STRZELECKI, Sir Paul Edmund de (1797-1873)


STRZELECKI, Sir Paul Edmund de (1797-1873)
explorer and scientist
was born at Gluszyna near Poznau in Prussian Poland, on 20 June 1797. He was the son of Francis Strzelecki, a small landed proprietor and his wife, Anna Raczynski. Both parents were of good descent though comparatively poor. In Australia Strzelecki took the title of count, but his parents were not titled and it is not known on what his claim was based. He was educated at a school at Warsaw and his knowledge of science suggests that he must have attended a university, but attempts to trace where he completed his education have failed. When about 21 he entered the Prussian army, but did not like the strict discipline and resigned his ensign's commission. Not long after he attempted an elopement with a girl of 15, Adyna Turno, but she was overtaken on the way to their meeting-place, and Strzelecki, provided with funds by his family, found it wise to leave the district. He eventually came under the notice of Prince Sapieha who placed him in charge of a large estate in Russian Poland. He was then about 26 years of age and appears to have been successful in the carrying out of his duties. Some years later the prince died and trouble arose between his heir and Strzelecki, who about the year 1830 left Poland and went to England. Beyond his own statement in his volume published in 1845 that 15 years before he was exploring the north of Scotland, nothing is known about his stay in Great Britain. Early in 1834 he paid a visit to the continent and on 8 June 1834 he sailed from Liverpool to New York. He travelled much in North and South America and the South Sea Islands, and came to New Zealand probably about the beginning of 1839. He arrived at Sydney towards the end of April of that year.
Strzelecki was chiefly interested in the mineralogy and geology of Australia and at once began to explore near Sydney. During the next four years he traversed a great part of the country to a depth of 150 miles, from the north of New South Wales to the south of Tasmania. In 1839 he was the first person to discover gold in Australia, but Governor Gipps (q.v.) feared the effects of gold discovery on the colony and persuaded Strzelecki to keep it secret. He did so to the extent that in his journal published in the Sydney Herald of 19 August 1841 he spoke of gold having been found "sufficient to attest its presence; insufficient to repay its extraction". He had, however, reason to think that gold in larger quantities could be found in the Bathurst district, but respected Gipps's wishes in saying nothing further. The credit of being the first discoverer of gold in Australia is sometimes given to assistant surveyor, James McBrien, whose field-book, now in the Mitchel library, has an entry on 15 February 1823, stating he had found "numerous particles of gold". No evidence could be traced to show that this discovery had been made public, and in the discussions that took place 30 years afterwards neither Strzelecki nor the Rev. W. B. Clarke (q.v.) even mentions McBrien's name. A discovery that was still unknown so many years later is not worthy of the name. About the middle of January 1840, with James Macarthur, a cousin of James Macarthur of Camden (q.v. [under entry for John Macarthur]), Strzelecki set out on a journey to the south intending to make for Port Phillip and Tasmania. On 15 February he ascended the peak he named Mount Kosciusco. From there he made his remarkable journey through Gippsland. After passing the La Trobe River it was found necessary to abandon the horses and all the specimens that had been collected, and try to reach Western Port. For 22 days they were on the edge of starvation, indeed they were only saved by the knowledge and hunting ability of Charley, an aborigine member of the party who caught native bears which were thankfully eaten. Sometimes the scrub was so dense that only two miles would be covered in a day. The party arrived at Western Port on 12 May practically exhausted. Melbourne was reached on 28 May 1840. This journey caused Strzelecki to be called the discoverer of Gippsland, but that honour must be given to Angus McMillan (q.v.). Strzelecki spent some weeks in Melbourne and then went to Tasmania on 7 July. There he was kindly received by Sir John Franklin (q.v.) and his wife who encouraged and helped him in every way. He showed interest in the question of irrigation which, however, was much less needed in Tasmania than in the other colonies. He travelled over most of Tasmania on foot, with three men and two packhorses, and in the beginning of 1842 examined the islands in Bass Strait and then resumed his journeys in Tasmania. He left Tasmania on 29 September by steamer and arrived at Sydney on 2 October 1842. He was collecting specimens in northern New South Wales towards the end of that year, and on 22 April 1843 he left Sydney and went to England after visiting China, the East Indies and Egypt. Everywhere he went he collected specimens, the sale of which in Europe provided for his expenses. He was much gratified in 1844 on receiving an address from the Tasmanian public accompanied with the sum of £400. In 1845 he published his Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, a purely scientific work in which the account of his journeys fills a very small place. In the same year he was naturalized as an Englishman, and in 1846 was awarded the founder's medal of the Royal Geographical Society.
The Irish famine which began towards the end of 1846 was a disaster which stirred England deeply. The British Relief Association was formed and the sum of £500,000 was subscribed for the relief of the sufferers. Strzelecki was appointed an agent to superintend the distribution of supplies in the counties of Sligo and Mayo. He devoted himself to his task with success, though for a time incapacitated by famine fever. In 1847-8 he continued his work in Dublin as sole agent for the association. In recognition of his services he was made a Companion of the Bath in November 1848. On his return to London he gave much attention to philanthropic interests, and especially in assisting the emigration of impoverished families to Australia, in which he was associated with Mrs Chisholm (q.v.). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1853, in June 1860 he was given the honorary degree of D.C.L. of Oxford, and in 1869 he was created a K.C.M.G. He died at London on 6 October 1873. He never married. He corresponded with Adyna Turno on affectionate terms and 20 years after their attempt at elopement they still considered themselves betrothed. They do not appear to have met again until Strzelecki was about 70 years of age.
Strzelecki, after a somewhat turbulent youth, developed into a man of fine character and personal charm. He was a great worker, a good explorer and scientist, and his one book so far at least as the Tasmanian portion is concerned was not superseded for 45 years. His only other publication was a supplement to this work, Gold and Silver, which told the story of his discovery of gold in Australia to protect himself "against the imputation of negligence or incapacity as a geological and mineralogical surveyor".
W, L. Havard, Journal and Proceedings, Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. XXVI, pp. 20-97; Sydney Herald, 19 August 1841; Ernest Scott, The Herald, Melbourne, 24 June 1939; The Times, 7 and 17 October 1873; The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July and 1 August 1936.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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