Francis Cadell (explorer)

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Francis William Cadell
Francis Cadell 2.jpeg
Born9 February 1822
DiedMarch 1879 (aged 57)
Occupationship's captain, explorer, Blackbirder
Parent(s)Hew Francis Cadell (father)

Francis William Cadell (9 February 1822 – 1879) was a European explorer of Australia, most remembered for opening the Murray River up for transport by steamship and for his activities as a slave trader.

Early life[edit]

Cadell was born in Cockenzie, Haddingtonshire, Scotland, the second son of Hew Francis Cadell (ca.1791 – 27 April 1873), mine-owner and shipbuilder of a notable Scottish family.[1] Educated in Edinburgh and at Cuxhaven, Germany, he joined the East Indiaman Minerva at the age of 14, and sailed in her to the first China war in 1839, later claiming a part in the siege of Canton. Soon after he was given a ship by his father.

Cadell went to South America, had experience of river navigation on the Amazon River.

He first arrived in Australia in January 1849 as captain of the schooner Royal Sovereign, visiting Adelaide, Circular Head and Sydney.,[2] sailing in ballast for Singapore in June.[3]

Steaming on the Murray River[edit]

In 1850 the South Australian government had offered a bonus of £4,000 to be equally divided between the owners of the first two iron steamers that should successfully navigate the Murray from Goolwa to the junction of the Darling River.[4] When Cadell returned to Australia in 1852, he arrived at Port Adelaide in command of the clipper Queen of Sheba. The government's bonus for the navigation of the Murray River had not been claimed and Cadell stayed in Adelaide, formulating a design for a suitable steamboat in partnership with his father's agent, William Younghusband.[5]

Cadell gave orders for the construction of a steamer in Chowne's Yard, Sydney. While it was being built, he explored the Murray in a canvas boat named Forerunner in which, with four men, he travelled 1,300 miles (2,100 km) from Swan Hill downstream. The canvas boat was conveyed overland from Melbourne to Swan Hill.

After several delays, on 16 August 1853[6] his steamer Lady Augusta (named for the wife of Sir Henry Young), commanded by Captain Davidson, successfully passed through the breakers at the mouth of the Murray, and on 25 August left Goolwa, South Australia on a voyage up the Murray with Cadell in command. Among the passengers were the governor, Sir Henry Young and Lady Young, after whom the steamer was named.[7] They returned on 14 October having reached a point 1,500 miles (2,400 km) up the river, a feat for which the South Australian Government awarded him 500 pounds for bringing his boat in through the Murray Mouth, 500 pounds for reaching the Darling and a further 1,000 pounds to be paid at 250 pounds per quarter that he successfully operated his boat(s) on the river. This was a separate agreement made by Cadell with the SA Government. The original prize moneys were rescinded by the Government, but Cadell did later receive 4,000 pounds for bringing extra vessels to the Murray and operating them on the river. A few months later it was ascertained that the Murray was navigable as far as Albury, New South Wales and the Murrumbidgee River navigable to Gundagai. Cadell had carried a considerable quantity of wool and much trade was expected with the Riverina squatters. A gold and silver candelabrum was presented by the settlers to Cadell, with an inscription that it had been presented to him "in commemoration of his first having opened the steam navigation and commerce of the River Murray 1853". Cadell was also presented with a gold medal struck by the Legislative Council, and he joined with William Younghusband, George Young and others in forming the River Murray Steam Navigation Company, whose charter received royal assent in 1854.[8][9]

He purchased Lioness, a small River Mersey steamer of only 70 tons register in Scotland in 1853, had her rigged her as a three-masted schooner, and was sailed to Melbourne by James Ritchie, George and Thomas Johnston (cousins), John Barclay, John McDonald, William Barker, and John Ritchie. The first four named returned to Scotland for Cadell in December 1853 in Admiral, returning to Australia in 1854 in Lady Emma, with the river steamers Gundagai and Albury in sections as freight. Lioness never made it to South Australia; it had become evident that she was not suitable for the River Murray trade and she was sold in Melbourne.

