The Australian explorers/Chapter 5

The Australian explorers by George Grimm
Chapter 5: Allan Cunningham's Explorations



Few visitors to the Sydney Botanic Gardens can fail to notice a memorial obelisk standing on a shady islet in the lower grounds. This monument, as the inscription declares, was erected in memory of Allan Cunningham, an eminent botanist, and for some time curator of these Gardens. But beyond the scanty information here given, very little is now generally known of the life and work of this worthy man. Restrained by that modesty which is so often a concomitant of real genius, lie shrank from publicity during his own brief and busy lifetime; and posterity, ever too forgetful of the obligations of the past, have allowed his achievements to lapse into unmerited oblivion. This is flagrant ingratitude which should be brought to an end by a generous endeavour to resuscitate a heroic and patriotic memory.

Allan Cunningham was born at Wimbledon, England, on the 18th of July, 1791, and was of Scotch extraction on the father's side. Being designated for the bar he entered in due time upon the legal profession, but soon abandoned it as uncongenial to his tastes and habits. the study of botany proved an irresistible fascination to young Allan, who soon became a proficient in this science. Having been introduced to Sir Joseph Banks, he obtained, through his influence, an appointment as King's Botanist for Australia, with the view of furnishing the Royal Gardens at Kew with a collection of new plants from the southern hemisphere. He sailed, accordingly, for his destination; and, after spending a short time in Brazil, landed in New South Wales, probably in December, 1816. As noticed in a preceding chapter he was associated with Oxley in his expeditions to the Lachlan and Macquarie rivers, and it was during these wanderings that the young botanist conceived a passion for exploration which did not leave him till the day of his death. This tour being ended, Cunningham returned to Parramatta, where he fixed his home, so far as he had one, during his life in Australia.

In the close of 1817, the Mermaid, under the command of Captain, afterwards Admiral, King, was preparing to leave Port Jackson on a voyage of discovery on the western coast of Australia. Cunningham, to his intense satisfaction, received a letter from Sir Joseph Banks, directing him to join this expedition, in the interest of botanical science. Sailing through Bass' Strait the Mermaid came to anchor in King George's Sound and other harbours, which proved to be well suited for the botanist's purpose, and yielded 300 species of new plants. With this spoil he came home fully satisfied. His next essay in this field was an excursion to Illawarra, which was always a favourite district with him. But this ramble was only an interlude. In 1819 he again joined Captain King in an expedition to the Macquarie Harbour, on the western coast of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), where also he collected many valuable specimens for the Kew Gardens. Soon after he was again associated with the same navigator on another voyage to the north-western coast. Still two more expeditions to the same coast were undertaken and successfully carried out within the next two years. The results in every case were highly successful, and the boundaries of science gained further extension from these enterprises.

Having spent four years on these voyages with King, Cunningham became inoculated with the spirit of adventure, and thirsted for an exploit on his own account. The feat he proposed to himself was to open a practical route from Bathurst to the Liverpool Plains. This splendid district, as already narrated, had been discovered by Oxley three years previously; but he ha<l entered it from the western side—so to speak, by the back door—on his journey from the marshes of the Macquarie. The discovery had, consequently, been useless, and the Liverpool Plains were as yet known only by name. Sir Thomas Brisbane, the Governor of the day, entered heartily into Cunningham's scheme, having clearly understood the importance of the object in view. Orders for an equipment were issued to the full extent of the explorer's requirements. All things being ready by the 31st of March, 1823, the party, consisting of the leader, with five men, and five pack-horses, carrying provisions for ten weeks, left Parramatta for Bathurst, which was reached on the 5th of April, and then the northward journey commenced. After many weary stages, during which the patience of the men and the strength of the horses were severely tried, they reached the Warrambungle Mountains, which form the southern boundary of the Liverpool Plains; but the difficulty in finding a passage through this barrier appeared to be insuperable. The first fortnight was spent to no purpose in attempting to discover an opening on the south-eastern side. Almost in despair, the party retraced their steps and fell back on a former encampment on the Goulburn River, the principal tributary of the Hunter. Provisions were now getting short, and the allowance had to be reduced; but, in spite of all these dispiriting circumstances, Cunningham still resolved to prosecute his enterprise by making another stru2:2:le to find an entrance from a different point. Turning now to the north-west, and searching along the front of the range, he succeeded at last, on the 5th of June, in discovering a gap which afforded a good passage into the Liverpool Plains. To this entrance he gave the name of Pandora's Pass, believing it would become the chief if not the only means of communication between the settlers at Bathurst and the Hunter River and the occupants of the plains. The following memorandum was buried in a valley immediately below the pass:—

"After a very laborious and harassing journey from Bathurst, a party, consisting of five persons, under the direction of Allan Cunningham, H.M. Botanist (making the sixth individual), having failed of finding a route to the Liverpool Plains, whilst tracing the south base of the barrier mountains (before us, north), so far as 50 miles to the eastward of this spot, at length, upon prosecuting their research under this great mountain belt, north by west from this tree, to the very extensive levels connected with the abovem-entioned plains, of which the southernmost of the chain is distant about 11 or 12 miles N.N.W. from this valley, and to which a line of trees has been carefully marked, thus opening an unlimited, unbounded, and seemingly well-watered country N.N.W, to call forth the exertions of the industrious agriculturist and grazier, for whose benefit the present labours of the party have been extended. … Buried for the information of the first farmers who may venture to advance so far to the northward as this vale; of whom it is requested that this document may not be destroyed, but carried to the settlement at Bathurst, after opening the bottle."

