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Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–1848)

by Renee Erdos

This article was published:

Ludwig Leichhardt, by William Govett, 1846

Ludwig Leichhardt, by William Govett, 1846

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an5600270

Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt (1813-1848?), naturalist and explorer, was born on 23 October 1813 at Trebatsch, Prussia, the fourth son and sixth of the eight children of Christian Hieronymus Matthias Leichhardt, farmer and royal inspector of peat, and his wife Charlotte Sophie, née Strählow. Leichhardt was educated at Trebatsch, a boarding school at Zaue, a gymnasium at Cottbus, and at the Universities of Berlin (1831, 1834-36) and Göttingen (1833). At Göttingen friendship with a fellow student, John Nicholson, who had studied medical science, aroused Leichhardt's interest in science, and he turned from his earlier study of philosophy and languages to the natural sciences. Leichhardt pursued knowledge for its own sake and not in preparation for any particular qualification or career; he ceased to follow a prescribed syllabus and no university degree was ever conferred upon him. The practice of addressing Leichhardt as 'Doctor' arose later out of recognition by his contemporaries that he was a man of learning dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.

In 1837 John Nicholson's younger brother William, with whom Leichhardt studied at Berlin, returned to his home at Clifton in Gloucestershire and Leichhardt went with him. Until 1842 these two young men lived frugally on William's small income while they studied medical and natural science at the Royal College of Surgeons, the British Museum and the Jardin des Plantes, and by field observation in England, France, Italy and Switzerland. To enable Leichhardt to fulfil his plan to study the natural sciences in a vast new field William Nicholson paid his fare to Australia, provided clothes and necessities for the journey and gave him £200.

Leichhardt sailed from London in October 1841 in the Sir Edward Paget and arrived in Sydney on 14 February 1842. His expressed intention was to explore the inland of Australia. For six months he studied the Sydney district; he gave some lectures on its geology and botany. He hoped that Governor Gipps would establish a museum as a national institution and appoint him curator, or would appoint him director of the Botanical Garden, but he was not given any official position.

In September 1842 Leichhardt went to the Hunter River valley where he studied the geology, flora and fauna, and observed methods of farming and viticulture. Overland journeys undertaken alone between Newcastle and the Moreton Bay District occupied 1843 and early 1844. From May to July 1844 Leichhardt was in Sydney arranging his collections of plant and rock specimens and working upon the notes of his observations of the geology of the areas he had visited. He had hoped to accompany an overland expedition from Sydney to Port Essington which the Legislative Council had recommended and the surveyor-general, Sir Thomas Mitchell, was willing to lead. Governor Gipps, however, refused to sanction 'an expedition of so hazardous and expensive a nature, without the knowledge and consent' of the Colonial Office. Leichhardt, irked by the delay and the uncertainty that an expedition financed by the government would be approved, decided himself, with the aid of private subscription, to lead an expedition of volunteers. Six including Leichhardt sailed from Sydney on 13 August 1844. In the Moreton Bay District four more joined the expedition, which left Jimbour, the farthest outpost of settlement on the Darling Downs, on 1 October. Two of the party turned back and on 28 June 1845 John Gilbert was killed in an attack on Leichhardt's camp by Aboriginals. The remaining seven reached Port Essington on 17 December 1845, completing an overland journey of nearly 3000 miles (4828 km).

Returning in the Heroine, Leichhardt arrived in Sydney on 25 March 1846. As it was believed that his party had perished their unexpected success was greeted with great rejoicing. Leichhardt was hailed as 'Prince of Explorers' and his party as national heroes, and their achievement was rewarded by a government grant of £1000 and private subscriptions amounting to over £1500.

Leichhardt prepared his journal of the expedition from Moreton Bay to Port Essington for publication in England. He gave lectures on the 'Geology, Botany, Natural History, and Capabilities of the Country between Moreton Bay and Port Essington', and organized his next expedition, using to equip it part of his share (£1500) of the Port Essington reward. He planned to cross Australia from the Darling Downs to the west coast and to follow the coast south to the Swan River settlement. In December 1846 his party of eight including himself set out from the Darling Downs. Delayed by heavy rain and the straying of animals being taken for food, and weakened by fever, they were forced, after covering only 500 miles (805 km), to return in June 1847. After a fortnight's rest Leichhardt spent six weeks and covered 600 miles (966 km) examining the course of the Condamine River and the country between Mitchell's route (1846) and his own route.

