by Ida Lee
F.R.G.S and Hon. F.R.A.H.S

From the Log-Books and Journals
with maps and illustrations

First Published 1925 by
Methuen & Co Ltd
36 Essex Street WC London
Transcribed to eText by
Permission to use eText given by
Col Choat of Project Gutenburg Australia 2003
Converted to Web Enhanced eText by
J&DChallenor of The Allan Cunningham Project 2009



[p608] Before he took his departure from Limestone Station Cunningham made some short excursions, and on one occasion revisited the Brisbane River which he intersected at Red Cliff Reach, the scene of Oxley’s explorations in 1824. He made his way to a ridge upon which grew Araucaria Cunninghamii in great magnificence. He was reminded of his first visit to this spot with the late Surveyor-General, for he writes: “In traversing a pitch of forest ground formerly walked over by Mr. Oxley, accompanied by Lieutenant Butler and myself, to the Pine Range, I could fain have recalled to life that lamented gentleman who so long and so creditably to himself filled this post, and many a pleasing incident now recurred to me. I passed over the ground and ascended the darkly brushed acclivity of the Pine Range by the same opening in the thicket which we had 4 years since penetrated to the higher points where grew those stately timber trees, the monarchs of these forests–the new Araucaria.”


Cunningham then drew a sketch of the Brisbane at Red Cliff Reach and wrote an inscription upon it to show that Mr. Oxley had visited this particular part of the river in 1824. He added another note, writing across one ridge on the sketch the words: 1 Septr., 1828. A.C. A copy of his drawing has been reproduced (see ante, page 537).

This sketch was embodied in a chart of Bremer River that Cunningham afterwards sent to Governor Darling. Not only the course of the Bremer can be traced upon the chart but two sections of the Brisbane River are also shown upon it. In a report to the Governor from Parramatta on December 16th, 1828, Cunningham gives further particulars of his visit to Red Cliff Reach. He writes: “An excursion made in September last from Limestone Station North to the channel of the Brisbane which I intersected in five miles at a point visited by Mr. Oxley and myself, in 1824, and which I clearly recognized,[p609] has enabled me to connect most satisfactorily (as regards geographical position) the westernmost point to which our late very able Surveyor-General had penetrated on his second visit to the Brisbane with what I have now attempted to effect. The tortuous course of the river is therefore carried on upon the accompanying chart to that point. Beyond this spot the river was subsequently (in 1825) traced up in a N.W. direction by Major Lockyer.” The chart of Bremer River is reproduced, the writer being unable to find the larger chart of Cunningham’s surveys.

On his return to Brisbane Town, Cunningham penned one of his most interesting letters, now preserved at Kew. It is dated Brisbane, September 16th, 1828, and is addressed to Mr. Charles Telfair, the friend he had made at the Mauritius, and, in addition to other botanical subjects, describes the huge timber trees which he had seen in dense woods on the banks of the Brisbane during this late tour. He writes: “Among the plants of this river our attention has been particularly directed to the timber trees: Flindersia australis of Mr. Brown, who discovered it, I think, at Broad Sound in 1802, where it rises to a small tree under twenty feet. The tulipwood forms a tree 60 feet high, and in bulk is from 1 to 1½ feet in diameter. Another tree I think that will prove an acquisition is here called the silk oak. It is of the order Proleaceae, and of the genus Grevillea, but of a species yet unpublished; it rises to a height of 80 or 90 feet, and I have measured the trunks at their base, which give a diameter of two feet nine inches. The pine, a third species of Araucaria, towers above all other plants; it exceeds 100 feet in height, and is fully 4½ feet to 5 feet in diameter. It is so truly cylindrical in barrel that it preserves this width from its base up to 50 feet, when it begins to branch off and taper upwards. It furnishes spars for masts. I have seen a tree here . . . called the lime, lately discovered in the woods and, in consequence of its acidity . . . proved useful as an anti-scorbutic. It forms a tree 30-70 feet high, with small myrtle-like leaves, and with branches furnished with spines. . . . It is most clearly of the Aurantiae of Correa (Annales Ile Mus, Vol. VI), but whether a Citrus or a Limonia I am just now unable to say. This can only be determined by its flowers. Of the new Calostemma (a genus related to the Pancratium) of these woods, I have collected a few bulbs. This interesting plant I forwarded to Kew four years ago from these forests, where alone it has been sparingly met with; and, as it flowered in the royal establishment, Dr. Hooker has, through a[p610] brother of mine, been made acquainted with it.

