Extracts from the book
„Social Background of Sir Paul Strzelecki
and Joseph Conrad”

by Lech Paszkowski (Melbourne 1980)



One sometimes finds in Australian newspapers, periodicals and books, remarks directed against Sir Paul de Strzelecki, which can only be described as character assassination. It seems rather strange as Sir Paul served Australia well for many years with his knowledge, money and physical strength.
     He spent 5000 pounds from his own pocket in scientific exploration in Australia. In those days it was a huge sum, when the yearly salary of the curator of the Australian Museum amounted to only 150 pounds.
     He had received for his services as the administrator and plenipotentiary to Prince Francis Sapieha, a severance grant of 12.000 ducats, each of these containing 3,5 grams of pure gold. This made him a gentleman of means, enabling him to pursue his scientific interests.

Many Australians are direct descendants of the British emigrants who came to this country, thanks to the help of the Family Colonisation Loan Society, originated by Carolyne Chisholm. Strzelecki was for many years an active member of this Society and in 1854 was its Chairman, fulfilling his duties with great zeal and without remuneration.

It is a mistake to think that a man, who died a hundred years ago, can be better judged and described by writers today, than by the people who actually lived with him, observed him and dealt with him in real life.
It is also a matter of simple necessity for a writer to learn something about a far off country and its culture, before starting to write on the subject. A historian worthy of the name, should always have some idea how the people of the epoch concerned were thinking and not superimpose modern views on the bygone days.
This essay was written with the hope that it will be useful to writers, students and particularly journalists, who are usually in a hurry, with little time for lengthy research.

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Many Polish-English dictionaries translate the word szlachcic as nobleman and szlachta as nobility, but it is not really so simple. An English author, Monica Gardner, states in her biography entitled Kosciuszko (Allen & Unwin, London, 2nd ed. 1942, p. 14) :
„Kosciuszko came of a class for which we have no precise equivalent, that ranked as noble in a country where at that time the middle classes were unknown, and where the ordinary gentry, so long as they had nothing to do with trade, showed patents of nobility, irrespective of means and standing”

strzelecki coat

When referring to the word szlachta Zdzislaw Najder, in his afore-mentioned book Conrad’s Polish Background, explained to his readers: «The term cannot be adequately rendered in English because there was no difference in Poland between nobility and gentry: every member of the szlachta was legally equal to any other member, however rich; there were no titles (apart from that of prince — książe — given to royal cousins); any member of the szlachta could theoretically become a member of the Sejm (Polish parliament, established in 1493) or even be elected a king.

liscBelonging to the szlachta was marked by possessing a coat of arms; every coat of arms had a name and names of coat of arms were frequently used along with family names to indicate belonging to a sort of „clan”. In this book the word "nobility" is generally used as a counterpart of – szlachta, as entymologically analogous and closer in reference».

English words like „yeoman”, „armiger” and „esquire” have no equivalents in Polish language. The word „gentleman” adopted from English, means in Polish – a person of exemplary manners and behaviour, but does not refer to status. In the Cambridge History of Polandthe szlachta was referred to as the „knightly class”, „knighthood”, or „class of squires”.
     Besides this, the word szlachcic was often used as a synonym to rycerz, a „knight”, and szlachta to rycerstwo, the „knighthood”.
The first Polish armorial, published by Bartosz Paprocki in Cracow, in 1584, was entitled Herby rycerstwa polskiego (The Coat of Arms of the Polish Knighthood)


An interesting description of the Polish szlachta was given by Bernard Connor, an Irish physician to King Jan III Sobieski, who lived in Poland at the end of 17th century:
„All the gentry of Poland are equal by birth, and therefore they do not value titles of honour, but think that a noble Pole or gentleman of Poland the greatest they can have. Neither the King nor the Republic bestow the title of Prince, which belongs only to the sons of the royal family; for some are made Princes of the Empire and as such enjoy the title of Prince. They have no precedence upon that account.

liscNor have they any Dukes, Marquises, Counts, Viscounts, or Barons, but a few have foreign titles which the rest generally despise; for they do not value any borrowed character or external denomination, but say that it is intrinsic worth and service done to their country that deserves preferment”.
„Those great privileges made the Polish gentry very powerful ”. 3)

3.) Quotation from A Short History of Poland by A. S. Rappoport, London, 1915, p. 172, referring to Bernard Connor, Physician to King John III Sobieski, Navigatorum atque Itinerarorum Bibliotheca (John Harris), London, 1748.


When abroad as an emigre, or political refugee, a szlachcic had very little choice. He could either downgrade himself as a „gentleman”, or upgrade himself by assuming a title. To the 19th century mind it ras, of course, a much more serious dilemma than to a modern man.

Simon Konarski, in his book „O heraldyce i 'heraldycznym' snobizmie” ("About Heraldry and 'Heraldic' Snobbery"), Paris 1967, p. 38-49, listed not less than 200 cases of members of the szlachta, mostly abroad, assuming titles 4). This list is certainly not complete and many similar examples could be added.

liscM. Paszkiewicz, a historian of the Polish community in the United Kingdom, in the Introduction to his „List of Poles naturalised in Great Britain in XIX century ”, 5) pointed out an anomaly in that, when several members of the szlachta assumed the title of „Count” these words were placed before their names on the official documents granting them naturalization, from the Home Office in Britain.
This neither refuted the assumed titles of the szlachta, nor recognized them. According to the laws of Great Britain of the 19th century, a foreign nobleman lost his title but was still officially described as `Esquire' and not as a commoner.

