This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967
Sir Paul Edmund de Strzelecki (1797-1873), explorer and scientist, was born on 20 July 1797 at Gluszyna, near Poznan, Western Poland, the son of poor gentry, without land or title. As Poznan was then under Prussian control, he was a Prussian citizen. He left school without matriculating, spent a short time in the Prussian army, and left Poznan after an attempt to elope with a young neighbour, Aleksandryna (Adyna) Turno, to whom he wrote for many years. He may have visited the mines in Saxony and Mount Vesuvius in Italy, whence he returned to Poland. In 1830, after a charge of misappropriation of funds by the son of his employer, Prince Sapieha, he left Poland. From then on, lending some colour to the charge, he had a small income from investments in Russia. There is no conclusive evidence of his participation in the 1830 insurrection, though he later hinted at it to Tasmanian friends.
He had no formal training in geology, a science then in its infancy in England, but was probably, like his English contemporaries, self taught. He was using the title Count in London by 1833, and next year left for North America, where he travelled widely, analysing soil, examining minerals (tradition claims he discovered copper in Canada), and visiting farms to study soil conservation and to analyse the gluten content of wheat. In South America in 1836 he visited the most important mineral areas and he went up the west coast from Chile to California. During this time he became a strong opponent of the slave trade.
As a guest in H.M.S. Fly he visited a number of Pacific islands; in Hawaii he climbed Kilauea; in the Marquesas Islands he studied native languages, though it is not probable that, as H. Bartel Frere claims, Strzelecki introduced the jury system to Tahiti. In 1839 he was the guest of James Busby in New Zealand, and reached Sydney in April, with letters of introduction to Governor Gipps who treated him with some reserve, and to P. P. King and Stuart Donaldson, who became his close friends.
In August 1839 he told Adyna Turno that he planned a geological survey of the country, and in December, after a visit to the Bathurst-Wellington district, stated to the geologists, W. B. Clarke and J. D. Dana, that the local mineralogy was 'very tame', a surprising statement in the light of later events. The field-work for his geological map took him in zigzags across New South Wales, and to the Australian Alps, where alone he ascended what he considered the highest peak, calling it after the Polish democratic leader, Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Thence he and his party travelled through Gippsland, already crossed by McMillan, and arrived at Westernport weary and starving. Strzelecki then went to Van Diemen's Land, where he became a close friend of the Franklins and did important work as explorer, geologist, and scientific farmer, and like the earlier Lhotsky made analyses of coal deposits. He left Sydney for Singapore in April 1843, reached London in October, and found most of his private means lost in a French bank failure. He invested what remained in an annuity and seems to have found work; he lived as a well-to-do man.
In 1845 he became a British subject, and published in London his Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, for which he received the founder's medal of the Royal Geographical Society. The book laid the basis of Australian palaeontology. Strzelecki thought it would be an important aid to the immigration of capital and men. In 1847-48 he was in charge of distributing in parts of Ireland famine relief funds collected by the British Relief Association and did outstanding work; some of the principles of relief he laid down have become standard procedure. In recognition of his work he was commended by both Houses of Parliament and appointed a C.B.
The discovery of payable gold by Hargraves and others started Strzelecki on a long struggle, ably supported by friends in Sydney, to prove his own priority of claim. After publication of his Gold and Silver (London, 1856), his scientific priority was acknowledged; McBrien's discovery was probably still unknown, but no credit was given to Lhotsky, who in 1834, before Strzelecki had left England, had gold extracted from his specimens in Sydney.
In his last years he interested himself in emigration to Australia. After the Crimean war he visited Russia with Lord Lyons. His honours included fellowships of the Royal Geographical and Royal Societies, an honorary D.C.L. from Oxford, and, through Gladstone, the K.C.M.G. (1869). He died of cancer in October 1873, leaving a will which ordered the destruction of his papers and the burial of his body in an unmarked grave. This took place in the Church of England section of Kensal Green cemetery. Recently his wish has been disregarded and an inscribed stone now marks the grave.
Strzelecki was a complex character. He was energetic and ambitious, a capable and thorough scientist, an excellent administrator, a man with a gift for friendship, but resentful of injury and not quick to forgive those, like his sister, who he thought had treated him badly. Had he wished, he might have reached a high position in Australia (as Lord John Russell believed) but had apparently antagonized Gipps; he was deeply disappointed when W. B. Clarke was commissioned to survey for minerals in 1851. His final break with his fiancée and his resentment towards his fellow-countrymen because of their earlier treatment of him left him without any ties with his old life.
His work brought him success and praise; identification of himself with the country of his adoption brought him lasting satisfaction, though his renunciation of marriage and the loss of his early faith are perhaps reflected in the pessimistic terms of his will.
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Helen Heney, 'Strzelecki, Sir Paul Edmund de (1797–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/strzelecki-sir-paul-edmund-de-2711/text3808, accessed 13 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967