Allan Cunningham, the great botanical explorer of Australia, was born at Wimbledon, near London, in 1791. He received a good education, his father intending him for the law; but he preferred gardening, and obtained a position under Mr. Aiton, at Kew. In 1814 he went to Brazil, where he made large collections of dried specimens, living plants, and seeds. Here he remained two years, collecting in the vicinity of Rio, the Organ Mountains, San Paolo, and other parts of Brazil. Sir Joseph Banks wrote that his collections, especially of orchids, bromeliads, and bulbs, "did credit to the expedition and honour to the Royal Gardens." He was nominated for service in New South Wales, and landed at Port Jackson on the 21st of December, 1816.* He first started collecting about the present suburb of Woolloomooloo in Sydney, which we may infer therefrom presented a very different appearance from that which it now presents. He next went with Oxley on his Lachlan expedition. On his return, he commenced the first of his five coastal voyages, in which he accompanied Captain P.P. King around most of the continent of Australia. In the tiny cutter the Mermaid, of 84 tons, they left Port Jackson on the 22nd of December, 1817, and sailed round the south coast of Australia to King George's Sound, the west coast, the north coast, and finally to Timor. The Mermaid returned by the same route and anchored in Port Jackson on the 24th of July, 1818. Again on the 24th of December, the Mermaid left Port Jackson on a short trip to Tasmania, from which they returned in February, 1819. Once more the busy little Mermaid sailed from Sydney on the 8th of May, 1819, to make a running survey of the east coast. On this voyage, many ports hitherto unvisited were examined by King, and amongst other places, Cunningham paid his first visit to the Endeavour River. Continuing the survey, she rounded Cape York, crossed the mouth of the Carpentaria Gulf, and kept along the north coast, where King found Cambridge Gulf. At Cassini Island, the Mermaid left for Timor, and eventually returned to Sydney round the west coast of Australia.

*[Footnote.] For the accompanying notes of Allan Cunningham's earlier lifework I am indebted to the Biographical Notes concerning Allan Cunningham, compiled by Mr. J.H. Maiden, Director of the Sydney Botanical Gardens.

On the 14th of June, 1820, the Mermaid was again busy with King and Cunningham on board, and, sailing up the east coast she re-visited the Endeavour River. During their stay, Cunningham ascended Mount Cook, where he made a fine collection of seeds and plants. She coasted north again and picked up the survey at Cassini Island once more. At Careening Bay, where they had occasion to stay for some time, Cunningham was again very fortunate in his collections. Returning homeward by way of the west and south coasts, the little cutter was almost wrecked off Botany Bay.

The Mermaid was now overhauled and condemned, and in her place H.M. Storeship Dromedary, re-christened the Bathurst, was placed under the command of Lieutenant King. This was Cunningham's fifth voyage as collector with the same commander - a very clear proof of their compatibility of tastes and temperament. As before, the Bathurst ran round the east coast and resumed her work on the north-west of Australia. While thus engaged she was found to be in a dangerous condition, and went to Port Louis to refit. They sailed from Mauritius on the 15th of November, and reached King George's Sound on the 24th of December. Here Cunningham found that the garden he had been at great pains to form during his visit in 1818 had disappeared altogether. The Bathurst stayed some weeks on the south-west coast, and then shaped a course to Port Jackson, where they arrived on the 25th of April, 1822. Of the botany of these coastal surveys Cunningham published a sketch entitled A Few General Remarks on the Vegetation of Certain Coasts of Terra Australis, and more especially of its North-Western Shore.


Let us now turn to his record as an inland explorer of Australia.

On the 31st of March, 1823, Allan Cunningham left Bathurst with two objects in view. One was his favourite pursuit of botany; and the other the discovery of an available route to Oxley's Liverpool Plains, through the range that bounded it on the south; a route which Lawson and Scott had vainly sought for the preceding year. On reaching the vicinity of the range, he searched in vain to the eastward for any opening that would enable him to pierce the barrier. He then retraced his steps, and, exploring more to the eastward, he came upon a pass through a low part of the mountain belt which he considered practicable and easy. The valley leading to the pass he named Hawkesbury Vale, and the pass itself Pandora's Pass, inasmuch as, in spite of the hardships the party had been put to, they had still hoped to find it. Here Cunningham left a parchment document, stating that the information thereon contained was for the first farmer "who may venture to advance as far to the northward as this vale." The finding of the bottle which contained this scroll has never been recorded. Bathurst was reached on their return journey, on June 27th.

