Leichhardt symposium, National Museum of Australia, 15 June 2007
MATTHEW HIGGINS: I would like to thank everyone for their participation through the day. Here is another opportunity for you to ask questions during our closing panel session. First, I am going to ask Dick Kimber, an Alice Springs historian, to talk for about 15 minutes on his Leichhardt work. Then we will throw it open for you to ask questions. I have a few questions in mind, I am sure you have and I am sure some of the panellists here would like to ask some of their colleagues some curly and maybe not so curly questions.
DICK KIMBER: Thanks to all the fantastic speakers. It’s great to be down here. I would like to just make a few comments on some of the more historical aspects to do with the discovery of the gun butt plate and where it might be. But first I’ll touch on Dr Philip Jones’s talk. [Cecil Thomas] Madigan, who crossed the Simpson Desert as many people know, talked about this Black Bull Hotel and basically said it was a bit of a con job and a bulldust story. I talked with Rex Lowe, the son of Edwin Lowe and he was hugely offended about that. He said it was absolutely fair dinkum.
I also talked to two of the Aboriginal stockmen who worked on the station at the time, and one of them said that the first discovery was by one of the Aboriginal stockman and it was of a gold sovereign. Edwin Lowe, the father, went down to Adelaide and had that at the Black Bull Hotel and actually spent it at the bar. So that was the loss of one very good relic.
The other thing that Philip Jones did not emphasise, and I understand he was taking a different line, is that it is truly remarkable to find two coins pre-1848 in the middle of nowhere at a place where, after the skeleton finds were found to be nowhere nearly as substantial as they thought, to actually find those is a fluke of all flukes. That’s why there’s always been a bit of an interest in that as a possible Leichhardt place. It’ll remain unresolved unless you find his steel Leichhardt box with his diary in it over the next sand hill.
I have been lucky enough to go out there and poke around myself. It is easy from a bit of a distance to look at those tree roots and think they look like skeletal material. I know that the expedition members did find a few teeth and bits of very old looking leather but apart from that I only found Aboriginal artefacts there. I looked along the ridges because I thought anyone who’s camping there would sit up on the ridges, to look out where you’re going to go. I couldn’t find anything up there either.
I want to go back to the gun plate and Dr Darrell Lewis’s ideas about it, which again I applaud. He’s done wonderful research and given you a great story, but I don’t think he’s right. The reason I’ll take that line is that there’s another good alternative story for it - neither of which are very provable. In the case of the Simpson Desert proposal which has come up a couple of times in people’s view, I think it is possible that he decided to go direct. I take Darrell’s viewpoint that he had to look at where the rivers were flowing, find those points of the landscape that were allowing the rivers to flow whichever way they were, and then also his proposal was to find the northern part of the Simpson. As was said before, 1847 was a very wet year so I think he probably went out in a very good season in 1848, and it would have been much easier travelling than is likely in some other seasons to travel where I’m going to propose he went.
The proposal comes from the fact that in 1864 a man called Jarvis, who took stock up to the Macumba River, which is immediately south of the Simpson Desert, reported from Aboriginal people who spoke the same Arabana language as the station was he was managing further south. These Aboriginal people said to him that a group of men had perished a long time ago - in fact they’d been murdered, not perished - a long time ago, and he used the word ‘tirrewa’, which means to the east, but everyone thought it was a place name. So all the early people were looking for a place name when in fact it was a direction. The indications are that it was either east or north-east. Between 1864 and 1890 there are seven or eight accounts of this same story. I got a wonderful oral history from a very old man on exactly this story with, in that case, seven skeletons. He didn’t know anything; he just named them by finger. It seems to me there’s a real possibility that you had this situation where they came in to the north-east of the Simpson then skirted around it, as was the proposal, and followed down one of the river systems and ended up having a chance to come out near where Philip Jones mentioned about the coins and the bones. Part of the reason I say that is that I accepted the version that the young man Bristow-Smith said. He’s not lying; he’s telling you what he believes, that the gun butt plate had been found in a bottle tree in the Musgrave Ranges near the Western Australian border.
However, in response to that correspondence, a man called JF Hill who had been droving with Charles Harding and knew Joe Harding, his brother, commented: ‘It was discovered in the Northern Territory a day’s journey before they got to the Musgrave Range.’ Now he had seen the gun butt plate. He knew Charles Harding and he knew Joe Harding, his brother. Joe Harding was a much better known man than Charles Harding. If you take where Philip Jones talked about the coins, he owned that cattle station which went from about where the coins are found - the Charlotte Waters area in South Australia - straight north up the edge of the Simpson Desert where the present-day Andado Station is on.