Cadell explored the Edward River in Gundagai 1856. He and his River Murray Navigation Company owned Lady Augusta, Melbourne, Albury, Gundagai, Grappler, Ruby, and Bogan and Wakool both converted from barge to steamer.

The establishment of inland customs houses and the refusal of the three colonies to join in the snagging of the river, created difficulties for the company, and the failure of Port Elliot as a harbour led to more than one steamer being lost. The company which had at first enjoyed good profits failed and Cadell lost everything he had.

Cadell's claim on being the pioneer of inland navigation on the Murray is contested. J. G. and William Randell had constructed an earlier steamer which had traded on the Murray as early as March 1853, and at the time of the Cadell's first voyage upstream on Lady Augusta, Randell's Mary-Ann had progressed further up the river and at a greater speed.[10] Neither of the first two paddle steamers to grace the waters of the Murray River were eligible for the bonus offered by the government. A. T. Saunders was a perennial critic, calling Cadell an "overrated braggart".[11]

Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria[edit]

During 1860 Cadell did exploring work in eastern Gippsland, and attempted to get the Government of Victoria to sponsor the establishment of a steamer service between Melbourne, the Snowy River and the Gippsland Lakes.[12]

While in Victoria, Cadell was a member of the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria which organised the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860. Cadell offered to transport the expedition's equipment by steamer to the value of £500 for free. However his opposition to the appointment of Burke to the post of expedition leader meant Burke refused Cadell's offer and transported the stores overland instead.

Relocation to New Zealand[edit]

In 1865 Cadell was in New Zealand employed by the New Zealand government as commandant in the Waikato Steam Transport Service, a support group during the New Zealand Wars.[13]

In March 1865 Cadell was involved in the mutiny of Captain Hannibal Marks, on HMS Sandfly. Cadell ordered the first mate of Sandfly to get underway without its captain. When Marks caught the ship in a row boat, he placed the mate under arrest for taking orders from Cadell. Cadell then ordered Marks to reinstate the mate, and fire another crew member. Marks refused and the crew sided with Marks.[14]

1867 expedition to Northern Australia[edit]

In February 1867, following the failure of Finniss's settlement at Escape Cliffs, the South Australian government sent Cadell to the Northern Territory "to fix upon a proper site for the survey of 300,000 acres (1,200 km2)". His modus operandi was much criticised at the time, for his employment of men from New South Wales rather than experienced South Australians, for choosing the ex-paddle-wheeler Eagle for transport, and for taking few, if any, horses, without which any inland exploration was futile.[15] His selection of a site on the Liverpool River was also criticised, and eventually rejected.

He approached the Northern Territory by ship, and his choice of site was influenced by the navigability of the river. He traversed a strait between Elcho Island and the mainland, which Matthew Flinders had previously noted as a probable island.[16] The strait is now known as Cadell Strait. He had been able to give the authorities much valuable information about the country, but the climate of the territory and its great distance from other centres of population made its development a problem which had still not been solved more than half a century after his visit.

During the expedition an Aboriginal party-member called Tommy tried to desert three times and was imprisoned on the ship. Tommy reportedly drowned whilst making a fourth escape attempt, although Cadell indicated in a separate report that he had in fact been murdered by other party-members.[17]

Later life and death[edit]

During the early 1870s, Cadell became involved in whaling, trading, pearling and blackbirding in North-West Australia.[18] Cadell and others became notorious for their coercion, capture and sale of Aboriginal people as slaves.[19] The slaves were often detained temporarily at camps known as barracoons on Barrow Island, 30 nautical miles (56 km) offshore.[19] In 1874 he engaged 10 people at Batavia, described as Malays. In 1875 magistrate Robert Fairbairn was sent to investigate pearling conditions at Shark Bay, following reports that Malays employed by Cadell and Charles Broadhurst were unpaid, unable to return home and some had starved to death. Fairbairn held that Cadell was required to pay the 10 Malays plus an additional 4 months wages as amends for the lack of food, totaling £198. 14s. 4d. They received just £16. 16s. from the sale of Cadell's property at Shark Bay as Cadell had left the Colony of Western Australia some months previously.[20]

Cadell then took up trading in the Dutch East Indies, and when sailing in the Gem to the Kei Islands near New Guinea he was murdered by the cook's mate, about March 1879.[21]


A replica of the Forerunner (his canvas boat used to explore the Murray from Swan Hill downstream) is in the gardens of Cockenzie House, East Lothian, Scotland.