In March, 1824, he botanised about the heads of the Murrumbidgee and the Monaro and Shoalhaven Gullies, and in September of the same year, went north by sea with Oxley to Moreton Bay, to investigate that locality and pronounce on its suitability as a settlement site. In March, 1825, he left Parramatta, threaded the Pandora Pass once more, and ascended to Liverpool Plains, returning to Parramatta on the 17th of June. In 1826 and the beginning of the following year, he visited New Zealand.


It was in the year 1827 that Cunningham accomplished his most notable journey of exploration, one which eventually threw open to settlement an entirely new area of country; country destined to mould the destiny of the yet unborn colony of Queensland, and afford homes for thousands of settlers. It was mainly by his exertions that the young community at Moreton Bay was able to stretch its growing limbs to the westward immediately after its birth, instead of waiting long weary years and wasting its strength against an impassable obstacle as had been the fate of the settlement at Farm Cove.

Cunningham started from Segenhoe, a station on one of the head tributaries of the Hunter River, whence he ascended the main range without any difficulty beyond having to unload some of the pack-horses during the steepest part of the ascent. He had with him six men, eleven horses, and provisions for fourteen weeks. He left civilisation, or the outskirts of it, on the 2nd of May, and on the 11th he crossed the parallel on which Oxley had crossed the Peel River in 1818, and once beyond that point he was traversing unexplored country. The land was suffering under a prolonged drought in that district, and most of the streams encountered had but detached pools of water in their beds, at one of which, however, his party caught a good haul of cod, which were such ravenous biters and so heavy that several were lost in the attempt to land them.

Travelling through open forest land, which was suffering more or less from the want of rain, Cunningham came on the 19th of May to a valley. Here, on the bank of a creek he encamped on "the most luxuriant pasture we had met since we had left the Hunter."

"We were not a little surprised," he says, "to observe at this valley, so remote from any farming establishment, the traces of horned cattle, only two or three days old, as also the spots on which about eight to a dozen of these animals had reposed.

"From what point of the country these cattle had originally strayed appeared at first difficult to determine. On consideration, however, it was thought by no means impossible that they were stragglers from the large wild herds that are well-known to be occupying plains around Arbuthnot Range."

This speaks volumes for the wonderful increase and spread of wild cattle in those days; Arbuthnot Range, first sighted by Evans in 1817, being already an acknowledged resort of wild cattle in seven years. Or it advertises the negligence of the stockmen who guarded the comparatively tiny herds of the period.

The dry weather had put its mark upon the country. Though the degree of aridity was much less than that afterwards experienced in Australia by the explorers of its interior, nevertheless conditions were sufficiently dry to compel the leader to exercise great forethought, and Cunningham determined to pursue a more easterly course, keeping nearer the crest of the range, where he was more likely to find grass and water. The country he passed through was inferior, but on the 28th he came to the bank of a river "presenting a handsome reach, half-a-mile in length, thirty yards wide, and evidently very deep." This river he named the Dumaresque, and it led him to the northward, through what he considered poor land, until the new-found river took an easterly direction, when the party left it, still keeping north. At the end of the month, after passing through much scrubby country, they were agreeably surprised to meet with a stream, the banks of which presented an appearance of great verdure. "It was a subject of great astonishment to us to meet with so beautiful a sward of grass permanently watered by an active stream, after traversing that tract of desert forest, and penetrating brushes the extremes of sterility in its immediate vicinity."

This was named McIntyre's Brook, and Cunningham writes that they had some difficulty in fording it on account of its extreme rapidity. The party continued on, now in a north-easterly direction, passing again through dense thickets such as they had formerly met with.

On the 5th of June, Cunningham, from a small elevation, had a view of open country of decidedly favourable appearance: "A hollow in the forest ridge immediately before us allowed me distinctly to perceive that at a distance of eight or nine miles, open plains or downs of great extent appeared to extend easterly to the base of a lofty range of mountains, lying south and north, distant by estimation about thirty miles."