Another point in favour of that is that there’s also a place called Inkermann that is mentioned, and no one’s been able to nail that down. There’s been a bit of discussion of an Inkermann in Queensland. There’s an Inkermann Station established in the 1880s up in the gulf country of Carpenteria. There is an Inkermann down near Leigh Creek. There’s as many Inkermanns as there are Musgrave Ranges. I would look at the Musgrave Ranges of South Australia as the likely chance, and also knew of the Western Australian ones. But there’s a place called Ingumina, which in Aboriginal language would be shortened to Ingumin (Inkermann), only just north of where Philip was talking about. So you have the Musgrave Ranges and the station was called Mount Musgrave. So you have Mount Musgrave, Ingumina and the discovery. Now they’re all pure coincidence as far I know, but it makes a nice story if you add them together.
In about 1915 there was a search for Leichhardt’s cash box, and that was on Aboriginal accounts that Aborigines were bringing in coins, sovereigns, from the northern Simpson Desert. A famous prospector went out looking for it and he took out with him the younger brother of a man called Sandhill Bob. This younger brother had only heard of the country, had never been there, so he took the wrong man because Sandhill Bob knew the locality. I’ve got what I think is a great story from this other old Aboriginal bloke who travelled with Sandhill Bob and knew him well. I think Sandhill Bob’s the same man who showed David Lindsay, the explorer, the Simpson Desert. When Lindsay was trying to find someone to guide him they said, ‘There’s only one man who knows it,’ and it was this man. He couldn’t say his name so he called him Bob. That’s the only man who knew the sand hills of that area where they travelled.
I would postulate that there’s a bit of a chance that this steel box with Leichhardt’s diary totally intact inside is out there somewhere. I wish you well in finding it, the man who’s travelling down the Plenty River, because that is where it’s meant to be. So good luck. I’ll leave it at that.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you very much, Dick. That was great to hear some more stories about Leichhardt following on some of the things that we’ve heard already. Darrell, would you like to respond at all?
DARRELL LEWIS: Yes. It’s a compelling story but it leaves out the fact that Sturt Creek was part of the location, according to the story accepted by the Royal Geographical Society. It doesn’t take into account all the ‘L’ trees that I talked about going up the Barcoo and along the Flinders, along the Cloncurry and further to the west. It also doesn’t take into account Leichhardt’s oft-stated plan to go exactly where I say he went. I just don’t wear that he would abandon his Humboldtian plan, the grand plan not only to do the northern Simpson but also the watersheds. He would go along the watersheds because he’d know there was water there and then probe in, rather than go in where he didn’t know if there was water because there are no known rivers and then probe for watersheds. I can’t see that.
So we’ll have to disagree. But after 30 years of waiting for Dick to explain his theory about Leichhardt, I have finally heard what is I am sure a much abbreviated version. Thank you, Dick, it is terrific.
DICK KIMBER: Thank you, Darrell.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: Philip, would you like to comment at all?
PHILIP JONES: I know that Cleland’s article on the plate and Grenfell Price’s article on the synthesis of the possible directions probably do give room for Dick’s theory. The name of that place they were looking for is certainly mentioned several times in there, together with the oral histories of the Aboriginal people. One thing that came out of the 1938 expedition was the fact that Aboriginal people were certainly remembering, it appears, the H Vere Barklay expedition in 1904, and the Stuart expedition of 1861-62. This appeared to be something verifiable in the 1938 story. Going further back to an earlier oral history in 1938 with those Aboriginal people didn’t seem possible to Mountford. You’re suggesting that it could have been possible 20 or 30 years later.
DICK KIMBER: Perhaps if I could briefly comment: with the accounts between 1864 and 1890, the most important expedition is one by Ebenezer Flint who was at the telegraph station and had been in the Barrow Creek attack and survived that. When he went out with Winnecke, the explorer, and with Shirley, the man who later perished up much further north in the Territory, they got accounts from different groups of Aboriginal people as to where this murder had occurred. He asked young Aboriginal men who could tell him the story through a translator and then he got a much older man and asked him the story, and he was the one who remembered it. On the basis of his estimates of ages, it’s between 1843 and 1848 when this spearing and attack occurred.
The other point I probably should have mentioned is that, much as I think the coins are fascinating, there’s actually a place called Anniversary Bore, which one of the Lowes named in the 1940s, but its original name was Taylor Well. There was an old man called Dick Taylor who dug that well and lived in that area for a time. So there’s a chance that his waistcoat or something like that with the coins was either left behind at a camp accidentally, purloined by someone or whatever. So there are other alternative explanations. I could put up an argument against Darrell but I won’t.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: Now in Philip Jones’s presentation we heard reference to and saw images of Frank Fenner a few years ago. Frank, I was just wondering whether you would like to make any comment on your experience of that time and the great misfortune of you not actually making it onto the expedition?
