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Leichhardt? Who is that? From the student in Göttingen to an Australian epic.

by Hans Wilhelm Finger

[Original title: Leichhardt? Wer ist das? Vom Studenten in Göttingen zum australischen Epos.]

Hans Finger

Hans Wilhelm Finger

Ladies and gentlemen! Dear friends!

Turn back your mind, far back to the year 1833, as a young student sat in this beautiful building – in front of him books of this library, study – books of botany, books of travel. Of him I wish to speak to you. After becoming a man he reaped fame in a far away land, however few among you know of him. He has to be discovered, he himself a discoverer, a great wanderer in nature and explorer and conqueror of huge tracts of land in the unexplored Australia of the early European settlement.

“Leichhardt? Who is that?” No other question did I hear in Germany so often in the last years, having been able to answer so brief only – in Australia his name is known by every child. Well, who was Ludwig Leichhardt? This he shall answer himself with three short quotations, and at the same time I get to the core of his personality

In Berlin at 21, a year after Göttingen: “I do not want to live for the moment; my plans are broad, are great, are genuine”.

A few months before ending his studies in Paris Leichhardt reveals in his diary his basic attitude which we find again and again in his action: “By thinking of the infinity I wish to forget the small earth and ask myself, how can I respect one spot of the world more than the other”.

Considerably later, after his great exploration, a gold medal was awarded to him by the Geographical Societies in London as well as in Paris. Just ahead of his departure to his last journey he wrote to his family: “…whatever I have done has never been for honour. I have worked for the sake of science and nothing else and I shall continue to do so…”.

Brief Biography of Ludwig Leichhardt from 1813

In the following 40 minutes or so, I will try to fill these quotations with the personality of Ludwig Leichhardt. But to begin: a brief outline of the particulars: Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt was born on 23 October, 1813 in Lower Lusatia or Nieder Lausitz

[“Lower Lausitania” may be a correct version but this had been changed to “Lower Lusatia or Nieder Lausitz”]

was changed to and began to study philology 1831 in Berlin with the goal to become a teacher at a Gymnasium. In 1833 he went to the Georg August University in Göttingen. A year later he continued his studies in Berlin, and in 1837 he leaves his homeland Prussia forever. Study visits to England and Paris follow, and then he makes a nine months educational journey. Then back in London, from where he travels to Sydney on October 1st and arrives there in February 1842.

Extensive journeys on foot or horseback follow for the purpose of study and fieldwork, then his great exploration from the east coast to Port Essington, return to Sydney in triumph. Another expedition fails, and then in April 1848, Leichhardt departs on his last journey, again from the east coast, this time across the continent to Swan River – today’s Perth. He never arrived.

Life at Göttingen, 1833

Ludwig Leichhardt: the great wanderer in nature, wanderer between dream, science and demand. If we want to know where everything began in this short and intense life, then we have to return to Europe, to that spot, dear listeners, to the very spot where you have come together today – to Göttingen. In this small town which most of you walk daily everything began in October 1833 almost 168 years ago.

Leichhardt was captivated by Göttingen’s charm at once. The dark hills beyond the roofs became to him “…distance mountains of the future. Wouldn’t you too like to get to and over them?” he asked in his diary.

His liberated feeling soared on and led up to thoughts which made him speak of “encyclopaedic knowledge”, of “cosmopolitanism” – they are his words – yes, “of the whole big world” one must take care of, attend to her, widen one’s knowledge about her.

Leichhardt lodged in Jüdenstraße opposite the venerable St. Jacobi church, just a few steps from this historical library hall. At the university he enrolled for German grammar under Jacob Grimm, from Carl Müller he heard about ancient mythology, ancient languages from Heinrich Ewald, and sought guidance from Friedrich Herbart in practical philosophy

Herbart stirred him up. Soon Leichhardt admitted to himself, that his goal of study to become a lecturer would not absorb him. In his diary he confessed:“…my strength wants more, it seems as if something else awaits me.” There were long conversations with Herbart. “Herbart shakes me strongly like the doctor the medicine…, so that it produces all the more a greater effect on the sick.”

Now Leichhardt began to realise what he should have studied to avoid one-sidedness. Before he withdrew to a special field, wouldn’t he have to reach beyond his subject of study to understand himself and the world? But someone who wants to study the whole of nature – where would he come to a conclusion? A conclusion only in himself and the deed would be the final examination!

The talks with Herbart aroused his interest in natural science with lasting effect. The venerable Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, professor of medicine and research anthropologist, whom Alexander von Humboldt had already listened to in 1789 at the same place, drew Leichhardt completely to natural science in the spring of 1834: “I must work in a field that binds me totally to nature and enables me to realise a great plan”.

