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Ludwig Leichhardt: a loss to science and Australian culture

Paper presented by Professor Henry Nix, Australian National University
Leichhardt symposium, National Museum of Australia, 15 June 2007

MATTHEW HIGGINS: It now gives me pleasure to introduce Emeritus Professor Henry Nix of the Australian National University. I am sure we are all thinking now, ‘Gosh, what a loss to science and to Australian culture, the loss of Leichhardt.’ That is the title of this next presentation.

HENRY NIX: I argue that Leichhardt was indeed a loss to science - not just to Australian science but a loss to ‘Science’ with a capital ‘S’. His reputation as an explorer and scientist unfortunately, although this is now being redressed, resides on the success of his first overland expedition to Port Essington and the published journal that followed. This was judged sufficient at the time for Leichhardt to be awarded honours and gold medals from England, France and Germany. At the time then the journal was regarded as a valuable product.

Much attention has been focused on Leichhardt’s character, leadership, navigational abilities and bushmanship. On that expedition was the leader Ludwig Leichhardt; John Gilbert, the collector for John Gould; two young working men who supported James Calvert and John Roper; a convict William Phillips; a youth John Murphy; and two Aboriginals, Charley Fisher and Harry Brown. Earlier today Tom Darragh referred to Leichhardt’s very great interest in Aboriginal knowledge and his desire to include Aboriginals in his expeditions. These played a critical role probably that was both positive and negative.

Alexander Hugh Chisholm and John Gould both played a significant role in the development of Leichhardt’s posthumous reputation. Just prior to World War Two Chisholm rediscovered John Gilbert’s long-lost diary amongst Gould’s possessions in England. He used it as the basis for the publication of a book Strange New World, which was first published in 1941 in the middle of World War Two and republished many times since - subsequently with a changed title Strange Journey. Wordsmith Chisholm used every twist of his considerable journalistic skills to denigrate the German Leichhardt and to promote the English Gilbert.

This has had an enormous influence on Australian attitudes to Leichhardt. This is from a school textbook published in 1964 on Australian explorers with a foreword by Alex Chisholm:

Gilbert, one of Australia’s greatest naturalists, was second in command to Herr Ludwig Leichhardt: an eccentric, gluttonous, gangling German then blundering to fame as one of Australia’s greatest explorers.

Another example of the negative attitude to Leichhardt is in the large format Readers’ Digest Atlas published in 1968 that showed the tracks of Australia’s great explorers does not include the Port Essington track. It included the Gregory track, which more or less parallelled the major part of the Port Essington track, but in reverse, some ten years later. But the Leichhardt track of 1844-45 is not there.

At the time of the Port Essington expedition the whole of inland northern Australia was blank. It was unknown inland from the coast. The only point of settlement in the whole of the north was the Victoria settlement at Port Essington, and that is where Leichhardt had to get to. He had no supply ships or rescue ships, so it was vital to get to Port Essington. That in itself is quite an achievement, but that is not the major purpose of my talk.

A map was generated of the camp sites of that expedition which were GPS’d by Glen McLaren, who subsequently gained a PhD from his retracing of the track, much of it on horseback in the early 1990s. In that process he developed a great respect for Leichhardt’s navigation, his field maps, his descriptions and everything in that journal.

Looking at a map showing the elevation, you will see that the initial part of the trip paralleled the coast but it was inland from the great escarpment all the way up to the base of Cape York and then went swung west around the Gulf of Carpentaria. Leichhardt recognised many of the plants all the way up to where they went down from the uplands to the Gulf plain. That is because of the fact that the Divide and the ranges modified the temperature. There is a great extension of temperate adapted species all the way north up that track. It was very disappointing to Gilbert because he only discovered two or three new species of birds and he had already collected them down around the Darling Downs some time before. It was doubly unfortunate that Gilbert was speared just at the time when life would become more interesting for him, as it did for Leichhardt. Tom Darragh mentioned in a description the great change they detected as they came off the slopes and down on to the Gulf plain. There is a major change in plant and animal distribution at this location.

Let me return to the journal of the overland expedition. We have Major Thomas Mitchell’s assertion in 1846 that, ‘a more useless mass of rubbish was never bound up in a book’. I think there might have been a mite of jealousy in that. With due deference to the good major who was a great explorer but not a scientist, let me present a contrary view. One hundred years after the Port Essington expedition, at the end of World War Two Australians developed a great concern for the undeveloped and undefended north. Knowledge of the land and water resources and development potential was limited. Indeed, some of the most detailed descriptions of that landscape then available were in Leichhardt’s journal. The Rural Reconstruction Commission identified the north as a priority and CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation] was given the task of improving the knowledge base.

Two CSIRO scientists, CS Christian and GA Stewart, developed rapid reconnaissance techniques based on the newly available aerial photo coverage, which they combined with targeted ground sampling and with new concepts of land systems (repeated patterns of broad landscapes) that were mapped and their component land units (the building blocks of landscape) that were not. These surveys involved a well-equipped team of specialists which invariably comprised a geologist, a geomorphologist, a botanist, a soil scientist, usually a climatologist and were often backed up by a land evaluation expert, an economist and sometimes a wildlife expert. All of these disciplines were within Leichhardt’s portfolio of training. He deliberately undertook them to prepare him for the work that he wished to undertake as an explorer. Getting a multidisciplinary team to work together is not always effective, but with Leichhardt the disciplines were all in one man’s head.

