German naturalist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–c. 1848) literally blazed the trail onto uncharted lands in an inhospitable corner of northeast Australia during the mid-1840s. The intrepid émigré remains best known, however, for his 1848 disappearance while attempting to make the first transcontinental, east-to-west crossing of that continent.
A Prussian by birth, Ludwig Leichhardt spent a scant seven years in Australia, but his name would become deeply embedded into the national identity and folk mythology of Oceania's largest land mass. Like the disappearance of British admiral and explorer Sir John Franklin and his ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage during this same era, the fate of the Leichhardt Party roused intense public interest and highlighted the risks still existing relatively late in Europeans' exploration of foreign lands. Few clues were unearthed after Leichhardt and his group disappeared in April of 1848, and historians surmise that the expedition members were swept away by fast-moving waters while attempting to cross a river.
Born in the Kingdom of Prussia on October 23, 1813, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt belonged to a generation of Europeans of humble origin who benefited from the educational and social reforms that spread through Germany, France, and Britain as a result of the Age of Enlightenment. He spent several years studying toward a university degree at the University of Gőttingen, torn between his father's preference that he obtain a practical degree that would enable him to either teach or enter the Prussian civil service. Leichhardt was instead fascinated by botany, zoology, geology, and the emerging field of paleontology.
Leichhardt's childhood home was in Sabrodt near Trebatsch in Brandenburg State, close to what would become the post–World War II border between Germany and Poland. Sabrodt was bisected by the Spree River, which connected the Prussian capital of Berlin and other major cities to the North Sea. Leichhardt's father was a farmer, a wood and peat merchant, and at one point he obtained a minor civil-service sinecure as a local inspector. Leichhardt's mother was a descendant of the original Sorbian Slavs known to have inhabited the area for at least a millennium.
Raised in the Lutheran faith, Leichhardt attended a small school run by a pastor who was also listed on his birth certificate as his godfather, Rev. Anton Rödelius. Both Leichhardt and his older brother boarded there and, as students, made frequent excursions to collect the plant and animal specimens used in the science lessons of the nature-loving Rödelius. In 1824, Leichhardt began his college-preparatory coursework at a school in Cottbus, one of the larger cities in Brandenburg State. Seven years later, when he entered Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin, he demonstrated a proficiency in both Latin and Greek, prerequisites for the teaching career his father suggested as a career path. Leichhardt would also become fluent in French, English, Hebrew, and even a smattering of Sanskrit.
Leichhardt struggled financially during his five years in college, partly due to a decline in his family's fortunes following his parents' acrimonious divorce. Berlin proved to be an expensive city for a student of slim financial means, but the frugal eating habits he learned during this time would later serve him well while foraging in the Antipodes under grueling conditions. In mid-1833, Leichhardt relocated to the city of Göttingen in Lower Saxony and enrolled at its prestigious Georg-August-Universität, where his professors encouraged him to pursue a career in science. Leichhardt's father was by now pressuring his third-born son to switch majors, this time with the goal of earning a degree in finance and administration. This would have given Leichhardt automatic entry into the Prussian civil service, but the prospect of being confined to a desk inside a government office building was an idea that filled Leichhardt with existential dread, as his journals and letters reveal.
It was in Göttingen that Leichhardt befriended the first of two British student-visitors at the university, which had an advanced faculty of medicine that attracted future physicians from across Europe. For several years Leichhardt shared rental accommodations in Göttingen with William Nicholson and in 1837, he visited England as a guest of the Nicholson family. He spent long hours studying the natural-science collections at the British Museum and sometimes accompanied William on his rounds at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. When he and Nicholson traveled to Paris in the summer of 1838, Leichhardt continued his self-directed studies at the renown Jardin des Plantes, then a leading repository for plant specimens collected from South America, Oceania, and other far-flung parts of the globe. In fact, it was the decision by one of William Nicholson's brothers to move to Australia that spurred Leichhardt's interest in traveling to Australasian lands.
Wedged between the waters of the South Pacific and the long chain of islands of the Indonesian archipelago, the most easily accessible parts of Australia had been settled when the region was used by British authorities as a penal colony in the 1780s. Fifty years later, multiple other settlements along Australia's eastern and southeastern seaboard had been founded as British Empire outposts, anchored by the largest cities of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. Australia tended to attract risk-tolerant speculators who were undaunted by its geographical challenges. The possibility of sheep and cattle ranches with acreage that dwarfed the landed estates of the British aristocracy, and the potential mineral wealth that lay in the forbidding interior, gave Australia and neighboring New Zealand a strong allure. Natural scientists, on the other hand, were entranced by almost alien-seeming species, like a human-sized biped that eluded prey by jumping and carried its offspring tucked inside a pouchlike fold of skin on its lower midsection.