This memorandum was found a few years ago, and the explorer's directions carried out. The object of the expedition being now accomplished, the party returned on the homeward track, and Allan Cunningham reached Parramatta on the 21st of July, 1823.

In the next important enterprise he is found associated with Oxley, exploring the country around Moreton Bay. They surveyed the Brisbane River, pushing up the stream as far as was practicable in their boat. It turned out to have but a short course, and they were disappointed in their expectation of being carried for some distance into the interior. Yet this labour had the negative value of satisfying the public that the Brisbane was not one of the great rivers of Australia. The King's Botanist again found rich spoil for the Royal Gardens at Kew.

During the winter months of 1825, being again bent on travel, Cunningham started for a northern tour. Leaving Parramatta, he crossed the Hawkesbury and proceeded towards Wollombi, one of the tributaries of the Hunter River. Still pushing ahead he reached Mount Danger, then Pandora's Pass, and entered upon the Liverpool Plains. These he now found to be a region of swamps and marshes as the consequence of a rainy season. Having crossed this district as best he could, the ardent traveller pressed on through Camden Valley and reached Dunlop's Head, at no great distance from the River Darling, which, with a little presentiment, he might soon have discovered and anticipated Captain Sturt. But as the country was now beginning to dip perceptibly, being in many places covered with water, which had accumulated during recent wet weather, he deemed prudence the better part of valour, and abandoned a hopeless enterprise. He was again in his own home by the 17th of June, having travelled in all about 700 miles.

After a short season of rest, during which New Zealand was visited, this untiring scientist returned to the colony and offered himself for further exploration with renewed zest and zeal. The time was opportune, for the Governor had been anxiously looking about for a suitable leader to conduct an expedition to the distant north. Cunningham's offer was therefore eagerly accepted, and ample provision made for his requirements. All things being ready, the start was made on the 30th of April, 1827, with six picked men and eleven heavily-laden horsemen. The route skirted the western flank of the Liverpool Plains, and by the 11th of May the party entered upon ground hitherto untrodden by civilized man. A fine valley now opened to view, and was named the Stoddart, in remembrance of an old friend of the explorer's. The Namoi River was next forded, and by the 25th the hilly country on the west had sunk into the plain. The scene that now lay before them will be best described in the words of the leader of the expedition. "A level open interior of vast expanse, bounded on the north and north-west by a distant horizon, broke suddenly on our view. At north-west, more particularly, it was evident to all of us that the country had a decided dip, and in that bearing the line of sight extended over a great extent of densely wooded or brushed land, the monotonous aspect of which was here and there relieved by a brown patch of plain; of these some were so remote as to appear a mere speck on the ocean of land before us, on which the eye sought anxiously for a rising smoke as indicative of the presence of the wandering aborigines, but in vain; for, excepting in the immediate neighbourhood of a river of the larger magnitude, these vast solitudes may be fairly said to be almost entirely without inhabitants. We had now all the high grounds on our right, or to the east of us, and before us, to the north, a level wooded country." These plains which ran out towards the western interior, having turned out to be drier than was expected, the line of route was now directed more to the north and north-west, with the result of discovering and crossing the Dumaresq River, within a few days. The course next lay for some time through a poor and inhospitable country in which the jaded horses fared badly enough. By the 5th of June, this sterile belt was left behind, and now the eyes of the patient explorers rested on one of the finest regions they had ever beheld. For many a league north, east, and west the field of vision was filled with a panorama of boundless plains, rolling downs, and azure mountain ranges. This magnificent territory, rivalling a principality in size, was clad with luxuriant vegetation and generally well watered. The name Darling Downs was subsequently bestowed on this fine country in honour of Governor Darling, and it now forms one of the most valued possessions in the colony of Queensland. The average elevation of this table-land Cunningham found to be about 1,800 feet above sea-level. Had this worthy man performed no other public service during his lifetime, the discovery of the Darling Downs would have given him a strong claim on the gratitude of posterity.

