[Editor: This is part six of the “Men who made Australia” series written by Professor Ernest Scott.]
Men who made Australia — No. 6
Strzelecki, who first found gold in the continent
By Professor Sir Ernest Scott
A Polish nobleman who was unjustly “identified” as the original of Count Smorltork in “Pickwick Papers,” Count Strzelecki spent what in those days would have been called a small fortune in his explorations in Australia. He named Mount Kosciusko and Gippsland. The journey, during which he found the highest peak and traversed Gippsland, nearly cost him and his companions their lives. Strzelecki discovered gold in the Bathurst district in 1839, but he did not publicly disclose his discovery because the Governor (Sir George Gipps), fearing a gold rush, requested the explorer to keep it secret. A town and a range near Westemport, Victoria, and a creek in the north-eastern comer of South Australia, are named after Strzelecki.
On May 12, 1840, a small party of half-starved and nearly naked men staggered into Westernport from the rugged back-country after a painful journey through the mountains of south-eastern Australia. They were Count Paul de Strzelecki, a Polish refugee, and two Australians. Arthur Riley and James Macarthur — a son of a member of the Legislative Council of New South Wales — with their servants, including an aborigine named Charley, who belonged to a Goulburn Plains tribe. More than a fortnight elapsed before the adventures of the party became known in Melbourne, where their arrival provided a topic of interest such as, judging from the newspapers of the period, did not often occur in the little four-year-old town.
Strzelecki was a man of 43 when he arrived in New South Wales in 1838, with letters of introduction to the Governor, Sir George Gipps. He had studied science at the universities of Heidelberg and Edinburgh, and then travelled extensively in America, Asia, and the Pacific. His main object in visiting this country was to examine its geological characteristics, and especially its mineral resources; and after making excursions through much wild and broken country he declared it to be a “vast field for a most exciting and interesting geological investigation.”
After exploring part of the Australian Alps, where he discovered and climbed the mountain which he named Kosciusko after Poland’s patriot-hero, he wished to trace the course of the range towards the sea. The journey was extremely fatiguing. After the Latrobe River was crossed, the pack horses had to be abandoned, together with all the scientific specimens which had been collected. Already the food supply had run so short that the members of the expedition were reduced to an allowance of one biscuit and a slice of bacon per day. The original intention of continuing the journey to Wilson’s Promontory was seen to be impossible, and the most direct route to Westernport was determined upon.
Saved by a native
That plan compelled the party to cut their way, during 26 toilsome days, through scrub so dense that they progressed scarcely two miles in a day. Their clothes were torn to shreds and their flesh was cut and scraped as though with hooks and knives. When the provisions were exhausted they must have perished but for the exertions and bushcraft of Charley, who was able to provide a sufficiency of koala — disrespectfully described in one narrative as “Australian bear or monkey.” The flesh was eaten raw, through inability to light fires owing to the dampness of the undergrowth. Charley was undoubtedly the saviour of the party. “On one occasion,” wrote Strzelecki. “when we were reduced to great straits, and worn out with fatigue, his master and most of the others had almost given up the toilsome struggle in despair, when Charley, though no less exhausted than his friends, endeavored to cheer their drooping spirits, and seating himself on a log beside Mr. Macarthur, he said, looking affectionately in his face, ‘Me never leave you, Massa.’ The fervor with which the unsophisticated son of nature expressed his determination to share the fate of his young master touched the hearts of his companions in distress and encouraged them to persevere in their efforts to overcame the obstacles which lay between them and safety.”
They were in a sorry plight indeed when they emerged, on May 12, at the little Westernport settlement. On May 28 the travellers arrived in Melbourne, where the “Port Phillip Patriot,” John Pascoe Fawkner’s newspaper, chronicled the fact and commented: “We hear that their privations and sufferings have been extreme.”
Three newspapers were published in Melbourne in 1840, the “Port Phillip Patriot,” the “Port Phillip Gazette,” and the “Port Phillip Herald.” The third of these began issue in January of that year, and is the only one which survived. Competition between them was fierce, and the rival editors frequently attacked each other with venomous rage. The “Herald,” as the newcomer, became the natural object of the aversion of the other two, which previously had fought pen-and-ink duels.
