In search of Ludwig Leichhardt

Part of the Leichhardt rifle nameplate found in the Northern Territory in the early 1900s
Part of the Leichhardt rifle nameplate found in the Northern Territory in the early 1900s

I’m hoping to get to a tiny town in the Spreewald region of Brandenburg in Germany later this year, as close as possible to October 23. Around 85km south-east of Berlin lies the town of Trebatsch. Here in what was then Prussia, Ludwig Leichhardt was born two hundred years ago on October 23, 1813.

Leichhardt is more famous in Australia than in his native country. Last heard from 40km west of Roma in 1848, Leichhardt disappeared on a journey where he wanted to “get at the heart” of the Australian continent. It was the third of three expeditions around the country notable in different ways: the first an incredible triumph south to north, the second a complete disaster east to west and the third a total mystery as he tried again to go east to west.

The mystery of Leichhardt’s disappearance fired Australian imagination. He vanished with six colleagues, seven horses, 20 mules and 50 bullocks. This was no Bermuda Triangle; it was an enormous, harsh, waterless country with no Europeans for 6000kms. Leichhardt’s expedition likely met its end due to thirst or murder but the almost total absence of reliable evidence, following his earlier success, allowed a legend to grow around him.

Across NSW, Queensland and Northern Territory there are suburbs, rivers, electoral divisions, highways, streets and stadiums named for him. Nineteenth century clergyman and prominent republican John Dunmore Lang wanted to name a new state Leichhardtland for him carved out of the Gulf country of northern Queensland. Leichhardt’s life, the mystery of his death and the many conflicted and tragic searches for him puts him second to Ned Kelly in Australian mythology.

In the country of birth, fame came late and fitfully. Brandenburg is in eastern Germany and the bits not ceded to Poland in 1945 ended up in East Germany. The story of the son of a Prussian “royal inspector of peat” who sought glory in a capitalist country did not excite official interest. However by the time his 175th birthday was celebrated in October 1988, things were changing. The Berlin Wall was about to fall sending the Stasi state crashing down with it. It was finally safe to remember a hero from Germany’s pre-communist times. The Trebatsch Leichhardt Museum will now celebrate its 25th birthday in October the same time as Leichhardt turns 200.

In January Foreign Minister Bob Carr paid a visit to the Australian embassy in Berlin where he praised Leichhardt’s role in Australian history. Carr said Leichhardt came to Australia in 1842 to make a name for himself. Leichhardt was styled a ‘doctor’ and had studied broadly but left the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universitat in Berlin without a qualification.

But there he befriended the English Nicholson brothers who excited a keen interest in the British Empire. With the prospect of compulsory military service in Prussia, Leichhardt thought of going to the West Indies or Africa but decided to study the natural history of Australia. In London he met a professor of anatomy Richard Owen who gave Leichhardt letters of introduction to NSW surveyor-general Sir Thomas Mitchell.

With the Nicholsons’ help, Leichhardt secured a passage on the ship Sir Edward Paget landing in Sydney on Valentine’s Day, 1842. While aboard, Leichhardt learned how to determine latitude and longitude. In Australia, Leichhardt impressed with his learning and began exploring almost immediately. He went to Newcastle to study the coal seams and fossil forests at Awaba and became interested in the search to open up a route from Sydney to the north coast. Mitchell was planning an expedition and Leichhardt wanted to be part of it.

When Mitchell’s plan foundered, Leichhardt organised his own trip aided by squatters keen to open the north up. He set off in 1844 with five companions and four more joined the expedition in Brisbane. They left the last settlement at Jimbour on the Darling Downs and followed the Condamine River west before crossing the Divide to follow the Dawson River north and then the Mackenzie, Isaac and Lynd Rivers. With food in short supply the party lived off the land and wild fruit kept them free of scurvy.

One of the party was killed by natives when they inadvertently camped onto a sacred site but they pressed on and found the Gulf of Carpentaria on July 5, 1845. Leichhardt named a river the Gilbert for his “unfortunate companion” killed by the blacks. They travelled west in a line 50km from the swampy coast crossing a number of rivers, living entirely off the land. In what is now NT, they found the McArthur River and Aboriginals who had contact with Macassan trepang fishers. By the end of the year they found Aborigines with a smattering of English and knew they were closing in on Port Essington. They arrived on December 17 after being missing for 15 months.

