Extracts from: Lech Paszkowski: „Sir Paul Edmund de Strzelecki …”
Melbourne - 1997
A document of considerable importance is the so called „James McArthur Field Book, ” or „Diary of James McArthur”. Charles Daley, who received this manuscript in the late 1920s from Leslie McArthur, James’son, described it as „ pages extracted from his father’s field-book, describing the Count’s ascent of the peak”.
This document is of remarkable historical value because it contains a fairly accurate description of how Mount Kosciusko was climbed and named in 1840.
James McArthur was the only witness to the ascent and the naming of the mountain and its summit by Strzelecki, so his account is particularly interesting. It should be mentioned that Alan Andrews pointed out in his article „Lhotsky, Strzelecki, the Alps and Us” (1972) and in at least three of his following publications, when referring to the „field book” that:
„These extracts are in the handwriting of James McArthur, but must have been written out by him later than the time of the events described … ”
McArthur’s testimony was thoroughly analyzed by Lieutenant Colonel Hugh P. G. Clews, who had an extensive knowledge of the terrain, being the compiler of the first military maps of the area and a surveyor with the Snowy Mountains Authority In 1970 he published a scientific essay Strzelecki’s Ascent of Mount Kosciusko 1840, which was applauded as an authoritative work on the subject.
James McArthur stated, in the previously mentioned letter of March, 1856, to the Argus: „We started from Ellerslie on the afternoon of 2nd March, 1840” and Clews suggested that they arrived at Welaregang on March 7, but the „Diary” actually starts on March 9, 1840, with the following text:
March 9, 1840 — I started from Messrs Hay and Chalmers station on the Hume, accompanied by Count Strezlecki and two native guides, determined to reach the highest point of the Australian Alps. Ascending the beautiful and highly picturesque valley of the Hume on the southern bank of the river passing Guises Station, we formed our first camp at a ford known by the natives under the name of „Nowang”.
On the 10th we crossed the River to the northern bank and following the valley upwards reached a small circular plain „Gobollin”. It was more singular than picturesque; the margin of the forest was so formal and unbroken. From this point we ascended the higher ranges and in about four miles reached a small but rapid creek. Here we determined to leave our horses under the charge of a friend who had accompanied us so far, but did not feel the same ardor of discovery that incited the Count and myself to ascend the highest known point in Australia.
March 11 — Count Strezlecki, myself and two natives started at 7, am in high spirits to accomplish our object, the weather intensely hot, we marched on with our blankets and Provisions „au militaire”. The Count carried in addition a heavy case of instruments for scientific observations.
Ascending at once through a narrow gully in about three miles we reached a gap overhanging the course of the River — before us the deep valley of a tributary flowing from Dargan mountains at the head of the Tumut. We found the descent to this river so steep that we only accomplished it safely by clinging to the shrubs and small saplings — this locality [sic!] is peculiarly the habitat of the Black Opossum, a animal common in V[an] D[iemen's] Land. — On the opposite side of this fine stream we ascended an equally steep range, and descending again found ourselves on the main stream of the Hume. We crossed to the right bank, and passing the junction of another branch or tributary recrossed to the left bank, reaching the spot at which our actual ascent of the mountain was to commence.
The thermometer ranging upwards of 90o during the day, we determined after refreshing ourselves to accomplish as much of the ascent as we could during the cooler hours of night, and only camped when the bright moonlight failed us. — A fine Lyre-Bird furnished an ample supper and consoled us for the want of water.
The early dawn of the 12th found us again on our way, and after five hours of tedious ascent we reached a small open spot. A fine spring afforded us the means of making a hearty breakfast. The only water we had had during these many hours of toil was a single quart afforded by our guide Jacky descending over some perpendicular rocks to a roaring torrent, which we could hear far below us but could not see.
The spot we had now reached was the favorite camping ground of the natives during their annual visit to feast on the Boogan [Bogong] Moth.
Traces of their camps were visible in all directions. Our sable friends arrive here thin and half starved a few weeks surviving [?] on this extraordinary food clothes their skinny frames in aldermanic contrast.
Dr Bennett published in 1834 some very interesting details on this subject observed by him on the adjacent ranges of the Boogan Mountains.
Being on the margin of the timber we determined to leave our Blankets, etc., calculating that we could descend to this spot after accomplishing our object. Passing through first a belt of thick brush wood and secondly by belt of dead timber we reached the open summit clothed with a peculiar gigantic grass called by the natives „Monnong” [Muniang]; it is from 2 to 3 feet high — bright green and succulent. It was very difficult to travel through. Flying mist occasionally enveloped us accompanied by a keen freezing air. After two hours of toilsome ascent we found ourselves still far from the highest point. After consultation we determined to send back our guides for the blankets and provisions and directed them to form a camp on the spot where we then stood. Strezlecki and I then proceeded towards the extreme summit which we reached after a very laborious climb. The air was bitterly cold.
