Allan Cunningham, a British botanist who spent many years exploring Australia’s outback, was born 220 years ago today. Very soon after arriving in Australia, he joined an early expedition across the Blue Mountains being led by John Oxley, one of the colony’s first explorers and surveyors. Despite following river beds, water supply was a daily problem at times, as were the natives whose presence in the landscape was felt more often than seen.
Cunningham was born in Wimbledon, near London, on 13 July 1791. His father was a head gardener at Wimbledon House. Allan studied at a private school in Putney before training for the law. But after doing some clerical work at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, he was chosen by Joseph Banks to travel abroad to collect plants for Kew. He was sent to Brazil between from 1814 until 1816, and then to New South Wales, Australia.
In 1817, Cunningham joined John Oxley’s expedition through the Blue Mountains along the Lachlan and Macquarie rivers; and then in the following years, until 1822, he sailed five times as botanist with Phillip Parker King’s hydrographical surveys of the north and north-western coasts of Australia. Thereafter, he undertook further inland explorations, such as those in Queensland where he determined Darling Downs, and Cunningham’s Gap.
Cunningham returned to England in 1831, but went back to Australia as a government botanist in 1837. Soon after he resigned to become superintendent of the Sydney Botanical Gardens. He died in 1839. Further information is available from Kew Gardens website, Wikipedia, or The Allan Cunningham Blog (hosted by Artuccino, an Australian eZine).
For some of his expeditions at least, Allan Cunningham kept journals and these appeared in print for the first time in Early Explorers in Australia. From the log-books and journals published by Lee Methuen & Co in 1925. Both The Allan Cunningham Project and Gutenberg of Australia have the full text freely available online. Here are a few extracts from Cunningham’s diary of his early expedition through the Blue Mountains.
5 May 1817
‘We departed from our last encampment about 9 o’clock, and having crossed a small creek which intersected our course, we ascended the gentle rising hill which I had visited yesterday. The view even on this eminence being much confined, Mr. Oxley took bearings of the most remarkable ranges of hills around it at a distance from the top of a lofty Callitris. Descending to the flats we were again deceived by a long chain of ponds or lagoons which we fell in with, but perceiving our mistake we crossed it in a dry situation and came to the banks of the Lachlan. Such was the confusion created by this mistake that we were all scattered and divided and taking different courses. Our people in the boats fired guns to inform us of their situation.
Calling to one another we were answered by strange voices, which left us in no doubt of natives being near us. It was a great point we should all join again, which at length we did, after some of us had passed over several miles on a cross-course, the labour of which might have been saved. Our people came up with seven or eight of the natives, who were clothed with mantles of skin reddened with a pigment from the river. There appeared not the most distant symptoms of hostility among them! They evidently had seen a horse before, and could pronounce some words of English, such as bread, and they had every appearance of having been with those at the Lachlan Depôt, from which we are now 54 miles west. From the columns of smoke ascending from the trees to which these harmless beings were advancing there is no doubt of their encampment being there situated, and it might be inferred that their gins or wives were there, from their evident objection to our people attempting to accompany them to their fires. The delay and loss of time occasioned by the above adventure had allowed our boatmen to work themselves through all the numerous windings of this intricate river and overtake us.
We all started again in a body, travelling immediately on the river bank about 4 miles, when we were stopped by a deep muddy creek connecting the river with the chain of ponds above alluded to. We passed this gully with considerable difficulty, being obliged to unload our horses. Accompanied by Mr. Oxley I went to an extensive open plain about half a mile N.W. of our course, which we found of very considerable extent. It is a flat that receives the inundations of the Lachlan; it is of a light loamy soil and at this time very damp and slimy, in consequence of the recent rain.
This plain, which is clear of timber and is skirted by Acacia pendula we have called Solway Flats, from its slight similarity to a place of that name in North Britain.’
11 May 1817
‘It is as large as the northwest river which we intend to continue upon, and which we are induced from appearances to conclude will not be of long existence as a river. We fathomed the deepest part and found it did not exceed 19 ft. It is evident that these plains are inundated by the river in great floods from the eastward, for in fact the highest land (the few rocky hills excepted) is on the immediate bank of the river, so that the floods rising over the banks descend down upon the plains on each side this channel. On the plains we observed two native companions (Grus australasiana), and our people shot two swans. From the circumstance of having seen two bark canoes moored among the reeds on the river’s left bank, and from the body of smoke ascending above the small trees at the base of Mount Melville on the opposite side of the plain, it is evident that there are some natives existing in these parts. We, however, saw none.
It was a matter of surprise that we fell in with so very few natives, whose marks are daily before our eyes, but it appears sufficiently obvious that experience has taught them to retire from a river where a supply of food is extremely precarious, and where a sudden inundation would in a moment sweep them away. Choosing rather to retire to the hilly country where they are enabled to obtain a daily subsistence with greater facility, and are not liable to be surprised and overtaken by floods.
N.B. It appears they only visit the river in great drought, when there is but little water in its channel, and are then able to procure the large horse mussel from its muddy bottom, which they cannot possibly obtain in floods and strong currents. They have no idea of angling or have any method to catch that we know of. The viviparous Pancratium purpureum] grows extremely luxuriant on these slimy plains. An unfortunate accident happened us this day. The horse that usually carried the barometer fell beneath his load and broke that valuable instrument.’
18 June 1817
‘At daybreak we sent two others to the range of hills near us in search of water, with directions to continue in the course of Mount Barrow should they not be so fortunate as to find any nearer on the range or in the gullies proceeding from it. They returned with a small quantity, enabling us to distribute to each a pint for our breakfast. Our people who had been sent to bring up the horses reported that there was some good grass a mile and a half distant in a valley between the hills. Anxious to remove to a more hospitable spot where water would in all probability be found, sufficient for ourselves and horses, we proceeded forward with the most necessary and the lightest of our provisions and luggage, leaving five casks of pork, which we could send back for in the course of the day. About 2½ miles N. easterly over some rocky hills we descended to a fine rich valley of good grass and some holes of rain water in the gullies, enough for ourselves and horses. We accordingly pitched our tents in the valley and turned our horses out to feed. Mr. Oxley sent the strongest of our animals for the casks of pork left at our last resting place.
As a proof of the badly watered condition of the country we discovered a hole that had been made with great labour by the natives very recently, and containing a little dirty water. It is obvious that the gullies were dry three days since, and that the late rains have supplied these cavities with the water we now enjoy!! Our dogs killed a native dog, which was devoured among us! The natives had not left the valley many days, because their huts of green branches and remains of fires were so fresh.
Upon taking a survey of our dry stock of provisions in hand there appeared a deficiency of a considerable quantity of flour, which at first view could by no means be accounted for. It appears, however, from a little investigation that took place this afternoon, that when on the river our boatmen hauled up one of the boats too short - by her painter - to a tree on the bank, and in the course of the night the water had fallen a foot, leaving the boat resting on her stern whereby many casks were rolled out into the river and 300 lbs. weight of flour totally lost. It was an accident they were fearful to communicate to any of us till now by dint of cross-examination. This is a severe loss to us and will oblige us to be content with a half ration.’