Ludwig Leichhardt

Ludwig Leichhardt (1813 – 1848) explorer, naturalist
Born into a Lutheran family, Leichhardt remembered with affection the church of his childhood, but grew independent of the teaching of any church, finding ‘sufficient’ the simple statement of faith ‘I believe in Jesus Christ our Saviour’.

Leichhardt prepared his journal of the expedition from Moreton Bay to Port Essington for publication in England. He gave lectures on the ‘Geology, Botany, Natural History, and Capabilities of the Country between Moreton Bay and Port Essington’, and organized his next expedition, using to equip it part of his share (£1500) of the Port Essington reward. He planned to cross Australia from the Darling Downs to the west coast and to follow the coast south to the Swan River settlement. In December 1846 his party of eight including himself set out from the Darling Downs. Delayed by heavy rain and the straying of animals being taken for food, and weakened by fever, they were forced, after covering only 500 miles (805 km), to return in June 1847. After a fortnight’s rest Leichhardt spent six weeks and covered 600 miles (966 km) examining the course of the Condamine River and the country between Mitchell’s route (1846) and his own route.

In August Leichhardt returned to Sydney to organize a second Swan River expedition. By February 1848 a party of seven including himself was assembled on the Darling Downs. He learned that Edmund Kennedy had returned from tracing the course of the river named the Victoria by Mitchell, and had reported that it was the upper part (Barcoo) of Cooper Creek. Believing himself again ‘alone in the field’ and confident that he could solve many problems about central Australia if he could skirt the northern limit of the desert he set out from the Condamine River in March 1848. By 3 April he reached McPherson’s station, Cogoon, on the Darling Downs. After moving inland from Cogoon the expedition disappeared and no evidence showing conclusively what happened to it has been found.

Before Leichhardt’s disappearance his contemporaries valued his work highly: in April 1847 the Geographical Society, Paris, divided the annual prize for the most important geographic discovery between Leichhardt and Rochet d’Héricourt, and on 24 May the Royal Geographical Society, London, awarded him its Patron’s medal as recognition of ‘the increased knowledge of the great continent of Australia’ gained by his Moreton Bay-Port Essington journey. Prussia recognized this achievement by the king’s pardon for having failed to return to Prussia when due to serve a period of compulsory military training. Geologists and botanists valued Leichhardt’s collections of specimens and the records of his observations which, in an age accustomed to extravagant travellers’ tales, were remarkable for their restraint and accuracy; he believed that as long as the traveller was truthful the scientist at home would be thankful to him. Leichhardt was a most dedicated servant of science and from this very dedication sprang a singleness of purpose which shaped his life, and made him somewhat ruthlessly regardless of all but his research.

With perseverance, energy, courage and complete disregard of discomfort, and of the physical handicap of poor eyesight, he pursued his goals as ‘an explorer of nature’. In Europe and Australia he found friends confident of his ability and the value of his work whose hospitality provided him with places to live while he studied.

Yet Leichhardt, described by one of his hosts as ‘the most amiable of men’, was described by some, though not all, who accompanied him on his expeditions as jealous, selfish, suspicious, reticent, careless, slovenly, wholly unfitted for leadership, and ‘very lax in his religious opinion’.

Born into a Lutheran family, Leichhardt remembered with affection the church of his childhood, but grew independent of the teaching of any church, finding ‘sufficient’ the simple statement of faith ‘I believe in Jesus Christ our Saviour’.

Leichhardt’s contribution to science, especially his successful expedition to Port Essington in 1845, has been officially recognised: in 1847, the Geographical Society, Paris, awarded its annual prize for geographic discovery equally to Leichhardt and a French explorer, Rochet d’Héricourt; also in 1847, the Royal Geographical Society in London awarded Leichhardt its Patron’s Medal; and Prussia recognised his achievement by granting him a king’s pardon for having failed to return to Prussia when due to serve a period of compulsory military training. The Port Essington expedition was one of the longest land exploration journeys in Australia, and a useful one in the discovery of excellent pastoral country.

Harsh criticism of Leichhardt’s character was published some time after his disappearance and his reputation suffered badly. The fairness of this criticism continues to be debated. Nevertheless, Leichhardt’s accounts and collections were valued, and his observations considered accurate. He is remembered as one of the most authoritative early recorders of Australia’s environment and the best trained natural scientist to explore Australia to that time. Leichhardt left a record of his observations in Australia from 1842 to 1848 in diaries, letters, notebooks, sketch-books, maps, and in his published works.

Leichhardt’s failed attempt to make the first east–west crossing of the Australian continent may be compared with the tragic 1860-61 Burke and Wills expedition which succeeded in crossing from south to north, but failed to return. However, his success in making it to Port Essington in 1845 was a major achievement which ranks him with other successful European explorers of Australia.

Australia has commemorated Ludwig Leichhardt through use of his name. The Inner Western Sydney suburb of Leichhardt and the surrounding Municipality of Leichhardt are named for him, as is the Ipswich suburb of Leichhardt, the Leichhardt Highway and the Leichhardt River in Queensland, and the Division of Leichhardt in the Australian Parliament. A species of Eucalyptus tree also bears Leichhardt’s name.

Leichhardt’s last expedition was the inspiration for the novel Voss by Patrick White and he inspired a range of “Lemurian” novels, named after George Firth Scott’s 1898 book The Last Lemurian.

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