Allan Cunningham discovers the Darling Downs [chapter 19 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 19 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 21 October 1934.]

The story of Australia — XIX.

Allan Cunningham discovers the Darling Downs

Allan Cunningham arrived at Port Jackson on December 21, 1816, and for a short time was engaged in collecting botanical specimens about Sydney. On April 25, 1817, he accompanied Oxley on his journey to explore the Lachlan, and his research work during this period added largely to our knowledge of the botany of Australia.

The next five years were spent with Captain, afterwards Admiral King, who was employed in surveying the east, north, and west coasts of Australia. Cunningham pursued his botanical work in spite of bad health, which on two occasions endangered his life. His notes on the subject occupy 40 pages of King’s narrative of a survey, and were thought important enough to be published separately in a German translation.

In September, 1822, he made a botanical excursion across the Blue Mountains and in the Bathurst district, returning on January 4, 1823. In March of the same year Cunningham left Bathurst with five men to find a practical route to the Liverpool Plains, which Oxley had discovered in 1818. On June 5 he was successful in finding a gap which afforded a good passage through the mountains to the plains. To this entrance he gave the name of Pandora Pass, now also known as Brennan’s Gap.

Visit to Moreton Bay

In the next enterprise he is found associated with Oxley. On September 4, 1824, he accompanied Oxley to Moreton Bay, and surveyed the Brisbane River as far as was practicable in their boat. In March, 1825, he left Parramatta, passed by the Pandora Pass, to the back country, and entered upon the Liverpool Plains, returning to his home on June 17. On August 28 he paid a visit to New Zealand where he was engaged botanising round the Bay of Islands. He returned on January 20, 1827, bringing with him a valuable collection of New Zealand flora.

It was in the year 1827 that Cunningham made his most notable journey of exploration which was destined to prove of vital importance to the Moreton Bay district. On April 30 he started from Segenhoe, a station on the Page, a tributary of the Hunter. Travelling northwards he discovered on May 28, a river which he named the Dumaresque, in honour of the family Governor Darling was so intimately connected with. The river flows into the Macintyre, and now forms part of the boundary between Queensland and New South Wales. Cunningham crossed the Dumaresque between Texas and Bengalla, possibly nearer the latter than the former place.

On June 5, one of the most memorable days in the early history of Queensland, the explorer ascended some rising ground, and the scene that met his eye held him spellbound. From where he stood the forest ridges extended for seven or eight miles, but beyond downs of great extent could be seen rolling away easterly to the base of a lofty range of mountains 30 miles away.

This was Cunningham’s first view of the magnificent territory which in the future was going to afford homes for thousands of settlers. The name, Darling Downs, was afterwards given to this fine country in honour of Governor Darling. Before leaving the district he had become convinced that the proper route to the Darling Downs would be from Moreton Bay, by the Brisbane River, and through the Main Range. Hence it became a matter of first importance to find a passage through the mountains. An effort was made, and an opening, as he believed, discovered, but his provisions being considerably reduced, he thought it advisable to defer the examination till another opportunity.

Cunningham’s Gap

In 1828, accompanied by his old companion, Fraser, Cunningham, went by sea to Moreton bay, with the object of obtaining evidence of the pass he believed to have already discovered. He was accompanied by Captain Logan, but the expedition was a failure, as it proved impossible to break through the rough country near the Dividing Range. His second attempt was successful, as after much rough work. He had the good fortune to discover a passage leading into the Darling Downs.

This pass still retains the name of Cunningham’s Gap. In his diary the explorer wrote, “This pass or door of entrance from the sea coast to a beautiful pastoral country of undefined extent, seen from this point, was this day (August 25, 1828) visited by Allan Cunningham, and a convict servant, and the practicability of a high road being constructed through it at some future day was most fully ascertained.”

In May, 1830, he visited Norfolk Island, from which he returned on August 28. He was due for leave, and on February 25, 1831, he left Sydney for London, returning in February, 1837. He was appointed Colonial botanist, but, finding the duties expected of him incompatible with his botanical labours, he resigned in December. His health continued to decline; he had to give up a trip in the Beagle, and he died of consumption on January 24, 1839, in a cottage in the Sydney Botanic Gardens.

He was buried in Devonshire Street Cemetery (now the site of the Central Railway Station), and an obelisk was erected to his memory in the Botanic Gardens. When the cemetery grounds were resumed for railway purposes his remains were placed in a casket within the obelisk.

It is a surprising fact that very little is known of the life and work of Allan Cunningham, and probably the reason is because he shrank from publicity during his own lifetime. His heart and hand were set to their utmost in everything that related to the welfare of the colony; and, had this worthy man performed no other public service during his lifeline, the discovery of the Darling Downs would have given him a strong claim to the gratitude of posterity.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 21 October 1934, p. 29

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