They returned by ship to Sydney and were greeted as heroes. The expedition, long since presumed lost, opened up vast areas of the north to Europeans. Leichhardt also collected and catalogued thousands of specimens of native flora and fauna. His survival in the face of overwhelming odds convinced many to dismiss his disappearance in 1848.

Heading across Australia south to north was hard enough (as Burke and Wills would find out 14 years later), but it was nothing to the east to west journey. Leichhardt’s second expedition in 1847 ended quickly in wet weather, dengue fever and poor morale. But he was determined to have another go. Leichhardt said he hoped to get to the Swan River colony (now Perth) in two years. Privately he thought it might take three or four. But it was always his grand ambition to cross the country as he admitted in his final known letter.

That letter was sent from Mt Abundance station 40km west of Roma on April 2, 1848. At an outstation on the property of Allan Macpherson, Leichhardt wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald. He wrote of his progress and his admiration for the country he was passing through. He did not say where he was going next but prayed for success. “When I consider how lucky I have been in my progress up to now,” he wrote, “I entertain the hope our Almighty Protector will permit me to bring my favourite plan to a successful end.”

The plan did not end successfully though we don’t know how, where or when. On February 22, Leichhardt wrote to his brother-in-law about his plans. He said Thomas Mitchell had travelled down the Victoria River (later the Barcoo) thinking it was a river that would lead him to the Gulf country. Mitchell’s deputy Edmund Kennedy found the river was the likely the same stream as the Cooper Creek found by Sturt on his travels. It didn’t flow north to the Gulf but south-west before it “disappears in Sturt Desert”. Leichhardt said he wanted to solve the mysteries left by Mitchell, Kennedy and Sturt “as long as I manage to pass the northern end of the desert.”

Leichhardt needed water for his men and stock, and a direct route from Darling Downs to Swan River had precious little of that. Historian Darrell Lewis’s new book Where is Dr Leichhardt? systematically looks at the available evidence before concluding Leichhardt would have gone around Australia in a huge arc, following the watersheds in a constant search for drinking water.

The evidence amounts to trees marked with L’s, stories from Aborigines and a 15cm x 2cm brass nameplate from a rifle with “Ludwig Leichhardt 1848” written on it. An Aboriginal man, known as Jackie, is believed to have found it attached to a partly burnt firearm in a bottle tree, itself marked with an L, near Sturt Creek, between the Tanami and Great Sandy Deserts, at the WA and NT border.

Jackie gave the gun and plate to a white drover and prospector named Charles Harding. Harding gave the plate to a son of a friend, 14-year-old Reginald Bristow-Smith in 1918 and he lent the plate to the South Australian museum in 1920. Bristow-Smith refused a request to donate the item and it was never displayed. He got it back a year later. In 1934 SA historian James Dougal Somerville learned Harding had died in 1926, but a friend of Harding told Somerville it was found by “Charlie black boy Jackie”. All Bristow-Smith could remember was that it near “Mt Inkerman” which was “90 miles from the Western Australia border”.

Somerville’s research and the double ‘h’ in Leichhardt suggested the plate was genuine. In 2006 the National Museum of Australia dated the artifact to the late 1840s and bought the plate from the Bristow-Smith family as the only authentic relic of the expedition. Author Darrell Lewis is still scouring the area looking for the “L” tree and evidence of the burned gun.

If evidence emerges, it means Leichhardt made it at least two-thirds of the way. Until definitive evidence of an 1840s breech-loading rifle or bones of white men or cattle emerge, Leichhardt’s fate will remain hidden by the immensity of the Australian desert that entranced him. The legend of the “ultimate European endurer” as Thomas Kenneally called him continues to entrance us.

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2 thoughts on “In search of Ludwig Leichhardt

  1. This is an amazing piece of news, I’m glad to report that I saw a post a few days ago that is evident that Leichhardt is hearty and well and alive in Berlin, so there!

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