Having now sufficiently realized the aim of the northern expedition, Allan Cunningham ceased to push farther in that direction, and made eastward for the coast. Here also was made an important discovery on a smaller scale in the unexpected appearance of a fertile valley, with a river of greater size than a mountain stream. To both the valley and the river he gave the name of Logan, in compliment to the commander of the penal settlement at Brisbane. The expedition tarried for some time in this lovely vale, where both men and beasts of burden enjoyed much-needed repose. Cunningham himself, who scarcely understood what rest meant, botanized as usual, and examined the physical configuration of the country. On a fine morning he scaled one of the impending peaks, from the summit of which he obtained a comprehensive view of the situation and its surroundings. To the south-east, at the distance of GO or 70 miles, the towering cone of Mount Warning, the sailor's beacon, rose in impressive grandeur; while towards the north-east the environs of Moreton Bay were plainly visible. This latter revelation made it obvious that the proper route to the Darling Downs would be from Moreton Bay, by the Brisbane River, and through the Main Range. Hence it became a matter of the first importance to find a passage through the mountains, if within the bounds of possibility. An effort was accordingly made, and an opening, as he believed, discovered, but its complete verification had to be deferred till another opportunity. The homeward journey was resumed on the 16th of June. On the 80th, the Dumaresq River was crossed 50 miles above the outward bound track of the expedition. In ten days more a large river was reached, and is now well-known under the native name Gwydir. They next came upon a wooded tract, reached by a descent of 1,200 feet, a sore task for the weary horses. On the 19th the party were again on the Liverpool Plains, and a few days' more travelling brought them to their welcome homes. They had journeyed over 800 miles, and been absent thirteen weeks. One noteworthy incident connected with the tour was the paucity of native inhabitants met with in any of the districts. Only five times, from first to last, had the blackfellows put in an appearance, and even then the explorers had seen nothing but the colour of their skin.

Cunningham's health now began to give way, and he longed to return to old England, to end his days in the land of his birth; but, before doing so, he planned and executed another exploring excursion to More ton Bay. His principal object was to obtain certain evidence of the existence and practicability of the pass, which he believed to have been already discovered. After much rough work he had the good fortune to set this question at rest and point out a passage into the Darling Downs, as he had formerly done into the Liverpool Plains. This pass still retains the name of Cunningham's Gap. The following succinct but sufficient notice is found in the explorer's own notes:—"This pass, or door of entrance from the sea-coast to a beautiful pastoral country of undefined extent, seen from this point, was this day (25th August, 1828) visited by Allan Cunningham and a convict servant, and the practicability of a high road being constructed through it at some future day was most fully ascertained. The pass is in latitude 23° 3' S., and longitude 152° 26' E., and distant 54 statute miles from Brisbane Town." Four years later he was able to carry out his purpose of returning to England; but his heart was in Australia all the while, and he became impatient to get back to its sunny skies and balmy air. On being offered the situation of Colonial Botanist he accepted the appointment, and returned to the land of so many of his labours; but his new office was not what he expected. Besides keeping the Botanic Gardens, which would, alone, have been a most congenial occupation, he was required to act as landscape gardener for the upper classes and take charge of one hundred convicts, forty of whom were lodged in the barracks within the Gardens, and for whose good behaviour the curator was alone responsible. In addition to all this drudgery he was compelled to grow vegetables for the Government officials. Such servitude was breaking his heart, and it can surprise no one to find him throwing up the appointment in disgust. This undignified treatment of a man of shining merits is tartly alluded to in the Sydney Mail of the 29th January, 1838:—

"The Botanical, alias the Kitohen Garden.—We have had frequently to call the attention of the colonists to the fact that a kitchen garden, under the pretence of a botanic garden, is supported in Sydney at an expense of from £800 to £1,000 a year. We scarcely ever walk through this garden without seeing some servant with a basket, carrying off vegetables or fruit for Mrs. This or Mrs. That, the wife of some official. Can't these people go to market and purchase their supplies as independent persons do, instead of poaching on what is really public property. Seriously we do say that such an impudent job should be done away with. It is, in fact, so barefaced that Mr. Cunningham would no longer consent to remain a mere cultivator of official turnips and cabbages, and accordingly he has resigned the management of the Botanic Garden in disgust."

This valuable life was now fast hastening to its close. Twenty-five years of incessant labour, often performed under the most trying circumstances, broke down a constitution never particularly robust, and feeling this to be the case, Allan Cunningham retired from public view into his own hired house—but only to die. At the early age of 48 years, perceiving the hand of death to be upon him, he calmly resigned himself to the will of his Maker, and died as becomes a christian. He expired on the 27th of June, 1839. Admiral King, who had stood his firm friend during the quarter of a century of Cunningham's active life, refers to his own bereavement in these touching words:—"Alas, poor Allan! He was a rare specimen, quite a genus of himself; an enthusiast in Australian geography; devoted to his own science, botany; a warm friend, and an honest man; and, to crown all, when the time came, he resigned himself into the arms of his Saviour without a murmur."