“I have collected some interesting geological specimens,” continues Cunningham “and have prepared several skins of rare birds: these, with the skin of a woman, an aboriginal, I have obtained with the design of sending them home to Sir Everard Home. I have in my possession some curious and novel facts respecting the natives, of their custom of flaying persons of some rank, among them those who have fallen in battle. . . . The mode of performing this operation is by drying the skin previous to its being carried about with them in their wanderings, in order to remind them that a great warrior once lived among them.”

In the following month Cunningham left the scene of his duties and embarked on October 29th for Sydney in the schooner “Isabella,” reaching Port Jackson on November 14, 1828. He brought back with him an interesting and valuable collection of living plants and an equally valuable collection of seeds.

1829, January Parramatta: The weather was intensely, even disagreeably, hot, and he was glad to return to his small cottage-home at Parramatta. Here he was saddened by the news of the death of his father, whom he had been looking forward to seeing on his arrival in England after his long absence in the colony, and who had died at the ripe old age of eighty-four.” 

For the next few months his movements were somewhat unsettled. Evidently he was awaiting anxiously the reply from home saying that he might return to England, but so far none had come. He continued to make some short tours into the country: and travelled in January, 1829, over the Blue Mountains as far as Cox’s River. The weather was intensely, even disagreeably, hot, and he was glad to return to his small cottage-home at Parramatta. Here he was saddened by the news of the death of his father, whom he had been looking forward to seeing on his arrival in England after his long absence in the colony, and who had died at the ripe old age of eighty-four.

A tour of six weeks beyond Morton Bay

In May, 1829, Cunningham returned to Queensland, and in a tour of six weeks’ duration carried out further explorations, travelling westward and north-westward of his former tracks. In this journey he fixed the situation of Hay’s Peak [Mount Hay], a conical, densely wooded mountain in 27°36′ S. and 152°8′ E. (near Toowoomba)[*], and he traced the principal branch of the Brisbane River as far N. as 26°25′ S., until its channel assumed merely the character of a chain of very shallow stagnant pools.” At this time he reached Lister’s Peak in 26°52′ S. This forms the most northerly point of his discoveries, and he thus, as he himself states (in a letter to Governor Darling dated Parramatta December 12, 1829), then established two important geographical facts: (1) that the Brisbane River (at one period supposed to[p611] be the outlet of the marshes of the Macquarie) originated on the eastern side of the Dividing Range, its chief sources being in elevated lands bordering the sea-coast, between the parallels of 26° and 27° S.; and (2) that the Main Range which separates the coast waters from those that flow inland continued to the northward in one unbroken chain. He adds: “My pass, therefore, seems the only opening into the interior.” Explorers who followed Cunningham, however, complained that the facilities of ascent he reported were far from being realized. And “it is certain,” says a modem historian, “that several accesses by which the range can be scaled, and which in later years have been chiefly used, are situated about fifty miles north of Cunningham’s Gap.”

[* Named in honour of R. W. Hay, Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies.]

In this his last journey in Queensland Cunningham encountered the blacks three times and on one occasion, at Laidley Plains, he and his men nearly lost their lives in a bush fire which the natives had maliciously kindled near their tents.

He returned to Sydney at the end of September, with seventy boxes of the choicest specimens of the Queensland flora, which he intended to convey home himself and deposit in Kew Gardens.


Governor Phillip before leaving England in 1787 had been instructed to occupy Norfolk Island, which Cook had discovered on October 10, 1774. On March 6, 1788, Lieutenant King (afterwards Governor of New South Wales), who was appointed commandant, and Lieutenant Ball with a party of twenty-three, had landed on the south side from the “Supply” and had taken possession of it.

King named the bay wherein he landed and fixed his settlement, Sydney Bay, and gave the names of Phillip and Nepean to two small islands off its shores. At Sydney Bay log huts were built and thatched with bulrushes and flags, which added to the picturesqueness of the spot. The cabbage palm and flax plant grew luxuriantly. King believed that the island had been previously inhabited, for he found the banana tree growing in regular rows and the settlers, when turning up the soil in the interior, came upon “several stone hatchets, or rather stones resembling adzes and others resembling chisels.” A coconut perfectly fresh and a piece of wood said to resemble the handle[p612] of a fly-flap, like those of the Friendly Islands, together with the remains of two canoes, were discovered among the rocks, and these were thought to have been blown there from some distance.[*]

[* Collins, PP. 41, 149.]

Norfolk Island was afterwards used as a penal settlement, and in 1790 the population consisted of 149 persons. An order for its evacuation was issued by the imperial authorities in 1803. The settlers were to have been all removed to Tasmania and to Sydney, but the fulfilment of this purpose was long delayed. It was partly carried out in 1803, in 1813, and in 1825; the island, however, is still a British possession.

