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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bevan, Theodore Francis (1860–1907)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Theodore Francis Bevan (1860-1907), explorer and writer, was born on 14 October 1860 in London, son of Robert Eaton Bevan, a Quaker clerk, and his wife Charlotte, née Hester. His paternal ancestors were Welsh and he claimed descent in the maternal line from Captain James Cook. After a college education he entered a London merchant's office at 18. He was also an enthusiastic member of the Queen's Westminster Rifle Corps and later of the Royal Navy Artillery Volunteers. At 21 he went to New Zealand and after eighteen months there travelled widely in eastern Australia. On 19 November 1884 he left Cooktown in a Chinese bêche-de-mer junk for New Guinea. Refused permission to settle by deputy-commissioner Romilly of the Protectorate government, he returned to Cooktown.

In Sydney he was assured by Sir Peter Scratchley, special commissioner for New Guinea, that the government had no power to exclude him. He left for New Guinea on 27 February 1885 in the lugger Pride of the Logan, commanded by Ah Gim, with whom he had travelled on his first visit. After calling at Port Moresby, the lugger sailed for the pearl fisheries in the eastern islands; on the voyage Bevan collected information about massacres on the coast and sent articles to the Sydney press criticizing the government and the missionaries. From Moresby he went for a cruise with the famous Nicholas Minister, then rejoined Ah Gim and after a rough passage reached Cooktown on 19 June. In August he bought the 5-ton cutter Electra in Sydney and secured a trading permit from Scratchley, intending to seek concessions on which to float a development corporation. Early in September he arrived in Port Moresby and, in defiance of official warnings, sailed for the Gulf of Papua. The cutter was damaged at Motu Motu and he had to return, so he began to establish a chain of trading stations managed by natives, at the same time negotiating with the government about his proposed concessions. On 4 July 1886 he finally gave way to increasingly severe attacks of fever and went south to recuperate.

Since several friends had been killed by natives and he himself had narrowly avoided a similar fate in 1885, Bevan's accounts about the massacres carried such conviction that he became widely known. In November Robert Philp commissioned him to undertake exploration anywhere in New Guinea. In the 90-ton steamer Victory he returned to the Gulf of Papua, examined the delta of the Kikori River which he called the Aird, penetrated beyond its first junction, travelled forty miles (64 km) up the Iowa River which he called the Stanhope and explored nearly a hundred miles of the Purari which he called the Queen's Jubilee River. On his return to Sydney he read a paper to the New South Wales branch of the Royal Geographical Society and sent a copy to the parent society in London for publication in its Proceedings. Bevan's achievement was challenged by Rev. James Chalmers who claimed to have traversed and mapped the area seven years earlier but the dispute was never resolved.

In August 1887 Bevan made his fifth and last visit to New Guinea in the steam launch Mabel, supplied by the New South Wales government. He was towed from Thursday Island to the Kikori delta by the Queensland government steamer Albatross. In the next two months he finished his investigation of the delta country, travelling nearly 1200 miles (1931 km) and extending his explorations to the mouth of the Fly. Back in Sydney in January 1888 his report drew further criticism by Chalmers but brought the Royal Geographical Society to his support.

In April Bevan applied to the British government for 254,000 acres (102,791 ha) in the delta country. Recommendation by the special commissioner, John Douglas, that the claim be rejected was confirmed by the administrator, William MacGregor. With his grandiose scheme in ruins Bevan retired, living first in Tasmania, then in Victoria and finally in Sydney. A respected member of the Geographical Society, he presented another paper in 1897. He also published Toil, Travel and Discovery in British New Guinea (London, 1890) and The Gold Rush to British New Guinea 1887 and the Discovery of the Aird and Purari Rivers (Melbourne, 1898). He died of consumption on 7 December 1907 in Sydney, survived by his wife Sarah, née Taylor, whom he had married in 1892; they had no children.

In spite of his hostility to natives Bevan was always careful to avoid violence. He was an intelligent collector and observer but more interested in New Guinea as a field for commercial enterprise than for scientific investigation. The hostility to missionaries and government reflected in all his writing represents an uncritical acceptance of the attitudes then current among Europeans in New Guinea.

Select Bibliography

  • newsclippings, vols 117-18 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Bevan, Theodore Francis (1860–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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