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Georgine Clarsen - The MacRobertson’s Round Australia Expedition: Twentieth-century settler colonial adventuring

Expedition postcard, 1928.In 1928 Macpherson Robertson, one of Australia’s most flamboyant businessmen, financed the MacRobertson’s Round Australia Expedition, in which a crew of twelve men laboriously circuited the continent in two trucks named ‘Burke’ and ‘Wills’. Australia’s ‘Chocolate King’ announced this promotional stunt as a philanthropic gesture from the city to the people of the outback. The party arrived at capital cities loaded with stories, photographs and cinema footage of their adventures in the bush, and newspapers published celebratory articles about their achievement in ‘conquering’ the roadless terrain that heavy trucks had not been designed for.

These twentieth-century ‘Burke’ and ‘Wills’ were on a quest not just to conquer the outback but, perhaps more importantly, to reduce the distance between the city and the bush through cultural exchanges made possible by new technologies. Fully wired for sound and vision, the trucks were designed as mobile mediums of cross-cultural communication. The expedition carried the latest radio equipment and the party transmitted reports of their progress to radio stations across Australia. They relayed radio programs from city stations via giant loudspeakers and organised dances and classical concerts under electric floodlights. The party also carried hours of film footage and organised picture evenings at small towns, Aboriginal settlements and cattle stations, with music provided by their portable gramophone.

Expedition crew, 1928.This Australian settler expedition might appear similar to a colonial expedition through Africa just three years earlier. The Court Treatt Expedition from Cape Town to London in two Crossley trucks, however, was very different. Rather than enacting the homeliness of the frontier, a place in which settlers could stay and broadcast their civility, the African expedition was conceived in the outmoded terms of grand colonial adventuring. While the Court Treatt party were received as heroes in London, theirs was hardly a story of modern technological triumph or sociable exchange. The stories told about the colonial African expedition stand in marked contrast to the twentieth-century settler sensibilities expressed in MacRobertson’s Round Australia Expedition.


Georgine ClarsenGeorgine Clarsen is a senior lecturer in the History and Politics Program at the University of Wollongong. Her research interest has been in the history of women and motoring, and her Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists (2008) explores women’s active roles in shaping automobile culture in Australia, Britain, the United States and British colonial Africa. She has published widely in peer-reviewed journals on the ways that ‘new world’ mobilities are different from those in the ‘old world’. Her current research, funded by an ARC Discovery Project grant, is on early around-Australia automobile journeys and the role of automobility in shaping ideas of colonial settler landscapes and identities. Georgine has been a Fulbright postdoctoral fellow at the Transportation Institute at UC Berkley, a research fellow at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, and held an Australian Bicentennial Fellowship at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, the University of London. She is an Associate Editor of the new mobility journal Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies.


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