Great Expectations: The Chevert Expedition to New Guinea, 1875

"...for the promotion of science"

The Chevert expedition to New Guinea was the first Australian scientific mission to a foreign country. Funded and organised by William John Macleay in 1875, the expedition aimed to collect and document the natural environment of New Guinea.

For Macleay the expedition was a means to expand and improve his natural history collections in order to promote the study of science in Sydney. For 5 months collecting parties from the Chevert made trips ashore at stopping places along the east coast of Australia, Torres Strait Islands and New Guinea amassing, according to Macleay, a "vast and valuable collection" of animal and plant life. They dredged close to shore gathering crustacea and shells. They netted insects, caught fish and shot birds. They traded tobacco, biscuits, beads and tools with indigenous peoples for ornaments, masks, bowls and weapons.

The surviving material and data from the Chevert expedition make up some of the more significant pieces in the Macleay Museum’s collection.

The Chevert returned however with considerably less fanfare than when it departed. Heated exchanges concerning the success or failure of the voyage occupied many column inches in the local press. The Chevert expedition was privately organised but publicly debated.

"...skillfully and bountifully planned"

"Masters continues still getting things ready for the expedition. It ought to be well found in everything from the bills coming in." William John Macleay, 1875 Diary

Macleay paid £3000 for the barque, Chevert, on February 23rd 1875. His expenses were only just beginning.

Just what was required for a scientific voyage to New Guinea in the late nineteenth century? Macleay spent much of the three months before setting sail placing orders and receiving gifts for the voyage. These included:

fishing lines, tomahawks, knives, scissors, 2 six-pounder guns, a small steam launch, new dredges, a medicine chest, arsenical soap, plaster of paris, chloroform, a chronometer, cotton, 6 Snider and 6 muzzle-loading carbines, specimen tanks, a dozen mattresses and pillows, plate and tinware, preserved meats, a hogshead of rum as well as fish, rat and cat traps.

Thomas Mort lent an ice making machine, Squires of Penrith gave 8 cases of tinned fruits and Sir William Macarthur donated 8 quarter casks of Camden wine and 2 tons of pumpkins.

In preparing for the mission, Macleay directed most of his attention to selecting his collecting staff. Most were naturalists drawn from Sydney’s close knit scientific circle and included his private curator, George Masters, as well as Arthur Onslow, John Brazier, William Pettard, and Edward Spalding, men who had collected for him in the past. A young Lawrence Hargrave also accompanied them as engineer, as did Dr James, the ship’s surgeon, once he had acquired the added skill of mounting and skinning animals.

With a crew of 20, captained by Charles Edwards, a total of 30 men sailed on the Chevert.

"...a number of good things"


Trawling for marine life began almost as soon as the Chevert left Sydney. The first concerted collecting effort on land, however, was at the Percy Islands and Palm Island - "2 wallabies (a new species) 25 birds...a number of good shells...very few insects". The Chevert also stopped at Cape Grenville and Somerset (Cape York) where Captain Edwards enlisted Tongatapu Joe, a seasoned Tongan sailor, to act as guide and interpreter in New Guinea.

The Chevert reached New Guinea in early July. A 10 day stop at Mokatta, where Joe alerted the villagers to the expedition’s peaceful intentions, was followed by tentative forays inland up the Katow (Binaturi) River. Two months cruising along the south eastern coast of New Guinea; Hall Sound, Yule, Darnley and Warrior Islands produced valuable additions to Macleay’s collection.

In all, the Chevert expedition added approximately 1000 birds, 800 fish, and many reptiles, mammals, insects, spiders, marine molluscs and ethnographic objects to Macleay’s collections. Macleay later lamented to the Linnean Society of NSW, however, that the difficult terrain and the slowness of the Chevert at sailing into the wind meant that no more than 60 days were spent collecting on the entire voyage. Indeed, in September 1875 at the end of the expedition, several of the Chevert party, including Hargrave and Pettard, boarded the London Missionary Society’s vessel, Ellangowan, in Cape York and returned to New Guinea.

Even so, the Macleay collections had now outgrown the capacity of the family home, Elizabeth Bay House, to hold them and the following year Macleay set about building a small museum in the grounds nearby.

Riding the wave?

"The voyage of the Chevert would have been remembered with greater interest, satisfaction and pride, if the promise at the beginning had been less and the performance at the end had been somewhat more." Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 14 October 1875

Macleay returned to Sydney to face "vile reports" judging his voyage as a "total failure".