We found the actual summit divided into six or more points. The Count by aid of his instruments quickly detected one of these as being in fact considerably higher than where we stood. A deep ravine separating us from this did not deter my adventurous friend; he determined to reach it.
— As the day was far advanced I thought it more prudent to return towards the point where I had ordered the natives to await our return.
— Before leaving the Count he told me of his intention of recording his visit to the highest point in Australia by associating the name of Kosciusko with our successful ascent. I could not but respect and feel deep sympathy with my friend when with his hat off he named the Patriot of his Country.
Parting on the summit I commenced my descent leisurely enjoying the ample supply of fine water cress that abounded in every crevice of the rocks.
The beautiful flowers then in full bloom, afforded me great pleasure, these were the flowers of early spring — below — principally Euphorbiaceous. Immense masses of mica slate form groups here and there on the mountain side. Towards evening I reached the spot where I had ordered our Camp to be formed but could see no trace of our sable friends. I shouted, fired my gun, but could get no answering signal — the approaching night made me feel deeply anxious not only for my own position but that of my friend.
My first care was to collect fuel and light a fire to direct Strezlecki’s descent by its light. The night was passing on; just as I was placing myself in the best position that I could find to feel the warmth of my small fire, I thought that I heard a faint shout or cooey [sic!]. I climbed up a high rock overhanging a deep precipice about 100 feet below me. I saw the reflection of the natives’ fire. I scrambled back, and, making a rather perilous descent through a dark glen, reached the terrace upon which my friends were comfortably established.
I could hear nothing of Strzelecki but immediately dispatched Jackey [sic!] to look for him, and very soon after had the satisfaction of shaking my friend by the hand. He had experienced many falls by the way but was unhurt. He produced from his bag [rock from] the extreme summit of the rocky height he had gained; I imagine he still has in his collection this interesting trophy.
The Count had experienced more difficulty than he expected the rather deep hollow that he crossed after we parted offered serious obstacles to his progress from the endless confusion of rocks and the tall growth of Monnong grass. He remarked the escape of Carbonic acid gas from the fissures in the Rock. I had noticed the singular hissing noise, but did not know its cause.
The air after night fall was alive with the Boogan Moths causing a deep sounding humming noise in character like that of a gigantic Bee Hive. — On the most shaded side of the Mountain there was still an extensive patch of Snow, judged to be by my friend perpetual as it was more or less stained by the decay of vegetation. This season was remarkable as being one in which the mountain was more free from Snow than it had been before observed.
On the 13th we made a rapid descent to the camp where we had left our Horses — on the 14th the Count was engaged completing and verifying his observations. He fixed the height he had reached as 7.800 feet.
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The ascent was first reported in the Port Phillip Herald of June 2, 1840, page 2, column 2:
The Count and Mr McArthur ascended the Australian Alps, and on the 12 th of February, about noon, they found themselves sitting on the most elevated peak of Australia, at the height of 7.800 feet above the level of the sea, beyond the reach of vegetation, surrounded by perpetual snows.
The name Mount Kosciusko (spelled Koscuisko) appeared for the first time in print in the Port Phillip Herald of June 23, 1840, page 2, column 3.
The following paragraph was written there by Henry Fyshe Gisborne in his article Progress of Discovery:
The party, consisting of Count Streleski [sic!], Messrs Mc’Arthur and Riley, with servants, &c., began by following the valley of the Murray for seventy miles, till they arrived at the foot of the highest peak of the Australian Alps. An ascent was immediately commenced, and on the 15th of February, at noon, the Count attained the summit of the mountain amid perpetual snows.
The scene described is most beautiful; above, a transparent sky, and below, an uninterrupted view of 7,000 square miles, embracing the sources of the Dumutt [Tumut] and Murrurnbidgee, the windings of the Murray, the course of the dividing range, and the tops of Mount Aberdeen and Mount Buller.
The elevation from which this view was obtained was named Mount Koscuisko [sic] and I should not be doing justice to the distinguished author of this journal, if I attempted to convey in other language than his own, the feelings which induced him to fix upon that particular name. They are feelings with which all must sympathize who reverence the names of those who have died for their country’s freedom.
I subjoin an extract from the original document. „The particular configuration of the eminence struck me so forcibly, by the similarity it bears to a tumulus elevated in Krakow over the tomb of the patriot Koscuisko, that, although in a foreign country, on foreign ground, but amongst a free people who appreciate freedom and its votaries, I could not refrain from giving it the name of Mount Koscuisko.
The first description of the high country, and the recording of the naming the mountain, was written by Strzelecki on June 26 - 1840, and forwarded to Governor Gipps. This manuscript is held by the Mitchell Library, as „Count Strelesky’s Journal”. Gipps dispatched it on September 28, 1840, to Lord John Russell and the report was published in the British Parliamentary Papers, vol. 17, on August 28, 1841. A very similar text appeared in the Sydney Herald of August 19, 1841, nine days earlier, stating for a third time „I could not refrain from giving it the name of Mount Kosciusco [sic!]”.