FRANK FENNER: Thank you very much. Just to put it into perspective, I was at the time in my final year of medicine, but since my second year I had spent a large part of my holidays and lunchtimes in the basement of the South Australian Museum where Norman Tindale had an enormous collection of Aboriginal skulls. The Board of Anthropological Studies ran expeditions into central Australia. Its chairman was John Burton Cleland, the professor of pathology. He was the man that did the measurements of the width of the nose, the height of the person and the length of their limbs and all that sort of thing, and in my second year he had gone to England. Campbell, who was a friend of my father, was the organiser of the expeditions and asked me to go up and do that sort of work. I went on three expeditions. After that I got involved in the study of the skulls and wrote several papers on it. The longest ones were by F Fenner, honorary craniologist to the South Australian Museum. I don’t think there’s been another craniologist in the world.
It was that experience that led to the idea. I could certainly recognise an Aboriginal skull and I could tell the ones from northern Australia from those from southern Australia. That’s what they wanted to put me on the expedition for. Then just before the expedition took off, I was in the Adelaide University hockey team and somebody hit a ball which hit my patella. I thought I could play on but I fell over and I spent the next six weeks in hospital rather than going up with Grenfell Price and company. That’s the background to it.
PHILIP JONES: Do you recall your feeling or the atmosphere in Adelaide as this expedition was being planned, considered and spoken about?
FRANK FENNER: They thought there really was a chance of finding something out about Leichhardt, because the report had said that there were skeletons there. As we saw in some of those photographs, the skeletons were rather odd things. The remarkable thing is that they found those coins and other material.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you very much, Frank. I would like to put a question to our scientific speakers today - Tom Darragh, Henry Nix and Rod Home. We have heard how we are starting to recognise and appreciate Leichhardt’s contribution to science, as too few people have done in the past, with the exception of von Mueller and others. How well regarded was Leichhardt as a scientist by his peers? He was only here for a few years, but did he make much of an impact scientifically in those few years?
ROD HOME: It’s clear that before he went out on his expedition while he was in Sydney and naturalising in the New England and so forth, as we heard, the leading scientists of Sydney, insofar as there were any, regarded him at least as their peer and probably as their superior. They recognised him as a very well-trained scientist indeed. We saw a bit of that in one of the overheads today where he’s clearly described as a scientist.
HENRY NIX: He has always been well regarded by scientists. They have never fallen prey to the Chisholmian interpretation.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: I can understand a little bit better having been here today why von Mueller wanted to support searches going out trying to answer the riddle of Leichhardt, because clearly he had a lot of feeling for him. Can any of you give us a bit more of a flavour of the relationship between the two?
HENRY NIX: There wasn’t one.
ROD HOME: von Mueller arrived in South Australia on 10 December 1847. There was no chance that he was ever going to meet Leichhardt. But quite early on he realised that Leichhardt was overdue, and in fact might have been the first person who recognised that Leichhardt was overdue. He actually wrote to Sir Thomas Mitchell some time in 1849 and suggested that it was time to put an expedition together to go and search - and that wasn’t done of course. Thereafter Mueller was - I was going to say ‘obsessed’ but that’s a bit too strong - very interested to promote searches for Leichhardt. Initially he thought there was a real chance that at least some members of the party might survive, marooned in an oasis out there in the desert somewhere, and it was our duty to go and rescue them.
Later when he realised there was no chance of anybody still being alive, he was still anxious to know what had happened. At every possible opportunity he encouraged people to put together new expeditions. Whenever a new report emerged he was very anxious to get somebody to do it. He persuaded Sir Thomas Elder to put up some more money to fund another expedition. Mueller was going to be the leader of the expedition that Darrell Lewis mentioned right at the end of his talk, the one that went out to Lake Barlee. Mueller was going to be the leader of that until right at the last minute he pulled out and Forrest, who it was intended would be the second in command, took it over.
HENRY NIX: There is an irony in the fact that a significant part of Mueller’s reputation was made on the collections that he made on the Gregory expedition, which retraced a major part of Leichhardt’s track ten years previously, in which Leichhardt of course lost those specimens. But Mueller did not lose his.
ROD HOME: Leichhardt didn’t lose all of his either.
HENRY NIX: No, not all of them.
