LEICHHARDT, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig (1813-1848)


LEICHHARDT, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig (1813-1848)
explorer, always known as Ludwig Leichhardt
was born at Trebatsch, Prussia, on 23 October 1813. His father, Christian Hieronymus Matthias Leichhardt, was an inspector of peat-cutters, who also worked his own small farm. The boy showed ability at school and special efforts were made to send him to the university of Gottingen. He met there an Englishman, John Nicholson, who introduced him to his brother, William Nicholson. They became great friends and afterwards worked together at the university of Berlin, where, it has generally been stated, Leichhardt graduated as a doctor. This, however, has been questioned by A. H. Chisholm (Strange New World, pp. 73-4). Leichhardt went to London in 1837, stayed for some months with William Nicholson at Clifton, was then in London for a period, and in July 1838 went to Paris with Nicholson. During the next three years he lived at his friend's expense in France, Switzerland and Italy. In October 1840 he was due for military service in Germany, but did not attend and thus became a military deserter. Nicholson and he then decided to go to Australia where a brother of the Nicholsons was already established. William Nicholson, however, changed his mind, but paid Leichhardt's passage and gave him £200 with which to start in the new country. He sailed on 1 October 1841 and arrived at Sydney on 14 February 1842, carrying with him a letter of introduction to the surveyor-general, Sir T. L. Mitchell (q.v.).
When Leichhardt presented his credentials he suggested that he would like to do exploring work. As he was quite inexperienced Mitchell gave him no encouragement. Leichhardt then applied for the position of superintendent of the botanical gardens, again without success. He then had the good fortune to meet Lieutenant R. Lynd who was interested in science and invited Leichhardt to live with him. Leichhardt gave lectures on botany and geology but nothing more came of this. His talent for making friendships was again shown when A. W. Scott, a wealthy pastoralist, invited him to come to the Newcastle district and stay with him. Two months later Leichhardt went to Glendon station some 50 miles away where Helenus Scott, who was afterwards to become the father of Rose Scott (q.v.), was his host. During these visits Leichhardt did much botanizing but showed no talent as a bushman, he seemed in fact to have little sense of direction. Yet in January 1843 he made a remarkable journey by himself. He went from Glendon in northern New South Wales to Moreton Bay, Queensland, by a route 600 miles long with practically no equipment; he was afraid of nothing and succeeded in coming to the end of his journey without disaster. At Moreton Bay he found a German mission to the aborigines, and at once took the opportunity of becoming familiar with the natives of the country he hoped to explore. He collected specimens which were sent to his friend, Lieutenant Lynd, at Sydney, and made many excursions into the country, one of them taking him as far as Wide Bay 100 miles to the north. He was thinking of returning to Sydney when he met Thomas Archer (q.v.), a young pioneer who had a run in the Moreton Bay district. He stayed with Archer and his brothers for some weeks and learned they were not satisfied with their country. Leichhardt agreed to look out for land that was more suitable. There was talk of a government expedition to Port Essington on the north coast of Australia, but it was vetoed on a question of cost and Leichhardt became fired with the thought that it might be possible to arrange a private expedition. He went back to Newcastle and then to Sydney where he was warmly welcomed by Lieutenant Lynd. With some assistance from friends he organized an expedition which left Sydney on 13 August 1844. At Brisbane some additions were made to the party which then consisted of Leichhardt, James Calvert, who came to Australia with him in the same ship, and six other men of whom two were aborigines. P. Hodgson, a young squatter, and John Gilbert (q.v.), one of Gould's (q.v.), collectors, joined the party later. Jimbour station on the Darling Downs was left on 1 October, and about a month later Hodgson and another man were sent back as it was feared that the provisions might prove insufficient for the whole party. For a long period a course was set generally in a north-westerly or northerly direction, and towards the end of June 1845 when approaching the Gulf of Carpentaria a turn was made more to the south-west. On 28 June the party was attacked by aborigines at night, Gilbert was killed outright and two others were wounded. In every way this was a great misfortune, for Gilbert, the ablest naturalist and best bushman of the party, also had the best understanding of the aborigines. After burying Gilbert, though the two wounded men were in much pain, the party started again two days later and on 5 July reached salt water. Leichhardt was then able to record that he had discovered a road from the eastern coast of Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria, with water all the way in country available for pastoral purposes. After a long and weary march round the Gulf of Carpentaria, Port Essington was reached on 17 December 1845. After resting for about a month, the members of the expedition returned to Sydney on the Heroine by way of Torres Strait. They arrived on 25 March 1846 and were given an enthusiastic welcome. The account given by Sturt (q.v.) of his recent journey to the interior had caused much disappointment, and Leichhardt's story of the good land he had found led to great rejoicing. A public subscription raised £1520, to which the government added £1000. of this Leichhardt's own share amounted to £1454, and he then prepared for the press his Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia from Moreton Bay to Port Essington. This was published at London in 1847.
