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Gilbert, John (1810–1845)

by A. H. Chisholm

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

John Gilbert (1810?-1845), naturalist and explorer, was born probably in England; although the year is not known the day of birth is on record because on 14 March 1845 a stopping-place of the first Leichhardt expedition, of which Gilbert was a member, was named Gilbert's Birthday Camp. All that is known of his parentage is that his father, William Gilbert, wrote in 1846 from Windsor, a semi-literate letter to John Gould regarding his son's death.

John Gilbert appears to have become associated with Gould in the service of the Zoological Society of London. He was engaged as chief collector on the Gould expedition to Australia in 1838 at a salary of £100, together with 10 per cent upon the produce of all specimens not required for Gould's own collection. Reaching Hobart Town with his employer's party in September 1838, Gilbert at once did intensive field-work in Van Diemen's Land and in February 1839 was sent to the Swan River settlement, where for eleven months he worked assiduously in collecting birds and mammals, meanwhile making notes on their habits and native names. In this period he was associated in some degree with John Hutt, second governor of Western Australia, and the explorer (Sir) George Grey.

It was a severe disappointment to Gilbert to find, on reaching Sydney in April 1840, that the Goulds had left for England only three weeks earlier. Uncertain what to do, he meditated going with Owen Stanley in H.M.S. Britomart to New Zealand; but instead, because a relief ship was being sent to the military settlement at Port Essington, which had been smitten by a hurricane, he went to that tropical outpost. There, under the patronage of Captain John McArthur, to whom he had letters of introduction from Sir George Gipps and Owen Stanley, he did much valuable work from 12 July 1840 to 17 March 1841. He returned to England in September 1841.

So pleased was Gould with the results of Gilbert's activities that he persuaded him to leave again for Australia some four months later; and indeed Gilbert needed little persuading, for, as he wrote in the period, he was 'dreaming every night of Kangaroos and Native Pheasants'. Moreover, at a later date he told Gould that he felt 'such an attachment' to life in the Australian wilds that he was willing to forgo any salary until Gould's work was completed or was paying. That offer was made from Western Australia, where on his second visit Gilbert remained for seventeen months and collected 432 specimens of birds, 318 specimens of mammals, numbers of reptiles, and a great many plants. In each section many of the specimens were new to science, and most of the zoological material was reinforced by informative field-notes. Much travelling in 'tough' areas had been entailed by the work, and grave risks had been taken with hostile Aboriginals and during a visit to the wreck-strewn Houtman Abrolhos.

By the end of January 1844 Gilbert was in Sydney again, and then he went overland to the Darling Downs. There, by chance, he met the party led by Ludwig Leichhardt that was aiming to ride to Port Essington; in September 1844 he enrolled in the group, providing his own equipment, in the interests of natural history. The only competent bushman in the party, Gilbert soon became recognized as second-in-command, though like some of his colleagues he did not always harmonize with Leichhardt. He was, moreover, the only member of the party who did not become lost at some time, and the one who best understood the mentality of Aboriginals. Unfortunately, on 28 June 1845 near the Gulf of Carpentaria, Gilbert was killed by a flying spear when natives made a night attack on the expedition's camp, because some of their women had been molested by the two Aboriginals with the party. He was buried on the spot, a tree near by was marked, and a fire was lit over the disturbed earth in order to screen the grave; this, although much searched for, has not since been found.

Little was known of Gilbert, other than cordial reference to him in Gould's books, until 1938, when a considerable number of his letters to Gould, together with a detailed diary kept on the Leichhardt expedition, were discovered in England. This material revealed his general movements in Australia and emphasized the great value of the work that he accomplished. The diary is a remarkable example of diligent recording in face of extreme difficulties. Copies of other letters by Gilbert were later discovered in the library of the earl of Derby, Knowsley Hall, Lancashire. Like the earlier writings, they suggest him to have been not only a competent naturalist but a man of wholesome character, though one or two vague imputations of 'errors' on his part had been made at various times.

Gilbert's name is commemorated on a range, a river, and a township in Queensland, by a tablet erected by colonists in St James's Church, Sydney, and in the scientific nomenclature of numbers of Australian animals and plants, including Gilbert's rat-kangaroo (Potorous gilberti).

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Chisholm, An Explorer and His Birds (Melb, 1945)
  • A. H. Chisholm, Strange New World (Syd, 1955)
  • A. H. Chisholm, ‘The Story of John Gilbert’, Emu, vol 39, part 3, Jan 1940, pp 156-76
  • A. H. Chisholm, ‘Some Early Letters in Australian Ornithology’, Emu, vol 63, part 5, June 1964, pp 373-82
  • H. M. Whittell, ‘A Review of the Work of John Gilbert in Western Australia’, Emu, vol 41, part 2, Oct 1941, pp 112-29, vol 4, part 3, Jan 1942, pp 216-42, vol 41, part 4, Apr 1942, pp 289-305, and vol 51, part 1, July 1951, pp 17-31
  • H. M. Whittell, ‘The Visits of John Gilbert, Naturalist, to Swan River Colony’, Journal and Proceedings (Western Australian Historical Society), vol 4, part 1, 1949, pp 23-53
  • John Gilbert diary, 1844-45 (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'Gilbert, John (1810–1845)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gilbert-john-2093/text2633, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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