2023 marked the year of Strzelecki

You may recognise the Strzelecki township, Strzelecki eucalyptus, Strzelecki burrowing cray, Strzelecki koala, the Strzelecki Highway, the Grand Strzelecki Track, Strzelecki cairns, Strzelecki Desert, Strzelecki Ranges and others that bear the Count's name. Photo: State Library of Victoria

FRIDAY, October 6, 2023, marked 150 years since the death of the Polish explorer and scientist Sir Paweł (Paul) Strzelecki (July 20 1797, Głuszyna, Poznań, Poland – October 6 1873, London, United Kingdom).

In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Strzelecki’s death, the Sejm of the Republic of Poland (Polish Government) has declared Strzelecki a Patron of 2023 and proclaimed 2023 as the Year of Strzelecki.

It is acknowledged that Strzelecki played an important part in the exploration (see map – Route from Yass Plains by the Australian Alps and Gipps Land to Port Phillip, circa 1840) and naming of Gippsland (Gipps Land). However, the significance of his contributions through his scientific works and publications, especially that immediately in the local press and that detailed within the 1845 publication, Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, to the greater development of Australia, particularly farming, forestry, mineralogy and mining, and enhanced trade on Australia’s east coast in the mid-late 1800s, has been underplayed for a range of reasons including those that took to discrediting Strzelecki’s works.

Additionally, Strzelecki was not initially credited as one of Australia’s earliest discoverers of gold (along with fellow Pole, John Lhotsky), which he did in 1839, nor the subsequent gold rush that ensued in the decades following the first widely promoted discovery of gold in 1851 owing to adhering to Governor Gipps’ request not to disclose his discoveries of precious metals such as gold and silver. In 1856, following the discoveries of gold becoming public, Strzelecki published The Discovery of Gold and Silver in Australia – Gold and Silver: A Supplement to Strzelecki’s Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land.

Count Strzelecki, circa 1845. Photo: State Library of New South Wales

Similarly, Strzelecki is also understated in his role of supporting immigration from Ireland to Australia (with Caroline Chisholm) when leading the British Relief Association during the Irish famine – a role in which he was responsible for saving in excess of 200,000 Irish from starvation. He was also a member of Lord Herbert’s and the Duke of Wellington’s Emigration Committees and a member of the Crimean Army Fund Committee, working closely with Florence Nightingale on this and other matters across several decades.

His accomplishments saw him awarded widely, including the Royal Geographical Society’s Founders Medal, a Companion of the Order of the Bath, a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George and an Honorary Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford University.

It is also important to acknowledge that Strzelecki and his travelling party comprising James Macarthur (a relative of New South Wales politicians, John and James Macarthur) and James Riley, were also accompanied by Charley Tarra (for whom Tarra Bulga National Park is named in part) through Gippsland along with servants John Kent (Rent) and James Nolan. Tarra was instrumental in protecting and saving the lives of the travelling party throughout, least of all in Gippsland when capturing kangaroos, koalas (referred to as monkey) and lyrebirds, which they mostly ate raw on account of being unable to form a fire in the conditions at the time, after they had all but exhausted their food rations and encountered near impenetrable bushland inhibiting their planned path to Corner Inlet. From near Morwell, they abandoned their horses and packs and made for Corinella (the home of the first Government House in what is now Victoria).

Australia, more broadly, has benefited greatly from Strzelecki’s pioneering exploration, publications and promotion, particularly Gippsland, both in written word in the newspapers and his exemplary 1845 publication, the Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (noting Victoria had not been proclaimed at this time) as well as word of mouth, both domestically and internationally (especially the United Kingdom and Ireland). In part, many Australians of Irish descent owe much to Strzelecki either directly or indirectly.

Prominently within his written works, particularly the Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, Strzelecki’s scientific observations and promotion included, inter alia, the state of colonial agriculture (including what had already been done to advantage Australia), botany including forestry, flora and fauna (including fossils), climate, geology and mineralogy and land and marine surveys (including hydrology). It also highlighted what further resources could be utilised for the application of industry and capital on the part of the colonists as well as the physical, moral, and social state of the Aboriginal people.

As a result of Strzelecki’s works, Australia, and particularly Gippsland, has enjoyed great benefit and development across a range of sectors critical for the country’s prosperity.

In celebrating the achievement of Strzelecki on this sesquicentenary of his death, activities and events are being hosted in various parts of the world where Strzelecki made a significant impact and left a lasting legacy.

It is understood that 50 Strzelecki Ambassadors were selected from the Polish diaspora that will traverse Gippsland in the first weeks of December 2023. Earlier in 2023, representatives of the Monaro Ngarigo Indigenous peoples, custodians of the region encompassing Mt Kosciuszko named by Strzelecki as he believed it reminded him of Kosciuszko Mound in Krakow, Poland (and was a fitting tribute to the Polish national hero, Lieutenant-General Tadeusz Kosciuszko), participated in activities in Poland including Strzelecki’s hometown of Poznan as well as other prominent cities in Strzelecki’s life such as Krakow and Warsaw. They met with the Australian Ambassador to Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, His Excellency, Lloyd Brodrick. The Monaro Ngarigo Indigenous peoples also have a shared ‘border’ with the Gunai Kurnai peoples of Gippsland.

Route from Yass Plains by the Australian Alps and Gippsland, to Port Phillip 1840.
Image: State Library of Victoria

Gipps Land rivers map, circa 1840c. Credit: State Library of Victoria.