In the opening sentences of the Ludwig Leichhardt biography “Into the Unknown“, author John Bailey tells his version of the last known days of the German explorer. It is April 1848 and Leichhardt is setting off from European settlement 500km west of Brisbane towards the Swan Colony (now Perth) on the west coast of Australia. The journey would take two to three years of travel through rugged and hostile desert country. Leichhardt writes one last letter to Sydney which Bailey says he pressed into the hands of his host Allan Macpherson as he off into the unknown. A couple of days later, Bailey suggest there was another meeting between Leichhardt and Macpherson. According to Bailey, Macpherson and his friend William Hill trace Leichhardt’s party’s track to deliver one last parting gift of a fat cow. They caught up with Leichhardt at nightfall but the German declined their gift saying he didn’t want a wild cow mixing with his docile herd as she might lead it astray. Macpherson and Hill left the following morning. As they left Hill asked Leichhardt where he was heading. “To the setting sun,” the explorer responded and they left, never to be heard of again.
The story is fascinating however I’m not convinced it is true. Macpherson’s station at what Bailey called “Cogoon” is near Muckadilla, 40km west of where Roma now lies and I learned a lot of what Leichhardt got up to in the region from Roma historian Peter Keegan. Allan Macpherson was an intriguing character, and was the first white settler in the area and his story is told as part of the astonishing story of five generations of the Scottish Macpherson family in the service of the British Empire across the globe in Stephen Foster’s epic A Private Empire. Peter Keegan supplied much of the research to Foster about Macpherson’s tumultuous years in the district from 1847 to 1849, a time he spread between Mt Abundance, as Macpherson called his Cogoon Station and Keera, his property in New England. Leichhardt’s last letter was written a sheep outstation on the western edge of Mt Abundance.
I recall asking Keegan if he thought Macpherson crossed paths with Leichhardt. His view, as was fellow Leichhardt scholar Darryl Lewis was that they never met. Macpherson was likely in Keera or Sydney or on the road when the German came through the district. So I was fascinated by the detail in Bailey’s meeting – not just once but twice. The end notes were unhelpful – there was no source offered for where he got the information. I immediately emailed Keegan, who confirmed his view that neither meeting happened. “There were many people trying to get onto the Leichhardt bandwagon after he went missing,” he told me. I’ve emailed John Bailey to ask him where he got his information but am yet to hear back.
It may be one of the more intriguing mysteries of Australian historiography in what Bailey described as one of the most intriguing mysteries of Australian history. Bailey tells Leichhardt’s story in straightforward style. The story of his youth is revealed through letters to family and close friends. Leichhardt was very intelligent and studied widely across many disciplines but he never emerged with a university degree. His disordered approach to course selection owed much to the influence of Wilhelm von Humboldt who saw education as a process of self-emancipation. Leichhardt’s family wasn’t wealthy and the student desperately sought a patron to subsidise his education.
Enter John Nicholson, the son of a retired Bristol vicar, who came to Gottingen University to finish his studies. Leichhardt was there from Berlin University as part of his Wanderjahr. The pair hit it off and for four months they were inseparable. Nicholson’s departure back to England left Leichhardt grief-stricken. At his lowest ebb, a saviour appeared. It John Nicholson’s younger brother William, also sent to Germany to complete his education. Leichhardt became mentor to the younger Nicholson and they moved in together with the Englishman footing their bills. Leichhardt stopped attending lectures instead devoting himself to books and spending time in clinics learning the rudiments of medicine.
When William finished his degree in 1837 he planned to go home to England with Leichhardt to follow. Leichhardt was obliged to serve a year in the military but he obtained a deferment to 1840. Leichhardt loved London and later Paris when the pair moved there. Leichhardt attended lectures at the Jardins des Plantes and natural history museum. He spent two months at La Charite hospital where the nurses asked him to translate for German patients. Nicholson and Leichhardt’s relationship gradually soured when they travelled through France and Italy. When Leichhardt heard the elder Nicholson was emigrating to Australia, it awoke in him the possibilities of exploration in that land. In 1841 he booked a passage on the Sir Edward Paget and passed the long journey offering lectures to disinterested passengers. He also got the captain to teach him celestial navigation. The ship arrived in Sydney on February 14, 1842.
