Paweł Edmund Strzelecki – Intrepid Explorer
portrait, center, pawel-strzelecki-popona.jpg
The most famous Polish traveller, tireless explorer, versatile researcher and humanitarian. He travels to all continents except Antarctica. It was Strzelecki who gave the highest peak in Australia its strange-sounding name: Mount Kosciuszko.
Paweł Edmund Strzelecki is born into a landowning family in the Wielkopolska province. Even as a child, he’s said to be outstandingly brave, intelligent and kind. The writer Narcyza Żmichowska, privately a relative of the future explorer, remembers Paweł Edmund as ‘a quick and clever boy of vivid imagination and sparkling sense of humour’.
Strzelecki spends his youth in Warsaw and Kraków. He studies for a while and reads a lot, still looking for direction. He has little money and doesn’t really know what to do with his life.
Eventually, he accepts the position of an estate manager in Poland’s eastern Borderlands. He comes up with effective reforms and makes a bit of money. His understanding of the organisation of farming, animal husbandry and plant cultivation will serve him well in the future.
In 1831, Strzelecki migrates to London. He has perfect conditions for further studies. He is increasingly interested in Geology, Chemistry and Physics.
At the age of 38, Strzelecki’s new life begins: he becomes a traveller and explorer. Strzelecki boards a ship to New York. He wants to see the United States and Canada first.
Soon, it becomes clear which areas of research are the most significant for Strzelecki: mineralogy (he finds ores of copper and iron by Lake Huron), geology (he researches American mountains), agricultural chemistry (he analyses local soil and crops), and ethnography (while learning the customs of indigenous tribes).
After North America, he sails to Brazil. Strzelecki travels to various parts of South America, winding up in Mexico, his interests expanding as he adds meteorology and climate observation to his list. He is outraged by the cruelty experienced by the slaves and indigenous people of America.
Does Strzelecki decide to return from Mexico to Europe? Not a chance! In 1838, he sails across the Pacific Ocean, reaching the islands of Polynesia.
When in Hawaii, he researches the Kīlauea Volcano: he carries out chemical analyses, barometric calculations and altitude measurements. He introduces the Hawaiian name of the volcano’s main crater, Halemaumau, into academic literature. When in Tahiti, he is a guest of the Queen Pōmare IV. From there, he goes to New Zealand.
In April 1839, he arrives in Sydney. The British colony of Australia, or rather New Holland, as the territory was initially called, is only half a century old. The continent is mostly undiscovered. A real paradise for explorers!
Strzelecki travels to the Great Dividing Range, where he finds ores of precious minerals, including gold. He immediately shares the news with the Governor of New South Wales, which is the oldest state in Australia.
Local authorities in Sydney are worried the information might start a gold rush, which could be very dangerous as the colony is made in large part of former inmates. Strzelecki relents and doesn’t publish his research.
Soon, he leaves for the second expedition to the Australian mountains. He finds the source of the longest Australian river, the Murray. He climbs the highest peak on the continent and names it Mount Kosciuszko. He chooses to name the mountain in honour of the Polish freedom fighter as the shape of the mountain reminds him of the Kosciuszko Mound in Kraków.
Later, Strzelecki finds previously unknown fertile soils, stretching between the mountains and the ocean. He will call them Gippsland in honour of the governor of Sydney, George Gipps. As always, he reaches every bit of land on foot, carrying his precious scientific equipment on his own back.
The expedition is running out of food. Constant rain won’t even allow them to make a fire. By the end of the trip, travellers are mostly eating raw koala meat. They reach human settlements after 26 days of walking through dense thickets, and according to Strzelecki, they all look ‘very much like skeletons’.
When after a short rest the group arrives in Melbourne, the men become a sensation. Australian newspapers publish animated articles about extraordinary geographical discoveries and the blood-curdling adventures of the Polish traveller.
Strzelecki begins describing the new territories straight away. He publishes his research and maps and sends a report to the governor. Almost immediately after he’s finished, he leaves for Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land), to continue his research.
He returns to Europe in 1843, after travelling to the Far East. His nine-year-long adventure turns into a journey around the world.
Back in England, Strzelecki is hoping for a reward for his discoveries, but he doesn’t receive any. Unexpectedly, financial help arrives from Tasmania’s governor John Franklin, who sends Strzelecki his thanks and 400 pounds sterling.
Strzelecki spends the entire sum on publishing a book on Australia and Tasmania. In 1845, an exhaustive publication is printed in London, immediately receiving favourable reviews. The Royal Geographical Society awards the author with a gold medal. Strzelecki also receives an honorary degree from the University of Oxford.
Charles Darwin, amazed with Strzelecki’s achievements, wrote to him:
I congratulate you on having completed a work which must have cost you so much labour & I am astonished at the number of deep subjects which you discuss.
Strzelecki’s book will remain the primary source of knowledge of Australia and Tasmania for many years to come.
In 1847, during the Great Famine, Strzelecki offered to visit Ireland on behalf of the British Relief Fund. At the time, the situation in Ireland was horrendous – in a period of just a few years, the country lost nearly one-quarter of its population, due to deaths and mass emigration. Strzelecki travelled to Ireland to distribute aid and to report on what he saw. His testimony was printed in various newspapers throughout Great Britain and provided a clearer picture of the situation.
Strzelecki pioneered a scheme to provide meal and clothes to schoolchildren in the Westport Union. Despite falling victim to typhoid fever, he managed to administer aid in 65 towns across Ireland. He also helped impoverished Irish families to resettle in Australia.
He refused to accept any money for his work, but was later knighted by Queen Victoria, having gained public recognition as a philanthropist as well as an explorer.
Strzelecki passed away in London in 1873. He was 77.
Translated by Aga Zano.