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Leichhardt: the motivations of an explorer

Paper presented by Professor Rod Home, University of Melbourne
Leichhardt symposium, National Museum of Australia, 15 June 2007

ROD HOME: I congratulate the National Museum for putting on such an interesting symposium today. I am going to talk in rather general terms about Leichhardt and his background because I have seen this topic as an introduction to the next two papers from Dr Tom Darragh and Professor Henry Nix. In the last 20 years or so there has been a tremendous upsurge of interest in Ludwig Leichhardt, with a considerable number of important new publications that have drawn extensively on both the edition of Leichhardt’s correspondence by Aurousseau published in 1968 and on Leichhardt’s unpublished diaries in the Mitchell Library, as well as on the published accounts of his great expeditions to Moreton Bay, to Port Essington and his aborted expedition of 1847.

As a result of all this new work, we can surely at last put behind us the image of Leichhardt that prevailed for many years of an incompetent dreamer who didn’t know what he was doing and who recklessly endangered the lives of his men. This image was presented in particular in Alec Chisholm’s scurrilous anti-German diatribe Strange New World of 1941, published at the height of the Second World War and at the height of anti-German hysteria which swept Australia at that time. In fact during the two world wars of the twentieth century Australians did their best to erase from their collective memory the many positive contributions that Germans had made to the country since its settlement by Europeans, and Leichhardt’s reputation suffered more than most in that process.

Now we can surely put this behind us, because the Leichhardt that emerges from the documents was no incompetent dreamer but a well-trained scientist and an accomplished field worker who, before he headed off on his first major journey of exploration, had spent two years learning the bushcraft necessary to survive in unexplored territory. This assessment of him was only made possible by applying twentieth century criteria of behaviour to a nineteenth century situation when expectations were entirely different; in other words, by being completely unhistorical in making one’s judgments.

To expand on this let me begin by saying something about Leichhardt’s family and financial background. Although Leichhardt’s parents were not Prussian; they lived in a part of Germany that had become Prussian as part of the post-Napoleonic settlement of the European boundaries. From Leichhardt’s point of view this had the advantage that he was able to profit from the excellent education system set up by the Prussian minister Wilhelm von Humboldt, but it had the disadvantage that he was subject to doing compulsory military service as well as to oversight by the state authorities in his choice of career. He eventually came to reject these constraints.

Leichhardt’s father was a peasant and a petty government official, a peat inspector. He was not only a petty government official and peasant but also had a very large family to support, including young Ludwig whose talents were obviously evident early on because he was sent off to boarding school when he was still quite young, which would have cost the family quite a lot of money. Ludwig Leichhardt attended the classical grammar school or gymnasium in Cottbus and did well enough to proceed to the university that Wilhelm von Humboldt founded in Berlin. He initially studied philology because he had shown himself particularly good at languages at grammar school. If you were studying something like that, the intention presumably was that you would become a teacher either in a university or gymnasium when you had finished. The expense of attending university, especially if Leichhardt was to gain maximum benefit from his university years by spending part of his time as was customary at other universities, was beyond his father’s budget.

So he, like many other young students from poor backgrounds in that age of enormous differences of wealth and privilege, relied on wealthy patrons to help cover his costs. This was a common thing at the time. Had he come from the Catholic part of Germany another alternative would have been to join the church, but the system operated differently in the Protestant part of the country.

Most often poor but intelligent lads looked to wealthy local landowners or perhaps businessmen in the local town for patronage, and Leichhardt certainly tried that. He wrote letters to various people without success. Later on he was fortunate to make friends with a fellow student, a young Englishman named William Nicholson, who had the resources enough to cover Leichhardt’s expenses as well as his own and who eventually gave Leichhardt 200 pounds to cover his initial expenses in going to Australia, which was a very large sum of money in those days.

But this situation doesn’t make Leichhardt a sponger in the derogatory twentieth century sense that has sometimes been applied to him. The arrangement wasn’t at all unusual. As a most obvious example, think of the countless ladies’ companions that one meets in Victorian novels where genteel but impoverished women are given a home by a wealthier patron. Poorer genteel parts of the community automatically looked for support from the wealthier around them, with expectations of getting it.

What was perhaps unusual in Leichhardt’s situation was that the patronage that he eventually succeeded in attracting came from an English family rather than one based closer to his home. There were many English students at German universities at this time since they were generally acknowledged to be the best around. But still Leichhardt’s teaming up with one of them undoubtedly opened up wider horizons for him and wider opportunities than he might have found had he had a German patron.