The last sentence was again reprinted, with the more correct spelling „Kosciusko”, in the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science in 1842. So, Australian readers were actually notified about the naming of Mount Kosciusko at least four times before the book, Physical Description …, published in May, 1845, reached the Antipodes. The book gave the description of the ridge but omitted to explain why the Mount was named Kosciusko:
Conspicuously elevated above all the heights hitherto noticed in this cursory view, and swollen by many rugged protuberances, the snowy and craggy scientific cone of Mount Kosciuszko is seen cresting the Australian Alps, in all the sublimity of mountain scenery. Its altitude reaches 6.500 feet, and the view from its summit sweeps over 7.000 square miles. Standing above the adjacent mountains which could either detract from its imposing aspect or intercept the view, Mount Kosciuszko is one of those few elevations, the ascent of which, far from disappointing, presents the traveler with all that can remunerate fatigue.
In the north-eastward view, the eye is carried as far back as the Shoalhaven country, the ridges of all the spurs of Moneiro [sic] and Twofold Bay, as well as those, which, to the westward, in close the tributaries of the Murrumbidgee, being conspicuously delineated. Beneath the feet, looking from the very verge of the cone downwards almost perpendicularly, the eye plunges into a fearful gorge 3.000 feet deep, in the bed of which the sources of the Murray gather their contents, and roll their united waters to the west.
To follow the course of that river from this gorge into its farther windings, is to pass from the sublime to the beautiful. The valley of the Murray, as it extends beneath the traveler's feet, with the peaks Corurial, Dargal, Mundiar, and Tumbarumba, crowning the spur which separates it from the valley of the Murrumbidgee, displays beauties to be compared only to those seen among the valleys of the Alps.
From Mount Kosciuszko, the chain, resuming its so direction, still maintains the same bold character, but, with diminished height. To the right and left, its ramifications are crowned by peaks, rendering the appearance of the country rugged and sterile. With the exception of the vicinity of Lake Omeo, and a part of the Mitta Mitta valley, lying between the spur crowned by Mount Yabbarra, and that surmounted by Mount Ajuk, a track resembling a vast basin, without trees, and scantily supplied with water, but covered even during a parching summer with luxurious pasture, the whole region westward of the chain, towards Western Port, is rent by narrow gullies almost inaccessible, either by reason of the steepness of the ridges which flank them, or of the thick interwoven underwood which covers the country.
Andrews (Alan E.J, Strzelecki’s Ascent of Mount Kosciuszko, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1988) found Strzelecki’s reports of the high country:
… a quaint mixture of the general and the specific, of romantic and scientific description. It is impossible to define or to be sure of what Strzelecki means to impart by the terms he uses — even whether he is interested in detail of the features of the mountain mass. The errors, inconsistencies, and exaggerations relating to date, time, Kosciuszko’s tumulus, mountain height, perpetual snow, and so forth, all point to a picture of a romantic who had scaled the highest mountain mass in the land and is intoxicated by the feelings engendered.
The letter to his „angel Adine” — ‘en voilà fleur du Mont Kosciuszko — cette montagne la plus haute de ce continent… ‘ has even deeper feeling.
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Among the few critics of the Physical Description one can read in A Land Half Won by Geoffrey Blainey that:
The Polish explorer and natural scientist, Strzelecki, mistakenly vowed that the flocks and axes and tinder boxes by destroying the forests and under growth, were actually making the climate hotter and dryer. Many disagreed that sheep and cattle were like locusts. Many believed that the pastures had actually been improved in their district since the arrival of the sheep.
It is rather hard to comprehend where Strzelecki made a mistake, when Professor Keith Hancock in his monograph „Discovering Monaro” stated that:
Polish geologist Strzelecki… saw the land aflame.
The squatters, he told Governor Gipps, were not improvers, but spoilers of the land. In our own time, many observers in many Australian neighborhoods have reiterated Strzelecki’s indictment
… we cannot but agree that he states his argument with power. In any anthology of the literature of land use and conservation, his statement would merit a prominent place
… Australians have good reason to ponder his forceful denunciation of ruinous land use, his proposals for reform, and criteria of sound practice which he states or implies: the fertility of the soil he says in effect, should be harvested, not mined.
Professor Manning Clark in a review of the book „Discovering Monaro” wrote:
Paul Edmund de Strzelecki… was a hero, too, because he warned the decision makers of New South Wales that the increase of grazing flocks, which in many cases overstocked the pasture, would in time enervate the surface, and assimilate the best parts of the land of the Monaro to those parts which were already sterile.
Finally, here is an excerpt from the standard manual given to Australian students of Agricultural Colleges:
By treading, grazing animals cause the soil surface to become compacted. Possibly the most important consequence of this effect is to reduce the rate of infiltration or entry of rainfall into the soil (…).
When walking to and from grazing area, sheep and cattle tend to make repeated use of certain paths. The resulting heavy traffic tends to create bare paths and on certain soils these paths can be responsible for the initiation of serious erosion.
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