In the exact footsteps of Allan Cunningham – A Review by Tony Orchard

Tracking and Mapping the Explorers by John Whitehead
Review by: Tony Orchard, Canberra

Tracking and Mapping the Explorers Volume 1.
The Lachlan River Oxley, Evans & Cunningham 1817. John Whitehead.

Tracking and Mapping the Explorers Volume 2.
Oxley and Evans, Macquarie River 1818. John Whitehead

Cunningham’s Tracks 1827 – Tracking and Mapping the Explorers Volume 3.
His Journey Through the Gwydir & Inverell Shires. Fay Cains & John Whitehead

Cunningham’s Pandora’s Pass – Tracking and Mapping the Explorers Volume 4.
Tracking & Mapping the Explorers 1823 Volume 4. 2nd Amended Edition. John Whitehead.

Allan Cunningham came to Australia as a botanist, and left as a noted explorer. He was sent by Banks to collect propagation material of Australian plants for Kew, but soon developed a taste for geographical exploration in its own right, seeing his role, at least in part, as being to discover land suitable for pastoral development, and less importantly, for agriculture. He had had a classical education in England, followed by some experience in horticulture and plant taxonomy at Kew, and had a good working knowledge of zoology and geology. On his way to Australia he was sent to Brazil with James Bowie in 1814–1816. Neither of the young men (in their early 20s) had had any experience of fieldwork in primitive conditions, but both were quick learners. By the time he arrived in Sydney in late 1816 Cunningham was already field-hardened. He was immediately assigned by Governor Macquarie to join the expedition led by Oxley to trace the courses of the newly discovered Lachlan and Macquarie Rivers from April to September 1817. Cunningham had had no formal education in navigation or surveying, but he almost certainly learned by observing the officers on board ship from the UK to Brazil and then to Australia. John Oxley, the NSW Surveyor General, came from a naval background, and it is likely that Cunningham watched and learned as Oxley plotted positions and mapped landmarks on the 1817 expedition. Whitehead observes that Cunningham’s observations and calculations of latitude and longitude frequently differed from those in Oxley’s journal.

On his return to Sydney Cunningham found instructions from Banks to join the surveys of the north and north western coasts of Australia with Phillip Parker King, an activity that fully occupied him from 1817 to 1822. Cunningham and King became close friends, and it is clear from Cunningham’s journals and letters that he took a keen interest in the course of the expeditions, and indeed in the whole business of sailing, mapping and exploring. King was a very able surveyor and cartographer, a worthy successor to Flinders, and Cunningham polished his own mapping skills under King’s tutelage. At the conclusion of the King voyages Cunningham settled down to botanical exploration in New South Wales, at first in the country just west of the Dividing Range, north and south from Bathurst, but gradually extending his exploration north until he discovered the Darling Downs in 1827. From 1824 he visited Moreton Bay by sea, and gradually extended his exploration of what is now SE Queensland in a series of land expeditions from 1824 to 1829.

It should be noted that in almost all of his expeditions Cunningham was the first or one of the first Europeans to visit the areas involved, and in most cases he (or his companions Oxley or King) was the first to survey and map them. By necessity these explorers assigned English names to the main features seen, and these were the only landmarks to which they could refer. As a result Cunningham’s specimens have sparse information concerning their place of collection. However he kept a detailed journal, wrote extensive lists of his collections, and kept up a copious correspondence. From these sources we know what he collected and roughly where. However it is sometimes necessary to try to establish exactly where particular specimens were collected. Help is now at hand.

John Whitehead, a retired engineer, has spent nearly 20 years painstakingly reconstructing Cunningham’s routes on a number of expeditions from the original working note books which are now held by the State Records Office of New South Wales and the Mitchell Library. In these notebooks Cunningham jotted down cross bearings of major landmarks, lists of sightings for latitude and longitude, and barometrical readings of altitude. From these it has been possible to plot Cunningham’s exact route on modern maps, definitively identifying the streams, hills, swamps etc that he crossed, often to accuracies measured in metres.