I described him earlier as a well-trained scientist. In fact, he was the best trained scientist to practice his craft in Australia at that time. However, Leichhardt wouldn’t have used the term ‘scientist’ himself. That was a neologism invented around about 1840. He probably had not even heard of the word and would have thought of himself a naturalist. However, that is beside the point. He was very well trained.

To be sure he never completed any formal qualifications, and that has sometimes been held against him as a criticism in the twentieth century. But that is beside the point, too. The only people who completed qualifications in those days were those aiming for careers as teachers or government officials. If you just went to university to get an education, it didn’t matter whether you actually did a formal exam at the end or not - and many people didn’t - what counted was what you studied.

Thanks to Edith Webster and Colin Roderick today, we have a good idea of what Leichhardt studied and what his training consisted of. We know that he studied for several years under some of the leading scientists of the age in some of the world’s leading centres of scientific activity in Göttingen, in Berlin and in Paris. We know that he worked systematically through the natural history collections of the world’s greatest natural history museums in London and in Paris in particular. We know that he then consolidated his studies with extensive field work in several European countries before he set out for Australia. He had also done a fair amount of medical study and had followed hospital rounds under some of the leading doctors in both London and Paris.

In Germany, if he had stayed there, that wouldn’t have been enough for him to be regarded as a fully qualified medico because he had not done enough formal course work. But he was probably at least as well trained in medicine as most of those who practised medicine in England or in Australia at the time. I take it that that was the basis of his being given the honorary label of ‘Dr Leichhardt’ in Australia, which was not a label he ever claimed - in fact he disavowed it several times but people kept calling him doctor anyway. He never claimed to be a qualified doctor; he saw himself as a naturalist.

Let me say a bit more about his training. When he went to university, Berlin initially, it took him a while to settle on his course of study. He started off in philology, later he tried his hand at public administration for a term or so before settling definitively into science. I have extracted a list of some of the more prominent of his scientific lecturers, which is impressive. He started in Berlin studying philology. Then he went to Göttingen in his Wanderjahr or year of travel where his three professors were Johann Blumenbach, Wilhelm Weber and Friedrich Bartling. Friedrich Bartling was not the greatest botanist of all time but he was competent. He used to take Leichhardt and other students on field excursions on the weekends. But Blumenbach and Weber are two of the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century. Blumenbach was an old man at the time, but he had more or less invented the field of comparative anatomy and had made extraordinarily large contributions to it. Weber was a young man at this time but he was one of the principal figures in the history of electrodynamics of the nineteenth century.

I suppose one should regard the period in Göttingen and Berlin as in effect Leichhardt’s undergraduate training and his period in Paris as his postgraduate training. Those lecturers in Berlin I have listed – Eilhardt Mitscherlich, Christian Ehrenberg and Gustav Magnus - are all extremely well known in the history of science. Mitscherlich was a major figure in the history of chemistry; Christian Ehrenberg invented the study of microscopic organisms; and Gustav Magnus was probably the leading figure in applied physics in nineteenth century Germany.

Then we go to Paris where Leichhardt studied under many other scientists. Some of these names are still well known today, others not so well known, but in their day all were leading figures in their respective fields. Paris is important because it was the world centre of science at the time. The Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle had probably the world’s greatest natural history collection at the time, including rich Australian collections from those great French exploring expeditions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that Leichhardt was able to study. Many of his lecturers were professors at the museum who also gave courses of lectures. (You will notice an increasing level of specialisation amongst them. This is characteristic of the general development in science at the time but especially in Paris. That is partly why Paris was the leading centre. It had a lot of specialists.) The geological professor Constant Prévost took Leichhardt on expeditions around the Paris Basin, which is a rich geological site.

Moving to London, while Leichhardt didn’t attend lectures, he did the hospital rounds and also attended various museums, the Hunterian Museum and the British Museum in particular. It was at the British Museum that he met Sir Richard Owen, the famous palaeontologist.

Under the guidance of these people his mind quickly opened and his ambitions developed. Already in Göttingen during his Wanderjahr he wrote to his brother-in-law, ‘If I do study further, it won’t be because I want to graduate and become a professor. I want to strike a vein of interest which, with God’s help, will lead me further than that would.’ And his father, talking about his younger brother’s upbringing but in words that could equally apply to himself, ‘The work a man likes, then let him do. His fertile mind ever taut and alert will then strive onward. Everything new affords him a new interest. A thousand new pages asked for his attentive reading.’ Or again to his father, ‘The more mental sustenance we can accumulate, the more calmly we can await the future.’ Leichhardt was an extremely hard worker to accumulate more and more mental sustenance in this way throughout his period as a student and subsequently in Australia.

