Monday, 7 March 2016

Book Review - Where is Dr. Leichhardt? by Darrell Lewis

Where is Dr. Leichhardt? : the greatest mystery in Australian History by Darrell Lewis

Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing, 2013       ISBN 9781921867767

The history of Australian exploration is littered with hardship, failure and struggle. Many died, and most struggled. Some were government employees (soldiers, surveyors), some were out for their own gain (prospectors, pastoralists), and then there was Ludwig Leichhardt. The pursuit of knowledge was what drove Leichhardt, and what better place to further the cause of science and naturalism than the vast unexplored land of Australia.

Leichhardt became famous for his ground breaking trek across the Gulf Country to Port Essington in 1844-45. On his return to Sydney he was lauded by the population, and the Government awarded the expedition a prize of one thousand pounds, of which six hundred went to Leichhardt.

With this money, and other gifts, he planned to equip an expedition that would cross the continent from east to west. Along the way Leichhardt hoped to answer many questions about the geography and geology of Australia, especially the flow of the various rivers in Northern Australia.

In April 1848, with six others (4 whites and 2 Aborigines) he left the Darling Downs to attempt the crossing: they were never seen again.

Lewis in this book has attempted - with great success - to gather every scrap of information that has been gleaned since then as to the fate of Leichhardt and his men. The book is a compendium of tales ranging from the thoughtful and plausible, to downright fabrications.

In trying to sort out the information he has uncovered, Lewis has divided the book up by geographical area, with sections covering Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. Within each region he lays out each story or piece of evidence, tries to strip it back to its factual base, and see if it could possibly fit into a sensible Leichhardt narrative.

In essence the evidence falls into three major categories - trees blazed with an "L" or some variation of same, European relics or bones found abandoned, and stories from Aboriginals of white men from the appropriate time.

Firstly, the trees - Leichhardt was known to blaze an "L" into trees where he camped, and some verified "Leichhardt trees" have been catalogued from his Port Essington expedition. Of course, Leichhardt was not the only person to blaze trees, and not the only person to blaze trees with an "L". Both Lindsay and Landsborough blazed trees in a similar way in the years after Leichhardt, not to mention unknown numbers of pioneers that travelled through the same countryside. Lewis manages to discount many such trees as credible evidence.

Relics similarly are hard to pin down to a particular person, and most of the relics that have been connected with Leichhardt cannot definitely be assigned to him or his expedition. Many of the stories of relics concern remains of wheeled vehicles, which Leichhardt did not take with him, and so can definitely be scotched. Stories of finding cloth, tomahawks and so-on with Aboriginal tribes can also mostly be eliminated from the category of evidence of Leichhardt, as these "artefacts" were mostly discovered too many years after Leichhardt to have credibly belonged to him. There have been more that one instance of people claiming to have found Leichhardt's journals and other artefacts of the expedition, but all were proven to be false, either directly or by inference when the claimants failed to provide the proof when asked.

The one relic that has been found and authenticated is a small brass plate that was attached to the remains of a shotgun, found about 1900 in the Tanami desert. To date it is the only authenticated relic from Leichhardt to be found, and is intriguing. Lewis discusses whether it was a member of the expedition who left it where it was found, or whether it travelled there through Aboriginal barter trade routes.

The final piece of the puzzle is the stories told by Aboriginal tribes all along the route Leichhardt is presumed to have taken (and along others that he probably didn't). There are many stories of tribes massacring groups of white men, some that could plausibly be Leichhardt's group, and some not. There are also stories of Aborigines finding dead white men or watching them die of thirst, and of white men living with tribes, and of "half-caste" children travelling with tribes.

The problem with a lot of these stories is that one version was heard by one white interviewer, and another by another. There have obviously been cases of the interrogator hearing what they wanted to hear, of tribesmen telling white men what they thought the white men wanted to hear, and of tribes accurately reporting rumours from areas outside their purview. As with much oral history, it is very difficult - especially over the 160 years that now separate us from the time - to sort the plausible from the implausible.

Lewis, throughout the book, reports each piece of evidence as he finds it, with no pre-judgement, but in a way that helps the reader balance the probabilities. As progress is made through the book, the reader can begin to form their own theories as to what might have become of Leichhardt and his men.

There are copious footnotes throughout, a thorough bibliography, and a useful index - all of which would be expected from a university publishing house.

So, what did happen to Leichhardt? In the final chapter of the book, Lewis sets out the main theories, including his own. Some of them - such as Dan Baschiera's theory that the Government poisoned Leichhardt - are frankly absurd. In my opinion, given the evidence Lewis has outlayed in this book, there are two plausible theories: the first is that Leichhardt's party was killed by Aborigines somewhere around the Warrego or Barcoo rivers. The other, and this is the one Lewis subscribes to, is that some or all of the party made it to where the brass plate and shotgun were found and further, to perish somewhere in the Great Sandy Desert. We know that Leichhardt was careful about water, but during a good season, in unknown country, he may have been led into the desert on the false hope of water that disappeared all too soon, and died a lonely death.

My personal thoughts are that he and his party were killed far to the east of this spot, but the brass plate then becomes a problem that must be solved.

No doubt people will be mulling over such problems for a long time to come. This book is highly recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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