This was Cunningham's first glimpse of the now world-famous Darling Downs. On reaching the commencement of the great plains, they came to the "bank of a small river, about fifteen yards in breadth, having a brisk current to the North-West." As there was deep water in the pools of this river, the men anticipated some good fishing, and they were not disappointed. Cunningham named this river the Condamine.

Although their provisions were failing them, Cunningham remained for some time on the site of his new discovery, fully impressed with the certainty of its immense importance in the future settlement of Australia. Peel's Plains and Canning Downs were named by him, and to the north-west "beyond Peel's Plains an immeasurable extent of flat country met the eye, on which not the slightest eminence could be observed to interrupt the common level, which, in consequence of the very clear state of the atmosphere, could be discerned to a very distant blue line of horizon."

Cunningham's far-seeing mind fathomed the future requirements of such a vast agricultural and pastoral extent of country, and he at once turned his attention to its natural means of communication with its obvious port, Moreton Bay. A lofty range of mountains to the east and north-east seemed to offer a difficult barrier, and he determined upon making a closer inspection. As his horses were recruiting all the time on the luxuriant herbage, he did not so much regret their own scarcity of rations. Finding a beautiful grassy valley which he named Logan Vale, after Captain Logan, the well-known commandant of Moreton Bay, leading to the base of the principal range, he proceeded to make a nearer inspection. After much climbing of successive tiers or ridges, he gained the loftiest point of a main spur, and through some gaps in the main range itself, he was able to overlook portions of the country in the vicinity of Moreton Bay, and even to recognise the cone of Mount Warning. He took particular notice of one gap, and on closer inspection he came to the conclusion that a line of road could be constructed without much difficulty.

Having spent a week on the Downs, and his shortness of provisions and the weakness of his horses preventing any excursion to the western interior, as his intention had been, he set out on his homeward journey on the 18th of June. In order to render his chart of the country traversed as complete as possible, he kept a course about equidistant between the route of his outward journey and the coastal watershed. He reached Segenhoe on the 28th of July, bringing his men and horses back in safety, after one of the most successful and important expeditions on the east coast.

In the following year, accompanied by his old companion Fraser, who had been one of Oxley's party on his two inland expeditions, Cunningham proceeded by sea to Moreton Bay, with the intention of starting from the settlement, identifying the gap he had taken particular notice of, and connecting with his former camp on the Downs. In this attempt he was also accompanied by Captain Logan, but they were unsuccessful. Then Cunningham again went from the outpost of Limestone, with three men and two bullocks, and was completely satisfied. A road through this gap on to the Darling Downs was immediately constructed, and used until the introduction of railway communication: the opening was known far and wide as Cunningham's Gap.

In May, 1830, Cunningham went to Norfolk Island. While there he crossed to the little islet adjoining, known as Phillip Island. Having landed with three men, he sent the boat back. That night eleven convicts escaped, seized the boat, and were launching her when they were challenged by a sentry. One of them replied that they were going for Mr. Cunningham, and they got away though they were fired upon. They did go for Mr. Cunningham, and robbed him of his chronometer, pistols, tent, and provisions. Then they sailed away, and were picked up by a whaler, which they seized and finally scuttled. The Government refused to compensate Cunningham for his loss, and he had to replace the instruments himself.

Cunningham left Sydney on the 25th of February, 1831, on a visit to London, where he spent nearly two years at Kew, returning to Sydney on the 12th of February, 1837. He was appointed Colonial Botanist and Superintendent of the Botanic Gardens, but did not retain the position very long, being disgusted to find that supplying Government officials with vegetables was to be a chief part of his duties. He resigned, and after another visit to New Zealand, whence he returned in 1838, so ill was he that he was compelled to decline to accompany Captain Wickham on his survey of the north-west coast. He died of consumption on the 24th of January, 1839, at the cottage in the Botanic Gardens, whither he had been removed for change of air and scene. He was buried in the Devonshire Street cemetery, and on the 25th of May, 1901, his remains were removed to the obelisk in the Botanic Gardens.