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Allan CUNNINGHAM (1791 - 1839)

In Early Explorers in Australia by Ida Lee extensive coverage is given to Allan Cunningham's botanical exploration by land and sea.

Cunningham was born in England. He was well educated and then went into a solicitor's office. He afterwards obtained a position with W. T. Aiton superintendent of Kew gardens, and this brought him in touch with Robert Brown and Sir Joseph Banks. Recommended by Banks, Cunningham in October 1814 was sent travelling by the government as a botanical collector. He spent nearly two years in Brazil collecting specimens, and on 28 September sailed for Sydney where he arrived on 20 December 1816. He established himself at Parramatta. In April 1817 he was attached as botanist to the exploring expedition beyond the Blue Mountains led by John Oxley, and shared in the privations of the 1200 miles journey. He was able to collect specimens of about 450 species and gained valuable experience as an explorer.

On his return Cunningham found letters from Banks directing him to join the expedition to the north and north-west coast of Australia under P. P. King. Their vessel, the Mermaid, was of only 85 tons, but sailing on 22 December 1817 they reached King George's Sound on 21 January 1818. Though their stay was short many interesting specimens were found, but the islands on the west coast were comparatively barren. Towards the end of March the Goulburn Islands on the north coast were reached, and there many new plants were discovered. They reached Timor on 4 June and turning for home arrived at Port Jackson on 29 July 1818.

Shortly after his return he made an excursion in the country southerly from Sydney, and towards the end of the year he made a voyage to Tasmania arriving at Hobart on 2 January 1819. He next visited Launceston, and though often finding the botany interesting, he found little that was absolutely new, as Brown had preceded him.

In May he went with King in the Mermaid on a second voyage to the north and north-west coasts. On this occasion they started up the east coast and Cunningham found many opportunities for adding to his collections. The circumnavigation of Australia was completed on 27 August when they reached Vernon's Island in Clarence Strait. They again visited Timor and arrived back in Sydney on 12 January 1820.

The third voyage to the north coast with King began on 15 June, but meeting bad weather the bowsprit was lost and a return was made for repairs. Sailing again on 13 July the northerly course was followed and eventually the continent was circumnavigated. Though they found the little vessel was in a bad state when they were on the north-west coast, and though serious danger was escaped until they were close to home, they were nearly wrecked off Botany Bay.

The Mermaid was then condemned and the next voyage was on the Bathurst which was twice the size of the Mermaid. They left on 26 May 1821, the northern route was chosen, and when they were on the west coast of Australia it was found necessary to go to Mauritius to refit, where they arrived on 27 September. They left after a stay of seven weeks and reached King George's Sound on 24 December. A sufficiently long stay was made for Cunningham to make an excellent collection of plants, and then turning on their tracks the Bathurst sailed up the west coast and round the north of Australia. Sydney was reached again on 25 April 1822. Cunningham's "A Few General Remarks on the Vegetation of Certain Coasts of Terra Australis", will be found in King's Narrative of a Survey, etc.

In September 1822 Cunningham went on an expedition over the blue mountains and arrived at Bathurst on 14 October and returned to Parramatta in January 1823. Later in the year he travelled from Bathurst to Liverpool Plains. On reaching the Goulburn River he turned east and eventually reached the main range, but for five days searched in vain for an opening. On returning to the Goulburn River he took a different course but ran into exceedingly difficult country. He, however, persevered with great courage and on 7 June discovered a pass which he named "Pandora's Pass", and made a way to the Liverpool Plains. He reached Parramatta again on 21 July 1823.

Some comparatively short journeys followed but on 28 March 1925 he led another expedition to the north of Pandora's Pass, approaching it from the opposite direction to that taken in his previous journey. On 2 May he went through the pass, a fortnight later reached Dunlop Hill, and from there made for Bathurst, which he reached on 7 June 1825 and Parramatta 10 days later.

Cunningham had long wished to visit New Zealand and on 28 August 1826 he was able to sail on a whaler. He was hospitably received by the missionaries in the Bay of Islands, was able to do much botanical work, and returned to Sydney on 20 January 1827.

Cunningham's next expedition was of great importance. Between April and August 1827, starting from Segenhoe on the Upper Hunter, he skirted the Liverpool Plains, crossed the Peel and Dumaresq rivers, and discovered the Darling Downs. He then returned to the Hunter River and back by a new road to Parramatta. In the following year he showed that the country he had discovered could be reached from the site of Brisbane. Early in 1829 he was again working in the Bathurst district, and in 1830 went to Norfolk Island.

He visited England in 1831 and was offered the position of colonial botanist at Sydney. This he declined in favour of his brother Richard. He worked at Kew Gardens for about five years, but his brother having died in 1835, he accepted his position. He arrived at Sydney on 12 February 1837. After a few months, finding that he was required to grow vegetables for government officials, he resigned.

He arranged to pay another visit to New Zealand, but deferred his departure until the new governor, Sir George Gipps, arrived. Gipps endeavoured, without success, to have Cunningham's services retained as government botanist. Cunningham finally left the gardens in April 1838 and went to New Zealand in the same month. He returned to Sydney in October 1838, but his health which had long been precarious was now rapidly getting worse. He died of consumption on 27 June 1839.

Cunningham was a modest man of fine character. He was an indefatigable worker as a botanist, and scarcely had time between his journeys to give evidence of his scientific powers, though a few of his papers will be found in journals of the period. His immense collections of specimens mostly went to Kew Gardens and eventually to the British museum. He also takes high rank among Australian explorers, for though his parties were small in number and comparatively poorly equipped, his courage, resourcefulness, and knowledge, enabled him to achieve what he set out to do, and his journeys opened up much country for settlement. [From Dictionary of Australian Biography]

 


Updated 16 June 2008