But the “Herald” achieved perhaps the first local triumph of the kind known in modern journalistic language as a “scoop” when it displayed in its largest type a full, two-column story about Strzelecki’s adventures. The Count handed his manuscript journals to a friend, H. F. Gisborne — well known in the public life of Melbourne at this period — who wrote from them a very good summary, which the “Herald” published on June 9, together with a leading article commenting upon the importance of the opening up of the new province which Strzelecki named Gippsland. On one point the three Port Phillip newspapers did agree: a name beginning with four consonants seemed too entangled for toleration. So they spelt it either as “Streleski,” or “Strelenski.” What was then believed to be the highest mountain in Australia made its first bow, so to speak, to the Melbourne public as “Koscuisko.”
The name Gippsland was given to that part of Victoria by Strzelecki, but was not the first name it bore, nor was he the discoverer of the territory. Angus Macmillan in 1839 in search of good grazing country, obtained a view of the sea from a mountain top in the Buchan district. In the following year he traversed what he described as “Some of the worst description of country I ever saw,” camped beside the Tambo, discovered Port Albert, and, taking a general view from a hill beside the Mitchell, was reminded of the scenery of Scotland, “and therefore, named it at the moment Caledonia Australis.” There were in fact three settlers at Omeo when Macmillan was there at the end of 1839. Nevertheless, Strzelecki’s name for Gippsland was convenient and appropriate — certainly more convenient than Macmillan’s “Caledonia Australis,” and was officially adopted, though Sir George Gipps was shy of mentioning it in his dispatch describing the explorations. The Strzelecki Range, now traversed by excellent roads, is of course appropriately named after the explorer.
There can be no reasonable doubt that Strzelecki was the first to find traces of gold in Australia. After making a geological excursion in the Bathurst district in 1839, he reported to the Governor that he had found gold among decomposed ironstone, and was satisfied that it would be discovered in quantities. But that news, so far from gratifying Sir George Gipps, alarmed him considerably. “He requested me,” wrote Strzelecki, “to keep the matter secret for fear of the serious consequences which, considering the condition and population of the colony, were to be apprehended.”
When Strzelecki published his book, “Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land,” in 1845, he omitted all reference to gold, in accordance with the promise which he had given to the Governor. But his claim to priority in discovery is substantiated by two independent pieces of testimony. First, an enclosure accompanying a dispatch from Sir George Gipps in 1839 included among the minerals found in New South Wales: “Gold, an auriferous sulphate of iron, partly decomposed, yielding a very small quantity or proportion of gold, sufficient to attest its presence.” Secondly, in a debate in the Legislative Council of New South Wales in 1853, on a proposal to award a gratuity to Edward Hargreaves on account of his discovery of gold at Bathurst, James Macarthur said that to his knowledge Strzelecki in 1839 had exhibited specimens of gold to different gentlemen in Sydney, and “repeatedly told me in private conversation that an extensive goldfield existed in the Bathurst district.”
Had not Strzelecki been an extremely scrupulous man he might justifiably have recorded his discovery in his book, which is a scientific treatise. A reference to gold there would merely have kept company with his references to other minerals and to fossil flora and fauna. He might reasonably have considered that his promise to Gipps applied only to New South Wales, and that he considered himself bound, as a man of science, to tell the readers of his book all he knew about Australian minerals. But he chose to adopt a strict interpretation, and said nothing about gold until others had found it.
Strzelecki’s book is not to be recommended for entertaining reading, and was not intended to amuse. He wrote it as a scientific survey of the territories which had been traversed by him, and considered in close detail such matters as geology and mineralogy, climatology, fossil remains, marine surveys, terrestrial magnetism, agriculture, and the aborigines. He dismissed in less than half a page the story of the journey of himself and his companions through Gippsland, coldly chronicling the fact that they were in “imminent danger of perishing,” and saved themselves by “the utmost exertion stimulated by the sense of peril.” Concerning the Tasmanian ranges, he described “the grandeur and infinity of the mountain scenery,” the profound, tortuous abysses,” the “unbroken solitude, silence and desolation,” the “fearful gorges, precipitous cliffs and inaccessible ridges;” but scenic grandeur was incidental to the main purpose of the writer, which was to present scientific data.
