Victorian Historical Journal

„Sir Paul Edmund Strzelecki
Reflections on his life” by Lech Paszkowski, Arcadia: Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 1997

Strzelecki is a controversy figure in Australian history. At first welcomed by such people as Gipps, Sir John and Lady Franklin, Charles Darwin, P.P King and many others, before long John Dummore Lang attacked him for allegedly taking credit o himself for discoveries made by a good Scot, Angus McMillan, and historians have been debating the rival claims ever since.
In 1961 Helen Heney, in her biography „In a Glass Darkly: The Story of Paul Edmund Strzelecki” developed a wider attack on other aspects of his career on a scale she had not attempted in her Sydney University Master of Arts thesis in 1937, and some writers have taken up her criticisms.
Paszkowski's biography is in part to reply to Heney.

Dealing with the McMillan controversy first, one many say that like so many such arguments, the truth would seem to lie between the extreme claims of the supporters of both men.
Certainly McMillan was the first traveller from Omeo as far as the Macalister River near Sale between August 1839 and January 1840, discovering the lake and river system of that area which he christened Caledonia Australia, but neither he nor his patron Macalister bothered to publicize his discoveries, preferring simply to establish their own pastoral stations in the district.

Strzelecki's party added to McMillan's work at both ends; in the Alps in January and February, and then, after following McMillan's tracks as far as Sale, finding, a route to the west.
Here assisted by his aboriginal guide, Charley Tarra, Strzelecki displayed great skill as an explorer in traversing the extremely difficult country.
Finishing up in Melbourne gave great publicity (his party became the lions of the town), in which McMillan's work was certainly under-rated, but this should not lead one to ignore Strzelecki's contribution to the opening up of Gippsland.

However he was more than a mere explorer. He was a geologist, mineralogist and palaeontologist as well, and as Mr Paszkowski explains, after discussing — and re-asserting — Strzelecki's claims to have been the first to discover gold in New South Wales and Tasmania, he laid the foundation of these studies in Australia.

His investigations took him as far north as the Liverpool Plains and New England in New South Wales and throughout the length and breadth of Van Diemen's land, were the became he warm friend of the Franklins and others interested in science and was said by Dr Arundell Lewis in 1939 still to stand „first amongst Tasmanian scientific writers”.

Returning to England, in 1845 he published his book „Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land”.
Of his Paszkowski publishes a number of very laudatory reviews and for it Strzelecki received the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society next year — to join Eyre and Stuart in that honour.

He was soon to undertake relief work during the famine in Ireland for which he was made a Companion of the Order the Bath and to promote emigration to Australia, later pursuing his scientific work, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1853, received an honorary DCL from Oxford University in 1860 and was appointed KCMG in 1869.

Mr Paszkowski has given us a compressive and sympathetic account of Strzelecki's achievements. He proved, a last to me, that Strzelecki was justified in claiming noble birth; if over all, the criticism raised against his work are justified, he succeeded in bamboozling an extraordinarily large number of very distinguished people.
Maybe at times Paszkowski goes too far, and paints Strzelecki as a man who can do no wrong. It has been said that he was a „charmer”, and according to Gipps, „certainly a gentleman” which may have endeared him to many of his contemporaries.

But this book, based on eight years intensive research (and forty of persistent interest), gives us more details and more information about Strzelecki than we have ever had before and it certainly increases both our knowledge of and admiration for a man of great distinction. It is well produced and well illustrated, but regrettably the index needs more detail.

A.G.L Shaw