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Luigi Maria D'Albertis (1841–1901)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published:

Luigi Maria D'Albertis (1841-1901), explorer, was born on 21 November 1841 at Voltri, Italy, into an old Florentine family. He abandoned his education for the Piedmontese army in deference to his father's support of the temporal power of the Pope and spent several years hunting in the Alps and Apennines; at 18 he joined Garibaldi's army. Trained by the French savant, Abbé Armand David, and inspired to devote his life to science, he joined Odoardo Beccari in November 1871 on an expedition to western New Guinea. He reached the peak of Mount Arfak Geb but was compelled by fever to retreat and arrived in Sydney on 1 February 1873 in the corvette Vettor Pisani to recuperate. An account of the journey was published in the Melbourne Review, 1876. D'Albertis left for Europe via America with a fine collection of specimens on 20 December 1873.

In November 1874 D'Albertis left Italy with one companion and set up a base on Yule Island. To gain ascendancy over the natives he publicly kissed the women and, with a shell full of burning methylated spirits, ostentatiously threatened to set the ocean alight. His homesick companion left, most of his native employees deserted and on 8 November 1875 he sailed for Somerset, Queensland, by the mission steamer Ellengowan. He then joined Rev. Samuel Macfarlane and Henry Chester in a trip of 150 miles (241 km) up the Fly River after which he returned to Italy.

Determined to conquer the Fly, D'Albertis returned to Sydney in February 1876. In the borrowed government launch Neva, he left Somerset with Lawrence Hargrave, engineer and scientist, the 17-year-old Clarence Wilcox, a crew of South Sea Islanders, Negroes and Chinese, a sheep and a dog. They entered the Fly on 23 May under both Italian and New South Wales flags and steamed upstream for forty-five days; they stopped at times for collecting but low water forced their retreat on 7 July. D'Albertis inhibited native hostility by firing rockets loaded with dynamite: his unscrupulous ethnological collecting was often criticized by later travellers. He claimed to have reached about 5°30'S., but Sir William MacGregor later doubted that he had passed 6°11'S. They emerged from the Fly on 17 July but did not reached Somerset till 21 November.

D'Albertis left Somerset again on 3 May 1877 with Preston, an English engineer, five Chinese and three Islanders. The voyage was disastrous. One Chinese died after a beating from D'Albertis. The rest of the crew deserted and by November D'Albertis was left with Preston and one Islander to bring the Neva into Somerset on 4 January 1878. The deserters accused D'Albertis of murder but he successfully prosecuted them and after bitter correspondence with Chester left for Sydney in the warship Cristoforo Colombo. He arrived in England on 1 July 1878 and after giving papers to the Royal Geographical Society, the Anthropological Institute and the Royal Colonial Institute he returned to Italy where in 1880 he published the Italian edition of his two-volume New Guinea: What I did and what I saw. He then judged his life's work complete and retired to hunt from a Papuan-style lodge in the Pontine Marshes. An unrepentant chain smoker, he died of mouth cancer on 2 September 1901.

Though D'Albertis's latin temperament and theatrical behaviour were not popular in Australia, Sir Hubert Murray described him as 'a great explorer and a most gifted man' but added, 'I should not like to have been the first white man to follow in his footsteps. The natives would have expected too much'.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Macfarlane, Among the Cannibals of New Guinea (Lond, 1888)
  • British New Guinea, Annual Report 1890-91
  • A. Wichmann, Nova Guinea, vol 2 (Leiden, 1910)
  • J. H. P. Murray, Papua or British New Guinea (Lond, 1912)
  • D. Bartolini (ed), Enciclopedia Italiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, vol 12 (Rome, 1949)
  • G. Souter, New Guinea: The Last Unknown (Syd, 1963)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1876-77, 5, 887
  • Town and Country Journal, 4 May 1878
  • H. M. Laracy, ‘Italians on the Pacific Frontier’, paper to Istituto Italiana di Cultura seminar, Melb 1968
  • Hargrave papers (National Library of Australia), Souter papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Colonial Secretary's in-letters 1876/268, 1878/2614 (Queensland State Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'D'Albertis, Luigi Maria (1841–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 November, 1841
Voltri, Sardinia, Italy


2 September, 1901 (aged 59)

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