A Writer’s Journal – a series of articles

“It is by honouring the memory of great men that one inspires greatness in others.” Hyacinthe de Bougainville 8th September 1825″

Allan Cunningham Botanist Explorer 1791-1839
Allan Cunningham Botanist Explorer 1791-1839
Pen and Ink Drawing by Phillip Parker King
National Library of Australia Collection

This series of articles is a recording of my journey as I get to know a botanist, Allan Cunningham, who dedicated his life to science in the early 1800s. After coming across his grave site in the middle of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, I was inspired to get to know him. The moss covered plaque on the memorial obelisk drew me in. I’d never heard of him and my curiosity twinkled like a bright light. The plaque simply explained that the body of Allan Cunningham, Botanist Explorer 1791-1839 was buried within the obelisk.

Allan Cunningham's Memorial at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney
Allan Cunningham’s Memorial at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney

My interest was further fuelled by the words an Historian, Ida Lee, wrote back in 1925 when she realised that she was too ill to complete her work recording the story of Allan Cunningham.

She regretfully acknowledged : “owing to illness continually hampering my efforts I have been unable to carry out my original intentions. I therefore trust that in due course an abler writer will deal with what I have omitted and do Cunningham’s memory the justice it so richly deserves” (Ida Lee, “Early Explorers in Australia” 1925).

It was an invitation to carry on her work. It’s an invitation I’ve grabbed like a runner’s batton. My contribution will be writing a series of articles in the form of “A Writer’s Journal” and providing “The Allan Cunningham Time Line Journal”. Also, I will be contributing a library of books, magazine, articles and letters etc (full text – out of copyright) to assist others to “do Cunningham’s memory the justice it so richly deserves” (Ida Lee). All these contributions are incorporated in The Allan Cunningham Project along with many other items dedicated to creating an important historical resource for our community.

Since discovering Cunningham’s grave I have done some extensive research. The more I know about this kindly brave and dedicated man, the more I am driven by excitement and enthusiasm to record his story. His is a story of tenacity, courage, commitment, curiosity and passion, it’s an adventure story.

After reading a bit about him, I believe Allan Cunningham’s drive was not fuelled by a desire for fame and fortune. He did it because he was curious and he was given the opportunity. He had a tenacious spirit that allowed him to over-ride his frail and often sickly physique and pursue his need to know. His ancestors were Scottish. The influence of the Scottish Enlightenment and the Scottish psych on our hero cannot be ignored.

The  backdrop of his life is the wonderful coastline and unspoiled wilderness of Australia, his adventures are populated with many many interesting characters. Mr Cunningham’s story incorporates at least six major adventures, travels across the oceans of the world when longitude measurement was in its infancy, scientific study and the naming of plants identified for the first time by Europeans in the global landscape. He  knew so many of the history makers during the Macquarie era and several years after. He was a member of important scientific societies of his time, for example the Linnean Society of London. He was well educated and well read. He corresponded with many eminent scientists in the field of Botany.

Come with me on this journey, let’s find out what he achieved and why he dedicated his life to science?

 Diane Challenor
The Allan Cunningham Project