Blumenbach, with excellent contacts to London and an eager collector of accounts and books on early travels, encouraged him to read books of travel to broaden his mind.

Ludwig Meets John and William Nicholson at Göttingen

In Göttingen Leichhardt became acquainted with the wealthy Nicholson family, John Nicholson at first, and later in Berlin his brother William, who would open the door to the world for him. But bitter poverty still pressed down on Leichhardt. For his father, the royal peat inspector Christian Leichhardt, it became increasingly harder to support his grown son, who, though deeply religious, avoided St. Jacobi, being too poor even to donate a penny to the poor box. Thoughts of giving up his study pressed him. Or should he study economics and finances in civil service to come to a practical conclusion of his studies in a reasonable time?

In spring, just before termination of enrolment for the summer term, he was desperate. What should he do? He was torn by his previous study, the knowledge of his beloved father’s dedicated support and his new urge. “Never before in my live have I been so irresolute as now, never have I felt so unhappy and helpless”.

Ten days later natural science had succeeded: “Yes, I have welcomed nature outside with my eyes and inside with my mind…. Bartling lectures on botany,… the aged 82-year old nature prophet Blumenbach began his natural history; … with Weber I will take physics …. Herbart’s metaphysics embraces the whole”.

This was the beginning of Leichhardt’s intense botanical studies which should become of such eminent importance for him later. Still he did not know yet where this turn in his study would lead him, but as long has he did not have a clear idea of his goal he had to broaden his study as much as possible.

Ludwig and William Study in Berlin from 1834 and then Explore Paris

In the end, need won! Leichhardt had to end his studies. He chose

[“choose” has been changed to “chose”]

political economy. This meant a return to Berlin. But dream and demand lived on. Regardless of that, in the autumn of 1834 Leichhardt was in Prussian Berlin again. Soon he realised what he had exchanged Göttingen for: the cultured society and stimulating life there and the average, often stupidity here:“Does the Lord want to punish me that I foolishly left the beautiful Göttingen…,” he cried out.

But what had begun in Göttingen was to continue here in the form of his new friend and benefactor William Nicholson, three years his junior. They lodged together and William took charge of the costs of study for his friend, who gave up political economy and devoted himself completely to natural science in the following years with universal scholarliness.

Then, in 1837 William completed his medical studies, and the two friends travelled via London and South England to Paris, where they continued their studies together – among others in botany, geology, medicine and zoology.

Both had decided to start a researcher career overseas. At the end, the less determined William dropped this idea again. Still, they undertook an educational journey through the south of France, to Italy and Switzerland. Back in Paris Leichhardt met Alexander von Humboldt in June 1841, whose natural explorations and universal knowledge were an example for him. Then to London: here William equipped Leichhardt with the necessaries for travel and the two friends bid farewell to each other. They never would see each other again.

In September 1841 Leichhardt wrote his last European letter to his family, clearly expressing his actual goal for the first time:

“Whilst the coasts of New Holland are slowly being populated the nature of the interior remains completely in the dark. Expeditions have been sent in, but they have made little more than comparatively short reconnoitring thrusts before either running short of provisions or being driven back by the hostility of the aborigines. This interior, the heart of this dark continent, is my goal, and I will never relinquish the quest for it until I get there”.

Destination Australia-the Dark Continent, 1841

On the voyage, Leichhardt became acquainted with the respectable Capt. Marlow, who after arrival in Sydney introduced him to the military establishment of the colony. Otherwise he described his shipmates as being

“…quite dead to any interest in scientific matters. They ate their way like caterpillars through breakfast, lunch and tea, and did their best to kill time by bickering and back-biting”.

A letter of recommendation to Sir Thomas Mitchell, surveyor-general of the colony, opened the door for him to this so important man. He offered himself to accompany the next expedition as natural scientist. Mitchell accepted but in the next twelve months an expedition was not thinkable. It was to take much longer.

Sydney in 1842 had a little more than 40,000 inhabitants. Up-country stretched the huge Australian continent of just 100,000 inhabitants of European origin. In the interior it was entirely unexplored; the coast lines had been only roughly surveyed and only a few coast regions were known. Merely from Sydney vast settled areas spread up to the Blue Mountains in the west and to Moreton Bay in the north, where we find Brisbane today. Behind stretched bushland, inaccessible, often jagged mountainous or gentle hill country or wide dry plains with the strange fauna and flora of this isolated continent.

