Adventures and tragedy of the mysterious Leichhardt [by Professor Ernest Scott, 15 July 1939]

[Editor: This is part nine of the “Men who made Australia” series written by Professor Ernest Scott.]

Men who made Australia — No. 9

Adventures and tragedy of the mysterious Leichhardt

No light is thrown upon the great enigma of Central Australia — the fate of Ludwig Leichhardt and his party — in this article, but Professor Scott’s examination of the character and accomplishments of the explorer add a good deal to public knowledge on the subject and clear away some misapprehensions. Professor Scott thinks the mystery of the fate of Leichhardt “will never be unveiled by searching, perhaps never even by chance.”

By Professor Sir Ernest Scott

No light is thrown upon the great enigma of Central Australia—the fate of Ludwig Leichhardt and his party—in this article, but Professor Scott’s examination of the character and

Nixety-one years ago Ludwig Leichhardt perished somewhere in the interior of Australia on his third important journey of exploration, which, starting from Brisbane, was intended to finish at Perth. If successful this would have been the first crossing of the continent from east to west. Where he and his companions came to disaster remains a mystery. A few months ago a party set forth from Adelaide to look for traces of them, lured by a report that what appeared to be Leichhardt relics had been seen. But only disappointment resulted from that gallant effort. The desert kept its secret. The bones of Leichhardt and his companions and all the impediments of their equipment, are perhaps covered with drifting sand or buried beneath the debris of some creek which, after the uncontrollable manner of Central Australian watercourses, could either overflow with a raging torrent or lie dry and stark under a blistering sun.

A strange man was this tall, lean Prussian, and a strange destiny he courted. A couple of sentences written by the Queensland pastoralist Thomas Archer, who knew him well, bring him sharply before our eyes: “His wiry figure admirably adapted him for encountering the hardships and toils of a bushman’s life. His thin face with its prominent aquiline nose, the firm-set lips, and small, sparkling blue eyes, betokened the energy and determination that distinguished his career.”

We meet with him first as a science student in Germany, sentimental, imaginative, learned, full of ardor, and courageous to the point of rashness; a man who would rather die in making a spectacular attempt than live in hum-drum comfort. He was only six years in Australia, but in that short period he inscribed his name as one of the most famous of our explorers. We may feel sure that he would have regarded that achievement as sufficient recompense for his exertions and sufferings. For he was that kind of man; one infused with a craving for personal distinction, and this not from vanity, but from an inborn impulse to excel.

Why he came here

He studied first at the University of Gottingen, the town which the poet Heine, who read law there seven years before Leichhardt entered as a student, declared to be distinguished for its beer, its sausages, and the big feet of its women. He finished his course for a science doctorate at the University of Berlin. After travelling in England and France, he was curtly reminded by the Prussian authorities that he had not yet submitted himself for his term of military training, as required by law, and was ordered to present himself on a stipulated date. He was then doing field-work in botany and geology, enjoying his free life and hoping to accomplish some original results. To turn from this, and for many months to line up and execute the stiff commands of a Prussian drill sergeant on a parade ground, was intolerable to him. But he was poor, and no career was open in his native country. He wanted scope and opportunity. These came to him through financial assistance given by an Englishman, William Nicholson, with whom he had formed a firm friendship while they were fellow students.

Exactly why he made up his mind to come to Australia is not quite clear, nor is light thrown upon the point by Miss Catherine Drummond Cotton, in her interesting book, “Ludwig Leichhardt and the Great South Land.” Africa was nearer, and there was still plenty of opportunity for research in America. A guess may be ventured. Leichhardt’s friend Nicholson — who afterwards settled down as a doctor in Bristol had a brother in Australia — Mark Nicholson, who was then running a cattle station, and later became a member of the Legislative Council of Victoria (1853-61). It may be that something in Mark’s letters awakened in Leichhardt’s mind a desire to go to Australia, where evidently there was exploratory work to be done and an immense fresh field for scientific enquiry.

So it came about that this young Prussian landed in Sydney in February, 1842. He had £200, the gift of William Nicholson, with which to face life; he brought a letter of introduction to Sir Thomas Mitchell; he was well informed as to the discoveries made by Eyre, Sturt, and Mitchell himself; and he cherished a determination to gain fame by undertakings like theirs. For the present, however, he had to obtain employment.

His efforts being repulsed in Sydney, he accepted an invitation to stay with a grazier of literary and scientific tastes at Newcastle. From that centre he made long excursions into the bush, collecting plants and rocks. Then, partly tramping, partly riding a horse, and accompanied by a dog, he moved north across the Liverpool range and the New England tableland 600 miles to Brisbane.

