The speed which Britain colonised the interior of Australia was greatly hastened by the work of the explorers. The continent was full of native peoples but to Europeans who travelled away from the relative safety of Sydney, Australia was a blank canvas waiting to be “discovered”.
Whatever scientific motives inspired explorers, the people who invested their money in their activities were interested in one thing only, productive farming land. From Cook onwards, the British were blind to Aboriginal stewardship of the land they owned. Aboriginal people were just natural obstacles like rivers, mountains and rough terrain that had to be tamed or conquered. Explorers like Thomas Mitchell and John Oxley were government men serving their country. A more ambiguous case was the extraordinary German adventurer Ludwig Leichhardt, who received no sanction from suspicious British government officialdom but who was helped by landholders keen to expand their private interests.
Leichhardt was born in Prussia in 1813 and studied in schools and universities in Germany, France and Britain. He was a polymath interested in philosophy and languages, then medicine and later botany and geology. He received no formal qualification and with the threat of compulsory military service in Prussia looming, he used wealthy British friends to pay for a passage to Australia, arriving in 1842.
Leichhardt used the three month passage to learn celestial navigation. Under the influence of Alexander von Humboldt, the young man was desperate to explore the mostly unknown colony then barely 50 years old. He was an intellectual oddity in a rough and ready land and a foreigner, but he was respected because of his wide-ranging education and his willingness to learn the new environment. His training in meteorology made him correctly surmise the hot winds from the west meant the centre of Australia was arid, when many still believed in the existence of an inland sea.
Britain controlled narrow strips of coastal land near Sydney and the newly developing cities of Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide but the inland was a vast cipher. NSW Surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell had launched expeditions along the Murray-Darling system and hoped to travel to the newly established Port Essington outpost on the north coast in 1844. However NSW Governor George Gipps declined to fund the trip.
Leichhardt, who had already done long field trips to the Newcastle, Moreton Bay and Darling Downs regions, was keen to join Mitchell. When that failed he decided on his own trip north. It was an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking of three thousand miles. He would start from the Darling Downs frontier, head north across the ridges to Cape York then roughly follow the coast to Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula, all though lands no European had ever set foot in. Graziers paid Leichhardt’s equipment bill because they were keen to find out the potential of the land.
Several young men joined Leichhardt on his adventure. He met botanist James Calvert, aged 19, aboard the ship to Australia. John Roper was also 19, John Murphy was just 15. He had two Aboriginal trackers Charley Fisher and Harry Brown, a prisoner named William Phillips and a naturalist John Gilbert who paid his own way to join the expedition.
Gilbert was the only competent bushman in the party and assumed the role of second in command. Two more, Pemberton Hodgson and black American “Caleb”, joined in the expedition but left very early on. They had 16 cattle, 17 horses, 1200 pounds of flour, 80 pounds of tea, 20 pounds of gelatin and guns and ammunition.
Leichhardt was an unlikely explorer, with poor eyesight and a lack of bush skills but he had supreme self belief. The journey was difficult and dangerous, with Leichhardt underestimating the problems he faced along the way. “I had so accustomed myself to a comparatively wild life and had so closely observed the habits of the aborigines, that I felt assured the only real difficulties which I could meet would be of a local character,” he wrote in the introduction to his journal expedition.
In the introduction to 1996 edition of the journal, Les Hiddens is ambiguous about Leichhardt and his achievements. Hiddens admits he grew up thinking the German was a “a bit of a bumbling foreign explorer” with foreign the key word in that Brit-centred analysis. He grudgingly admits it was the most ambitious exploration plan seen in Australia but reckons Gilbert may have provided much of the leadership and probably all of the botanic knowledge, which is immense in the journal. Hiddens said the expedition relied on the hunting and shooting ability of the two Aboriginal guides Fisher and Brown. But he admits Leichhardt was one of the few early explorers to supplement rations using local resources – a failure that had disastrous consequences for the Burke and Wills expedition 15 years later.
After their departure from the Darling Downs in October 1844, little was heard of Leichhardt’s party, and eventually they were given up for lost. Progress was slow in the early days out of Jimbour Station, west of what is now Dalby. It took two hours to load the horses and cattle and the latter often strayed leading to further delays. They followed the river systems, first the Condamine past what is now Chinchilla, then north to the Dawson system, across the Expedition Ranges and on to the Comet River he named for Comet Wilmot which he saw on 29 December 1844.