Leichhardt, ever the assiduous networker, had by now cultivated professional links with a number of scientists working in his chosen field. He arrived in Sydney armed with letters of recommendation and sought out further contacts who might help him secure colonial-administration grants to explore unknown parts of Australia. His diligence extended to befriending the “blackfellows,” then the common term for Australia's indigenous Aboriginal inhabitants. During his first two years on the continent, Leichhardt made short camping trips with hired Aboriginal guides and through these excursions acquired some basic fluency in their language as well as crucial survivalist skills.
Leichhardt and his fellow adventurers departed from the cattle-ranch estate at Jimbour Homestead in Darling Downs, Queensland, in early October of 1844. At this final outpost of European settlement in Queensland, the group was enlarged by the addition of an Aboriginal named Charley, who had some experience as a bounty hunter and escapee tracker; Caleb, an African-American cook; adventurer Christopher Pemberton Hodgson; and ornithologist John Gilbert.
For the next 14-and-a-half months nothing else was heard from the Leichhardt party. A rough stretch through mountainous scrublands, in addition to hostile Aboriginal communities, presented major challenges. “A sleeping lizard with a blunt tail and knobby scales … fell into our hands, and was of course roasted and greedily eaten,” Leichhardt wrote about a particularly grim stretch in the Southern Hemisphere summer month of January of 1845, according to his 1847 account Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia. The party came under attack by a Queensland Aboriginal group five months later, with Charley the first casualty. Calvert and Roper suffered grievous injuries, and Gilbert died of his wounds. Due to extreme hardship, Leichhardt was forced to abandon almost all of their collected specimens a few months later, but on December 17, 1845, the bedraggled group arrived at Fort Victoria in Port Essington. The epic journey was the first on record made by a European through the formidable Kakadu National Park.
Leichhardt was widely hailed in the Australian press for his feat in leading mostly inexperienced men through inhospitable terrain. In 1846 and 1847 he led two more expeditions, these much shorter in scope, and was felled by malaria for a time. When news of his achievement reached Europe, he was honored with the Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in London at its May 24, 1847, meeting, and he received a similar honor from the Paris Geographical Society. His fame was an enormous boon to securing funding and supplies for an even more ambitious trek, one that would chart an inland route between two main watersheds, the Condamine River, which drained from Queensland peaks and valleys, to the Swan River, which emptied into waters near Perth in Western Australia. Perth and its port at Fremantle Harbor would later become major access points on Australia's maritime gateway to Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. In between the two waterways there existed only windswept desert and forbiddingly arid plateaus.
Leichhardt's party included his brother-in-law Adolph Classen, along with three other Europeans and two Aboriginals. They were last seen on April 3, 1848, leaving the Mount Abundance cattle station of rancher Allan MacPherson. They vanished, and no conclusive trace of them was ever found, save for a six-inch brass nameplate. Commonly attached to rifles, it bore the engraving “L Leichhardt 1848” and was discovered in 1900, more than five decades after the adventurer's disappearance.
Australian historians and armchair detectives have continued the hunt for evidence of the Leichhardt Party across a wide swath of territory well into the 21st century. Interest in Leichhardt spiked even in Communist East Germany in the early 1970s when a biography about this missing explorer from Brandenburg State became a surprise bestseller. Born in a part of Europe that had proved impervious to Roman conquerors and the later Frankish kings of the Carolingian dynasty, Leichhardt empathized with the beleaguered Aboriginal population of Australia. “Let us return to the times when the free German lived in his cold forest,” he wrote about his hired guides and the trove of information they were taught by their elders, according to the Australian newspaper.
Leichhardt's journals also reveal the sense of awe the explorer experienced while living “free” during his arduous treks. “I think that the soul is somewhat material, somewhat similar to light, to warmth, to electricity,” he ventured. “It seems to me that nature in its action always must describe a circle, the matter must go and come, like the waters rising to the sky and falling again as dew, snow and rain.”
Bailey, John, Into the Unknown: The Tormented Life and Expeditions of Ludwig Leichhardt, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2011.
Leichhardt, Ludwig, Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia, Library of Alexandria, 1847.
Australian, October 19, 2013, Nicolas Rothwell, “The Great Unknown,” p. 18.□