In May, 1830, Cunningham, while still awaiting news from home, visited Norfolk Island, and after landing from the ship “Lucy Ann” at Cascade Bay on the north side he walked across to the settlement at the southern side. It was La Pérouse who said of this island that it was only a fit habitation for “angels and eagles,” but he might well have added “and for botanists” so rich did Cunningham find it in interesting plants.

Of these he writes: “None are more remarkable than its noble pine, Araucaria excelsa, and a tree-fern, Alsophila excelsa; and, as these are lofty plants and generally grouped together on every part of the island, they form a most decided feature of the landscape.” He thought that in habit and general appearance the plants assumed more the aspect of the vegetation of New Zealand than that of Australia, and he noticed in Norfolk Island the following which are found in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand: Phormium tenaxOlea apetalaAreca Banksii (A. sapida. Forst.), Myoporum laetumDracaena australisFreycinetia Baueriana (the New Zealand plant is probably distinct and may be designated F. Banksii), Dodonaea sp.Tetragona expansaPolygonum australe, and Samolus littoralis.”

Cunningham recalled here that, at the discovery of the island in 1774, Forster, the naturalist who accompanied Cook on his second voyage, had had an opportunity of landing on its north shore near Cascade Bay, and that there, among several unpublished species of plants, he detected two new genera: the one, his Gynopogon (Alyxia. Br.), of which genus the intertropical parts of New South Wales furnish several species; the, other being his Blackburnia. “We hear of no further scientific remarks having been made on the botany of this beautiful isolated spot,” writes Cunningham, “until that able naturalist and[p613] draughtsman, Ferdinand Bauer, visited it, about the year 1804, and who doubtless during his stay collected every plant of its interesting flora, which, exclusive of a few mosses and lichens, comprehends something more than one hundred distinct species, belonging to full half that number of natural orders. Of these, ten furnish timbers that might be usefully employed in carpentry, boat-building, and even cabinet-work, viz.: Araucaria excelsaElaeodendron australeBlackburnia pinnataHibiscus Patersonii01ea apetalaCroton sp. [= Baloghia lucida], Kleinhovia (?) sp. [= Ungeria floribunda], Pennantia corymbosaMimusops sp. [=Achras costata], Coprosma sp. [= C. pilosa],


Colonel Morrisett, late of the 48th Regiment, who was cornmandant of the island, showed the botanical traveller much kindness, and made arrangements for him to visit Phillip Island. He made a circuit of this island, in spite of the ravines which separate the rivers that diverge from its peak and fall on the northern and western sides of it. “The interior,” says Cunningham, “presents some deep hollows, in parts densely wooded with small trees and an underwood chiefly of the thorny caper bush, bearing fruit like a green lemon, and very difficult to travel through.” Here were a number of wild goats and pigs, the progeny of some formerly put on shore at the first settlement of the island. The produce of this stock had been thinned at various times, but Cunningham saw a great many there, though the greater body kept in hollow places in the rocky face of the cliffs inaccessible to man. The plants, with few exceptions, were the same as those seen at Norfolk Island, among them being a species of Hibiscus, with a spinous stem bearing withered yellow flowers, and resembling a similar plant found at Port Macquarie. He was able to collect flowering specimens of Blackburnia pinnata, not previously met with in that state, Capparis sp. [= Busbeckia nobilis], and a ripe fruit of Mimusops sp. [= Achras costata]. In the shades was found a dark, glossy, pinnate-leaved twining plant, which appeared to be an undescribed species of Clitoria. He did not leave Norfolk Island to return to Port Jackson until September 11th, sailing in the “Lucy Ann” and landing in Sydney on the afternoon of the 28th, after an absence of twenty-one weeks. It had been his[p614] intention to visit the Swan River, but his lengthened stay in Norfolk Island prevented this.


On November 16th the looked-for instructions arrived from the Treasury ordering him to return to England. His long residence in the colony, therefore, was soon to draw to a close and he went on no further expeditions beyond a journey to Illawarra in December, 1830, and to Cox’s River in January, 1831, on botanizing excursions.

His time now was occupied chiefly in preparing for his homeward voyage, and a berth was reserved for his passage home in the ship “Forth,” Captain Robertson, which was due to sail from New South Wales in February to England direct. Gradually the huge botanical collections, consisting of living and dried plants and seeds, with specimens of the native woods from various parts of the continent, in addition to many other interesting objects of natural history, were packed and conveyed on board the vessel then at anchor in Sydney Harbour.

