In the early 1820s the whole North West Coast, apart from being a popular hideout for escaped convicts and bushrangers, was officially unexplored. To rectify this situation, in 1823 Governor Sorell gave the task of opening this section of the island to Captain John Rolland (28) of the 3rd Buffs Foot Brigade. He was to lead a small group of foot soldiers westward from the Tamar River and if possible, find an inland route along the North West Coast.
Captain Rolland had been in Van Diemen’s Land about nine months, deployed in the Northern part of the island, at times searching for escaped convicts and bushrangers. Through his career, he had distinguished himself for his zeal and ability in performing his military duties.
Born 4 April 1795 in the fishing village of Auchmithie, 78 miles north of Edinburgh on the east coast of Scotland, John Rolland was the eldest son and heir to the large family estate of Robert and Gay Rolland. This coastal region had been the seat of Rolland family clan for centuries. As a boy John played on the beach with his younger brothers and sisters. As the waves pounded in from the North Sea, John dreamed of faraway places.
After some basic military training John Rolland commenced his army career assigned to the 22nd Light Dragoons (equivalent to our Light Horse which were battalions mounted on fast horses, able to move quickly across the battlefield.) Rolland served for several years with the Dragoons in Madras, India, where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant. Upon his regiment being retired to England, Rolland switched to the 3rd East Kent Regiment known as the Buffs, one of the oldest and most distinguished infantry regiments in the British Army. Shortly afterwards the Buffs were posted to Van Diemen’s Land in response to continued requests from Governor Sorell for an increased military presence to counter increasing lawlessness across the island. On route the Buff’s regiment was split up to escorts convicts in six different ships to the Australian colonies.
In charge of 95 infantry men, Captain Rolland was assigned to the convict carrier Countess of Harcourt to guard 173 Irish convicts being transported from to Cork to Sydney. They left Ireland on 3 Sept 1822 and arrived in Port Jackson on 21 Dec 1822. Of the six convict transport ships that the Buff’s Regiment acted as guards, Captain Rolland had the best conduct report sheet for both soldiers and convicts and received praised for his humane methods of treating those under his command.
From Sydney Captain Rolland and his soldiers proceeded to Hobart Town in the Caledonia arriving mid-January 1823, where they were posted to the Tamar River. On route north, Rolland was impressed with the livestock he saw in the midlands and decided to invest in the immerging wool and beef industry for himself. He carefully selected some breeding stock from the best sheep and cattle he could find in midlands and arranged for a property owner near Ross to manage them for him.
Shortly after arriving in George Town, Rolland led a party of foot soldiers from the Tamar River over the Asbestos Range to search the Rubicon estuary for absconders and bushrangers. Trekking up the river as far as Avenue Plains at Parkham, they could see the vast extent of the plains that stretched away to the base of the Western Tiers and other mountains. Later that same year, Governor Sorell requested Captain Rolland to investigate the unexplored country along the North West Coast. On 22 November 1823, Captain Rolland and a small party of foot soldiers proceeded to a recent selection made by ex-convict John Leith near Westbury, where they used his property as a base camp. From Rolland’s earlier exploration up the Rubicon River, he had seen what appeared to be a narrow passageway between the Western Tiers and the mountain range we now know as Roland, Van Dyke and Claude and his plan now was to see if this might be a route to the North West Coast.
The expedition took just over a month. Arriving back in George Town, Captain John Rolland wrote an extensive report of their exploration for the Governor, cross referencing it to a detailed map he made to accompanied it. While his handwritten report has survived, unfortunately this important first map has not. Probably, it was requisitioned by the VDL Co surveyors who explored the same country three years later in 1826-7. Minus his map, it is at times hard to determine from his written description exactly the route he travelled. He personally presented his report to Governor Sorell in Hobart in mid-January 1824.
Brief Summary of his NW Exploration
1823 Nov 27 From Leith’s hut they followed the Quamby Creek for a day, before striking out westward. Their first discovery was the Meander River somewhere near future town of Deloraine.
Continuing westward across various plains as they began to approach the gap between the Western Tiers and the mountain that now bears Rolland’s name, numerous fires lit by aborigines were seen in every direction, the smoke haze obscuring their vision of the surrounding mountains. That night a mild earthquake sent some trees crashing to the ground around them.