ROD HOME: He had Leichhardt’s collection which, as I said, is still in Melbourne. What I meant to say also is that I think Mueller developed, because of his experiences on the Gregory expedition and the fact that he traversed basically the same country on the way from the Victoria River back to Moreton Bay, a strong sense of sameness I think with Leichhardt that reinforced his concerns about getting out there and rescuing these people if it’s at all possible.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: So he really identified with Leichhardt?
ROD HOME: I think so, yes.
DARRELL LEWIS: During one of the talks someone said that von Mueller was very fixed on the notion that Leichhardt perished around the Simpson Desert - that was the 1938 expedition when they were promoting that idea. But von Mueller clearly wasn’t fixed on the Simpson Desert; he was fixed on whatever new evidence came up. When Alex McPhee found Jun Gun in the desert and heard the story about the perishing white men, that story got back to von Mueller. von Mueller was very keen to get the next mission going - and he did through Sir Thomas Elder. I just wanted to make the point that he wasn’t totally fixed on the Simpson Desert. He would have been at certain times when the evidence was pointing that way. But as the evidence came in - for instance, when they found the first of the ‘L’ trees on the Cloncurry River, I think it was. I have seen his correspondence and he’s highly excited saying, ‘This shows that he didn’t get killed in south-west Queensland, he went way up to the north to the Gulf,’ and he kept on doing that as new evidence came in - although sometimes he ignored it.
A story came in from an old camel man who’d been out on the Leichhardt latest search expedition in the 1860s, and according to the story he promised the dying leader of the expedition that he would keep searching, and 20 years later he came into Camooweal or somewhere claiming he had found all these skeletons and relics and a tree marked ‘L’ on a big grass plain somewhere. The story got back to von Mueller who then contacted the local policeman to ask if this if camel man was reliable, and the policeman said, ‘No, he’s not,’ so he never followed it up. But for all we know he had found Leichhardt’s remains. It’s a very complicated story.
TOM DARRAGH: You asked what the contemporary scientists thought of him; I think perhaps Clark’s attempt to publish the German paper, even though it was published in such an obscure Australian periodical, he did go to a lot of trouble. In it there is an introduction to the work in which he expressed his feelings about Leichhardt. He obviously felt that he was a very good geologist. I think that answers your question.
QUESTION: Peter Stanley. Thank you all. It’s been a really interesting day, partly because even though I confess I know nothing of these matters, it revolves around the discussion of evidence and the interpretation of the conflicting evidence, which we’ve seen most clearly coming from Darrell Lewis and from Dick Kimber.
I found Darrell’s presentation this morning very persuasive - and I don’t want to be persuaded by it, I want the complexity of the evidence to be worked through, which is why I was so pleased that Dick put a countervailing view, if briefly, just now. It occurs to me that it may not be the greatest mystery in Australian history. I used to work at the Australian War Memorial and we used to say that the loss of HMAS Sydney was the greatest mystery in Australian history. That brings me to suggest that about 20 years ago there was a cache of artefacts allegedly from HMAS Sydney which were allegedly found on the coast of Western Australia. The Memorial was asked to pronounce on its authenticity, not simply one plate, such as we have before us, but a whole ragbag of bits and pieces. One of the ways in which we approached this perplexing physical evidence was to ask one of our young colleagues to assume it was authentic and to argue the case for its authenticity. In doing so he very comprehensively proved to everybody that it was a complete crock, and there was nothing authentic in it. There were biro stains on the cloth, for example, which could not possibly have existed in 1941. But the point is that it is an interesting technique.
I wondered rather than be dissuaded by Darrell’s evidence, which intellectually I feel it probably is, I’d like us to consider other explanations. Maybe in our panel today we should have had a Patrick White to come up with alternative explanations which might be consistent with the great variety of evidence that we’ve seen. The more I hear of the surrounding evidence to the plate, the more intrigued I am as to possible explanations. Is it possible Leichhardt was lost? I don’t know. Is it possible that he went to where Darrell said he was up on the Tanami Desert and turned south? Is it just possible that he did come into northern South Australia? I don’t know. I feel such an idiot in these matters. But there are many people before us who can pronounce authoritatively on this. Can we turn our minds to different ways of thinking of the provenance of the undoubtedly authentic plate that we’re examining to try to think of different ways in which this plate can come to have been in the place where it is? Can we think laterally? Sorry, that’s a very convoluted question, but I see David Hallam has understood me.
DAVID HALLAM: I think there’s another way of going. That is, if we make the assumption that the plate is real, we ask the plate where it’s been. We don’t know at the moment exactly what evidence is bound up in those crevices and cracks in the plate. There may be pollen. The problem with that is that the methods required to do pollen analysis may not be appropriate for the plate. There may be mineralogical evidence. I don’t know. Let’s see. I don’t want to scrape it, but maybe a little tickle.
