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Deepening the mystery: the 1938 South Australian government Leichhardt search party

Paper presented by Dr Philip Jones, South Australian Museum
Leichhardt symposium, National Museum of Australia, 15 June 2007

MATTHEW HIGGINS: We look forward to another slant on Leichhardt, beginning with Dr Philip Jones from the South Australian Museum, looking at the 1938 South Australian government Leichhardt search party. This offers another view into this ongoing, very strong debate about what might have happened to Ludwig Leichhardt.

PHILIP JONES: The expedition which occurred in August 1938 came out of the blue and in many respects is an oddity. The story of Leichhardt was in a way coursing up and down North Terrace in Adelaide for most of the nineteenth century. Members of parliament were not only in the Royal Geographical Society, which was one of the key cultural institutions in Adelaide, but also in the South Australian Museum. Periodically, and in the press, there were scholarly articles published in the journal of the Society, which dealt with the Leichhardt expedition. Every now and then the odd piece of intelligence would come in from the bush - Adelaide being the capital of the bush, as I like to think of it, not so far away from the red sand of the Centre. These rumours would particularly be discussed at the Black Bull Hotel in Hindley Street, the edifice of which still stands, which was an engine room of rumour coming from the bush.

It appears that in early August 1938 one of these rumours spilt, one could say, out of the Black Bull Hotel and found its way into the offices of the Adelaide Advertiser and The News, and then came back along North Terrace through Parliament House down to the Museum where it acquired a certain amount of respectability and found its way back into the newspapers. It hit fertile ground because there had been a range of opinion expressed and documentation relating to sites, including marked trees and other reported events occurring in the Lake Eyre Basin and in the drainage system of the Cooper in particular, during previous years. This was pretty well mapped and summarised by Archibald Grenfell Price in a publication the following year after his 1938 expedition. [Archibald Grenfell Price was a geographer and historian who led the expedition under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society] Until Darrell Lewis’ synthesis this morning I think this stood as the best summary of the progression of enquiry, rumour and scholarship which had marked the Leichhardt story.

This rumour was reported in the Advertiser and became acted upon within a very short period in early August 1938. This is a page from Charles Pearcy Mountford’s journal of the 1938 expedition. [Charles Mountford was an ethnologist who accompanied the Grenfell Price expedition] I want to read this to you because it gives you the flavour of what was believed and what impelled the expedition:

Skeletons of eight men, believed to be possibly those of the members of the Leichhardt expedition which left Moreton Bay 90 years ago to cross the continent from east to west have been found in the Simpson Desert by Mr Edwin Lowe and his son Rex of Dalhousie Springs and Mount Daer stations. Adelaide authorities were unanimous last night [3 August] in saying that an inspection by experts would be the only way of deciding the matter. They agreed that only an experienced anthropologist would be able to say whether the skeletons were those of whites or of natives.

Announcing the finding of the skeletons, in reply to a question by Mr Duncan [Legislative Council] about a rumour that traces of the expedition had been found, the Chief Secretary (Sir George Ritchie) [who was also the Acting Premier] said in the Legislative Council yesterday afternoon that the station owner had called on him and told him of the discovery.

Mr Lowe reported to the Chief Secretary that he and his son had gone out into the Simpson Desert about 80 miles north-east of Mount Daer station to muster cattle. They had found a camp of seven skeletons grouped in a circle. It appeared the men had been around a camp fire and had been surprised by blacks and speared. Two miles away he and his son had found another skeleton. That man had probably been wounded and had ‘run for it’.

... ‘The bones, with the exception of the shin bones, had been crumbled by the weather, but the teeth were intact’, said Mr Lowe. ‘They [the skeletons] were lying in a circle. The party would have struck the Finke River about 30 miles on and appeared to me to be trying to make for it.’ … Mr Lowe said that there was no doubt that the skeletons were those of white men. The teeth and the shape of the heads made that certain. [the Advertiser, 3 August 1938]

You have the unequivocal communication of the discovery of skeletons and, coming from an experienced bushman who had lived in the area for decades, the idea that they could not be skeletons probably didn’t enter anyone’s head. They were accepted as skeletons. In the following fortnight there was a steady flow of articles not dealing with the question of whether or not they were skeletons but whether they were Aboriginal skeletons or European skeletons, and under what circumstance they had appeared.