Cunningham next disposed of his household effects and his two horses, and on February 12th vacated the small cottage which had been his home during most of his stay at Parramatta. He says that he then bade adieu to his friends, “whose kind offices I can no more forget than attempt to eradicate from my memory the recollection of the very many agreeable periods I have spent in that quiet town.” From Parramatta he journeyed to Sydney, to find that the departure of the “Forth” had been postponed, and in the end, owing to unfavourable winds, the ship was prevented leaving Port Jackson until February 25th.

Not until July 10th did she sight the English coast, when early in the morning Cunningham had a first view of the Lizard, after having been absent nearly seventeen years from his native land. He took up his residence at a pretty cottage at Strand-on-the-Green, on the north bank of the Thames, close to Kew. Here, we are told, he was ever ready to impart the rich store of information he possessed, as well as to distribute a portion of the valuable collection he had brought home. Much of his time also was spent in arranging his herbarium and preparing for publication the various botanical articles in which he had recorded his observations.

[p615] In 1832, in consequence of the death of Charles Fraser, Colonial Botanist at Sydney, the vacant position was offered to Allan Cunningham, who was still at Strand-on-the-Green. He at this time declined the offer to go to New South Wales in favour of his brother Richard, who had been recommended strongly for the appointment by Mr. Robert Brown.

Richard Cunningham Botanist


His brother arrived at Port Jackson in February, 1833, and, although he did not live long in the country, Australia owes him a great debt, not only because it was there that he laid down his life in the cause of science, but also on account of the way in which, before leaving England, he had devoted his energies to the arrangement and classification of the flora of the continent. Indeed, the contents of most of the “cabins” despatched from Sydney by Allan Cunningham had found their way into the hands of his brother at Kew Gardens. In company with Mr. Aiton, Richard Cunningham examined these plants and compared them with other specimens in the Royal Gardens, which had been brought there not only from different parts of Australia and Tasmania but also from other countries, where members of the same botanical groups had been found. He therefore came to Sydney with an ample knowledge of the Australian flora, so that his death at the hands of the natives, while on a tour of discovery with Sir Thomas Mitchell in 1835, was an irreparable loss to New South Wales.

At first, when he heard that his brother was missing, Allan Cunningham cherished the hope that he might have survived; but as the months passed away and still no news was received of him, this seemed impossible. Not till May 17, 1836, however, did he learn from Sir Richard Bourke authentically that his brother had been murdered by the blacks. It transpired that Richard had been separated from the rest of the party, and, having got lost in the bush, had fallen in with a tribe of natives who had put him to death.

One of Sir Thomas Mitchell’s men had accompanied the mounted police to Budda Lake, on the Macquarie River, and interviewed some of the blacks belonging to the tribe, who frankly admitted that four of their number had murdered a white man on the Bogan. They stated that about six moons previously[p616] the white man had come to them and had made signs that he was hungry. They had given him food and he encamped with them on that night–either April 29th or 30th–but during the night he repeatedly got up and walked about, talking to himself and wringing his hands, and listening as if for the voices of his companions. His actions so much excited their suspicions that when daylight came they had held a consultation, and determined for their own safety to kill him, since they thought he meant to betray them into the hands of their enemies. Accordingly, one man struck him on the back of the head with a club, and others rushed upon him with their spears. On searching the bags of the tribe the white men found a knife and a glove. Thus Richard Cunningham died,[*] who, had he lived, could probably have filled in the blank spaces in the botanical knowledge of the country better, perhaps, than any other botanist at that period.

[* Heward: “Hooker’s Journal of Botany.”

Lieutenant Zouch, then at the head of the police, had proceeded to the spot on the Bogan mentioned by the blacks, and, on November 10th, had reached a place called Currindine, where some remains of a white man, a portion of his coat, and a manilla hat were found. Mr. Zouch’s party dug a grave there, and raised a mound over the remains, the officer himself marking a tree to show the spot where Richard Cunningham was laid to rest.


It was shortly after hearing this news that Allan Cunningham was appointed to succeed his brother in the position of Colonial Botanist in New South Wales. He took his passage on board the “Norfolk,” Captain Gatenby, and joined the ship at Spithead; she sailed from there on Sunday, October 30, 1836, and arrived at Port Jackson on Sunday, February 12, 1837. Cunningham took out with him an inscribed tablet to his brother’s memory, which was placed in the Scotch Church at Sydney.

