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Krefft's Trials and Tribulations on the Blandowski Expedition

By: Elizabeth McKinnon, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 19 Dec 2014

Glorious commander, foresighted commander, gallant commander! All supercilious names for William Blandowski from an 1857 expedition log.

Corroboree on the Murray River

Corroboree on the Murray River
Photographer: Mitchell Library © Courtesy Mitchell Library.

William Blandowski was awarded £2000 to form a party for a year long expedition along the lower Murray and Darling “for the purpose of making researches into the Natural History of the country”. A young German newly arrived from the USA, who would later go on to be a contentious character as Curator of the Australian Museum, joined the expedition, and was allegedly the only original member of the party to return with Blandowski.

Gerard Krefft was tasked with many challenges during the 12 month sojourn through Victoria, learning how to deal with horses that didn’t want to pull an overly filled dray, enduring the Australian sweltering heat and bitter cold of camping. He was at times the party’s cook while completing his official role as an assistant to record and illustrate specimens collected on the journey.

Writing up his experiences after the trip, a copy of Krefft’s draft publication (the original held by the Mitchell Library, Sydney) is fascinating to read. It is written full of emotion and subjectivity, a rare insight into a scientifically trained mind.

Their journey was not an easy one as he describes, marked with bad luck when on the eve of their departure their horse unexpectedly gave birth to a foal and was unable to be put to work. A few days into their journey, having scarcely travelled at all, their replacement horse decided to no longer lead the heavy dray of “600 weight” of books, a camera apparatus that never worked and German vegetables used for emetic purposes, and came to a complete halt in front of a Victorian Public House. The locals in the vicinity of the pub offered “a good deal of sympathy” by beating the horse and attempting to set fire under its belly to make it move. Fortunately the party purchased a pair of bullocks to pull the overly stocked dray and their rough journey truly began. Krefft was made the caretaker of the bullocks and horses and it is clear that he became very attached to his charges.

Krefft writes passionately about his experiences on the expedition, however the focus of the log is not entirely on Natural History. Krefft writes with great sarcasm and frustration when referring to his Commander and Chief William Blandowski. He remarks on unnecessary requests made by Blandowski, such as unloading the full dray to retrieve his shirt that was packed at the bottom, making the men work on Sundays and taking on untrustworthy companions, whilst relieving the hardworking of their duties.

Gerard Krefft did not have the kindest words about his Indigenous partners who aided the expedition party in collecting natural history specimens. However Krefft appears to have had a moment with his new companions, sharing a meal on the slopes of Mount Hope, which he poetically described.

'This moment had come, the hot embers were removed, the bottom of the hole laid out with fresh gum leaves then came the carcass of the bird, which was put into the hole, covered over with gum leaves and branches, on which were piled the pieces of clay before mentioned which had been burnt to brick bars in the hot fire. – Earth and hot ashes then covered every crevice and the Natives quanbeed (sat down) round the oven ready and willing for the mark of destruction. –

In about an hours time the Emu was done and after being turned out of the skull, it looked clean and wholesome enough. So I came in for my share too, and enjoyed it very much as the meat was well cooked and juicy but rather course, it had the taste and appearance of beef and never have been cooked quicker or better in a royal kitchen.' 

Krefft’s account of the expedition is audacious yet entertaining. He has a flair for the written word, despite English being his second language with magical descriptions of the Australian landscape. While his log is extremely subjective, especially where descriptions of his commander and counterparts are concerned, his account also gives a detailed picture of Australia during the 1850s and the amazing landscape through which he travelled.