Allan Cunningham (1791 - 1839)

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Allan Cunningham was perhaps the greatest of all the collectors of Australian plants. The son of a Scotsman, he was born in Wimbledon, which was then in the countryside near London. From the age of seventeen he worked in the gardens at Kew and assisted in the compilation of Hortus Kewensis. Sir Joseph Banks sent him off, at the age of 23, as a plant collector in Australia, with a two year stop in Brazil on the way. Banks had a policy of selecting young Scotsmen as his plant collectors. In his own words, so well does the serious mind of a Scottish education fit Scotsmen to the habits of industry, attention and frugality that they rarely abandon them at any time of life and, I may say, never while they are young. He instructed his collectors not to take upon themselves the character of gentlemen, but to establish themselves in point of board and lodgings as servants ought to do.

Cunningham settled at Parramatta in December 1816, collecting in the area, but a few months later at Governor Macquarie's suggestion joined Oxley's expedition to explore west of the Blue Mountains. They went along the Lachlan River and had a rough trip, with heavy rain and mud causing the horses to bog, then into country so dry that they needed to ration both food and drinking water. Several horses died and Cunningham went down with a violent ague. They had clashes with bands of Aborigines, once shooting one of them dead. Oxley collected an Aboriginal skull from a grave. Returning seven months later, having walked 750 miles of the 1,200 mile trip (the horses were too rare and valuable as pack animals to be ridden on), Cunningham had collected 450 plant species.

On his return he found a letter from Banks suggesting he join a naval expedition on the cutter Mermaid, surveying the north and north-west Australian coastline. During this seven month trip they went as far as Exmouth Gulf, going ashore from time to time to be showered with rocks and spears, but apparently without killing any of the unwelcoming Aborigines. Cunningham botanized on, returning with another 300 species, including many from Arnhem Land. He made several more trips with the Navy, from Van Diemens Land to the north-west coast again, collecting a further 400 species. On the third voyage the Mermaid was leaking so badly that it had to be careened (turned on its side on a beach) for repairs at what is now called Careening Bay, where a Boab Tree still stands with HMC Mermaid 1820 carved into it. Among many plants collected during this enforced landing was Bauhinia cunninghamii, but oddly enough Cunningham made no mention of the cycads now growing near the other end of the beach, Cycas_basaltica.

In 1823 John Oxley explored Moreton Bay, where he met three castaway sailors who showed him a river that he named the Brisbane. The following year Lieutenant Henry Miller, accompanied by Allan Cunningham, set out with 30 convicts and their guards to establish a penal settlement on the site recommended by Oxley, but after six months this settlement was abandoned and re-established at present-day Brisbane. Cunningham then spent a year collecting in New Zealand. His most important journey, however, was in 1827 when he became the first European to discover and explore the Darling Downs and what is now Cunninghams Gap.

After returning to England in 1831 to work again at Kew, he was offered the post of Colonial Botanist in NSW, but declined it in favour of his young brother Richard. Richard however became lost while on an expedition, and while delirious from thirst was killed by Aborigines who had at first taken him in, but later became frightened by his bizarre and violent behaviour.

Alan Cunningham then accepted the position, returning to Sydney in 1837. He soon resigned, having found that he was expected to grow vegetables for the governors table, to resume the more legitimate occupation of collecting. But now his health declined and he died in Sydney of tuberculosis at the age of 47 years. The president of the Linnean Society, reporting his death, said: "He was distinguished for his moral worth, singleness of heart, and enthusiastic zeal in the pursuit of science." He was buried in Devonshire Street Cemetery in 1839. In 1901 his remains were reverently removed and placed in a memorial obelisk, which stands in a pond near the restaurant in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens.

The many Australian plants he collected included the palm Linospadix_monostachya, from the Hastings River. A number of plants were named after the Cunningham brothers by their fellow botanists, including Araucaria cunninghamii, Casuarina cunninghamiana, Castanospermum cunninghamii and one of the two palms native to the Sydney area, Archontophoenix_cunninghamiana.

Contributed by:

Ian Edwards

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