James Venture Mulligan, the man with The Midas Touch

James Venture Mulligan considered to be one of the greatest explorers in Australian history.
It is 100 years since his death and a series of special events will take place in North Queensland in 2007 to honour his memory.

While Mulligan has become a celebrated figure in Australia, only a few people in South Down have heard of him.

Then again, why should anyone give a second thought to the exploits of a man thousands of miles from here, when there is a multitude of interesting historical characters much closer to home?
Mainly because Mulligan was born in this part of the world and didn't depart for his new life in Australia until he was in his 20s.

He was born in January 1836 at Drumgooland, the son of James and Maria Mulligan, and grew up on the family farm before making the journey to the other side of the world to start a new, and immensely colourful life.

Mike Rimmer, an Englishman who taught history in schools in Queensland for 20 years, has been researching the subject since the early 1970s and is in no doubt the former Drumgooland man deserves his place in Australian history.

He devotes a number of chapters of his book Up The Palmerston to Mulligan and at one point writes that few kings or politicians shaped men's lives like this son of County Down, who had been immortalised in places such as Mulligan's Highway and Mount Mulligan.

The main reason for his enduring fame is his discovery of some of the most significant goldfields in Australia.

Rimmer writes that they made some men rich and others destitute. They also led to the creation of towns and opened up large areas of North Queensland in the latter part of the 19th Century.
Mulligan left Ireland in 1859 and after a voyage lasting 104 days arrived in Melbourne on a ship called the Curling.

On his arrival he set his sights on being selected for an expedition across Australia. But when he turned up at a hall in Melbourne and saw the crowds of other applicants he changed his mind. Someone told him there were up to 800 hopefuls and only eight to 10 men would be chosen.

Certain he would not be amongst the lucky few, Mulligan didn't even wait to be interviewed.
It was a blessing in disguise. The expedition was an unmitigated disaster, which cost the lives of most of those involved, including the two men leading it.

Mulligan instead made his way to New South Wales, embarking in what would turn out to be a lifetime of travel and exploration.

There was more than a decade punctuated by fresh destinations and disappointed hopes before he set out on the expedition with reports that traces of gold had been found in a tributary of the Palmer River and Mulligan decided to investigate himself.

But Hann's report came with a health warning to anyone undertaking such an expedition in search of gold.

As well as casting doubt on the amount of payable gold any prospector would find, he highlighted the dangers of starving to death or being killed by Aborigines.

Partly as a result of Hann's ominous warnings, Mulligan struggled to find enough men willing to take part in the expedition, but finally, on 5 June 1873, the party of six left Georgetown for a journey historian Mike Rimmer says Mulligan knew could cost him his life.

They reached the Palmer River 24 days later and spent the next couple of months searching for gold in the riverbed and also a number of its tributaries.

By then end of August Mulligan was convinced the Palmer River contained enough gold to make it payable, but they had only managed to stockpile enough to pay their expedition.
He believed they could have had three times the amount of gold they had amassed had they spent less time prospecting, but provisions were starting to run low and they needed to return to Georgetown to replenish their supplies.

Mulligan and his party faced a dilemma; whether or not to keep their discovery from the people of Georgetown and to pretend Hann was right when he said there was not enough payable gold to make the risk of journey to the Palmer River worthwhile.

But it was the policy of the Queensland Government to give a £1,000 reward to anyone who discovered a new goldfield and in his autobiography Mulligan admitted it was this that persuaded him to report his success.

When he got back to Georgetown he went straight to the office of the local mining warden and the news caused a sensation.

Rimmer describes the Palmer River Goldfield as "one of the most bountiful in Australian history."
It meant the creation of new towns and roads as an estimated 30,000 people, around two-thirds of them from the Chinese province of Canton, flocked to the area, although many of these settlements became ghost towns when the gold ran dry.

The Palmer River made Mulligan famous, but not rich. In the next three years Rimmer says he continued to live the life of a nomad, travelling through some of the wildest, most inhospitable parts of Queensland in his quest for valuable minerals.

In 1876 Mulligan defied the odds by locating another major goldfield, the Hodgkinson Goldfield.
Its make-up meant that, in like the River Palmer Goldfield, it wouldn't be able to support a large number of independent miners.

Rimmer writes; "In order to prise the gold from the ground sizeable amounts of capital would be needed and only large mining companies would be able to provide this."

But it provided thousands of people with jobs and also led to the creation of two of North Queensland best known towns, Cairns and Port Douglas.

The discovery of new goldfields came at a huge price in human terms, borne mainly by the native Aborigine population.

As Rimmer puts it in his book: "Eventually a combination of Sniper rifles, starvation and diseases for which they had no immunity bludgeoned the Aborigine into submission, and a way of life that had endured for up to 40,000 years was snuffed out in less than a quarter of a century".
At some point in the mid 1870s an imposing sandstone mountain was named Mount Mulligan in honour of the explorer. (In 1921 it was the scene of tragedy, when 75 people were killed in a coal mining disaster).

In 1877 Mulligan settled at Thornborough on the Hodgkinson Goldfield and opened a general store but the store failed and in 1879 he was declared bankrupt, leaving Thornborough to begin prospecting afresh for minerals.

He married a 47-year-old widower, Fanny Maria Buls, in Brisbane in 1903.
He died four years later, in August 1907, after what Rimmer describes as an altercation in a bar.
According to some reports he was injured trying to protect a woman from a drunkard and died the following day in the hospital at Mount Molloy.

Author's search for more facts on Mulligan's early life
It is over 30 years since Mike Rimmer first ventured to the Ballyward area to unearth more facts about Mulligan's formative years.

Courtesy of Mourne Observer