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George Ernest ‘Chinese’ Morrison’s adventures are extraordinary, not just for their astounding individual achievements, but their eclectic nature. It’s hard to believe he fitted them all into his 58 years. He also ushered in an age when exploration was funded by the media.
Morrison was born in Geelong (Vic) on 4 February 1862. After graduating from Geelong College, where his father was the principal, he decided to walk to Adelaide, via the mostly uninhabited southern coastline. He launched his career in journalism by selling the story of this 1200-kilometre ‘stroll’ to the Leader newspaper in Adelaide. The following summer, he canoed down the Murray from Wodonga to the sea, walking back to Geelong to generate more articles.
Next, perhaps to avoid studying medicine at the University of Melbourne, he caught a boat out of north Queensland that was involved in the ‘blackbirding’ slave trade. His articles about the trip helped end this brutal industry. After travelling through the Torres Strait, the 20-year-old decided to walk 3200 kilometres to Melbourne from the Gulf of Carpentaria – on his own, through the heat of summer, on the route that had killed Burke and Wills just 20 years before. He reached Melbourne in 123 days, describing it as “a pleasant excursion” and “no feat of endurance”.
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald then financed him for an expedition to go further than any white man into the New Guinea interior. Morrison had to be evacuated when he was speared in the head and stomach. One spearhead remained in his abdomen until he reached Scotland, where he hoped to return to university.
After finishing his medical studies, Morrison practised for two years in Ballarat. He then walked 5000 kilometres across China from Shanghai to Myanmar, and became the London Times Asian correspondent. He was also asked by the British Foreign Office to file secret reports from Asia – basically becoming a spy.
He fought in the Boxer Rebellion, killing at least six people to defend some Chinese Christians, and in 1910 rode 6000 kilometres across Russian Turkestan. Morrison then became a senior political advisor to the Chinese Government, guiding it through a turbulent period of foreign diplomacy.
George Morrison’s massive collection of Chinese books, maps and manuscripts became the foundation collection for the Oriental Library in Tokyo, and an annual ethnology lecture is delivered in his name each year in Canberra.