We come to the question of the validation of this quite extraordinary communication. I had a bit of an inkling that it might be possible that Dr Frank Fenner would be here today, as his father Charles Fenner was an esteemed geographer based in Adelaide and a luminary in the Royal Geographical Society. In another article we have Charles Fenner invoking Ferdinand von Mueller, one of the key protagonists in the theory that the Leichhardt expedition had met its end near the Cooper - or more specifically in northern South Australia but east of the telegraph line, which was von Mueller’s carefully formulated view. Charles Fenner was quoted in the newspaper as suggesting that this was a reasonable inference.

Coincidentally next to that three-column article is a small single-column article suggesting that one of the key people who could be recommended for the expedition, given that the results of the expedition would turn on the identification of this skeletal material, was Adelaide’s rising star of physical anthropology, Frank Fenner, who is with us today. From my own discussions with Norman Tindale about the growth and progression of South Australian anthropology during the 1930s he made the point that Frank Fenner was the person to see if you wanted any question of validation or authenticity relating to physical anthropology sorted out.

You can imagine the rising excitement and public discourse in Adelaide as more revelations appeared, such as this example from The News on Thursday, 11 August 1938 of a typical native night camp in the north [refers to newspaper photograph of campsite]. Could this have been explorers sitting around a camp fire? But how do you spear seven people simultaneously so that the skeletons are in a neat circle around a camp fire? Or could they have been Aboriginal cattle thieves who were assassinated, and if you dug in the sand you might find the bullets?

So the excitement grew. Several luncheon parties were held, including one at St Mark’s College that was attended by Frank Fenner and another one was at Government House itself, which added to the excitement. Of course, there were also serious discussions about how the thing would unfold, and a lot of these discussions made their way back into the newspaper.

A photograph taken as the expedition party took shape shows the main protagonists: Sir George Ritchie, the acting premier; Grenfell Price, the leader; Charles Mountford, who was the key ethnologist in Adelaide at that time because Tindale was away. I like to think that, if Tindale had been there, maybe the expedition would have taken a slightly different course. But that is all speculative. Then there is the assistant surveyor-general. As this expedition would be headed into more or less unmapped territory, it was seen as necessary to have a senior surveyor there. And finally the person who set it all moving in the Black Bull Hotel, Edwin Lowe, the discoverer of the ‘skeletons’.

This is a photograph which may bring some memories back for Frank Fenner because this was seriously believed to be an extraordinary unprecedented expedition for the recovery of the identified skeletons of the members of the Leichhardt party and, with that in mind, the museum preparator knocked up some pine coffins. Maybe they were just boxes, but I like to think of them as coffins and projecting forward one can imagine a cortege through the streets of Adelaide a little later. It was judged that the skeletons could be dealt with individually, and this was the amount of preparation that went into it, again from the Mountford journal.

Then with everything heading in the right direction and Frank Fenner almost aboard the expedition, came an intervarsity hockey match on the Saturday preceding the departure during which Frank’s kneecap was cracked with a hockey stick and broken and he ended up in hospital. So with two or three days notice, Adelaide’s senior physical anthropologist of the period who was more of a dental anthropologist, which turned out to be very useful anyway, TD Campbell stepped aboard.

In this photograph from the left is Grundy, the wireless operator, and AC Kinnear, who were brought in to beam or flash the results of the discovery of the skeletons back to civilisation. Again, this was an unprecedented development in expeditionary practice, which was to be duplicated the following year with the Madigan expedition which took its own wireless operator to the Simpson Desert and broadcast from there. Then you have Smith, the surveyor; TD Campbell; CP Mountford; Grenfell Price; George Ritchie; and then an unnamed school boy, whose name was Paul Thomas and who, believe it or not, went on the expedition. This is a sort of Harry Potter moment for the expedition. Then Edwin Lowe and Sir George Pearce. Paul Thomas was the friend of Edwin Lowe’s son, and he came along at the last minute.

Off they went on the expedition. A recently acquired map of the expedition that was in some of TD Campbell’s papers donated by Bob Edwards contains the signatures of the expedition members. Over on the far right you can see a red cross against some transverse sand hills, which is the very south-western edge of the Simpson Desert. The site is actually on the first major dune in the Simpson Desert on Mount Daer station. To the left of that is Abminga station, which was a railway station, and from there the party took camels and horses across country to the Finke, which is the main river. They went down the Finke past its flood-out area in sand dunes, and then across the sand dune to this site. For various reasons the position of the find seemed to be significant and, in a way, it seemed reasonable and logical for Leichhardt on a certain trajectory to have come down to the Finke.