In August Leichhardt returned to Sydney to organize a second Swan River expedition. By February 1848 a party of seven including himself was assembled on the Darling Downs. He learned that Edmund Kennedy had returned from tracing the course of the river named the Victoria by Mitchell, and had reported that it was the upper part (Barcoo) of Cooper Creek. Believing himself again 'alone in the field' and confident that he could solve many problems about central Australia if he could skirt the northern limit of the desert he set out from the Condamine River in March 1848. By 3 April he reached McPherson's station, Cogoon, on the Darling Downs. After moving inland from Cogoon the expedition disappeared and no evidence showing conclusively what happened to it has been found.

Before Leichhardt's disappearance his contemporaries valued his work highly: in April 1847 the Geographical Society, Paris, divided the annual prize for the most important geographic discovery between Leichhardt and Rochet d'Héricourt, and on 24 May the Royal Geographical Society, London, awarded him its Patron's medal as recognition of 'the increased knowledge of the great continent of Australia' gained by his Moreton Bay-Port Essington journey. Prussia recognized this achievement by the king's pardon for having failed to return to Prussia when due to serve a period of compulsory military training. Geologists and botanists valued Leichhardt's collections of specimens and the records of his observations which, in an age accustomed to extravagant travellers' tales, were remarkable for their restraint and accuracy; he believed that as long as the traveller was truthful the scientist at home would be thankful to him. Leichhardt was a most dedicated servant of science and from this very dedication sprang a singleness of purpose which shaped his life, and made him somewhat ruthlessly regardless of all but his research. With perseverance, energy, courage and complete disregard of discomfort, and of the physical handicap of poor eyesight, he pursued his goals as 'an explorer of nature'. In Europe and Australia he found friends confident of his ability and the value of his work whose hospitality provided him with places to live while he studied. Yet Leichhardt, described by one of his hosts as 'the most amiable of men', was described by some, though not all, who accompanied him on his expeditions as jealous, selfish, suspicious, reticent, careless, slovenly, wholly unfitted for leadership, and 'very lax in his religious opinion'. Born into a Lutheran family, Leichhardt remembered with affection the church of his childhood, but grew independent of the teaching of any church, finding 'sufficient' the simple statement of faith 'I believe in Jesus Christ our Saviour'.

The contradiction between the admiration and affection for Leichhardt expressed by action and word during his lifetime and the adverse criticism which began about twenty years after he disappeared, makes any reliable assessment of his personal character wait upon the findings of research and the weighing of evidence.

An assessment of Leichhardt's work credits him with achieving one of the longest journeys of exploration by land in Australia, and one of the most useful in the discovery of 'excellent country available … for pastoral purposes', and in the collection of the data for the earliest map of the country covered by his route. Leichhardt left records of his observations in Australia from 1842 to 1848 in manuscript diaries, letters, notebooks, sketch-books, maps, and in his published works. These are: Aseroe Rubra—description and drawing in 'Decades of Fungi' by M. J. Berkeley, London Journal of Botany, 3 (1844); 'Scientific Excursions in New Holland, by Dr Ludwig Leickhardt 1842-44; Extracted from his Letters to M. G. Durand, of Paris. Communicated by P. B. Webb, Esq.' London Journal of Botany, 4 (1845); 'Report of the Expedition of L. Leichardt, Esq., from Moreton Bay to Port Essington', Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March 1846; Lectures Delivered by Dr. Ludwig Leichhardt, at the Sydney School of Arts, on the 18th and 25th Days of August, 1846 (Sydney, 1846); 'Die Heissen Winde Australiens' (Leichardt Schriftliche Mittheilung) Froriep's Fortschritte der Geogr. u. Naturgesch., 2, 4 February 1847; L. Leichhardt, Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia, from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a Distance of Upwards of 3000 Miles, During the Years 1844-1845 (London, 1847); A detailed Map of Dr. Ludwig Leichhardt's Route in Australia from Moreton Bay to Port Essington; 'An Account of a Journey to the Westward of Darling Downs, Undertaken With the View of Examining the Country Between Sir Thomas Mitchell's Track and My Own', Sydney Morning Herald, 11 October 1847; 'Ueber die Kohlenlager von Newcastle am Hunter von Ludwig Leichhardt in Australien'. Mitgetheilt von H. Girard in Berlin (Taf. I), Zeitsch. der Deutschen Geol. Ges., 1 (1849); 'Remarks on the Bones Brought to Sydney by Mr Turner' by Ludwig Leichhardt in Further Papers Relative to the Discovery of Gold in Australia Presented to Both Houses of Parliament, December 1854 (London, 1855); 'Beiträge zur Geologie von Australien' von L. Leichhardt, herausgegeben von H. Girard, Abh. Naturf Orsch. Ges. Halle, 3, 1855 (1856); L. Leichhardt, 'Notes on the Geology of Parts of New South Wales & Queensland, Made in 1842-43', W. B. Clarke, ed., Australian Almanac 1867; W. B. Clarke, ed., 'Journal of Dr Leichhardt's Third Expedition', Waugh's Australian Almanack 1860; Sketch Map of the Balonne River and country he had ridden over done at Cecil Plains, August 1847 by Ludwig Leichhardt, in H. S. Russell, The Genesis of Queensland (Sydney, 1888).

