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Sir Paul Edmund de Strzelecki (1797–1873)

by Helen Heney

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Paul Edmund de Strzelecki, n.d.

Paul Edmund de Strzelecki, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 15838

Sir Paul Edmund de Strzelecki (1797-1873), explorer and scientist, was born on 20 July 1797 at Gluszyna, near Poznan, Western Poland, as a child of Francis Strzelecki and Anna, née Raczyński, both Polish noblemen (szlachta), leasing Gluszyna estate. 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 alleged 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. He became a successful plenipotentiary of Prince Francis Sapieha's estates, who bequeathed him an equivalent of £25,000. After the Prince died Strzelecki and Eustace, Sapieha's son, had a bitter dispute. In an out of court settlement, Strzelecki received approximately one quarter of the bequeathed amount. He left Poland around 1830.  There is some evidence that he served as a courier for the 1830 insurrection.

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 referred to as Count Streleski, though he never signed himself as a Count nor approved of the title.  In 1834 he 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, partially crossed previously 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. In 1997 his grave was moved to Poland, where in recognition of his achievements, he was buried in the Crypt of Eminent Poles, at the Church of St Adalbert (Wojciech).

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 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. Geographical features commemorating him include the Strzelecki Desert and the 475 kilometre Strzelecki Track, linking Lyndhurst and Innamincka in South Australia’s far north, pioneered in 1871.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Strzelecki, Biography of Count Paul Edmund de Strzelecki (NY, 1935)
  • G. Rawson, The Count. A Life of Sir Paul Edmund Strzelecki (Lond, 1954)
  • W. Slabczynski, Pawel Edmund Strzelecki (Warsaw, 1957)
  • P. E. Strzelecki, Pisma Wybrane, ed W. Slabczynski (Warsaw, 1960)
  • H. M. E. Heney, In a Dark Glass (Syd, 1961), and for bibliography
  • N. Zmichowska, ‘O Pawle Edmundzie Strzeleckim Wedlug Rodzinnych i Towarzyskich Wspomnien’, Athenaeum (Warsaw, 1876)
  • W. L. Havard, ‘Sir P. E. de Strzelecki’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 26 (1940)
  • P. E. Strzelecki, letters to Adyna Turno, 1839-51 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under Paul Edmund Strzelecki (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Franklin papers (State Library of New South Wales and Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge)
  • P. E. Strzelecki journal, 1840 (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Helen Heney, 'Strzelecki, Sir Paul Edmund de (1797–1873)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 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

Paul Edmund de Strzelecki, n.d.

Paul Edmund de Strzelecki, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 15838

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Count Strzelecki

20 July, 1797
Gluszyna, Poland


6 October, 1873 (aged 76)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations