|With thanks to Dr Isolde Neugart, our German visitors can read a translation of this page here.|
Self-confessed ‘discoverer’ and ecologist Rod Fensham stumbled upon the great explorer’s original diaries hidden deep in library vaults, and embarked on a long journey of his own to have them translated and published for the bicentenary of Leichhardt’s birth in 2013. This piece was published in October 2012 in the book Queensland's German connections, and we acknowledge the GACCQ for permission to reproduce it here.
The vast tracts of country behind the coast in the north of the Australian continent have been grazed by cattle for 150 years, and large swathes have been cleared by bulldozers. As an ecologist trying to understand the nature of landscape change I hanker for accurate descriptions of the country from the dawn of Europeans. What a vain hope!
Surely, I thought, there were no decent records as the pioneers had no scientific training and were far too busy fighting the elements and the Aborigines to make accurate and unbiased observations of nature. Then I came upon the diaries of Ludwig Leichhardt from his ‘Overland Expedition’ in 1845.
This precious fragment of Australian heritage was not the record of a typical explorer focused on survey and discovery of fertile lands. The diaries include extraordinary detail of plants and animals as well as thoughtful interpretation of the geographic patterns. They revealed not only the observations of the first white man to see the country, but a scientist at the forefront of his discipline.
The more I came to know Leichhardt through his diaries the more I became interested in the ambiguous character of the man, and I devoured his writings and those of others who had come to know him. They only exaggerated his elusive personality. Alec Chisholm (Strange new world) portrayed him as a self-serving fool, while Colin Roderick (The dauntless explorer) attempted to resurrect him as a forgotten Australian hero.
Amongst the notes in Roderick’s biography there was reference to Leichhardt’s Tagebűcher (diaries) from 1832-44. Could it be true that there was a trove of unpublished material that had never seen the light of day?
I set about finding the source and sure enough they were lying unearthed in their original German hand-writing in the bowels of the Mitchell Library. On closer investigation I learnt that the diaries included 250,000 words from his first years in Australia including time around Moreton Bay, on the doorstep of my home town Brisbane.
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.
They also provide an extraordinary insight into the character of this deeply misunderstood, brilliant and complex historical figure. This is not the Leichhardt of White’s Voss, but rather we come to know a young Ludwig, unburdened by the pressures and expectations of fame.
We find him occasionally in periods of depression and indecision, wrestling with his emotions and a developing philosophy. They are more personal than any other written record and give deep insight into Leichhardt’s character. More than anything else the diaries are a testament to a diligent and highly focussed student of nature.
Amidst impressions of the people and events he encountered is an orderly array of observations and inquiries from a young scientist intent on assimilating the strange geography of his adopted homeland.
Rod Fensham’s and Tom Darragh’s journey to translate Ludwig Leichhardt’s diaries comes to fruition in October 2013, with the official launch of the two-part commemorative work published by the Queensland Museum.
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