Leichhardt now decided to try to cross the continent from Brisbane to Perth and started from Jimbour station on 7 December 1846. This expedition was mismanaged from the beginning and was insufficiently equipped with food and medicine. The course followed that of the previous expedition for some distance and soon everything began to go wrong. Heavy rain set in and nearly every member of the party suffered from malarial fever. On 22 June 1847, at about the point from which the explorer had decided to strike to the west, the hopelessness of the position became apparent and the expedition turned back. Chauvel's station was reached on 23 July, and soon after the party broke up. Leichhardt returned to Sydney a few months later and towards the end of 1847 learned that he had been awarded gold medals by the Geographical Societies of London and Paris, and that he had been pardoned by the German government for his evasion of military service. He started on his last journey in February 1848. The intention was to find a way across the continent to Perth, and the party consisted of seven men including two aborigines. It appears to have been ill equipped and with insufficient food, as Leichhardt believed they would be able to live on the country to a great extent. In April they passed through Macpherson's station and after that were never heard of again. H. Hely and A. C. Gregory (q.v.) headed expeditions sent especially to search for the lost explorer, but no trace of him has ever been found except possibly a marked tree near the Barcoo River.
Leichhardt was tall, slight and thin featured. He must have had great personal charm for wherever he went he made friends who believed in him, and cared for him. But he cannot rank as a really great explorer, because he was not an inspiring leader and lacked foresight and caution. Two men, Daniel Bunce and John F. Mann, who were with him on his 1846-7 expedition afterwards wrote unfavourably of him.
Mrs Cotton whose biography of Leichhardt is generally written in a strain of eulogy states that both men "had motives of revenge", but the evidence for this statement is insufficient. Mrs Cotton says of Mann's account that "it is impossible to take the book seriously", yet on the same page she admits that "Leichhardt had shown his faults throughout his life—impatient, quick to anger, unjust sometimes, given to despair, harsh, unsympathetic, selfish, prone to melancholy; he had his hour of them all". These, however, are the faults attributed to him by Mann, and if he had shown them under the conditions of normal life, there is reason to think they would have appeared while he was under the strain and worry of an exploring expedition. A. H. Chisholm in his Strange New World confirms what has been said against Leichhardt and allows him few virtues. He had courage and great belief in himself, and in spite of bad mistakes made in his later expeditions, his early journey from Glendon station to Moreton Bay suggests that he had a certain faculty for finding his way, though he was certainly not a good bushman. His best journey was the three thousand mile trek to Port Essington, during which much good land was found. The mystery of his fate became an Australian legend, and he was given too high a place as a man and as an explorer. Later information has now made it possible for him to be seen in truer perspective.
Catherine D. Cotton, Ludwig Leichhardt and the Great South Land; J. F. Mann, Eight Months with Dr Leichhardt in the years 1846-1847; Daniel Bunce, Australasiatic Reminiscences; A. H. Chisholm, Strange New World; Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. XXIV to XXVI; Ludwig Leichhardt, Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia; R. L. Jack, Northmost Australia, vol. I; The A.B.C. Weekly, 4 April 1942.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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