He named the Mackenzie and Isaac rivers and later the Sutter, Burdekin and Lynd, all for people who helped finance the trip. He followed the Mitchell River into Cape York. On June 25 the party finally began to head west picking up the River Nassau which flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Here on the night of June 28, an Aboriginal war party attacked them, most likely because Brown or Fisher interfered with one of their women.
Leichhardt was woken by a loud noise and cries for help from Calvert and Roper. He found ammunition for Fisher and Brown who “discharged their guns into the crowd of natives, who instantly fled.” Roper and Calvert suffered spear wounds and bruises from waddies. But Gilbert was killed instantly by a spear through his neck while leaving his tent. They kept guard through the night hearing the wails of the Aborigines who probably also suffered losses. Roper and Calvert recovered quickly and they continued their walk west on June 30. Leichhardt later named the Gilbert River in his honour.
They crossed through the crocodile country of the Flinders River on July 21, and a few days later the Norman and what would later be named the Leichhardt River (though Leichhardt himself would only name rivers for his benefactors and expedition members and not for himself). He greeted the first sight of the waters of the Gulf with “indescribable pleasure” optimistically thinking they had done the hardest part of the journey.
Whereever they went they were watched but there no further attacks. On July 20 Leichhardt asked Brown to discharge his gun to drive one mob away that were following them. They moved further away but stayed closed “shewing evidently that they expected no harm from us”, Leichhardt wrote. Four of them approached him and he gave them presents. The natives guided them further on while admiring their animals. On July 29 in saltpan country, they came upon a tribe fishing at a water hole and after some initial apprehension they met and talked. “Seeing my watch, they pointed to the sun; and appeared to be well acquainted with the use of my gun,” Leichhardt said.
A few days later they had to use a gun when they saw natives approach the camp loudly and swinging their spears. After the Europeans discharged a pistol they went quiet and cowered to the ground but escaped across a river. The river was the Albert, which they crossed on August 6 and Leichhardt named Beames Brook on August 19 for Walter Beames of Sydney, who provided “liberal support”. He named the Nicholson River a day later for the English family which supported him in Europe and paid for his passage to Australia.
Passing into the Northern Territory Leichhardt named the Calvert, Robinson and Macarthur Rivers. Their rations dwindled and their clothes became worn and threadbare. The loss of Leichhardt’s hat in a fire was hard-felt in the hot sun. By mid October – a year into their journey – they found the Roper River and crossed into Arnhem Land. The dogs and bullocks were dying and they jettisoned all but unessential supplies. With no spare horses, the remainder tired quickly and became weak. Charley’s ability to shoot ducks, wallabies, emus, flying foxes and other game was keeping them alive.
In November they crossed the difficult country of the high tableland overlooking the South Alligator River. On November 25 barely a hundred miles from their destination they met an armed but not hostile tribe. One had an English shawl and handkerchief and pointed in the direction of Port Essington when asked where he got them. They were surrounded for days by tribes who were curious and friendly.
In December they arrived on the Cobourg Peninsula and met natives who spoke words of English “Commandant!”, “come here!”, “very good!” and “What’s your name?” They called white people Balanda, (“Hollanders”) and they helped them find water. The amount of English spoken increased the closer they got to the end. There was a couple of days delay crossing the East Alligator River. They were distressed with boils and a prickly heat, while horseflies plagued the horses and the end could not come soon enough.
Finally on December 17 with the help of native guides the bedraggled mob came upon a cart road and followed it around a hill to see European gardens, white houses and a row of snug thatched cottages. “We were most kindly received by Captain Macarthur, the commandant of Port Essington, and the other officers who with the greatest kindness and attention supplied us with everything we wanted,” Leichhardt wrote.
They were fortunate a schooner landed a month later and by March 29, 1846 they were back in Sydney and greeted as heroes. They were given up as dead but Leichhardt brought back intelligence of a great inland that others following in his path would exploit.
Leichhardt was restless for more adventure and after failing in a second expedition east to west to the Swan River from Jimbour due to sickness and ill-health, he tried again in 1848 this time following new tracks found by Mitchell further west near the modern town of Roma. After leaving Muckadilla on April 22, 1848, neither he nor his expedition was ever heard from again. Leichhardt went from history into mythology. The land he crossed went quickly from Aboriginal to European hands.