For the short period that he held the post of Government Botanist the duties it entailed did not at all appeal to Allan Cunningham, and he was never happy in the work of superintending what he termed “the Government Cabbage Garden.”[*] Before any length of time had elapsed he decided to resign the post and begin collecting on his own account, and in January,[p617] 1838, he wrote home “I am now about to enter with all my might on a more legitimate occupation.” In the following April he visited New Zealand, sailing thither in the French corvette “L’Heroine,” 32 guns, Captain Cecille, who had kindly offered him a passage. At this time Cunningham’s health was beginning to fail, and doubtless the exertion of the expeditions he had formerly undertaken had undermined his constitution, for he seems to have had little strength to combat a serious chill which he caught during his stay in New Zealand. Before he left those shores, paralysed conditions of his limbs and a general weakness attributable to the meagre food he had had on his travels had so far manifested themselves that the illness which caused his death seems already to have taken hold of him.

[* He had been asked to supply the Governor’s table with cabbages.]

There was no improvement in Cunningham’s condition when he returned to Sydney. Gradually he got worse. Notwithstanding the state of his health, however, his enthusiasm for collecting did not forsake him, and he began planning a voyage with Captain Wickham in H.M.S. “Beagle”. The “Beagle”, which had left Sydney Harbour on November 10, 1838, to complete the survey of Bass Strait, was expected back at Port Jackson in February, and Captain Wickham had invited Cunningham to sail with him on his return to the north-west coast, where he had been instructed to complete a survey of the shores–especially of those which had been left uncharted by Captain King.

The botanist’s letters at this time to his friends at home are pathetic. Referring to Captain Wickham’s offer to take him in the Beagle he says in one letter:[*] “I am undergoing medical discipline in order to be hearty and well enough to accompany that excellent officer to the examination of a continent [coastline ?] first seen by old Dampier on Jan. 4th, 1688, and again by King in 1818-24.” Instead of getting better he grew worse, until all hope of his sailing in the Beagle had to be abandoned, and he says in a second letter, dated April 12, 1839:[*] “Captain Wickham is on the point of sailing. . . . I have failed in my best endeavours to patch myself up, and a consultation of four medical friends has just taken place . . . the result being an unanimous opinion that I do not, on any consideration, go to a tropical climate . . . in the very enfeebled state of my limbs “; to this he adds: “I shall now pass a quiet winter here with my friends.”

[* Heward: “Hooker’s journal of Botany,” Vols. 111 and IV.]

[** Ibid.]

Another letter, dated from Sydney, May 16, 1839, is addressed[p618] to Robert Brown, and is the last which the present writer has been able to trace.[*] In this Cunningham writes more cheerfully, and says: “I hope that the winter, now set in, will brace me up. My plan is to lie by now until January or February next, and then to embark with my collections and baggage, so as to reach London in 1840.”

[* MS. Letters to Robert Brown. British Museum.]

Alas! Cunningham was destined never again to see his native country, for, in spite of his hopeful words, his end was approaching. At the close of this letter, indeed, there is a paragraph which seems to show that he knew how serious a turn his illness was taking, for he wrote: “I am now exhausted in subject and literally in body, I therefore close, begging you, my dear sir, to receive this letter from the hands of a poor, decrepit, prematurely-old traveller, who if he did not all that he might have with the means he possessed”–and then adds, as if with a touch of pride, remembering what he had achieved in New South Wales–“at least strove for years to advance botanic science here from pure love, blending . . . the knowledge of the plants of the country with that of its internal geography.” Robert Brown must have received this shortly before he heard the news that Cunningham had passed away, for there appears on it in Brown’s handwriting, the memorandum: “Mr. Cunningham died on the 27th of June, 1839, at Sydney, as stated in Captain King’s letter to Captain Washington, dated Port Stephens, July 14th/39. R. B.”

Allan Cunningham was buried in Sydney, where so many explorers have found a last resting-place. In St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church there is a tablet to his memory, another memorial is the beautiful marble urn placed in the Botanical Gardens, overlooking the waters of Farm Cove. There are yet other memorials of him to be found in the geography of New South Wales, for his name has been frequently bestowed upon portions of its territory. Chief of these is the county which bears his name, wherein, on the northern bank of the Lachlan, are Mount Allan and Mount Cunningham.


(The errors have been corrected in this eBook)

Page xii, last line.–For “Cadgegong” read “Cudgegong.”
Page 104.–For “again carved” read again left.”
Page 109, Note 1.–For 1810 read 1814.”
Page 319 Note 1.–For “Rivière de Franc_ois” read “Rivière des Franc_ais.”
Page 480.–For “Vlamingh Plate” read ” Vlamingh’s Plate.”
Page 527, 4th par.–“On Oxley’s return” should read “On his return.”
Page 566, Note.–For “Thomas de la Comindane” read “Thomas de la Condamine.”
Page 512, last par.–For “Lomatia ilicifolia read “Lomatia silaifolia.”

Page 615, end of 2nd par.–Read “in 1835” after “tour of discovery with Sir Thomas Mitchell.”

The End