Whitehead has published three volumes on the Cunningham expeditions and a fourth on the related Oxley expedition of 1818 (in which the botanist was Charles Fraser). These books are packed with information on the routes, supplemented with hundreds of maps, sketches, historical and recent photographs, extracts from Cunningham’s journals, and numerous asides explaining historical incidents and history, people, places and events. As if this was not enough, each book starts with a detailed explanation of 19th century surveying methods, and a discussion of expeditionary techniques, logistics and outcomes, not only of Cunningham but of his contemporaries. There are frequent discussions of previous attempts to map the routes, reproductions of sketch maps from journals, biographies of the main characters and much else.

Why is this important? Cunningham was meticulous in attaching what he called ‘tickets’ to each of his specimens, and these pointed to the localities where he collected his specimens, either directly, or via the detailed numbered lists that he sent to Banks and Aiton along with each consignment of specimens. However the localities, as already mentioned, were frequently those named during the expeditions. These names required official sanction, and this sanctioning sometimes took a number of years. In the process some names were accepted, others were replaced, and some were even moved from the hill identified by Cunningham to another nearby. The localities on the tickets or in the lists cannot therefore be entirely relied upon, and sometimes cannot be placed at all. For example, on the Oxley Expedition, ‘Mt. Cunningham’ is now Mt. Mulguthrie, ‘Mt. Aiton’ is now Mt. Narriah and ‘Peel’s Range’ is now the Cocoparra Range. Later, near Lake Cargelligo, ‘Mt. Flinders’ is now Mt. Daylight, ‘Mt. Porteous’ is Mt. Waabalong, ‘Mt. Torrens’ is Mt. Grace, and ‘Goulburn’s Range’ is now Mt. Bowen in the Ural Ridges. Dozens more examples could be given. Consequently, for those searching for the exact provenance of rare species of Cunningham’s collection, it is now possible to cut through the archaic geographical nomenclature. This may not necessarily lead to rediscovery (much of Cunningham’s route is now cleared farmland) but it will save much fruitless searching in the wrong places.

These books should be in the libraries of all herbaria in Australia. They will probably also find a place in the personal libraries of those who have an interest in the early European history of Australia. They are far more than a dry account of localities, sightings, calculations of latitude, longitude and altitude. The author includes substantial extracts from Cunningham’s and Oxley’s journals, and brings these to life with an eclectic smorgasbord of asides, explanations, historical tidbits, and reproductions of sketch maps. They are the sort of books that one can dip into at random and become engrossed in. For example, in one place where it is recorded that Oxley had lost his horses (again!) it is pointed out that English explorers, at this early period at least, did not believe in hobbling them overnight. Later a system of loose hobbles was devised that allowed the horses to search for food overnight without straying too far.

There are three very good reasons why I recommend purchase of these books. First, they are packed full of very detailed information which is unobtainable elsewhere. Good research deserves to be supported, and these books are meticulous in their attention to detail, arguments for the views advanced, and reasons why alternative views should be discounted. They represent a decade or more of intense investigation, and (pardon the pun) no stone has been left unturned. It is difficult to imagine that they will ever be surpassed. Second, privately published books or those by boutique publishers (as these are), are usually published in very small numbers. This has two consequences. Once they are gone they are gone, and the few copies that were sold will appear a very good investment in years to come. I was reminded of this recently when trying to locate a copy of Ida Lee’s ‘Early Explorers of Australia’ published in 1925 by Methuen & Co. (hardly a boutique publisher). According to my favourite search engine for second hand books, there are only five copies available worldwide (from ‘thousands of booksellers selling millions of books’), at prices ranging from US$40 (surely a bargain) to US$231. The third reason is also important. Books like these are labours of love. The authors don’t expect to make a profit – they are usually startled if they break even on printing costs. It is very dispiriting to spend years meticulously researching a subject only to find that just a handful of people are prepared to pay the cost of a takeaway meal to read what you have written. Buying books such as these will surely encourage the author to continue his work, plotting the routes of other explorers and other expeditions. This is an outcome surely to be embraced.

(Source: Review by Tony Orchard, “In the exact footsteps of Allan Cunningham” Australasian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter 166 (March 2016) pp42-45).

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