Leichhardt quickly established himself as a man of considerable learning and found a patron in Lt Robert Lynd, a barrack-master who enjoying reading Goethe and collecting shells. Leichhardt began his education of Australia with a trip to the Hunter Valley to study botany and geology. He became convinced the area was suitable for good winemaking and he almost died of thirst when he got lost in Port Stephens. He later headed north to Moreton Bay and called in on his countrymen at Lutheran Aboriginal Mission at Zion Hill near Eagle Farm, an experience which depressed him. “There is no hope of converting this generation to Christianity and this generation will likely be the last,” he wrote. Onwards he went to the Darling Downs and finally back to Sydney with a bold expedition idea.
His destination was the short-lived military outpost of Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula 3000km north-west of Sydney. Though he had no Government support, Sydney newspapers got behind him and he signed up eight companions. They left Sydney August 13, 1844 and sailed to Brisbane before setting out for the Darling Downs. There he was joined by ornithologist John Gilbert and they – a German, four Englishmen, an American, a convict, a Welsh boy, two Aborigines, 17 horses and 16 cattle – spent their last night in European Australia at Jimbour Station on September 30.
Progress was slow and they followed the Condamine River rest until around modern Chinchilla (Charley’s Creek is named for Leichhardt’s Aboriginal traveller). Gradually they moved north following the Dawson River where Leichhardt named geographical features after members of his expedition. They were well behind schedule and Leichhardt cut their rations amid grumblings from his crew. Gradually their resentment of Leichhardt grew as did the arguments. Leichhardt cut loose two members as rations were further tightened. By the start of 1845 they were following the Comet Rover north but an argument with Charley ended up with the Aborigine whacking the German in the face. Leichhardt banished both blacks but quickly realised they were the two most useful members of the expedition knowing how to hunt and communicate with local blacks. They were soon forgiven.
In April 1845 they found a huge river Leichhardt called the Burdekin after a female patron of his expedition. In May he named a new river the Lynd for his Sydney friend and inched their way towards the Cape. Back in Sydney Lynd himself led the eulogy for the now-presumed dead traveller. Leichhardt was still alive and close to the Gulf of Carpentaria on the Mitchell River. Not long afterwards tragedy struck on the Nassau River. During one night an Aboriginal war party attacked them and killed Gilbert and wounded two others. They pressed on and came to a river Leichhardt named the Gilbert for his “unfortunate companion”. On August 20, he named the Nicholson River for his friend William and then the Roper River for another member of his expedition. They descended Arnhem Land scrambling down rocks before emerging on the floodplain of the South Alligator River. They knew they were closing in on Port Essington as the blacks had European goods and a smattering of English. Just before Christmas they astonished the English garrison with their bedraggled presence and were lucky enough to find a ship leaving for Sydney after just three weeks.
Back in Sydney, Leichhardt was a sensation and the most celebrated man in Australia. Not content to rest on his laurels he immediately began planning an even longer east-west trip to Swan Colony. He set off with his new party of seven from the Darling Downs in November 1846. This trip was a disaster with disputes between the travellers, especially Leichhardt and the upper-class Hovenden Hely who took exception at being assigned goat herder. They headed towards Peak Range in miserable weather, constant rain and flooding creeks. Almost all the party fell ill and they were forced to wait months for rivers to recede and travellers to get better. Neither happened and they abandoned the expedition on June 7, 1847. On the way back, Leichhardt heard Sir Thomas Mitchell had supposedly discovered “a River to India” (the Barcoo which went nowhere near India but instead drained into Lake Eyre) and he mapped the Balonne and Condamine Rivers as they went west.
It was these discoveries that led to Leichhardt starting his third expedition from Mt Abundance where he went “Into the Unknown”, which begins this post. For theories on what might have happened Leichhardt, you should read Darrrell Lewis’s meticulously researched “Where is Dr Leichhardt“.