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Botanist Allan Cunningham on Norfolk Island in 1830

Botanist Allan Cunningham on Norfolk Island in 1830

Allan Cunningham, botanist and explorer, arrived in Sydney as ‘government botanist’ in 1816, only 28 years after establishment of the fledgling British colony in New South Wales and on Norfolk Island. Cunningham is perhaps best known as an explorer, having explored southeast Queensland and north-western Australia with John Oxley and Norfolk Island born Phillip Parker King. He also lead expeditions into the then unknown interior of New South Wales, where he gained fame after discovering a route from Bathurst to the upper Hunter Valley and north to the Darling Downs, which he named (now in Queensland). Cunningham appeared to have enthusiasm for botany and exploration in equal measure; there is no doubt that he had capabilities in both endeavours.

Cunningham left a detailed journal of his time on Norfolk Island; this is a most valuable documentation of the island in the year 1830. He left Sydney aboard the ship Lucy Ann on 4th May 1830 and after passing close to Lord Howe Island, arrived at Norfolk Island on 10th May. The arrival of the Lucy Ann at the island was not unusual in that the surf at the settlement was too rough to afford a landing. The heavy seas forced a landing at Cascade, on the opposite, northern side of the island. From Cascade, Cunningham walked the 3.5 kilometres by overland track to the settlement at Sydney Bay (now Kingston), where he is received by the commandant James Morisset. Along the route, Cunningham observed several plant species he had seen in New Zealand, where he had been in 1826. The first plants mentioned, lemons and guavas were, unbeknown to Cunningham, a sign of things to come.

“In the present day, such of the ridges of the hills, and their declivities as are bare of timber, mark clearly the traces of cultivation…but originally the first visitors inform us, the Entire island was one mass of thick forest…” – Allan Cunningham, 1830

What we see today is a highly modified landscape, quite different to what Allan Cunningham had observed and described in 1830. More land has since been cleared of its rainforest cover and a large number of exotic plants have become established. Today the flora of Norfolk Island is dominated by plants introduced to the island since the first Europeans stepped ashore in 1788. They now outnumber the native species by two to one. Nonetheless, we can see in Cunningham’s descriptions much of what can still be observed on the island today. It is a wonder that so few plant species have become extinct on Norfolk Island, given the extensive changes that have occurred since 1788. Only seven species, and only one endemic species, are known to have become extinct on the island. The only known extinct Norfolk endemic plant species, the Phillip Island Glory Pea Streblorrhiza speciosa,was apparently last collected by Allan Cunningham during his visit to Phillip Island.

Allan Cunningham was probably the first person to systematically list the plants of Norfolk Island. At the time of his visit, very few of the endemic plants had been named, the majority being described and named by the Austrian botanist Stephano Endlicher three years later, in 1833, based on the collections and drawings of Ferdinand Bauer who visited Norfolk in 1804/05. After five weeks on Norfolk Island a moderation of the rough weather allowed Cunningham to be taken to Phillip Island, along with three servants and an army officer. The visit was not without its problems, the most serious of which was an attack on Cunningham and his party by eleven escaped convicts. The party was left stranded on the island for a day, after having all of their possessions purloined by the desperate convicts, who sailed off into the Pacific, never to be heard from again.

“I was suddenly awoke in my bed by three men rushing into my Tent, and in an alarming boisterous tone, desiring me to rouse up, as they had taken the settlement and had put the Commandant in Jail. … They proved to be desperate convicts, whose term of transportation was serving life,…”. – Allan Cunningham, 1830

Cunningham’s description of the vegetation present on Phillip Island is of great interest, and of considerable scientific value as the only early detailed description of the plants growing there prior to the denudation of the island that took place later in the 19th century. The description provided by Cunningham shows that only 42 years after settlement, much of the island was highly disturbed from its original condition. The journal talks about ridges that “are perfectly bare of trees or herbage”, “a few blighted Pines stood detached from each other in open exposed situations”, and the great numbers of goats and pigs roaming the island.

Cunningham’s observations were clearly a sign of things to come. Since 1788 Phillip Island has been subjected to grazing by goats, pigs and rabbits; the result was the almost total removal of vegetation, followed by the washing away of two metres or more of soil across the whole island into the ocean. By the early 20th Century, the island was largely devoid of vegetation, over run with rabbits and washing into the sea after every thunderstorm. It is only since the eradication of rabbits in the late 1980s that the plants have begun to cover a significant proportion of the island.
(see Kevin Mills’ article published in 2899 Magazine Volume 1, Issue 3)  Click Here. 

We can imagine Allan Cunningham the botanist, labouring late into the night under candle-light, often in wet and uncomfortable circumstances, as he would have done during many of his explorations. He is writing his notes, arranging his specimens, and mulling over unknown plants trying to place them into the taxonomic system as then known. His efforts survive today in his journals and the specimens lodged at herbaria. Cunningham may not have had the understanding that we have today of the taxonomy, ecology and distribution of the plants in the south-western Pacific, but without the work of his generation of botanists, we could not have that understanding. Botanical knowledge progresses from one generation of botanists to the next; new treatments of known taxa, studies of forgotten and rediscovered manuscripts and better knowledge of plant distributions continually mould our understanding of the plant world. This applies to Norfolk Island as much as does to any geographic area; the study of the island’s flora is not a completed task. This study will continue into the future as this generation of botanists is replaced by a new generation with different approaches and new techniques.

Although perhaps not as significant or as well-known an adventure as some of his inland explorations, Cunningham’s visit to Norfolk Island is of great interest to today’s botanist; it is probably the only surviving detailed account of the botany of the island prepared in the 19th Century by a botanist who visited the island. The content of Allan Cunningham’s journal describing his visit to Norfolk Island in 1830 is far more valuable now than he could have ever imagined.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V2 Iss2, 2010. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.



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