Not an amateur

It was rough, wild country in those days. There were few settlers, but such as lived on the route extended frugal hospitality to the lonely traveller. A meal of meat, damper, and tea was luxurious fare to Leichhardt on that journey, and be was grateful for the “contact with dear people who help me in a friendly way whenever I ask them.” But often he went hungry and slept in the forest. Now and then, he confessed, he was brought to such straits that he thought he must give up and betake himself to some ordinary labor by which he could earn his bread. But he persisted, moving on and on, over the Condamine valley, across the Darling Downs, until at length Brisbane was reached, a settlement which he noted as “well situated, on the banks of a noble river surrounded by acacias in the full pride of golden blossoms.”

In Brisbane Leichhardt found good friends at a German mission to aborigines, which had been founded largely by the instrumentality of that acidulated divine the Reverend Doctor John Dunmore Lang, who was once a representative of the Port Phillip District in the old Legislative Council of New South Wales, where he sometimes found scope for his tart humor. It is recorded that he was called to order by the Speaker for saying that another member was not fit to carry feed to a pig. “In deference to your order, sir,” he responded. “I readily withdraw the statement that the honorable member is not fit to carry feed to a pig, and now state that he is fit to carry feed to a pig.” But we are grateful to Dr. Lang for preserving in his book, “Cooksland” — the name be wanted to give to the territory which we know as Queensland — a number of Leichhardt’s letters to a Sydney friend, Robert Lynd.

From these valuable letters we learn about the journeys which Leichhardt made from Brisbane into the back-country during the year or more while he was living there. They show that by the time when he undertook the first of his three great journeys of exploration he was by no means the blundering amateur bushman that some of his critics have supposed. He was, on the contrary, well seasoned and experienced. He made toilsome journeys to Wide Bay, to the Glasshouse Mountains, to the upper waters of the Brisbane River, to the Darling Downs, tramping, climbing, roughing it, always collecting plants and geological specimens, and noting the wild life of the country. He made helpful friends at several stations — those of Thomas Archer, Francis Biggs, Sir Evan Mackenzie, and especially David McConnel, of Cressbrook, whose descendants are still there, as the present writer has pleasant reasons for knowing.

The supposition that Leichhardt was a morose, unsociable man is also quite unjustifiable. He liked good company, though much of his life in Australia was solitary. He mentions in one of his letters the agreeable conversation he enjoyed with his hosts, though he added, wistfully, that “few of them take any interest in my pursuits, but they assist me as much as I require.” One of them mentioned his “excitement and delight” when he discovered some rare plant, as being pleasing to see; and he left in another family a tradition of charm of manner, an artistic nature, and a cultivated mind.

To the north coast

The first important piece of exploration undertaken by Leichhardt was that from Brisbane to Port Essington, on the north coast of the continent. Mitchell had advocated the opening of a route between New South Wales and that bay, and in 1843 the Legislative Council passed an address to the Governor, Sir George Gipps, requesting him to appropriate money for that purpose. Gipps declined, thinking it inexpedient to incur expenditure on “an expedition of so hazardous and expensive a nature.” Leichhardt thereupon volunteered to go on his own responsibility, and raised money for it by subscriptions from friends. He planned to start, not from Sydney, but from Brisbane, and left in September, 1844. One of his party of 10 was John Gilbert, who wished to go for the purpose of collecting birds’ skins for Gould, who was then working upon his splendid work, “Birds of Australia.” Gilbert never returned; he was speared by blacks, about a week before the expedition arrived at the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Indeed, a report reached Sydney that the whole party had been murdered, and Leichhardt’s friend Lynd wrote a poem about the supposed tragedy, concluding with the lines:

“When science, like the smile of God,
Comes bright’ning o’er that weary land,
How will her pilgrims hail the power
Beneath the drooping myall’s gloom
To sit at eve and mourn an hour
And pluck a leaf on Leichhardt’s tomb.”

The poem was set to music by Isaac Nathan, then living in Sydney, who had previously set up as a teacher of music, in Melbourne, where an advertisement described him as “an eminent scholar and musician, the bosom friend of Lord Byron.” There was not time, however for the elegy to be sung in public, because Leichhardt shortly afterwards returned, exhausted but safe and sound, with a great story of adventure to tell. He had been ten months travelling.

Big venture that failed

What had he achieved? He had successfully led his expedition 3,000 miles across the continent to Port Essington and back, and this in the very year when Sturt was defeated on his journey into Central Australia. He discovered the Burdekin River, and named it after Mrs. Burdekin, of Sydney, who had liberally supported his expedition. He discovered the Nicholson River, and named it in honor of the friend “who had enabled me to come, to Australia to explore it and to study its nature.” The Roper, Mackenzie, Mitchell, Gilbert, Macarthur, and several smaller rivers were discovered by him. He traversed and described some very good country, as well as some which was terribly rough and difficult. He discovered the Peak Downs range, and, a well-watered area east of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Rev. Dr. Lang also had cause to thank him, as he said, “much taken by surprise at finding myself bound in basalt for the future in a conspicuous mountain within the tropics.”

