Observant men of intellect and sensitivity were not typical in early colonial Australia and even rarer were diligent diarists who left us a record of their impressions. The forgotten manuscript must come to light and I was now on a mission to find a translator. I obtained a copy from the microfilm and showed it to a German-speaking acquaintance.
He recognised the potential of the material but wisely shied away from the magnitude of the task. I went to the German Club in Brisbane, managed to drink some excellent beer, but staggered home none the closer to my goal. I tried the Lutheran schools for advice but, rather understandably, no-one was interested in an enormous task without any financial recompense.
It was my father who first heard about Tom Darragh. Tom was a retired palaeontologist from the Melbourne Museum with no understanding of ‘normal retirement’, as he continued to indulge his scholarly interests – one of which was early German science in Australia. Tom’s immediate reaction was the same as mine. How could there be anything left of Leichhardt’s legacy, let alone such a substantial record?
Once I had convinced him that this was an historical treasure waiting to be unearthed he agreed to take it on.
Sometimes during the next two years Tom would send me a note to indicate that the job was in progress. But otherwise I had no real idea about the magnitude of his effort until great slabs of the diary began to appear over the wires. It was an exciting time as I joined an extremely select band – Leichhardt himself, Colin Roderick, probably Patrick White (during his research for Voss), and of course Tom – the only people to have seen and read this material.
The diaries reveal Leichhardt’s impressions of the people and events he encountered, including the composition of the fledgling colonial society, which remain unmistakably imprinted on modern Australia. The pastoral frontiers through which he travelled are illuminated as places of extremely harsh physical conditions and settings for the brutal relationships between the indigenous inhabitants and the invading settlers. For the Aboriginal people these are important documents of culture and ancestry, including tragic records of the aftermath of colliding cultures.
The diaries are replete with Aboriginal linguistics and revive details of languages that have been lost and forgotten. The depth of Leichhardt’s involvement is revealed through a chronicle of five months when he lived and travelled with Aboriginal people.
These experiences had a powerful impact on his responses and reactions to Aboriginal people and their cultural knowledge on his future expeditions.