In 1851 two men stood in the midst of Lachlan Swamp, pistols in hand and honour at stake. The occasion would go down in history as the last known challenge to a duel in Australia!
The protagonists were two distinguished men of the colony. The duel was held between Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Thomas L. Mitchell (a soldier-explorer and Surveyor-General of NSW) and Stuart Donaldson (a New England settler who later became the first Premier of NSW in 1856).
The duel in Lachlan Swamp
The dispute originated over a demand to withdraw one word from a note from Mr. Donaldson to Sir Mitchell in a case where Donaldson criticised Mitchell (over-expenditure of the Surveyor General’s Department).
After a satisfactory outcome wasn’t achieved, Mitchell issued a challenge to a duel.
The two met early morning in Lachlan Swamp on 27 September 1851, Sir Mitchell attended by a Lieutenant Burrowes, and Donaldson attended by a Mr. Dobie.
They each exchanged three shots. The closest of Mitchell’s shots passed through Mr. Donaldson’s hat, and while Donaldson’s closest shot went within an inch of Mitchell’s throat.
After this, the combatants left the ground – alive, but very aware that had narrowly avoided death.
Official reports are somewhat vague about the duel, however it was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on 30 September 1851.
The dueling pistols that Mitchell used survive in the National Museum Australia.
Was it really the last duel?
There are conflicting claims as to whether this was the last duel fought in Australia. It is believed that, in 1854, the last duel in Australia may have occurred outside the Lion of Waterloo Hotel in Wellington, New South Wales – however the duellers involved were two drunken police magistrates, and only one ineffective shot was fired.
So we can be reasonably confident the duel in Lachlan Swamp was the last official duel in Australia.
Duels – a worldwide phenomenon
Duels were a legacy of medieval times and the Renaissance when they were considered an acceptable manner of defending your honour by members of the gentry or aristocracy. They were typically held after an offence had happened and there were strict codes of conduct to follow.
When swords were largely replaced by pistols in the early 1800s, duels were banned in most countries, and by the 1850s they were generally no longer considered a satisfactory way of settling a dispute.
An admirable attempt at cataloguing known duels around the world is on Wikipedia (while obviously incomplete, it is still a fascinating collection to read through!).
The last duel in Centennial Park has been the source of much interest over the years, including in 2011 when National Geographic Channel visited the Park to film a re-enactment.
We would like to thank National Geographic for the permission to use images used in this post.
– posted by Craig Easdown