Edward John Eyre was a British-born explorer who became the first European to cross southern Australia from east to west. With his Aboriginal companion Wylie, Eyre crossed the treeless Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide, South Australia, to Albany, Western Australia.
Eyre was born in Bedfordshire, England, on Aug. 5, 1815. As a young man, he emigrated from the United Kingdom to Australia. He arrived in Sydney on March 20, 1833. He soon began work herding sheep and cattle. In early 1838, he and his overseer and companion John Baxter searched for a direct route from Port Phillip Bay, near Melbourne, to Adelaide. The trek was unsuccessful, and the men were forced to take a more indirect route along the Murray River. In mid-1839, Eyre explored the Flinders Ranges. Later that year, he headed an expedition along the western coast of a peninsula now known as the Eyre Peninsula. He then explored and named the Gawler Ranges and Lake Torrens before returning to Adelaide. In January 1840, Eyre sailed to Albany, in Western Australia. There, he met an Aboriginal man named Wylie, who would prove to be a valuable companion. From Albany, Eyre drove a herd of sheep and cattle overland to the Swan River settlement.
Eyre made his most famous journey in 1840 and 1841. He offered to lead an expedition from Adelaide into Australia’s largely uncharted interior. Beginning in June, the group explored the Flinders Ranges, Lake Torrens, and the southern portion of what would later be named Lake Eyre. Eyre then decided to resupply the group and head west in search of an overland route for sheep and cattle. He sent Baxter to Streaky Bay, on the northwestern part of the Eyre Peninsula, and sent another member of the expedition to Adelaide for supplies and to secure official permission to continue the journey to the west. Eyre and the rest of the group traveled to Port Lincoln, on the southern end of the Eyre Peninsula. In November, the expedition gathered at Streaky Bay. From there, Eyre and his companions headed northwest along a bay called the Great Australian Bight. The group established a depot at what is now the town of Fowlers Bay.
The terrain was difficult, and water was scarce. Eyre decided to send most of the members of the expedition back to Adelaide. On Feb. 25, 1841, he continued the journey with Baxter, Wylie, and two other young Aboriginal men. The group trekked over the dry, difficult terrain of the Nullarbor Plain. The Aboriginal men showed Eyre and Baxter how to find water, but supplies were extremely limited. On April 29, the two young Aboriginal men murdered Baxter, took the remaining food and firearms, and fled. Eyre and Wylie continued the difficult journey. In June, they sighted a French whaling ship near Esperance. They rested on the ship for two weeks before continuing their journey. Eyre and Wylie reached Albany on July 7.
Eyre went on to have a prosperous political career in other British colonies. At different times, he served as lieutenant-governor of New Zealand, lieutenant-governor of St. Vincent (in the Caribbean), acting governor of the Leeward Islands (also in the Caribbean), and governor-in-chief of Jamaica. In October 1865, disputes between planters and workers in Morant Bay, Jamaica, led to a peasant revolt. Eyre declared martial law, and British troops forcefully put down the revolt. Eyre was recalled to the United Kingdom, where many people felt his crackdown on the rebellion was needlessly violent. Eyre retired from politics. He died near Tavistock, England, on Nov. 30, 1901.