Aurousseau described this in his introduction to the correspondence in the Australian period:

Leichhardt was obsessive and energetic and his prodigious output of his physical collections and written observations was only sustained by working [then he quotes Leichhardt himself] ‘from seven in the morning until midnight’.

Leichhardt also thrived on outdoors field studies. As he wrote during his first field expedition in the Harz mountains in Germany, ‘This vigorous travelling on foot, this contemplative moving about amongst the wonders of nature, this delightful alternation of fatigue and repose have a strong and enduring fascination. I would wander around like this all my life if I could. My mind is insatiable.’ Gradually during this period he and Nicholson formed the idea of becoming scientific travellers, and by around the end of 1839 they had settled on Australia as their destination, inspired partly by the fact that Nicholson’s younger brother Mark had just moved to Australia.

But first Leichhardt insisted he needed more field experience. Nicholson wasn’t so keen on this and, in fact, fairly soon after dropped out of the grand plan of visiting Australia. Leichhardt spent several months tramping around some of the most geologically interesting parts of Europe: the Massif Central in France, around Mount Vesuvius and Naples, the Apennines and the Alps. Eventually at the age of 28 he came to Australia. He had no money, apart from what he had been given by Nicholson, but he was obviously fired with ambition to study Australian natural history.

Leichhardt had studied Australian materials in Paris, and probably in London, but he was certainly no expert on Australian forms. But then he spent the next couple of years familiarising himself with these, as we will hear from Tom Darragh in a moment, as well as learning the bushcraft skills that he needed. This kind of background made Leichhardt very different from the general run of Australian explorers most of whom, if they had any technical training in their background, had been trained as surveyors. I am speaking here about the land explorers not the ship-borne ones - the French ship-borne ones in particular carried lots of scientists with them. The land explorers such as Oxley, Mitchell, Sturt, Gregory, Stuart, Kennedy, Forrest and Lindsay all began as surveyors. Others such as Giles, Eyre and Landsborough got into exploring from an extensive experience in droving stock. Neither group had a technical background in science. Even though they could navigate and make a map - Burke couldn’t even do that - they were neither as discriminating nor as committed to natural history collecting as Leichhardt was. Cunningham is the one whose interests most closely approximate Leichhardt’s. Then on some of the later expeditions there were scientifically trained people in the party such as Mueller in Gregory’s great expedition to the Victoria River.

Let me say a bit about the kind of science Leichhardt did. Alexander von Humboldt was the brother of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of the University of Berlin, and was a leading figure in the period of German cultural history known as Sturm und Drang, passion and desire, of which the leading figures were Goethe and Schiller - a period that led into romanticism.

Humboldt is often portrayed as romantic. He initially became famous through a highly romantic expedition to South America in the very first years of the nineteenth century when, amongst other things, he climbed what was then thought to be the highest mountain in the world. He was actually a well-trained and hard-headed scientist who promulgated a new Humboldtian vision for science, one that inspired a couple of generations of young Germans. Humboldt provided a vision of the earth and its atmosphere and oceans as an integrated physical system - a common idea today but a novel one in the way he expressed it in the early nineteenth century. Instead of doing what he derisively called ‘inventory science’, studying species of animals, plants or rocks in isolation or doing isolated experiments in the laboratory, we should approach them as part of an integrated inquiry into the dynamical structure of the world and its inhabitants.

Some sciences are particularly Humboldtian in character and were inspired by Humboldt’s influence including meteorology, oceanography, geology, geomagneticism and biogeography. In fact, geography in general is the quintessential Humboldtian science. Leichhardt was very much a Humboldtian scientist. He constantly sought interconnections and a systematic overview. Let me instance a couple of cases: concluding on meteorological grounds from his experiences of the climate in Sydney ‘that the centre of Australia was a desert’; or in a letter to his Parisian friend Gaetano Durando on the Port Essington expedition where he described the transformation in vegetation as he rounded the Gulf of Carpentaria:

This is a land of a rare and remarkable flora on which the Australian type is blended with the Indian one [with the vegetation of the East Indies]. The Indian forms rose like the stars of the northern hemisphere as I advanced into the base of the Gulf.

You can see that systematic viewpoint he is trying to bring to bear in his work.