Nov 30 – They begin to find first of many sink holes in the Mole Creek area. About noon they descended a bank and discovered a second significant river which we know today as the Mersey River. Following it upstream, they passed the site of present town of Mole Creek and gradually found themselves getting hemmed in by very high and scrubby hills on both sides.
Dec 1 – Rolland sends two soldiers up the side of the Western Tiers to see if they could see an opening to the North West. They returned with their clothing torn to shreds.
Dec 2 – They forded the Mersey River and proceeded to follow it in a westerly direction for a few more miles. But near present day Liena, the Mersey turned sharply to the South and their passage way to North West was blocked by the very steep incline up Gad’s hill (2,588 ft or 780m high) which separates Liena from Lorinna.
Dec 3-5 – For the next three days Rolland’s party searched in every direction for a suitable pass between the Western Tiers and Roland, Van Dyke and Claude without success. The scrub was very dense and prickly, which ripped their clothing. It rained most of the time and Rolland’s valuable compass fastened with string to a button hole and always kept in his waist coast pocket, was torn out and lost.
Dec 6th – Repulsed in this dead end, they retreated some miles right back down the Mersey River until Captain Rolland perceived an opening between Mount Roland and Mount Gog which owning to the smoky haze, they had not seen previously. Trekking closer they came onto Dens Plains, where the natives were camping on the opposite bank. Upon seeing Rolland’s party, they ran up the side of Mount Gog. While some of his party cooked their evening meal, Rolland followed their native path up over Mount Gog which appeared to him to continue down to the sea coast. He was disappointed with his view to the North West because the hill was heavily wooded. But he did perceive the West North West some less wooded hill thickly covered with grass. This was could have been the higher parts of the Kentish Plains. He also became the first white man to see a ‘remarkable mountain’ to the SW we now know as Cradle Mountain. Captain Rolland determined to get a better view of the North West next day by climbing up the eastern end of Mount Roland.
Dec 7 – Starting early and even though the mountain was steep and very high, they got to the top without being over fatigued, thus becoming the first European to climb our iconic mountain. Ironically, Rolland does not describe the view from the top, he merely writes: After a second view of the country as far as we were able to the North West, we began to descend the front where the ground was most open. Gradually the scrub got thicker until we found ourselves encumbered with much scrub, fallen timber in deep gullies on either side of us.
Dec 9 – They proceeded to the North West for the purpose of obtaining if possible a view of the country, but the thickness of the woods and the height of the undergrowth and scrub prevented them from succeeding in this object. Here Rolland’s party must have been within metres of breaking out onto the open plains, nearly 20 years earlier than Kentish’s party did on 1 August 1842. How our history might have changed! But with provisions now running low, Captain Rolland chose to follow the Dasher River down to its junction with the Mersey, ford the river at what is now Kimberley, trek along the Coiler’s Creek valley to Dunloran, and make it back to the base camp at Leith’s hut near Westbury. Once resupplied with food, they returned the same route back to Kimberley’s ford and traced the Mersey River downstream to its mouth. From there they followed around the Rubicon estuary to the Tamar River, reaching George Town on Christmas Eve, 1823.
Rolland becomes Roland
Although Captain John Rolland failed to find an inland route through to Emu Bay, he must be credited with discovering the Meander River, all the good grazing land from the Tamar through to the Mersey River and from Bass Strait back to the Western Tiers. In addition, Captain John Rolland becomes the first European to see Cradle Mountain and to climb our own most notable mountain that will afterwards forever carry his name – even though spelt incorrectly. The Van Diemen’s Land Company surveyors Henry Hellyer & Joseph Fossey were the first to name this mountain Rolland’s Repulse. They use it in their field notes, although it was the steep slopes of Gad’s Hill that repulsed Rolland’s party. In Fossey’s report dated 26 May 1827, he changes it to Rolland Mountain, but the Survey Department in Hobart adds a foot-note ‘properly Rolland Repulse.’ On Henry Hellyer’s official map dated 10th February 1828 showing all their recent discoveries, he called it Mount Rolland. Also, on Arrowsmith’s map printed in February 1834 it says Mount Rolland. It would have stayed that way, had not Surveyor-General Thomas Scott who already had a problem with accuracy and honesty not misspelt Rolland as Roland on his map. In Hobart Scott’s replacement George Frankland repeated Scott’s mistake as did James Sprent in 1858. So, the new spelling of Mt Roland became official.