4) See also his Armorial (Bibliography, 15), p. 70 and J. Matuszewski: Polskie nazwisko szlacheckie (Surnames of the Polish Szlachta), Łódź (Societas Scientiarum Lodziensis), 1975, p, 137.
5) Published in the Materiały do Biografii Genealogii i Heraldyki Polskiej (Materials to the Polish Biography Genealogy and Heraldry), vol. 3, Paris 1966, p. 71.


An interesting illustration of the circumstances in which some members of the szlachta assumed titles, was described in the memoirs of Jan Bartkowski, Wspomnienia z powstania 1831 r. i Pierwszych lat emigracji (Cracow, 1967), who lived in Edinborough from 1834.
According to Bartkowski (p. 310-311), a Polish refugee officer, Stanislaw Poninski went from Edinborough to France in 1835 to visit his brother. While there he met Prince Lannes Napoleon Montebello, who appointed Poninski to act as his agent in Great Britain to promote the sale of the Prince’s champagne vrines.

liscWhen Lieutenant Poninski arrived in London, Lord Dudley C. Stuart promised him help and recommendation to his friends, but also advised Poninski that he should introduce himself everywhere as a Count. Poninski, who was of democratic convictions, never used a title. He expected that his gentleman like appearance, decem dress and higher education, would be good enough to gain him customers.
     But he was disappointed, for everywhere he was greeted with a cold and sometimes rough reception. In one house he was sent back to the cellarman, who told Poninski that as a tradesman he should announce himself with only one knock and not with a loud banging, which only a gentleman was entitled to do.
     The offended Poninski berated the flunkey, shouting that he did it because he was a gentleman and a Count.
Probably Lieutenant Poninski was not the only one among members of the Polish szlachta to receive such advice from Lord Dudley C. Stuart.

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To write that Sir Paul Strzelecki’s parents had no title and not to explain to the Australian readers that they belonged to the szlachta, gives a false impression that they were commoners.

The family Strzelecki of Strzelce was well known as far back as at least 1391. In the 15th century they achieved the great splendour as a „senatorial” family, including several Castellans, Palatines and even an Archbishop. As Joseph Conrad stressed, the most venerated title in Poland was that of a senator.

The Senate was a King’s Council, something similar to the House of Lords in Great Britain. It consisted of higher clergy to the number of 17, 33 Palatines (voivodes) or governors of provinces, and 85 Castellans, originally commanders of royal cities or fortresses appointed by the King, but later independent of him.
The title of senator was not hereditary but the splendour of a „senatorial” family remained for ever even if the material wealth declined.

liscAfter the first partition of Poland the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria issued a proclamation on June 13, 1775, in which it was confirmed that:
„The families, which in the past possessed any title whatsoever, were authorized in accordance with the order, to make use of them as before, on the condition of furnishing proof, without which an abandonment of the rights should be demanded.
All those families which have Been invested with senatorial responsibilities and those of district governors can assume the hereditary title of Count”
(S. Konarski Armorial de la Noblesse Polonaise Titrée, p. 49).

As Strzelecki's forefathers belonged to the senatorial order, the family had the right to apply for the title of Count in Galicia, under the Austrian Empire. They did not bother to apply, or perhaps their financial position was not good enough for them to do so. It would have been very easy for Sin Paul to obtain the title had he so wished.
There is no proof whatsoever that Paul Strzelecki even once described himself, signed or introduced himself as a Count. On the passenger list of the ship Virginian in 1834 he described himself as a „gentleman” and on his naturalization papers of 1845 he described himself as „Monsieur”.

liscIn both cases he rather down-graded himself. On the title page of his book Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land he put simply P. E. de Strzelecki. In the same way he signed his preface to Gold and Silver in 1856 and the title page bears only his surname.
The inscription „Count Strzelecki” on the cover of the latter book proves nothing. It is well known that more often than not, blurbs and covers are prepared by the publishers without the author’s participation. The present writer received one of his books with the author's biography on the back jacket, which he could not fully approve, but it was too late to alter it.

Two eminent experts in heraldry and genealogy, Simon Konarski in his list of assumed tittles (O Heraldyce, p. 38) and M. Paszkiewicz in the afore-mentioned „List of Poles naturalised in Great Britain ” (p. 110), stressed that in spite of the fact that Paul Edmund Strzelecki was called „the Count”, there is no proof that he actually „assumed ” or used such a title himself.

In a letter to Maria Reidt, of August 23, 1873, Sir Paul Strzelecki stated that Lord Colchester 'merely for reasons of courtesy adorned his name „with the title of Count”. Nevertheless, like scores of other members of the szlachta he allowed himself to be called and addressed as „Count”.

A well known author Stanislaw Helsztyński, in his book Ave Roosevelt (Warsaw, 1949, p. 279), pointed out that General Casimir Pulaski, the „father” of American Cavalry, and General Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Chief Engineer of Washington’s army, both members of the szlachta, allowed themselves to be addressed as „Count” in America.

liscPaul Strzelecki’s mother was Anna Raczyńska. The family Raczyński of Raczyn belonged to the distinguished szlachta and their name appeared in the written records as early as 1541. In the years 1709 - 1795 this family produced four senators. Thus, on both parental sides, Sir Paul Strzelecki was a descendant of noble families with proud traditions.

Strzelecki's genealogical three shows clearly that for at least six generations his ancestors were married to the prosperous and respectable families of the Grand Duchy of Poznań, all of course of the szlachta class: Raczyński, Gorzycki, Żegocki, Mościcki of Mościska, Splawski and Soliński de Solno.
All these families came from the medieval Polish Knighthood.

„The Count” before his name should be regarded as a sympathetic nickname, quite blessing for man with an unpronounceable surname.

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