With an invitation to Newcastle, situated north of Sydney, Leichhardt’s extensive reconnoitre of nearly two years through the Australian bush began. At first he wandered in the vicinity of Newcastle. Then, he rode horseback through the Hunter Valley, across the Liverpool Range and along the outermost boundaries of settled districts til far up to Moreton Bay and further on to Wide Bay.

Unfortunately my limited time does not allow me to enter this part of Leichhardt’s wandering closer, which he portrayed so livelily in his diaries and letters. In his writings-only the letters have been published -he handed down to us an impressive human picture in which the colonial history forms the background. Here he does not leave out the tragic consequences of the clash between whites and blacks, two so different cultures. The exhibition treats this subject from the point of view of those days.

At the end, being on the way back to Sydney already but still far up in the north on the Darling Downs, Leichhardt met Henry Stuart Russell, who described this meeting in his later book The Genesis of Queensland in his flowery way: “Introduced, we simultaneously lifted our head gear. I took off my own, wholly in astonishment at seeing the fine face opposite suddenly bespattered with half a bushel of flowers, leaves, and many vegetable specimens; the hat, too, was girt around by sundry creepers and climbers, and here and there a beetle speared to the rim. It was no guesswork to ‘twig’ the botanist – perhaps an earnest and, to all appearances, amiable inquirer into the general arcane of nature – a man of science”.

From Moreton Bay (now Brisbane) to Port Essington (now Darwin), 1844-45

This meeting was to become important for Leichhardt. The settlers in the remote Moreton Bay area had great interest in an overland route to the Northwest of the continent, to the garrison at Port Essington, situated a little north of today’s Darwin. They were seeking a shorter and safer route for their products to the markets of England, India and Hong Kong, as the sailing ships were slow, the Barrier reef dangerous. This was the topic in the huts of the pioneer settlers, Leichhardt amidst them, while the public in Sydney discussed equipping an expedition, better: demanded it. However the colonial office in London did not come to a decision.

Here then, at Cecil Plains, Leichhardt met Russell, an experienced bushman and of light-hearted mind, who also liked to build bush castles in the air. Soon the young men agreed that they themselves should undertake to discover the route to Port Essington which was demanded from every side. Leichhardt was fascinated: finally he saw a possibility to follow his zeal for research. By forced marches he returned to Newcastle, his horse heavily laden with his collection of specimens. There he wrote in shortest time his “Beiträge zur Geologie von Australien” (Notes on the Geology of Australia).

In Sydney then he had to realise that Russell’s “bush castle in the air” had collapsed in the meantime. But the fire in Leichhardt burned on. Mitchell’s project still was not approved in London, his friends encouraged him to a private expedition, and the route to Port Essington was the topic of conversation as ever.

Then the decision fell: On 17th July 1844 in the “The Australian”, the public learned of Leichhardt’s plan. The reactions were partly enthusiastic, partly one spoke of madness- the men never would reach their goal but were killed by the savages en route or perish in other ways.

Just four weeks later, with some of his men and equipment, Leichhardt left Sydney by sea to Brisbane, and on 1st October 1844 Jimbour Station on the Darling Downs was the last settlement. They took along with them seventeen horses and sixteen bullocks as pack and beef stock. Up to Port Essington entirely unknown land lay ahead of the travellers. This they knew at the beginning, the ten then eight men, among them two aborigines – but what they did not know was the extent of the endless toil and torment on the long way.

It led them to the Northwest constantly searching for water. Often the riverbeds existed as pools only or they were dried out entirely. And they were faced by impenetrable scrub, scorching heat, later unfordable courses of rivers, insuperable high grounds which had to be passed around, consuming time, and exposed to hostile aborigines. On one occasion riding on reconnaissance, Leichhardt got lost in the dry wilderness and – nearly dying of thirst

[“near dying of thirst” has been changed to “nearly dying of thirst”l. Also possible is “near death from thirst”]

– found his travel companions only with great difficulty. Always the country ahead had to be explored by one or two of the party in order to find out the character of the terrain but above all to ensure a supply of the essential water.

Conscious States of Brightest Hope and Deepest Misery

Leichhardt in his travel journal: “Much, indeed the greater portion, of my journey had been occupied in long reconnoitring rides; and he who is thus occupied is in a continued state of excitement, now buoyant with hope, as he urges on his horse towards some distant range or blue mountain, or that he follow the favourable bend of a river; now all despairing and miserable, as he approaches the foot of the range without finding water from which he could start again with renewed strength,… with a sickened heart he drops his head to a broken and interrupted rest, whilst his horse is standing hobbled at his side, unwilling from excessive thirst to feed on the dry grass. How often have I found myself in these different states of the brightest hope and the deepest misery, riding along, thirsty, almost lifeless and ready to drop from my saddle with fatigue.” These were the hours of despair on the long journey which always accompanied the men in manifold forms.