Leichhardt had well earned the testimonial of £2,050 which was partly raised by subscription in Sydney and partly awarded by the Government as an acknowledgement of services rendered “not only to the colony but to the cause of science and civilisation generally throughout the world.”

Provided now with a larger sum of money than he had ever before possessed. Leichhardt speedily planned another expedition, which was to traverse Australia from east to west. He started in December, 1846, from a station on the Darling Downs, accompanied by seven white men and two blacks. The party was well provided with horses, mules, cattle, sheep and goats—enough to provide food for more months than they expected to be travelling. But the time of the year was unpromising. A midsummer journey across the continent on almost the widest line that could be taken seemed to court failure. To make matters worse, drought, the Cerberus of the desert, happened to have gone off duty that season. Tropical rains generated fever and ague, the country was soaked and boggy, the animals strayed away, and it became impossible to round them up. Everybody was ill and miserable, the leader himself almost crippled with rheumatism. The impossibility of success became evident, and only a hasty retreat could prevent disaster. Seven months after the adventurers had set forth, they returned, half starved, floundering through swamps, baffled by swollen creeks. Leichhardt confessed that he endured “extreme agony of mind” and was “exhausted by sickness.”

The tragic journey

Yet in a fortnight the ardent spirit of the man conquered his weakened body, and he was off again on a 600 mile jaunt to the Peak Downs to examine the route followed by Sir Thomas Mitchell when he travelled from Sydney to the far north; and he candidly confessed that Mitchell’s route was easier than the one be had chosen.

He was still determined to achieve what no man had yet done, and what, in fact, no man was able to do for many years to come — to cross the continent from the Queensland coast to Perth “I need the stimulus of some great enterprise to shake off my fits of melancholy,” he wrote to a friend. So in this mood he organised another expedition, and started from Moreton Bay in February, 1848, with four white companions and two blacks. “He cannot do that journey in less than 5,000 miles,” wrote Charles Start on hearing of his plans; and none knew better than Sturt.

From this venture Leichhardt never returned, and no man knows how, when, or where he and his party met death. The last letter from him was dated from the farthest-out cattle station, on the Fitzroy Downs, on April 3. “The rest is silence,” the silence of the vast, unconquerable desert. A rough hut most probably erected by his party, and two trees marked with the letter “L” were seen along his probable route by travellers during the next 20 years, but no trace of the material of the expedition or its personnel has ever been discovered. John Forrest, A. C. Gregory and Duncan McIntyre made systematic efforts to find evidence, but the mystery of the fate of Ludwig Leichhardt will never be unveiled by searching, perhaps never even by chance.

Leichhardt has had some harsh critics, including two who were with him on his first great expedition. Miss Drummond Cotton has shown that one of these wrote under a misapprehension of what he had said about some of his subordinates. Other allegations such as that he lacked expert knowledge of Australian conditions, are quite unconvincing, because they are based upon the supposition that he plunged into enterprise for which he was not equipped by previous experience. But, as already shown, before he entered upon his unfortunate second expedition and his fatal third, he had acquired experience of no inconsiderable extent, and had proved himself possessed of great determination and power of endurance. A man of high intelligence who had traversed about 5,000 miles in the bush on foot or horse surely did not lack experience.

Leichhardt was no reckless advenurer, nor a man impelled by vanity to acquire fame at any cost. When he was awarded gold medals by the Royal Geographical Society and a similar Institution in France, he wrote:— “I am pleased that learned men find me worthy of such honor, but I have never worked for anything but science, and for science alone, and I will do the same in the future even if nobody in the world troubles about me.” Even when, through an appeal by the great Humbolt, the Prussian Government, in view of Leichhardt’s great distinction, overlooked his flouting of its authority, and gave him permission to return, he was not prepared to go home and receive flattering attentions, because he wished to continue in Australia where there was so much fresh work to be done. “I cannot accord to it,” he replied, “but it is reassuring to be at peace with the Fatherland.” The fascination of revealing the unknown had captured his brave and eager spirit, and held him spellbound till he perished. And so —

Out on the wastes of the Never-Never
There where the heat waves dance for ever,
That’s where the dead men lie.

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 15 July 1939, page 22

[Editor: The editorial introduction to this article has been italicized, so as to distinguish it from the text written by Professor Scott.]

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