Out of Grey’s Shadow is about expeditions of exploration and discovery in Western Australia and South Australia led by Sir George Grey and Edward John Eyre. (Follow links to view their Journals of expedition).
Out of Grey’s Shadow is unique in that it is not centred on those that made the decisions about expeditions, but on a follower. Grey called Coles - ‘my faithful and tried companion in all my wanderings.’
Upon reading the book, JMR Cameron wrote
… it is most proper and quite timely that John Coles should emerge from the shadows and assume his rightful place in the Australian story. He and others like him were Australia’s real heroes and deserve to be known and appreciated. Our story is not just about the Rum Corps and the lash.
And what an adventurous life Corporal John Coles had. In the 1800’s, England was captivated by the romance of its young men going forth to far-flung corners of the earth to plant the flag of the Mother country. Coles volunteered in 1837 to join a military expedition led by George Grey to search for Australia’s undiscovered Great River. Most people at that time incorrectly supposed it drained the continent to the North West and would be Australia’s equivalent of the Mississippi. Despatched on the famous Beagle with a rival naval team hell bent on racing them to its discovery and the attendant glory, the mission was widely regarded as a failure, falling victim to the heat, humidity, harsh landscape, constant tropical rain and conflict with Aborigines. Covering only 50 miles out of an intended 2000, their major achievement was unintentional — ‘discovery’ of the famed Wandjina rock art in the Kimberley.
Coles fronted for a second Western Australian expedition with Grey, which also failed. He survived a cyclone, starvation, thirst, Aboriginal attacks, shipwreck and a 500 mile trek through unknown country with a mutinous crew. One man Frederick Smith – a cousin of Florence Nightingale- died. William Howitt when writing of Grey’s accounts of the expedition, said;
‘perhaps no journals of exploration have exceeded it in amount of disaster and personal suffering.’
Coles later joined E. J. Eyre’s famous expedition across the Nullarbor from Adelaide, leaving it at Fowlers Bay before Eyre struck out for King George Sound with Baxter and Wylie.
As a subordinate John Coles lived in the shadow of George Grey — the Great Pro-Consul — but he played a role in that great man’s survival and development. His story is told against the backdrop of the intrigue behind England’s decisions to undertake the expeditions, colonial conditions and Grey’s complex personality which led to clashes with all major colonial figures including Eyre, and Charles Sturt.
In Adelaide, Coles injured his hands in an explosion and was discharged from the army. George Grey, by now Governor of South Australia, took a close interest in Coles. He paid for an ingenious prosthetic hand and arranged government positions including Keeper of the Government Farm and Keeper of the House and Messenger of the Legislative Council. Later, he became a Crown Lands Ranger in the midst of South Australia’s coppermania.
The places in Australia that Coles was amongst the first Europeans to see -albeit under considerable duress- would fill a modern day travel catalogue; the Kimberley, its ancient rock art; Shark Bay world heritage area, Kalbarri ; the spectacular Flinders Ranges and the Head of the Great Australian Bight. That’s without mentioning being the first person, with fellow travellers Baxter and John Houston to gorge on the now internationally renowned Streaky Bay oysters. Consistent with his good fortune in experiencing these places, he spent the rest of his life in the renowned Clare Valley wine district of South Australia.