There were some encounters with aborigines but mostly they kept themselves at a respectful distance. The sight of never-before- seen white faces mounted on unknown big animals, accompanied by huge horn-bearers shrouded in dust, was something so terrible that it made them flee or paralysed them with fear. There was something coming out of nowhere and silently passing them. It seemed to come out of the infinitely far dreamtime, figures from ages and ages ago on their long way to an abode far away in future ages, somewhere at unknown dreamlike places.

In June, already at the height of the gulf, they met entirely different fellows. Having become careless, feeling themselves sufficiently protected by their frightening beasts, they were attacked surprisingly by a hail of spears and severe waddy blows. Their guns freed them but Gilbert lost his life, fatally struck by a spear, and the companions James Calvert and John Roper got hurt, the latter severely, losing an eye. Leichhardt’s medical knowledge healed the wounds over the following weeks.

Botanical Collection consigned to the Fire

In October there was another bitter loss for him: Three of the horses drowned. Deeply shocked, Leichhardt wrote into his logbook: “This disastrous event staggered me, and for a moment I turned almost giddy; but there was no help. Unable to increase the load of my bullocks, I was obliged to leave that part of my botanical collection which had been carried by one of the horses. The fruit of many a day’s work was consigned to the fire; and tears were in my eyes when I saw one of the most interesting results of my expedition vanish into smoke”.

The number of bullocks had become smaller too. They served the travellers not as pack animals only but as beef cattle as well, providing them with the necessary food as game was not sufficient. When the meat stock was used up the weakest cattle were slaughtered, the flesh cut into strips and dried in the sun.

This way it kept many days for consumption, although it was tough and had to be cooked accordingly long – sometimes the whole night. In the meantime the explorers had been travelling over a year. The scorching sun burned unbearably, the heat was terrible, the slightest effort became pain. And now they were confronted by a tableland which covers vast parts of today’s Arnhemland. From a hill Leichhardt had an utmost disheartening view on a tremendous rocky country that threatened to break his spirit after the suffered strain.

There it stretched before him: “A high land, composed of horizontal strata of sandstone, seemed to be literally hashed, leaving the remaining blocks in fantastic figures of every shape; and a green vegetation, crowding deceitfully within their fissures and gullies, and covering half of the difficulties which awaited us on our attempt to travel over it”.

Arrival at Port Essington, December 1845

The exhaustion of man and beast was total, but they got over this rocky country too, entered fertile lowlands and at last, in December 1845, seven hollow-cheeked, ragged figures rod into the garrison of Port Essington. After sixteen months and inexpressible strain, the loss of one man and a great part of the botanical collection, with their last food reserve, one bullock, just one riding horse for each man, with torn clothes and tattered footwear, they had reached their goal. Without doubt, this is one of the great explorations in the history of mankind, an exploration of epic dimension – an Australian epic. A lecture of forty minutes, which covers all of Leichhardt, can only indicate this.

The reception of Leichhardt, the long believed dead, after his return to Sydney was triumphant. “…no king could have been welcomed with greater gladness and deeper interest by a whole people”, he wrote to his family. All sides paid high respect to him for the extraordinary personal achievement.

The other great explorer of his time, Charles Sturt, had returned a few months before and reported: “My foot has passed the boundaries of as heathen and terrible a region as man ever entered.”

Now Leichhardt brought tidings not from stony deserts

[“desserts” has been changed to “deserts”

but of a “Promised Land” as the editor of the “Sydney Morning Herald” in luscious imagination formulated: “…a land of sublimity and beauty, … and (prospectively) of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig-trees, and pomegranates, a land of oil-olives, and honey, wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass”. This was a land which, like the Garden of Eden, only waited for the taking by men of action.

Leichhardt fled from honours to the country estate of the Macarthur family to Camden and there he completed his manuscript of the Port Essington journey which Samuel Perry mapped simultaneously.

Restless and carried by the general approval the great plan worked in Leichhardt. Already on his way back on the sailing ship “Heroine”, hardly having escaped the perils of the journey overland, he had written to his brother-in-law Schmalfuss: “When I get back to Sydney … I shall try to raise the means for another journey through the interior of Australia from the East Coast to Swan River”. The East coast is today’s Moreton Bay and Brisbane, and Swan River today’s Perth.

The means were a reward of 1000 pounds paid by the government, helped him to start with the expedition at once. Then, just six months after his return from Port Essington, Leichhardt was on the way to the Darling Downs with a new party and larger stock of cattle than before.