Christian and Stewart began the monumental task promptly and produced their first report in 1946, straight after the war. In the next 30 years these surveys covered most of Northern Australia and all of Papua New Guinea. Twelve of these regional surveys almost completely overlay the Port Essington track. I was personally involved in a number of these both in the south and in the north. I can affirm that all of those teams referred to the Ludwig Leichhardt journal and had profound respect for his ability to read and describe landscapes accurately. No other Australian explorer comes even close to Leichhardt in this respect.

The typical way in which the land was described in the CSIRO reports was a three-dimensional diagram, a detailed description of the landscape itself, a short description - for example, it was hilly country in the east of the area - the geology, drainage, elevation and climate, and an evaluation of its pastoral potential. Here again Leichhardt’s experience was relevant. Leichhardt was so interested in grasses because he had a keen appreciation of the suitability of land for pastoral potential. The evaluations that he made along the way were remarkably sound and are difficult to fault, which is more than can be said for most of his contemporaries.

The land unit is the basic building block of landscape consisting of land with similar soil, vegetation, topography, geology and climate. They recur in different combinations through the landscape. The CSIRO survey operations went all the way down to land units, which were still not mapped because it was still reconnaissance. On this slide the insert map of the Fitzroy region shows the dark shaded areas where this particular unit was occurring at a high level of probability. The stereo image makes the landscape leap out at you and you can see how this land unit relates to the adjacent units. It is quite straightforward to take one of these CSIRO reports, sit down with the Port Essington journal and proceed to identify these land units along the track. Leichhardt’s descriptions, although they are simple, are more than adequate to track all the way through to Port Essington.

Tom Darragh and Rod Home dealt with Leichhardt’s initial training. My only comment is that at the time there was no single degree that could satisfy Leichhardt’s objective of becoming a comprehensively trained naturalist explorer. His focus on the natural sciences developed in his early 20s, which is evident in letters to his father. Rod Home read from one of them but here is another one written in March 1836:

So long as there are things in natural science of which I am quite unaware, my studies will not be over - if only ways and means allow me to pursue them.

The ways and means were always there in the back of his mind. He has this wry comment in a letter to his brother-in-law in 1847:

And as for Humboldt - he set the example that I have never forgotten. My admiration for him is boundless, but I feel that my slender means will always hold me far short of his performance.

Leichhardt was very well aware of his limited means, and this was a problem for him.

I have a great many examples of Leichhardt’s prescience, his ability to make accurate and detailed observations across a range of disciplines. Soon after he arrived in Australia he dismissed the then popular notion of an inland sea. He states this in a letter to one of his professors in Berlin, Heinrich Wilhelm Dove:

If it be true that the remarkable hot north-westerly winds are masses of air which have been heated and have risen over the tropical part of New Holland, their astonishing dryness would be decisive indication of a desert in the interior of the country.

Leichhardt knew that the interior was arid before Sturt or anyone went out there. He wrote wonderful comments both in the journal and in his letters. Here is just one example. He had studied in Paris with Dumeril and had quite an interest in fish. On the Port Essington expedition one of his party shot a very large fish in the McKenzie River and brought it back to camp. Leichhardt was able to identify this fish because he wrote: ‘Murphy shot an osteoglossom’. He recognised it because he had seen fossils of this fish in Europe. So he preserved the fish and carried it with him. Afterwards he also found this fish in the waters flowing into the Gulf.

Because Leichhardt had Gilbert, who was a very experienced collector and bird stuffer, Leichhardt didn’t intrude on his field of expertise. Chisholm wrote papers on the birds in Gilbert’s diary and neglected to take into account that Leichhardt recorded birds all through his diary and there is a difference. Leichhardt recorded nocturnal birds, but Gilbert never did unless he shot one. If he had a specimen he would record it. Leichhardt recorded barking owls, nightjars, boobook owls and night birds. He knew them from his first few years in Australia. It was obvious that he knew his birds very well. He also recorded black swans which were not in Gilbert’s list. They weren’t always together. They were at the same camp, but at times they were scouting independently. As soon as they hit sandstone country around the western Gulf of Carpentaria Leichhardt recorded a sighting of the sandstone shrike-thrush which has a wonderful song. But he did not collect it. In fact, it wasn’t named for another 30 or 40 years.

I have compared and contrasted Leichhardt with some of the greats of his contemporaries of the period: Alexander von Humboldt, who lived to a very old age; Charles Darwin; Alfred Russell Wallace; and Ferdinand von Mueller. In every case they were expected to take a different track in their professional development but all became enamoured of the natural world and went off in their separate ways. Probably the most conservative member from that respect is von Mueller who completed a PhD in botany in Kiel University. He was very much the botanist but also rather more than that. The others had very broad interests, very different original beginnings, but all of them in their mid to late 20s and early 30s had their wander year experience: von Humboldt in central and South America but also in Europe; Darwin with the voyage on the Beagle; and Leichhardt with his three expeditions. With Alfred Russell Wallace, his first expedition to the Amazon with Henry Bates ended in disaster. His collections and most of his notes were lost at sea when their ship caught fire, and they were lucky to survive. But he came back from that and then went to the Malay archipelago.

Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, Ludwig Leichhardt and Alfred Russell Wallace all established reputations on the basis of their expedition reports: the voyage of the Beagle, journey to Port Essington, and von Humboldt’s marvellous account of his time in central and south America. But their great works took many years to gestate. In the case of Humboldt, he did not start his grand epic piece Cosmos until he was 79. The field experience, collections, notes and observations are one thing, but producing the grand synthesis takes time. The problem for Ludwig Leichhardt was that he didn’t get time. He disappeared at the age of 35, so we will never know in some respects what he would have produced. Leichhardt met Humboldt and was in correspondence with him. All four were greatly influenced by Humboldt, corresponded with and revered him.

I could find no evidence that Leichhardt was aware of Darwin’s great work. Of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution occurred much later in 1859, and by that time Leichhardt was long gone. However, on the voyage back from their rescue from Port Essington, just beyond Cape Melville, Leichhardt had a chance to examine a coral reef and writes: ‘The theory of Darwin becomes more and more improbable. There must be another more satisfactory explanation.’ He was referring to Darwin’s concept of the volcanic mountain subsiding below the sea and the reefs progressively growing upward to compensate for that sinking. Leichhardt’s evidence was that as far as he could see the coastline was rising, not sinking. It took another 40 to 50 years to establish that corals can actually grow whether it is a rising, subsiding or even stable sea level. That is the only evidence I could find that Leichhardt actually had knowledge of Darwin.

Earlier today Tom Darragh referred to Leichhardt’s botanical work, and we have some excellent recent papers which evaluate his collections. But we have not yet had any discussions of the ethno-botany component. Leichhardt was quite remarkable in that he tasted and ate anything that he felt had some potential value. Throughout the journal there are almost daily comments such as: ‘The little Severn tree had a yellow or red three capsular fruit with a thin fleshy pericarp of an exceedingly bitter taste.’ That was the quinine tree (Petalostigma pubescens). Another comment was: ‘The emu feeds on the fruits of this little Severn tree which is so excessively bitter as to impart his quality to the meat and even to the gizzard and the very marrow.’ Leichhardt checked, tested and ate to the disadvantage of his mouth and his gizzard quite often. They ate the native Portulaca, the pig weed. None of his men suffered from scurvy, as was the fate of a number of other explorers.

His medical background proved to be of value on a number of occasions both on the voyage out and at settlements that he visited where people had eye problems and other difficulties. He even performed an operation on a young lad. But at the attack up in the gulf where Gilbert was speared to death, James Calvert and John Roper were very savagely bashed and speared. They had multiple wounds, and the barbed spears had to be pushed through or cut out. When you think about that, here they are in the middle of nowhere with all these terrible wounds and no antibiotics. Both lived to be old men, which says something about Leichhardt’s competence. He treated and doctored them that night and more carefully the following morning. Later on in the journal he describes a tree and just in passing says, ‘A small green looking tree had wood of a brown colour which smelt like raspberry jam. And upon burning it the ashes produced a very strong lye [an alkaline solution], which I used in dressing the wounds of my companions. This is the gutta-percha tree which has a rubbery sap.

All of these contemporaries of Leichhardt contributed to the development of the growing science of both ecology and landscape ecology. Ecology was coined by Ernst Haeckel, another German, in 1866 - long after Leichhardt disappeared. Landscape ecology was not coined until 1939 by Carl Troll, an Austrian but another German speaker. Journals for landscape ecology were not published until 1987. But each of these people contributed to the development of those disciplines. Leichhardt’s contribution remains to be evaluated but his early demise cut short his early promise.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you very much, Henry. Yet again we see the breadth of this man and indeed what a tragic loss to science. Everybody else got the opportunity to write their great work, and Leichhardt never got there because his remains are out there most likely in the desert somewhere. We have time for one question.

QUESTION: Eleven years ago I had occasion to go and work in Vienna and search thousands of herbarium specimens at Das Naturhistorisches Museum. What I found was the whole history of Australian botanical science that had never been touched and was still in pristine condition. I am almost 100 per cent certain that I saw original Leichhardt specimens with annotated labels on them. I bring that to your attention. As far as the Austrians are concerned, everything survived the war because it was kept in salt mines at Salzburg. The only stuff that was lost was some of the conifers which have duplicate specimens in Belgium.

HENRY NIX: Leichhardt collected for many people. I think this was partly commercial, because he would have received some payment. Some of those specimens were probably traded. For instance, Gilbert’s specimens of the birds that he collected are found in four or five different museums on both sides of the Atlantic in places you would at least expect them. They have finally been tracked down almost to the last specimen. But unfortunately, as I said, only a few new species were added up to the point where Gilbert was killed.

Date published: 14 March 2008