia. Local assistance in Perth was also received from members of the VOC Historical Society and from Ken Dreibergs. The University of Kansas Libraries Staff Development Program provided some funds for travel to Australia and the 2002 Australian Map Circle meeting in Cairns, where this paper was presented.


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Chaloner and Fleming, Mahogany and Timber Brokers, [1851], The Mahogany Tree: Its Botanical Characters, Qualities and Uses, Rockliffe & Son, Liverpool & Effingham Wilson, London.

Cook, K. S., 1999, "A paper trail of discovery and deception: the report of the 1832 expedition that found a lost Dutch colony in central Australia", paper presented to Society for the History of Discoveries, Forty-First Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C.

Dale, R., 1830, [Report of expedition eastward of Darling Mountains], Staffordshire Record Office, Stafford, D661/18/10.

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--, 1834b, Descriptive Account of the Panoramic View, &c. of King George's Sound, and the Adjacent Country, J. Cross & R. Havell, London.

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Death certificate for Robert Dale, 22 July 1853, Bath, Somerset, England.

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Garden, D. S., 1977, Albany: A Panorama of the Sound from 1827, Nelson, West Melbourne. First Report of the Western Australian Association, 1836, John Cross, London.

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Jeffery, R. W., 1907, Dyott's Diary 1781-1845: A Selection from the Journal of William Dyott, sometime General in the British Army and Aide-de-Camp to His Majesty King George III, Archibald Constable, London.

Journals of Several Expeditions Made in Western Australia, during the Years 1829, 1830, 1831, and 1832, under the Sanction of the Governor, Sir James Stirling, 1833, J. Cross, London. Also available in a facsimile edition, 1980, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands on behalf of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, Inc. A rear cover pocket in the volume contains a large folded map: "Map of the South West Part of Australia with the latest discoveries. 1833", "London. J.Cross, 18 Holburn, opposite Furnival's Inn, June 12, 1833". The map individually depicts the routes of the Surveyor-General, Ensign R. Dale, Capt. Bannister, Lt. Preston RN, Capt. A. Collie RN, Capt. Currie RN, Dr Wilson RN and others including one route marked "some convicts from King George's Sound 1830"!

Leeds Mercury, 1834, "Discovery of a white colony on the north shore of New Holland", 25 January.

Lines, William J., 1998, A Long Walk in the Australian Bush, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Ga.

Miller, C., 1974, "WA history has brushed Robert Dale out of mind", Living Today, 19 September, 38-39.

--, 1979, "Robert Dale--soldier and explorer", The West Australian, 8 December, 35.

Moore, G. F., 1884, Diary of Ten Years Eventful Life of an Early Settler in Western Australia, M. Walbrook, London.

Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 1833, [Report of farewell dinner for Captain Irwin and Robert Dale], No. 40, 5 October.

Pigot and Slater's General and Classified Directory and Street Register of Liverpool, 1843, Pigot & Slater, Manchester.

Public Record Office [PRO], England, Records of the Colonial Office [CO].

Robson's Liverpool Directory, Street Key, and Circulation of Trades, Particularizing the Residence and Professions of the merchants, Manufacturers, and Traders, of Liverpool, [1840], William Robson & Co, [London].

Russo, G. & Schmidt, H., 1987, A Colonial History of Western Australia, Lynward Enterprises, Perth.

Sedimentary Systems Research Unit, 1997. "Archaeological Geophysics, Yagan's Head, Aboriginal Skull Project--Taken from the St. Andrews Citizen", St. Andrews University. Retrieved 15 July 2001 from the World Wide Web: blink/web/arch/yagan.htm

State Record Office of Western Australia [SRO], [1829], R. Dale, Schedule of Property.

Western Australian Colonial News, 1832, [Report of Governor Stirling's planned departure], 14 July.

Karen Severud Cook, Spencer Research Library--Special Collections, University of Kansas.
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Date:Jan 1, 2003
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