First Expedition to the Swan River (now Perth) in 1846 and its Failure

When they left the last settlers’ outpost on 10 December 1846 heavy rainhad swollen the rivers. Where two years previously Leichhardt had moved along dried out riverbeds, the rivers had now become torrential streams. The heavily laden mules with their narrow hoofs sank to the belly into the soft ground, so that they hardly got them out again. Myriad of flies annoyed the travellers extremely. They all cursed them. The heat was paralysing, the thermometer reading forty-three degrees. Leichhardt wrote: “It was extremely close and sultry; the ground was steaming, flies and blowflies and mosquitoes were swarming, and not only our blankets but even our red shirts were blown and maggots were really and truly crawling all over my body.”

Consequently the progress of the expedition was slow. Fever broke out, and at the Mackenzie River all the men were laid up. The cattle began to scatter themselves. By great strain they had to be caught again. Henry Turnbull, one of the travellers, wrote years later: “And here we lay, so utterly helpless with disease and suffering that a single blackfellow with a waddy might have easily crept into the camp and knocked us all on the head”.

By a great effort of willpower, being extremely exhausted himself, Leichhardt managed to continue his journey. Then at the Peak Range they lost almost the whole herd of cattle. Unable to round them up again Leichhardt had to break off his expedition.

Back in Sydney in October 1847, he immediately began to make up a new party to bring his “darling scheme”, as he called the intended travel across the continent and the exploration of its interior, “to a successful termination”. But what was going on inside him after the expedition failed and a few days before parting from Robert Lynd, his closest friend in New Zealand?

He confessed to James Macarthur in Paramatta: “I doubt whether I shall ever see him again. …[T]he recollection of the intercourse with such an accomplished mind will be one of those ‘green spots in memory’s waste’, which seems to be given to the poor mortal to take rest in during his dreary pilgrimage through life.”

And alluding to the news from London, that the Royal Geographical Society had conferred on him the Golden Patron’s Medal for his achievement: “..but notwithstanding all this, I feel not happy; a strange change has come over my buoyant spirits of a year ago and I require the excitement attending a great enterprise to free me from fits of melancholy.”

Leichhardt may have sensed vaguely that for such an extended enterprise of possibly three years his strength would soon fail. Besides, in spite of his fame, his future in the colony was anything but secure. Practically he was without means and was a foreigner, and scientific institutions did not yet exist. After the successful termination of his Swan River journey however, he could expect to be endowed sufficiently by the government. Then also he could assess scientifically his voluminous results on exploration and establish the institutional scientific life in the colony.

Second Expedition to the Swan River, 1848 and the Disappearance of the Party.

Leichhardt quickly arranged a new party. Contributions of cattle flowed in

[into” is changed to “in”]

plentifully by the settlers and the government. In February 1848 they were on the Darling Downs already and at the fringe of settlement. The expedition consisted of five whites and two blacks, seven horses, twenty mules for riding and loading and fifty head of cattle. Furthermore they took along provisions, guns, gunpowder, some observation instruments and one big tent for all of them.

Here, and a month later, he confessed to David Archer: “I feel that the last journey has told severely on me and I require the kind of assistance of our Almighty Father to support me in any particularly trying situation. It is however by no means so bad that it might be considered a temptation of providence in setting out on this journey… I consider exploration of this continent my great task, which has been allotted to me and which my previous studies have rendered me capable of executing satisfactorily. I consider consequently the persevering in this line of my life my duty … “.

Four weeks later the wilderness closed in behind the travellers. Since then Ludwig Leichhardt has not been heard of again. People searched for him, but a reliable trace of the seven men has never been found.

Ladies and gentlemen! – At the end, I return to the question at the beginning, now with the knowledge of a short lecture on the person and achievement and ask from

[“under” is changed to “from”]

a changed view-point: “Ludwig Leichhardt, who was that” – what is his extraordinariness that causes us

[“we” has been changed to “causes us”]

to occupy our minds

[“mind” has been changed to “minds”]

with him after more than 150 years?

In Leichhardt lived the same universal mind that had found its expression in Alexander von Humboldt. But he was not of comparable birth, did not have the same means, had a more difficult continent to accomplish than

[“as” has been changed to “than”]

South America, a continent without rivers he could travel on and – he had the fate of an early death.

Port Essington is only a parable for his personality, which raises Ludwig Leichhardt above the circle of his fellow men. It

[“which” was changed to “It” and a new sentence]

is embodied in his courage, in his absolute dedication, in his

[“his” has been added]

deep love towards

[“to” has been changed to “towards”]

nature and to scientific research in it.