DARRELL LEWIS: Just in case anyone here doesn’t know the significance of pollen, every plant species has very distinctive pollen. They’re microscopic and they can usually be identified as to species. So if there was pollen trapped in the crevices of the corrosion or in the stamped lettering and you could find some and get it identified, you might be able to say this plate has pollen in it which only comes from the monsoon vegetation or comes from central Australia or somewhere else. If it was South Australian pollen, then the plate was carried back to this man’s house so it wouldn’t count. But if it was northern pollen or central pollen you might be better off. Something like that can be looked at.
DICK KIMBER: One comment on your comments. I have examined about 100 different places where bones, relics or carved trees have been found, including all those Darrell Lewis mentioned. However, because of the nature of the talk, I had to restrict it to a limited perception. I think there are vast numbers of red herrings everywhere. The Grenfell Price map indicated certain of the points you’re making, but thanks for the comments though.
PETER STANLEY: That’s exactly why we need to think of alternative ways of reading the evidence. Although Darrell’s argument is really persuasive, you clearly have a different view, and maybe there are different ways of seeing it. Is it possible that you might be persuaded, Dick, to write something which reflects on that?
DICK KIMBER: I have already written something but it hasn’t been published. I think that the crucial element of what Leichhardt is about is that wonderful sense of science that has been discussed by Henry Nix and others. But in human interest terms, a fascinating element of the story is that this is possibly Australia’s greatest mystery in inland exploration. I will talk with Darrell Lewis and try to get something organised perhaps in the journal Aboriginal History. Thank you for the thought.
DARRELL LEWIS: Don’t forget the Museum has its own recollections journal and they would be dying to publish it.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: Peter, I might just say that we started off from the position of not assuming that it was genuine; rather, we started at the opposite extreme. As David Hallam’s presentation showed, we started off testing the object scientifically. I don’t think we would have made a decision to purchase the nameplate based purely on the historical record because, as with all evidence, there are conflicts in the story. We decided to go to the evidence which is immutable; that is, the scientific analysis and the way in which that analysis could either refute or support the historical record.
People have said, ‘You haven’t found the boab tree with the ‘L’ marked on it?’ That is true, we haven’t. We are getting closer to the idea of an expedition out to have a look at it. But the tree might not exist any more. As you know, trees only live for a certain amount of time - they die in bushfires or they collapse - so it might not be there now. If you couldn’t find the tree, does that refute the whole story? That is why we decided to look for the evidence which doesn’t change, and that’s the scientific analysis. David Hallam pointed out some really key planks in the historical story which are corroborated by the scientific analysis, which gave us the confidence to go ahead with the purchase. It’s a fascinating process to be able to turn to the scientific world to back up the historian’s way of approaching these things.
MIKE SMITH: This is a question for anyone on the panel. Apart from finding a bit of early Prussian dentistry, how do we know when we have found Leichhardt or the remains of his party? What would we look for in terms of the condition of the objects? Specifically, how would we know that we had found an object of approximately the right age? What sort of gear would we hope to find when we walk over that sand dune with a string of camels in the Kallakoopah country? What distinguishes the remains of Leichhardt from the remains of, say, people associated with the construction of the overland telegraph line in 1871 or Aboriginal stockmen associated with one of the stations in the 1880s, and so forth?
DICK KIMBER: First up, Charles Todd’s instructions to workers on the overland telegraph line were for everyone to keep their eyes open for it. But RR Knuckey did a great deal of exploration, and his accounts to Todd are very interesting. They found no evidence of anyone having crossed the line. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t cross the line; it’s just that they didn’t find any evidence of crossings between 1870 and 1872. One of the things I’ve been told about is that wedged up in a tree, with the tree grown around it, is a yoke. It’s interesting that the bullocks they took were pack bullocks and had yokes. They were going to eat their way west. So you might find something like that which, with the kind of analysis that David Hallam did on the metal nameplate, might be your best bet. Other than if you find Leichhardt’s steel trunk with ‘L Leichhardt’ on it and with his journal in it, you’ve got a good one.
ROD HOME: You might have a good one. It might be a fake.
DAVID HALLAM: One of the other things is to look for the gun. If it was disposed of by a tree with an ‘L’ on it, that’s the obvious thing to go for. But that still doesn’t find Leichhardt.
DARRELL LEWIS: The firearm technology that Leichhardt had was cap and ball or muzzle loading technology. By the time the telegraph line was going in, it was right on the changeover. There still would have been quite a few muzzle loading pistols especially around in 1871, but the breech loading modern style, brass shell firearms were coming in fast.