His family name is commemorated by Cadell Strait in the Northern Territory, and the South Australian town along the River Murray, Cadell is named in his honor.


  1. ^ "Obituary Notice". The Empire. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 16 May 1857. p. 2. Retrieved 11 April 2014.
  2. ^ "Shipping Intelligence". The Sydney Morning Herald. 16 May 1849. p. 2.
  3. ^ "Departures". The Sydney Morning Herald. 5 June 1849. Retrieved 4 November 2010.
  4. ^ Gwenda Painter (1979). The River Trade: Wool & Steamers. Wahroonga, NSW: Turton & Armstrong. p. 9. ISBN 0-908031-09-2.
  5. ^ Gwenda Painter (1979). The River Trade: Wool & Steamers. Wahroonga, NSW: Turton & Armstrong. pp. s 12–13. ISBN 0-908031-09-2.
  6. ^ "The "Nile" of Australia". Riverine Herald. Echuca, Vic.: National Library of Australia. 7 April 1906. p. 2. Retrieved 8 November 2013.
  7. ^ Gwenda Painter (1979). The River Trade: Wool & Steamers. Wahroonga, NSW: Turton & Armstrong. pp. s 20–21. ISBN 0-908031-09-2.
  8. ^ "Acts of 1853 Confirmed by the Queen". South Australian Register. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 25 August 1854. p. 2. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  9. ^ "Advertising". South Australian Register. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 23 June 1855. p. 2. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  10. ^ "Captain Cadell". The Advertiser. 10 January 1918. p. 8. Retrieved 4 November 2010.
  11. ^ "Last Living Link with Capt. Cadell". The Register. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 28 July 1920. p. 10. Retrieved 11 April 2014.
  12. ^ "THE SNOWY RIVER". The Argus. 24 May 1860. p. 5. Retrieved 5 November 2010.
  13. ^ "PRESENTATION TO CAPTAIN CADELL". The Daily Southern Cross. XXII (2712). 27 March 1866. p. 5.
  14. ^ "PS Tasmanian Maid Wreck Site". New Zealand Historic Places Trust – Pouhere Taonga. Retrieved 4 November 2010.
  15. ^ "The Northern Territory". South Australian Weekly Chronicle. IX (449). South Australia. 9 March 1867. p. 6. Retrieved 9 June 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  16. ^ "Captain Cadell's Return". South Australian Register. 14 February 1868. p. 2. Retrieved 4 November 2010.
  17. ^ Kennedy, Dane (1 March 2013). The Last Blank Spaces. Harvard University Press. pp. 187–8. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674074972. ISBN 978-0-674-07497-2.
  18. ^ "Captain Cadell". The Herald. 29 August 1879. p. 3. Retrieved 2 August 2021 – via Trove.
  19. ^ a b Hook, Fiona; McDonald, Eddie; Paterson, Alistair; Souter, Corioli & Veitch, Bruce (2004). "Cultural Heritage Assessment and Management Plan; Proposed Gorgon Development" (PDF). pp. 19–20, 63–64. Retrieved 3 August 2021 – via Environmental Protection Authority of WA.
  20. ^ "Our nor-west settlements". The Inquirer and Commercial News. 1 March 1876. p. 4. Retrieved 2 August 2021 – via Trove.
  21. ^ Mudie, Ian (1969). "Cadell, Francis (1822–1879)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Press. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 2 August 2021 – via National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.


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