Leichhardt, having decided to come to Australia, sought out Humboldt to gain the great man’s blessing for his venture. He found the ten-minute meeting rather disappointing, but that is beside the point. It is Humboldt’s image of travelling for a scientific purpose inspired by the overall picture of our world as an integrated dynamical system that inspired Leichhardt, not a ten-minute encounter with the great man in his old age. He was far from alone. During the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century large numbers of bright young Germans, well trained in science and inspired by Humboldt’s vision, spread across the globe measuring, observing and collecting. They went to America, both north and south, to India, to Africa, to East Asia as well as to Australia and the Pacific.

Let me make one final point about Leichhardt: here I need to say something about the pattern of scientific practice in Australia up to that time. The science that had been done was virtually exclusively observational rather than laboratory based - collecting, studying and systematising Australia’s animal, vegetable and mineral production. In the absence of any local infrastructure and support for scientific work, people pursuing science in Australia had been forced to rely on scientific patrons back in Europe to provide the scientific support that they needed - I am not talking about money but scientific intellectual support. The price they paid, however, was high. People working in Australia tended to be reduced to mere collectors for the European scientific authorities. The major collections of Australian natural history were assembled not in Sydney or Hobart but in London, Paris and later Berlin.

The published descriptions of Australian species which became known to science were based on specimens - later to be called type specimens - held in the European museums. This had long-term consequences for the practice of science in Australia. In effect it meant that, even if they wanted to, scientific workers in Australia could not do serious taxonomic work unless they found the means of going to London and Paris for a while. Put yourself in their position: you found something you think may represent a new species or a new genus, but how can you tell without comparing it with the standard specimens of existing closely related species. You have to go and consult the originals. You can’t rely on printed descriptions; they were too flimsy.

In the long term for natural science to be possible in Australia at a level higher than mere collecting, it was essential that collections of ‘authenticated’ specimens, to use the nineteenth century term, be built up in Australia - if not the original type specimens then at least specimens that had been compared to these and declared to be the same species.

What I find fascinating is that it was not one of the comparatively numerous British naturalists who had come to Australia who first expressed this but a German - namely Leichhardt. Here is Leichhardt writing to Gaetano Durando in Paris about the time when he has lost a few horses at the Roper River and how he had to get rid of a lot of his specimens:

… but there are still some interesting remnants that I shall send to you to have them determined.

Leichhardt knows he can’t determine what species they are without comparing them with the classic specimens in Paris, so he is going to send his collection to Durando for him to do that job:

… allowing you the duplicates and triplicates. I shall do the same with my Moreton Bay plants, for I wish very much to establish a good well-named herbarium in the Museum in Sydney so that we have some means of ready comparison. Unique specimens you should of course send back.

No previous collector would have dreamt of saying that in sending their specimens to Europe. The expectation was that they would stay in Europe. Leichhardt wants them back.

It is clear that Leichhardt by this time had committed himself completely to Australia. He obviously believed - as no-one else had until then - that the primary place for studying Australian nature was Australia and not the great museums of Europe. It took a long while before Leichhardt’s vision in this regard was effectively realised. He himself clearly intended to remain in Australia and no doubt he expected to contribute to scientific understanding of the place. But such was not to be: his disappearance somewhere in the inland put paid to such plans.

So we remember him primarily as an explorer rather than as the committed and perceptive naturalist - or if you prefer scientist - that he was. Thank you.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you very much, Rod. A great introduction to Leichhardt the man and why he is, and should be, regarded as the leading scientist of that time with that sort of training and access to key scientific teachers of Europe. A couple of questions for Rod?

QUESTION: Did the specimens come back?

ROD HOME: Some of the specimens did, but I think a lot of them didn’t. There is said to be enormous collections of Leichhardt materials in Paris - I haven’t seen them myself - but I think some did come back. It’s a little complicated because Leichhardt in that letter talks about them going to the ‘Museum in Sydney’. That is the Australian Museum, not the Botanic Gardens because he knew the Botanic Gardens did not have a herbarium. But in the late 1850s the museum lent them to Ferdinand von Mueller, who had just been through the same area that Leichhardt had been through, so that he could do his own comparisons and determinations. So they went to Melbourne with Mueller, and they are still there. I think the museum had made it clear they did not actually want them back. There are also Leichhardt materials at the herbarium in Sydney these days. I am not quite sure but I think they are the ones from Paris. Tom Darragh may know the answer to that.

TOM DARRAGH: No specimens came back. He sent them to the wrong person, I suppose.

ROD HOME: Durando was not a major botanist but he was a friend. Leichhardt had met him while he was studying in Paris and, as Tom has just said, he wasn’t the right person. Everybody knew that Leichhardt had disappeared, so presumably the urgency to follow up on his wishes was not so great.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you for that.

Date published: 14 March 2008