By the time the settlers got into the Kimberley and the Victoria River District in 1883, there were very few muzzle loading guns. By the time the prospectors would have been probing from the Kimberley field into the Great Sandy, for instance, it’s extremely unlikely that they would have had any muzzle loading guns. They may have but it is very unlikely.
So if in the Great Sandy Desert you found powder flasks which belonged to muzzle loading technology or the remains of an iron gun which you could still see has the hammer and the separate lock on the side, a nipple at the end and not an opening for a cartridge, it’s a muzzle loader. It’s highly unlikely it would be from the telegraph line or from the settlers. It could have been traded in from the telegraph line workers, but it’s just as likely that it could be Leichhardt’s.
There’s also the surveying equipment such as the sextants and the compasses which were usually made of brass. If the brass is still there, while it would be corroded, it’s not like iron which rusts and deteriorates a lot faster. So if you found 1840s period surveying equipment, it’s highly unlikely that it’s come from the 1870s or 1880s or more recently. However, most of the equipment though would be indistinguishable from the same items - plates, cups, axes - from 50 years later, especially after it’s been rusted for a long time, so you wouldn’t really know it was Leichhardt’s.
There are various objects such as the telescope or other gear which may well have been engraved with his name. I believe that a set of surveying equipment was given to him before he left by the surveying department in Queensland. I don’t know if they engraved anything on them or not. There are certain objects which you could work out belong to the 1840s period. It also depends where you are in Australia. Northern South Australia is so much closer to civilisation of the times that perhaps stuff was found by Aborigines and traded in. In South Australia it is not terribly far to Mount Daer if you found some stuff there or in the Simpson Desert, but the Great Sandy country is a lot further away in time and distance.
DICK KIMBER: The only comment I’d make is that you can find as much equipment as you like, but they could have gone on with their pack bullocks or on foot for another 300 miles before they perished or scattered all over the countryside. The dilemma is to find skeletal evidence or, if there’s none of that surviving except in a fragmented way, I really think you’d have to find his journal to say otherwise. I can’t think how you’d otherwise prove anything.
HENRY NIX: If you could find a skull and there were teeth, it’s possible to extract DNA from the inside of those teeth. Leichhardt does not have direct descendants but from his own family there are living descendants in the US, and they have visited Australia. So it would be possible to do that kind of testing, and that would be pretty conclusive, I would suspect.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: The wonders of science strike again.
MIKE SMITH: I have one follow-up question. Darrell, I think in your presentation you talked about Leichhardt being fairly careful about his equipment and maybe even numbering or labelling all his equipment. Do you know whether he had an inventory? Did he have numbers stamped on saddlebags and things?
DARRELL LEWIS: It wasn’t me who said that. However, there is a letter, which is partly damaged but it’s quite clear enough, that he’s been marking all his equipment. We don’t know with what. It might have been that all the equipment that belonged in one pack bag was numbered so you would know where the stuff was. While I don’t think it would have all been labelled ‘LL’ or ‘Ludwig Leichhardt’, if you found something like a bullock bell which had a number on it, it gives you a bit more of a possibility that it was numbered and was part of Leichhardt’s equipment - but it doesn’t prove anything.
The other possible way you might be able to more readily pin down whether a relic you found was Leichhardt’s is if there was an Aboriginal oral tradition that these four white men perished - I don’t know if that oral tradition has survived. No-one I know has recorded it. But if someone went out to Balgo or somewhere like that and asked the old men, ‘Did you ever hear about four white fellas on horseback perishing?’ and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, down there in that particular spring’, and then you go and hunt around there in the sand hills and you find an old muzzle loading gun or a powder flask, it gives a bit more credibility to the possibility. But you can’t prove anything like that without finding the DNA in the skull or finding the journal.
HENRY NIX: The ‘L’ trees have interested me for a long time. There’s been very little discussion of the nature of the blaze and how the ‘L’ was carved, where it is on the tree trunk and on which side of the tree. A retired surveyor from Dalby in Queensland has been doing just this. He’s rediscovered ‘L’ trees on the Darling Downs, which is highly cultivated land. Some of the trees were dead and lying on the ground as logs. But he had calculated where the camp should have been and then walked around, poked around, rolled the log and found the ‘L’. It was a very characteristic blaze mark and ‘L’ that was quite different to Landsborough’s and all the other Ls that popped up subsequently. So I think that is definitely something worth pursuing in the north where trees may not last as long because of the bad fires that they have every year. But what I am saying is that it wasn’t just an ‘L’, it was a distinctive mark. The blaze was cut in a particular way, and the ‘L’ was in a particular place, size and shape.