The expedition had coincided with (and partly sprang from) a general preoccupation in Sydney with Australia’s future relations with New Guinea, a land which was still little known among western explorers. Whether the country should be colonised for trade, or for its assumed vast treasures of gold, or simply to prevent another nation controlling it and mounting a threat to Australia was a topic of lively public debate. Newspapers reported his expedition as an exploring as opposed to a collecting venture.

Macleay was attacked in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald for failing to take advantage of the "future India of Australia", but was defended by Sir William Macarthur, who claimed, "It is surely unreasonable now to chide because the fitter-out of the expedition has been seen to pursue his own course instead of the one popular fancy seized upon."

It is possible Macleay became swept up in the fervour surrounding New Guinea when accepting the accolades of a public send off. The extent of Macleay’s interest in the commercial exploitation of New Guinea is unclear. He was reported in the Town and Country Journal to have planned to open a small trade port if he was able to go far enough up the Fly River. However, he always emphasised in his diaries and in the press that the treasure he sought on the Chevert expedition was a Natural History collection.

The Route Taken by the Chevert

Route of the Chevert

(Extracts from William John Macleay’s Diary and the Chevert’s log)

"The ship was fitted up chiefly with the object of making collections in all branches of Natural History - animal, vegetable and mineral - in the islands of Torres Straits and in New Guinea, places which had never been previously thoroughly examined. At the same time I was quite thoroughly prepared, if opportunity offered, to have given up a considerable proportion of my time to the geographical investigation of the as yet 'Terra Incognita' - New Guinea."
William Macleay Sydney Morning Herald, 11 October 1875

2 June - Palm Island
"We got very few birds today. The reef birds which we wanted were so shy and wild that there was no getting a shot at them."

6 June - Low Wooded Isle
"The whole reef was literally teeming with life. Fish crustaceans, Echinoderms, corals etc. In countless numbers...We returned to the ship at sunset loaded with specimens and trophies."

9 June - Barrow Island
"Two birds new to my collection were procured - the “Caspian Tern” and “Ptilotus versicolor”. Some land shells, lizards and a few insects were also got."

13 June - Cape Grenville
"During our walk (5 miles) Spalding shot a Stigmatess that with the exception of a lizard or two was all we got. We found however on returning to our boat that Hargraves had been using some dynamite among the rocks and got some beautiful little fish quite new to me."

18 June - Chevert
"Fleas have become a serious plague in the ship, we have had them for ten days but their numbers seem increasing daily."

19 June - Cape York (Somerset)
" has now become very unhealthy...The natives have particularly suffered...bodies lying unburied in some cases...I will get Dr. James to see some of them and endeavour to ascertain the cause of such extraordinary mortality."

27 June - Sue Island
"Masters got some good birds, Spalding a snake. Everyone got something."

29 June - Warrior Island
"It seems to be a remarkable island, though little more than a low mound of sand in the midst of coral reefs, it supports a population of several hundreds."

03 July - Off village of Mokatta
"We found the natives most friendly, the regular trade in cocoanuts, bananas, taro, yams and sweet potatoes was conducted by Tonga Joe, who seemed quite au fait at that sort of thing...Nothing can exceed the richness and density of the vegetation of this coast at this point."

07 July - Katow (near Mokatta)
"It seems that our excursion up the river on Sunday has excited the animosity of the bush natives, as those up the river are called by the coast ones, and a number of them came down the river to ask the assistance of the coast natives in attacking us, the latter have refused but in the great excitement which prevails among them, they consider it is unsafe for us to go into the jungle to shoot."

11 July - Up Katow River
"One chief or head man of one village had met them with 20 men loaded with cocoanuts and bananas entirely as a present to the stranger, and in all directions there were manifestations of friendliness. Knowing also of our fancy for all sorts of living things they had brought specimens of snakes, lizards, insects, ornaments etc etc so that I made a really good haul that day."

11 July - Katow
"The Captain had a serious attack of illness last night, which kept him in bed today, and the wind is dead against us. All this delay and loss of time is very disgusting, but it must I suppose be borne."

22 July - Dungeness
"On Monday Masters and Brazier were going ashore, they took objection to the1st Mate taking charge of the boat and charged him in violent language with being a bully etc. A riotous scene ensued."

6 August - Darnley Island
" of our (crew) men died...his complaint was according to the Doctor - Scrofula."

20 August - Yule Island, Hall Sound
"The geology of the country wants further investigation."