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Overview of the National Museum of Australia’s purchase of the Leichhardt nameplate

Welcome by Matthew Higgins, National Museum of Australia
Leichhardt symposium, National Museum of Australia, 15 June 2007

MATTHEW HIGGINS: I would like to welcome you all very heartily to this day of exploration: thinking about, reflecting upon and finding out more about Ludwig Leichhardt. As is customary I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as the traditional owners of this area. This site overlooking what was the Molonglo River would have been a very significant one to Aboriginal people. I would also like to acknowledge another group of people of significance to us: all those people who were born at, died at and were healed at the Royal Canberra Hospital, because that complex in its various forms occupied this site for about half a century until we came on the scene. So the National Museum of Australia occupies a very significant site historically. We are very well aware of that.

We are here today to think about Ludwig Leichhardt. It is great to see so much interest in this person who has largely been forgotten about by present-day Australians. If you were to go out to the average person and say, ‘Who is Leichhardt?,’ in Sydney they would say, ‘Don’t be silly, it is not a “who”, it’s a suburb.’ If you were in Mount Isa in Queensland they would say, ‘It’s the river that runs through our town.’ If you were out here in the Canberra suburb of Kingston or any one of a number of Australian towns and cities they would say, ‘It’s that street just over there.

Some people would know about Leichhardt the explorer and would think, ‘Wasn’t he that guy that disappeared during the nineteenth century?’ That would be true because, unfortunately, Leichhardt’s greatest claim to fame is that he and his expedition, which set off in 1848 from the Darling Downs, entirely disappeared. You see references to this very narrow view of Leichhardt time and again. Not so long ago in the Sydney Morning Herald there was a feature article about exploration, and all it had to say about Ludwig was: ‘The failure of Leichhardt’. What is totally overlooked in that statement is that only a few years earlier, in 1844 to 1845, Leichhardt completed one of the longest overland journeys in Australian exploration history - from Moreton Bay through to Port Essington or, in today’s terms, from Brisbane to Darwin. That was a huge undertaking. Although he and his fellows had been given up for dead, he and almost all of the group got through alive to Port Essington. So that was a major achievement in its day.

What is also forgotten today is that Leichhardt was more than an explorer: he was a scientist. As we will hear today he was very well qualified to observe and to record the Australian environment that he passed through. In fact, he was one of the most acute observers of Australia’s environment to that time. It is his disappearance that has seen Leichhardt become part of Australian mystery, mythology and folklore as well as part of Australian literature. Patrick White’s Voss is based to some large extent on the Leichhardt story. We will be hearing today about Leichhardt the figure in literature as well.

It is appropriate to think of Leichhardt like a watermark seen strongly in some lights but almost invisible in others. Perhaps he should be more visible, and that is what we are trying to achieve here today. We are aware that there have been other gatherings associated with Leichhardt in Charters Towers, north Queensland and more recently at the Academy of Science [in Canberra]. We hope that today’s event will continue what might become a bit of a momentum to try to reinstate Leichhardt to the place in Australian history where he belongs. It is this complex Leichhardt and his significance that we will be hearing about today.

The major reason why the National Museum of Australia is putting on this symposium today is that in November 2006 we acquired the Leichhardt nameplate. I would like to give an outline of the story about the nameplate, because the presentations of our first two speakers relate in varying degrees to the nameplate.

The nameplate was found in about 1900 attached to a partly burnt firearm in a boab tree in the Sturt Creek near the Western Australia-Northern Territory border. It was found by an Aboriginal man that we only know of as Jackie who was working with an outback stockman and prospector named Charles Harding. Harding recognised the value of the nameplate attached to the firearm. He disposed of the firearm but kept the plate. In his house in Goolwa, South Australia, he used to wrap it in newspaper and stick it behind the mantelpiece. Most of the time he kept it hidden, but he would get it out and show it to people from time to time and when he did that he used to rub it with fireplace ash to bring up a bit of a shine on it - obviously he didn’t have access to Brasso or something like that out in the bush.

In about 1917 a young teenager in Laura, Reg Bristow-Smith, who got to know Harding talked Harding into giving him the nameplate. Three years later in 1920 Bristow-Smith loaned the plate to the South Australian Museum which was very interested in it and kept it for a year. They wanted Bristow-Smith to donate it but he didn’t want to give it to them at that time.

Then in 1934 Bristow-Smith loaned the plate to a very well-known South Australian explorer and surveyor, Larry Wells, and this enabled the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia to undertake an exhaustive study of the plate and its purported place of discovery. In 1937 in its published proceedings the society concluded that the plate was genuine and that its place of discovery was genuine as well. But, unfortunately, the following year in 1938 Wells was killed in a railway accident and the person to whom the plate had passed in the South Australian bureaucracy, a Mr JM Maughan in the Lands Department, also died in the early 1940s. So with the loss of this corporate memory the plate virtually disappeared into the South Australian government and ended up with the board of the South Australian Library.

It wasn’t until 1964 that Reg Bristow-Smith finally got it back again, and it was with the Bristow-Smith family in Goolwa right through until the last couple of years. In late 2005, thanks to Darrell Lewis, who is our first speaker today, the National Museum of Australia and the Bristow-Smith family made contact with one another. We then spent a year analysing the nameplate. We concluded that it was genuine and we purchased it in November 2006. That explains how we came to acquire the nameplate.

The most significant thing about the nameplate is its place of discovery which greatly extends the generally held view of just how far Leichhardt got on that expedition. It doesn’t say where Leichhardt died. We still don’t know that. Many other views of Leichhardt have him dying in or around the Simpson Desert and other places. The fate of Leichhardt is one of the most contested questions in Australian exploration history. We don’t expect everyone to accept our view on this. That is why we put all of our evidence out on the National Museum website in November 2006 [Leichhardt nameplate] so that people can see not only our grounds for purchasing this nameplate but also the evidence that we have amassed to support this conclusion that Leichhardt got two-thirds of the way across the continent, which was a huge undertaking for a European at that time. Nonetheless the debate about Leichhardt and how far he got will no doubt continue. I am sure we will hear some of those other views today. This event is part of that ongoing debate about Leichhardt. That can only be a good thing, because through bringing speakers together like we have today we can continue to amass an even bigger body of knowledge about this most interesting man who came to our shores in 1842. I will leave it there.

Date published: 14 March 2008