ROD HOME: But there would still be the problem with distinguishing between an ‘L’ blazed in 1845 and one blazed in 1848.
HENRY NIX: And you would have to make allowance for trees growing and the bark growing.
DARRELL LEWIS: And you don’t know if only one person carved the L’s. I mean it’s quite likely that different expedition members carved them and perhaps carved them in their own style and fashion. Some people have claimed that he only ever marked his trees with a single ‘L’, but there are records of trees marked ‘LL’. It’s not good enough to say on the basis of one or two or three trees which are shaped this way as an ‘L’, the others that aren’t shaped that way are not his or whatever. It’s interesting and it’s worth considering but it shouldn’t be taken as gospel.
HENRY NIX: Part of the problem though is that mostly all we have is a description that there was a tree with an ‘L’. What I’m saying is that it’s not really enough.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you for that.
DICK KIMBER: There were other people who went out where Leichhardt was in 1847 who had the surname with an ‘L’, and some of those marked trees as well. I’ve found a rock engraving out in the Tanami Desert with ‘L’ and ‘X’ on it. It looks very old and weathered like the rock engravings that are on it, but it could be anyone who had that surname. So that’s another dilemma.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: Or it could even be a Roman numeral. Susan, if I can bring you into the discussion: the National Library announced to the world last year, I think it was, its acquisition of Patrick White material, which fooled everyone. Everyone who knew Patrick believed that he had burnt all this stuff, but there it was in shoeboxes all that time. Have you had a chance to have a good look at that material? Is there much material there relating to the Voss work?
SUSAN MARTIN: I haven’t had a chance to have a look at it. However, I have a graduate student who has been and had a bit of a look at the Voss notebook. The Voss notebook has material dating back to 1939 showing that he started the novel a lot earlier than people had thought. It does have notes on Leichhardt as well as on Eyre and other things. But my student has not had a chance to look at the notebook in detail. There is certainly some additional material on exactly who and what he was reading. But as I was saying, I think he read the letters in the German publication rather than in the English translation. I wasn’t aware of that before.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: You mentioned Eyre as well, so he was obviously looking across various explorers and the Leichhardt story wasn’t his only inspiration. So perhaps there is more of a composite figure in Voss than we might have anticipated?
SUSAN MARTIN: Yes, he was quite adamant about that. It is subsequent discussions of Voss that have collapsed all those other exploration accounts down to say that Voss is Leichhardt. White never said that Voss was Leichhardt or was even solely or primarily based on Leichhardt. I think the fact that Voss is German is one of the reasons that that parallel has been made, but it certainly was not White’s stated intention that the parallel be drawn so closely between them. Therefore, White gets implicated in Chisholm’s libel against Leichhardt because he had read Chisholm and used that idea. Rather than taking it as truth about Leichhardt, he used that notion of a kind of somewhat unstable figure as the leader of an expedition and ran with that, but it certainly wasn’t his only inspiration.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you.
QUESTION: I have a question first to Dick: you mentioned that 1847 was a very wet year. Was it wet enough for the rivers that rise in Queensland and the Northern Territory and dissipate in the Simpson to be flowing in when Leichhardt could have gone that way? In your view, could they have been used by Leichhardt as a way to the south?
DICK KIMBER: It’s highly problematic, because we don’t really know the extent of the 1847 rains. I have tried to look at the historical figures on rainfall that exist around the place in Australia, and it does seem to me there was fairly wide rainfall in the tiny limited amount you have. If you look at Sturt’s journals, he’s talking about what a terrible time he’s having. I think it’s because he has never been out there. It’s hot, hard times, but I think he’s in a moderately good season because they always find water in these rainfall areas. There’s a lot more water than the implications you gain when you read how badly everyone is feeling - they’re suffering from scurvy and so on. Certainly rivers such as the Plenty and particularly the Finke - the Finke has very big water holes in it. The Hale River runs down into big soakages, the Todd River joined it in a very big flood in the area only a short time ago. We didn’t get much rain in the Alice, but there were big flows there.
I’m sure Leichhardt would have learned about soakage water by that time, because soakages are crucially important. But with the Aboriginal population over the landscape they’re going to leave evidence, so there are going to be indications such as he used in his first expeditions, which are much more widely reported after him as the indications of water. In any moderately good season I think you’d be able to make your way much better down certain areas, but then you’d be caught out by being trapped down into the Simpson Desert and how on earth you make your way from there - unless you have an Aboriginal guide. There are Aboriginal routes that I’ve recorded going down the Plenty across to the Hale and then down right into the Andado country.