The Mitchell Library, Sydney, has a lithographic copy of a drawing of Leichhardt in 1846 by Charles Rodius. The Heimat Museum in Beeskow has a portrait of Leichhardt which is a copy by Elisabeth Wolf in 1938 of a picture by Schmalfuss, 1855.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 24-26
  • C. P. Hodgson, Reminiscences of Australia (Lond, 1846)
  • J. D. Lang, Cooksland in North-Eastern Australia (Lond, 1847)
  • E. A. Zuchold, Dr Ludwig Leichhardt (Leipzig, 1856)
  • D. Bunce, Australasiatic Reminiscences (Melb, 1857)
  • J. Forrest, Explorations in Australia (Lond, 1875)
  • G. Neumayer and O. Leichhardt (eds), Dr Ludwig Leichhardt's Briefe an Seine Angehörigen (Hamburg, 1881)
  • J. F. Mann, Eight Months with Dr Leichhardt, in the Years 1846-47 (Syd, 1888)
  • T. Archer, Recollections of a Rambling Life (Yokohama, 1897)
  • A. Daiber, Geschichten aus Australien (Leipzig, 1902)
  • C. D. Cotton, Ludwig Leichhardt and the Great South Land (Syd, 1938)
  • A. H. Chisholm, Strange New World (Syd, 1941)
  • L. L. Politzer (ed), Dr. Ludwig Leichhardt's Letters from Australia During the Years March 23, 1842, to April 3, 1848 (Melb, 1945)
  • L. L. Politzer, Bibliography of Literature on Dr Ludwig Leichhardt (Melb, 1953)
  • A. C. Gregory, Expedition in Search of Dr Leichhardt, Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1858, v 3
  • Bulletin de la Société de Géographie, 3 (1847)
  • ‘Presentation of the Gold Medals Awarded Respectively to Captain Charles Sturt and Doctor Ludwig Leichhardt’, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, vol 17, 1847, pp xxiii-xxvii
  • H. Hely, ‘Expedition in Search of Dr Leichhardt: Equipped by the New South Wales Government’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch, vol 16, 1914-15, pp 219-236
  • E. E. Larcombe, ‘The Search for Dr Leichhardt’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 12, part 3, 1926, pp 167-86, and vol 16, part 2, 1930, pp 131-32
  • G. Krefft, ‘A Biographical Sketch of the Youth and Early Manhood of Dr. Ludwig Leichhardt’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 June 1866
  • J. H. Nicholson, ‘Leichhardt and his Friends’, Queensland Daily Guardian, 9 Aug 1866
  • Leichhardt diaries and papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Ludwig Leichhardt letters (privately held)
  • W. Phillips journal (State Library of New South Wales)
  • John Gilbert diary, 18 Sept 1844–22 June 1845 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • E. F. Kunz, Report of Leichhardt Papers in Mitchell and Dixson Libraries, 1956 (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Renee Erdos, 'Leichhardt , Ludwig (1813–1848)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ludwig Leichhardt, by William Govett, 1846

Ludwig Leichhardt, by William Govett, 1846

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an5600270

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Leichhardt, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig

23 October, 1813
Trebatsch, Brandenburg, Germany


1848 (aged ~ 34)

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