The one feature of his travels in Australia which did evoke something like rapture was Mount Kosciusko — which he invariably spelt in the Polish manner, “Kosciuszko.” He did not, however, give that name to the mountain which bears it now, but to a neighboring peak. His intention of naming the highest mountain in Australia after Poland’s great leader was respected by transposing the names. Strzelecki’s description of the peak which he did climb (Mount Townsend), may, however, be quoted as a good example of a feeling for landscape evoked by what he saw from the summit.
“Conspicuously elevated above all the heights hitherto noticed, and swollen by many ragged protuberances, the snowy and craggy sienitic cone of Mount Kosciuszko is seen cresting the Australian Alps in all the sublimity of mountain scenery. Its altitude reaches 6,500 feet, and the view from its summit sweeps over 7,000 square miles. Standing above the adjacent mountains which could either detract from its imposing aspect or intercept the view, Mount Kosciuszko is one of those few elevations, the ascent of which, far from disappointing, presents the traveller with all that can remunerate fatigue. In the north-eastern view, the eye is carried as far back as the Shoalhaven country, the ridges of all the spurs of Moniero and Twofold Bay, as well as those which, to the westward, enclose the tributaries of the Murrumbidgee, being conspicuously delineated. Beneath the feet, looking from the very verge of the cone downwards almost perpendicularly the eye plunges into a fearful gorge 3,000 feet deep, in the bed of which the sources of the Murray gather their contents and roll their united waters to the west.”
A satirical touch entered into the author’s consideration of the treatment of the aboriginal natives of Australia. “Since the time that the aborigines have been declared by law, or rather sophistry of law, to be illegitimate possessors of any land which they do not cultivate,” he wrote, “the Australian has been looked upon, ipso facto, as a sort of brute intruder! and in the transactions which ended in the taking possession of New Holland by England, has been allowed no more voice than the kangaroos.” As for the “Protectors’’ who had been sent out from England to look after the interests of the natives, their arrival, instead of appeasing the excited and revengeful people to be protected, “emboldened them to such a degree that their depredations opened another field of exertion for a new association, for the protection of the whites.”
The short biography of Strzelecki in “The Australian Encyclopaedia,” — a work of very great value, which is rarely at fault — does an injustice to Strzelecki in alleging that “he was the original of Count Smorltork who graced Mrs. Leo Hunter’s breakfast party in Pickwick.” That is certainly untrue. Dickens sometimes introduced actual characters under disguising names in his novels; notably in “Pickwick Papers.” Count Smorltork was the “well-whiskered individual in a foreign uniform” who was “gathering materials for his great work on England” after being a fortnight in the country. He is easily identified, in A. J. Philip’s Dickens Dictionary as a certain Prince Pucklen Muskau, and there is a modern biography of that worthy, who made a kind of splash in London society at about the time when Dickens was writing the adventures of the Pickwick Club. Not one of the characteristics satirised by Dickens fits Paul de Strzelecki, who assuredly was not addicted to “small-talk,” did not wear a uniform, and spoke English fluently and correctly, not as Dickens represented Mrs. Leo Hunter’s guest as speaking it.
During five years, Strzelecki travelled, on foot, 7,000 miles in Australia and Tasmania, and spent £5,000 on his researches. While he was in Tasmania, the Governor, Sir John Franklin, always eager to promote and assist scientific work, contributed £100 to a fund amounting to £400, which was raised by public subscription. This appears to have been the only money he received to augment his own resources. Poland is very much “in the news” at this time, showing with dauntless courage the spirit which made her a great nation, and kept her people united in spite of the territorial plunderings of Frederick II. of Prussia, the Czarina. Catherine II. of Russia, and the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. The Polish nobleman whom Australia has such good cause for remembering with honor, showed in his explorations in the roughest parts of this country an full measure of the vigor, courage and self-sacrifice which have been the grand characteristics of his brilliant race.
The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 24 June 1939, page 22
sienitic = (or syenitic; noun: syenite) a granular igneous rock mainly consisting of orthoclase and oligoclase, with hornblende, biotite, or augite; syenitic granite
[Editor: The editorial introduction to this article has been italicized, so as to distinguish it from the text written by Professor Scott. Corrected “dimissed” to “dismissed”; “grand charasteristics” to “grand characteristics”.]