Historical Records of Australian Science Historical Records of Australian Science Society
The history of science, pure and applied, in Australia and the southwest Pacific

The Fate of Leichhardt

Darrell Lewis

Historical Records of Australian Science 17(1) 1 - 30
Published: 02 June 2006


In 1848 an expedition led by German scientist Ludwig Leichhardt set out from Moreton Bay (Brisbane) with the intention of crossing the continent to the Swan River (Perth). The trip was expected to take two to three years, but instead the entire expedition disappeared and its fate remains a mystery to this day. It is now recognised that in his time Leichhardt was the best-trained scientist-explorer to have visited Australia, having studied under many of the most eminent European scientists and absorbed the works of others, including the great Alexander von Humboldt. Because of this, I argue that his 1848 expedition was not intended to be merely an east-west traverse of the continent. I determine what route Leichhardt planned to follow and show that he chose this route with several 'Humboldtian' aims in mind. If his expedition had succeeded, it would have been the greatest land-based scientific expedition in Australia's history, and Leichhardt would arguably now be venerated as the father of Australian landscape ecology. From the time it was realised Leichhardt's expedition was lost, many theories have been put forward as to its fate. Most suggest that the expedition perished somewhere in western Queensland or in the vicinity of the Simpson Desert. I present evidence to suggest that Leichhardt followed his proposed course and that this took him far from the Simpson Desert-Central Australian region, that in fact he made it more than two-thirds of the way across the continent and perished in the area where the Tanami Desert meets the Great Sandy Desert.


© Australian Academy of Science 2006

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