The word, botanist, carved into a sandstone plaque accompanied by the date 1839, generates an emotional imagining of gentleness and quiet beauty, for some. No computers, no phones, nor fast transport, no loud constant intrusive noise. Imagine the botanist - would he hear the sounds of nature when out in the field, probably, the pure silence of his herbarium or library when back in civilisation, possibly. But wait, there's more, the botanist of this story was a botanical warrior fighting for scientific knowledge. His life was indeed sometimes quiet, however it was contrasted by extremes, long periods of endurance, living on the edge.
The plaque is attached to the base of a decaying obelisk, standing in a waterlilly pond in the middle of Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens. Just above the base plate there is a second carving, completely discoloured with moss and weather stains. If you wade out to the obelisk to decipher the words, like an archaeologist would, wading out through the slime, you can read the words - "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's his grave! A grave in the center of one of Sydney City's most important and from my point of view, sacred open spaces. This man must have been someone special. Who was Allan Cunningham?
Cunningham's starting point was the year 1791, the year of his birth. King George III sat on the British throne, Sir Joseph Banks was busily convincing the King and anyone that would listen, of the importance of global botanical collecting. A new colony had been established in Port Jackson by Captain Arthur Phillip, India was controlled by the British, the Americans had fought for, and won, their independence and the French were in the middle of their revolution. It was an age of discovery, an age of excitement, both scientific and geographic.
In 1814 Allan was sent to collect plants firstly in Brazil and then in Australia in 1816, later he circumnavigated Australia sailing with the amazing Lieutenant Phillip Parker King, a forgotten hero, aboard HMS cutter "Mermaid" and HMS "Bathurst", over a four year period. He visited Mauritius and exotic Timor and later went to New Zealand and Norfolk Island. He covered an incredible amount of ground and had some real nail biting experiences.
He added the role of "explorer" to his résumé after assisting and then leading several exploratory journeys into the Australian wilderness. He knew many of the characters that populated the early Colonial history of Australia during the Macquarie Era and later. In 1831, fifteen years after arriving in Sydney, he returned to Kew Gardens in Britain to document his botanical discoveries and to recuperate. Six years passed before he decided to return to Sydney.
When seeking to understand the colonial past of Australia, Allan Cunningham's story is one to experience. As you read through his story you will discover that he was a person who, although unassuming, knew "everyone" who was anyone and was aware of many of the events that shaped the Australian colonial world he lived in. In many ways, although often a support player and occasionally taking a leading role, he was right in the middle of everything. He counted some very influential people amongst his friends including Phillip Parker King, John Oxley, the Macarthur family, Robert Brown the Botanist who sailed with Matthew Flinders and Alexander Macleay, the Colonial Secretary of NSW. His beliefs were firmly grounded in the philosophy of the British Enlightenment resulting in his dedication to the pursuit of knowledge resulting in a precious collection of botanical specimens that still exist in the herbariums of the world.
While singing his praises and looking to him as a good example of tenacity and dedication we cannot forget the racist and barbaric world he lived in. He was a man of his time and therefore looked upon the indigenous population in a paternalistic manner, he did not attempt to make things right between the black and the white races, he would not have seen it as his "place" to remedy the problem. I would like to think he did not cause them harm deliberately, his kindness to everyone is well documented. While remembering his time in history as inspiring for western civilisation and its expansion, it was also a time when indigenous populations were brought to their knees and in Tasmania and South America, wiped out. Charles Darwin witnessed it and so too did Allan Cunningham, both good men, in the context of their time. The narrative of the Australian aboriginal experience follows the achievements of the white Englishman like a dark hovering shadow and must not be ignored. This story will not ignore their situation nor will it dwell on it. In this story I would like to celebrate a life, the life of a remarkable man within the context of his time.
The world he experienced was, although brutal, very exciting and often beautiful. It is through his eyes we will try to imagine his experience.
Cunningham's achievements in exploration and botanical collecting have been well documented by his friend and fellow botanist, Robert Heward, in his 1842 biographical sketch of Allan Cunningham. For the reader who wants to understand the chronological achievements of Mr Cunningham and the specifics of the plants he collected you can do no better than read Mr Heward's story which is appended to "The King's Botanical Collector".
Mr Heward focused on the formal and scientific story, my story will focus on the "man". He was a living breathing person who made a difference. What made him the man he was? What was happening around him, what made him laugh, what made him cry, who were his friends. Did he listen to music. Did he appreciate the arts. What did he read. What were his political affiliations. He never married, who did he love and who loved him. His companions on his journeys were mainly convicts, who were they, how did he treat them, what happened to them, did they respect him. He returned to England in 1831, he would have been popular in the world of science and exploration, who did he share his knowledge with in London's 1830s. He returned to Sydney, although he wasn't well, why, was it to investigate his brother's murder in the Australian bush. He saw the Australian native plants before the landscape was altered by the colonial settlers and he named some of them and collected thousands, how did he get them back to England and what happened to the specimens. When we envisage his experience we will understand a little bit about someone whose attitude to life may influence ours in a positive way.
The historian Ida Lee, who transcribed an enormous amount of Allan Cunningham's journals in the early 1900s, believed that he was a man who deserved to be remembered. Everything I've read about the man confirms her perception, he is an ancestor of whom those of us, who have inherited the knowledge of western civilisation's enlightenment, can be proud.
"The King's Botanical Collector"
is a manuscript in progress.
We are into our second year of research.
The project includes the republishing and editing of
Robert Heward's 1842 Biographical Sketch of Allan Cunningham,
along with extensive endnotes,
illustrative enhancements and botanical photography.
The manuscript will be self-published
in a traditional paper format and
the new generation eBook format along with
a complementary web site.
For a progress report contact the author, Diane Challenor
WE WELCOME INTEREST FROM PUBLISHERS AND AGENTS