Re-Discovering Allan Cunningham

Allan Cunningham Botanist Explorer born 1791 died 1839

This article was revised in 2013. The original article was written around 2005.

On an Australian sunny winters day some years ago, I was waiting for my art teacher, John Wells, to arrive along with other participants in his six week art “plein air” workshop. Each week John led us to a well chosen location in Sydney’s parks, gardens and beaches. This week’s location was the pond beside the restaurant in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.

I was the first to arrive at the pre-arranged location so I wandered around the pond which appeared to me like a forgotten part of the Garden. The pond was darkened by shade with slime along the sides. The water was clear, the mud at the bottom of the pond was visible and the water was quite still like glass, reflecting the surrounding palms. Occasionally water birds created ripples and splashes as they played around a sandstone obelisk. The Obelisk, made of decaying sandstone was standing in the pond like a neglected piece of the past. There were two plaques on the obelisk that had been weathered by green stains covering the words carved into the sandstone. A closer look at the plaques revealed the history of the memorial, stating the obelisk was “Erected to the memory of Allan Cunningham Botanist MDCCCXLIV”. Not being familiar with the roman numerals that spelled out the date, it was difficult to identify which year this edifice was celebrating. Later I discovered MDCCCXLIV was the equivalent of 1844. I know now that Mr Cunningham died in 1839, so the date on the plaque refers to the date the memorial was erected.

Just above the base stone there is a second plaque, it too was completely discoloured with moss and weather stains. The words explains how the memorial became the grave of Allan Cunningham sixty two years after his death: “The remains of Allan Cunningham were interred in the Devonshire Street Cemetery in July 1839 from which they were reverently removed on the 25th May 1901 and placed within this obelisk”.

It was obvious that Mr Allan Cunningham had been revered by the community, I’d never heard of him which in retrospect shows the depth of my knowledge of Australian Colonial history back in 2005.

I had a bit of time to spare before the art workshop began, so I rang my husband and asked him if he had time to Google the name Allan Cunningham Botanist. He did it straight away and we were introduced, via Wikipedia, to Allan Cunningham Botanist Explorer 1791-1839. John said, there’s heaps of entries on Google, he must have been important. The call ended and I contemplated the memorial and in a mystical way I said “Hello Mr Cunningham” and I imagined him saying “Hello to you too!”

We didn’t realise we were about to go on a long journey, a quest, to place a spotlight on Mr Cunningham’s story but that’s another story for another day.

John Wells arrived ready to encourage and guide his students. He and I had a moment to chat about Mr Cunningham, I was interested to find that John had a strong interest in History and was writing a book about one of his ancestors who lived in New South Wales in the early 1800s.  Months and years have passed since then and we’ve shared many pieces of historical information. Our musings ceased when it was time for John to gather his students together for a inspiring day drawing and painting in the sunshine, plein air. I decided to focus my drawing on Cunningham’s monument. The image below was the result of my efforts.

Allan Cunningham's Memorial Obelisk at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney
Allan Cunningham’s Memorial Obelisk at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney
Illustration by Diane Challenor

Over the next few days we, my husband John and I, re-discovered Allan Cunningham via the internet. Allan Cunningham was a botanist/explorer who had a very important patron, Sir Joseph Banks. Sir Joseph was a person who is considered a very important part of the early history of Australia. He was very much a part of the Age of Enlightenment putting his talents to work as President of The Royal Society of London between 1778 and 1820. Mr Cunningham  was working at London’s Kew Gardens and applied for a job as a plant collector, a position created by Sir Joseph Banks, and sent to Brazil in 1816 to collect plants and later, he was chosen to go to the new colony of New South Wales where he was to continue collecting plants for Kew Gardens. It was a time in history where people were trying to name and categorise all living plants hence the need for plant collection. Although Sir Joseph died only four years after sending the botanist to Sydney, the end of his brilliant life, Mr Cunningham was just at the beginning of his own story.

Sir Joseph Banks c1812
President of the Royal Society

He collected much more than plants. His life was filled with adventure. He became a member of that elite group of people who explored the eastern part of Australia in the eighteen hundreds. Early in his Australian adventures, he joined John Oxley and Philip Parker King in several explorations. He assisted with all sorts of discoveries both botanical and geographical. Later he became an explorer in his own right. His most famous geographic discovery was the Darling Downs.

A number of plants are named after him one being Casuarina cunninghamiana. His tenacity and dedication to every thing he did was considered close to heroic in some circles.

The president of the Linnean Society, reporting his death, said :

He was distinguished for his moral worth, singleness of heart, and enthusiastic zeal in the pursuit of science.

His last adventure was a trip to New Zealand in 1839 from which he returned to Sydney in a serious state of ill health and never recovered. He was only 47. There was so much more he wanted to achieve. His home at the time of his death was a small cottage in the grounds of the Botanic Gardens Sydney Australia.

A Portrait of Allan Cunningham c1835
Ref: nla.pic-an2287723

Phillip Parker King wrote these poignant words after Allan died:

Alas, poor Allan! He was a rare specimen-quite a genus of himself; an enthusiast in Australian geography; devoted to his own science, Botany; a warm friend, and an honest man; and, to crown all, when the time came, he resigned himself into the arms of his Saviour, without a murmur.