Luigi D'Albertis (1841 - 1901)

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D'Albertis belonged to an old Florentine family, and appears never to have needed to earn a living: a nineteenth century "gentleman of leisure". He was very patriotic about his newly united Italy, having joined Garibaldi's army at the age of 18. He spent several years hunting in the Alps and the Apennines, then at the age of 30 was inspired to devote his life to science, as a naturalist. With his fellow Florentine, "Doctor Beccari, the well-known traveller and botanist" he made a collecting trip in 1872 to what he had romantically envisaged as a primeval forest in the Arfak Mountains in the northwest of what is now the Indonesian province of WestPapua. It had not previously been explored by Europeans. The area attracted him because of reports of Birds of Paradise, and he found so many of these, including new species, that he set up house for three weeks in a mountain village, while Beccari explored other areas. DAlbertis collected not only plants, but insects, reptiles, mammals and especially birds, as well as native artifacts and skulls. One Bird of Paradise was named after him, Drepanormis albertisii, as were several other birds, a python and some beetles. But the Arfak Mountains proved not to be the earthly paradise of his dreams. Apart from the tropical climate, he and his companions were recurrently and seriously ill with various fevers, and with what was probably beriberi, an effect of a vitamin-deficient diet. Also the natives occasionally had to be "brought to their senses" by threats with a revolver. Finally, after nine months of increasingly dangerous illness, he was advised to leave the tropics. After 10 months in Sydney, (at Double Bay, "a little Eden") and two more in Honolulu, he returned to Italy with his collection.

In 1875 he headed back again, this time to explore the Fly River area of Papua New Guinea, using the settlement of Somerset on the tip of Cape York as a place to start - only 180 miles from New Guinea. First a trip to Yule Island, west of Port Moresby, where he built a house and explored the nearby mainland. Here the natives gave him more trouble, but he found he could keep them in order with the judicious use of dynamite - which was also handy for fishing.

After some months he returned to Sydney, where the Governor of NSW made available a nine ton, 52 foot steam launch, the Neva, carried by ship to Somerset, then, in May 1876, island hopping in calm weather to the mouth of the Fly River. The launch was 52 feet long, and only six inches out of the water amidships - and it set off with 10 people, a dog and a sheep. Soon the flags of Italy and New South Wales were flying over the waters of the Fly ("I am the son of the first, the second is loved by me as a second fatherland.") D'Albertis became the first explorer to travel the full navigable length of the Fly River, some 580 miles.

D'Albertis made two explorations of the Fly River, the first European to venture far into the uncharted territory beyond the coastal regions of New Guinea: in 1875 with a Mr. Macfarlane, from the London Missionary Society, and in 1876-7, with an engineer, Lawrence Hargreaves (later to become famous as an Australian aeronautical pioneer). On his expedition D'Albertis brought one rifle, four six-chambered revolvers, dynamite, 2,000 small-shot cartridges and bullets, rockets and other fireworks, and nine shotguns. He treated "abandoned" houses as an opportunity to appropriate food for his crew and ethnographic artefacts for European museums. Pigs, sweet potatoes, sago palm flour, bows and arrows, stone axes, bark bags, ancestor skulls, and dead bodies were taken by D'Albertis and his crew. Not surprisingly, the Papuans eventually began mounting attacks against the Neva as it passed their homes.

They went upstream for about 580 miles before the water became too shallow, mapping the river and collecting as before. One plant was Mucuna, the beautiful "Flame of the Forest", its other common name being "D'Albertis Creeper", of which he found a new species. Illness was again a problem, but a greater one was the unrelenting hostility of the natives, in this area armed with bows and arrows, and given to headhunting. While he attempted, usually successfully, to scare them off with shotgun fire, dynamite tied to rockets, and fireworks displays, there was one pitched battle after a surprise attack in the dark in which some natives were killed. On the second trip some of the crew died and some deserted, only three of the original ten returning to Somerset.

Some of the plants collected, such as Cycas papuana went to Baron von Mueller in Melbourne. Others were soldered inside a tin box in alcohol for Doctor Beccari in Florence, who wrote: "His collections surpass those of all other travellers in these regions," mentioning Hibiscus albertisianus and Dendrobium albertisii, and several palms which have changed names a few times since then. Still valid are Calyptrocalyx albertisianus and Linospadix albertisiana.

D'Albertis returned to Italy in 1880 and published a two-volume book, in English as well as in Italian, New Guinea: What I Did and What I Saw, with some excellent colour plates of Birds of Paradise. His immense scientific collection was housed in a museum at Genoa, the Castello DAlbertis, which had been rebuilt by his cousin Enrico and donated to the nation. Finally, judging his life's work complete, he retired to live alone in Rome, hunting occasionally from a Papuan-style lodge in the Pontine Marshes. He died in 1901.

Contributed by:

Ian Edwards

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