The news story which was beamed back to Oodnadatta, to the relay, by Kinnear on the wireless was that the evening after leaving Abminga station they camped 16 miles from the site of the skeletons. The story is full of otherwise insignificant detail relating to this sense of building tension, knowing that the following day they would be looking at these skeletons. The following day we have TD Campbell’s account of that experience that I will read to you:

After an hour or so of riding - at walking pace - we reached a fair-sized sandhill; and just over it was the goal of our great search. Again we had to halt for a few minutes and then jog along in a ridiculous-looking line along the sandhill for the benefit of a movie shot. I was not feeling over cheerful and this seemed to me a rather idiotic approach to an occasion and moment which turned out to be even more bathetic.

So we descended the eastern slope of this big sandhill to gaze upon this ‘ring of human skeletons’ about which we had heard and read so much, and over which the Govt, newspapers, Government House lunch & interested friends had dispatched the party to examine and collect. To say nothing of the somewhat troubled and unwilling decision I had made personally to come north & join the investigations.

Led to the spot we looked for this much-reported group of skeletal remains - and what a dismal scattering of whitish bits of material they were. A few moments were sufficient for me to decide that these remnants were not bone at all but some sort of calcified wood material ... [TD Campbell, ‘Leichhardt. Personal Diary’, Anthropology Archives, South Australian Museum]

Campbell was all for turning around immediately and going straight back to Abminga station, cutting his losses and getting back to Adelaide. However, they had brought all this equipment with them. The following morning they settled in and established sieving operations and began sieving the sand hill. Campbell records in this journal that it was rather hot and there were plenty of flies. The extraordinary thing is that within a few minutes of beginning sieving Lowe came up with some human teeth fragments. So there really was something there. Then an hour later an 1841 Maundy Thursday threepenny bit was sieved out of the sand hill.

Campbell wrote, ‘Sure enough the date figures showed out quite clearly, 1841’, which is the year that Leichhardt left England. This find caused considerable excitement among the workers on the spot. ‘Those back at camp would not believe me when I went back to camp and told them of the find.’ You can imagine that the rate of digging increased significantly.

They gridded out a 10 by 10 square metre section, and within the next few hours they found what appears to be an iron packsaddle ring and a number of other teeth fragments, which Campbell pronounced as being Aboriginal. In addition they found some steel fragments and some pieces of leather which they divided up into two categories, one being boot leather with a stitched upper sole and the other saddle leather. Some undeniably human bone fragments were also found. There is a wax preservation of the calcified tree root which, as Campbell put it, could somewhat resemble the thigh bone to a lay person, letting Mr Lowe off the hook a little bit.

Then later in the afternoon of the second day there was an extraordinary find of an 1817 half sovereign, which from a little indentation appears to have been used as a pendant at some time. All of this required explanation. Nobody in the expedition could provide it, nor could anyone else in Adelaide and nor has anyone satisfactorily since. [This is Mountford’s gridded diagram with the finds numbered on the right-hand side and plotted. The white squares are the positions of the so-called skeletons.] I will read briefly Campbell’s conclusions:

‘Certain of the osseous material collected is definitely human, but there is no evidence available to say whether they belonged to white man or Aboriginal.

From the tooth fragments recovered, one of them appeared to be definitely Aboriginal adult sternum bone from possibly an immature person. Artefacts, coins and rusted iron ring … Stone implements found on the site suggested at some time or other Aborigines had camped there.

The recovery of objects of civilised manufacture suggested the site was also a camp site of white men, but there is no evidence to allow any assessment as to when these objects were deposited there.

I would argue that the one conclusion they didn’t entertain, which they could and which we could too, is that this was an Aboriginal burial that they were looking at. The bits of metal, leather and so on were not uncharacteristic of Aboriginal burials in the contact period where these accumulated pieces all with their own talismanic qualities could be incorporated in burials. This is well documented across Australia. It didn’t seem to occur to any of them. I think it would have occurred to Tindale if he had been involved in the excavation.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you very much, Philip.

Date published: 14 March 2008