George Ernest ‘Chinese’ Morrison is not a household name in Australia. But he should be.
Story Ken Eastwood Photo State Library of NSW
One hundred years ago, George Ernest Morrison was nearing the end of his extraordinary life. In the year before he died, this Geelong-born doctor, journalist, bushman and wild adventurer would serve as an ambassador representing China at the post World War I treaty talks in Versailles, France. In just 58 years on earth, the Australian had followed his adventurous spirit through the great unknown world of China, had served as an advisor to the first Chinese president, rescued people in the Boxer Rebellion, exposed the Queensland Kanaka slave traders, canoed the Murray River and, at the age of 20 walked across Australia from north to south on his own, just 20 years after the same journey killed Burke and Wills.
Born in 1862, Morrison was the son of the founding principal of Geelong College. His father’s wish was that he become a doctor, but from an early age Morrison decided journalism was a nobler profession, and began dedicatedly keeping journals, recording in a flowing script everything from sporting contests to character descriptions. These journals have been preserved at the State Library of New South Wales.
Senior curator at the library, Alison Wishart, says Morrison’s bold adventures from a very early age may have been a way of getting away from his father and his medical studies (which he initially failed at the University of Melbourne). “You wouldn’t say in any way he has bush skills, and he sets out quite unprepared,” Alison says. “He doesn’t have a safety net.”
“In a way, it’s sheer arse,” says Belinda Ingpen, an environmental consultant who has spent two years researching Morrison, initially for postgraduate studies. “He went without a map – he was basically reading the topography.” She says she is investigating why his story isn’t more widely known, particularly as even Banjo Paterson described Morrison as a higher achiever than both Cecil Rhodes and Winston Churchill.
One of the first adventures he recorded was at the age of 16, when he rose at 3.45am and walked from Geelong to Queenscliff and back – a distance of 68 kilometres that he covered in a little over 12 hours.
The next year, aged 17, wearing his cricket shirt, he headed west along the fairly deserted southern coast in the heart of summer, walking 1200km to Adelaide, where he was in time to watch a game of cricket at the Adelaide Oval. He sold the story of this trip to The Leader for 7 guineas and used the money to buy a 4-metre long cedar canoe with a 2m paddle, and small mast and sail. He then set out on a journey down the “noblest of Australian rivers”, the Murray, 2500km from Wodonga to the mouth, and then once again walked back to Geelong.
This story excerpt is from Issue #119
Outback Magazine: June/July 2018