QUESTION: If I might ask a brief question to David Hallam. You talked about the potential for pollen; is there any indication of how deep the ‘rubbish’ is in the grooves and in some of the stampings of the letters? When you think of it as in the tens going into hundreds of micrometres range, is there space for a collection of pollen there?
DAVID HALLAM: Definitely.
DARRELL LEWIS: If I can make another comment: up along the Barcoo and across to the Flinders I mentioned the ‘L’ trees that were there. But the discussion about rainfall reminded me that there are also four or five locations on the headwaters of the Thompson where Captain Walker found the tracks of a large number of horses and mules heading north-west, where Leichhardt said he wanted to go and, as Captain Walker pointed out, they had been made during a very wet period. They were off the creek on the ridges and the tracks had been stamped deep by the weight of the horses on the soft ground and then hardened. He pointed out himself, ‘My tracks made in the dry season were washed away next wet, but these tracks will be here for years’, and he said they were very old then.
So if they weren’t Leichhardt’s, that means that somebody else was out there before Captain Walker. I think there were people getting around all through Queensland and northern South Australia who weren’t documented or were very poorly documented. Some we know about because they were found dead, and while others made reports no doubt there were others who didn’t make reports - and possibly quite early on too. So the story of the massacre for instance at Tirrewa to the east of Mt Dare country somewhere or at the Wantata waterhole on the Diamantina could have been a party of land seekers, and the same with the supposed grave of Gray from Burke’s expedition. I think it is quite obvious that somebody was there and murdered, because it was a European with clothing way beyond the frontier. No matter what story you’ve got, you’ve got complicating factors.
QUESTION: I have had the pleasure of spending a couple of years out in the Barcoo area, and the question of rainfall in 1847 and how wet it was. If you watch the BOM [Bureau of Meteorology] weather site, you’ll see that rain can go across that area that Darrell was just talking about but with absolutely nothing down at the south-western end. When I read what Kennedy wrote when he was down that way in 1847, I think it was, his description was of total drought conditions down that way and they were in severe trouble.
I thought today was wonderful. I didn’t know what to expect; I was hoping it was going to be good but it’s been terrific; and I thank everybody for that. I’ve been dabbling around this issue and came across Darrell on the internet. He’s been most kind and generous in answering all of my silly little questions. He put me in contact with another fellow on the net. The question that comes to my mind the more I learn about Leichhardt is that here we’ve got a wonderful resource for not only Australia but humanity in general - today’s been retrospective in some ways and getting us all up to scratch in others. All you people have been bubbling away in your own little areas, but you’re not on the net. There is no focus for Leichhardt, yet he’s one of the world leaders. There needs to be a focus where all this stuff is put on the net and where we get to know who’s out there doing research not only in Australia but around the world such as in Germany, Austria and the UK.
To round off who was Ludwig Leichhardt, to me for a person of that era he was an exemplar in treating the local people as equals. If he hadn’t done that we wouldn’t be here talking about him today. He would have been a bloke that wandered around Ipswich and Newcastle and not got much further. He’s a bit like Australian universities today, they don’t get government funding like Mitchell and Kennedy did, he had to go and get sponsorships like Australian universities do today to do their research, but Leichhardt still kept his integrity while getting the support of the landholders and inadvertently helping the imperial cause.
His advice on the Balonne, which we heard about today, was spot on, because I read another document that says ‘total war broke out on the Balonne a few years later’ and Leichhardt advised don’t go there.
Out on the Barcoo there’s a tributary near the Welford National Park on the other side of the bank with two waterholes, one called Massacre and the other called Battle. On one of them there were a couple of white blokes killed and at the other one there was a fair few blackfellas killed. I think we need to revisit some of the language, because there’s a big argument in suburbia today about home invasions.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: Any comment from the panel on some of those points?
DICK KIMBER: The only comment is that I only use a quill pen; I haven’t got up to the web yet.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: The National Museum will be putting the audio and papers from today’s symposium on its website.
DARRELL LEWIS: There is a Burke and Wills Society that’s fairly active with a web site that has all the different characters involved with Burke and Wills and potted biographies of them. There should be a Ludwig Leichhardt Society, I agree. I believe there is one in Germany and there is a Ludwig Leichhardt museum in Germany as well.
MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you very much for that final comment. One of the aims of today was to try to contribute to this ongoing process of resurrecting Leichhardt to the status to which he should be recognised by the Australian and international community. Some of us here today regard him very highly, but the average person does not. I think we can say that, for the last seven hours, Leichhardt has lived again in this room. Thanks to our wonderful speakers and thanks to you for the questions that you’ve raised and to everyone who’s contributed amongst the staff of the National Museum.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007-19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 14 March 2008