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Our Global Neighbours: Two Illustrious Germans

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 18 Nov 2015

Lives in the science of Natural History.

William Blandowski

William Blandowski
Photographer: William Blandowski © Public Domain

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

One wasn’t even a proper German, as a marginal controversy over his ethnicity demonstrates. William Blandowski (1822-1878) and Gerard Krefft (1830-1881) made an enormous contribution to the natural history at the Museum Victoria and the Australian Museum respectively.

For various reasons, both men were embroiled in conflicts and were badly, often unjustly treated by their peers and superiors. Their work was neglected and achievements ignored for many decades.

Recently, Gerard Krefft and a legacy of his work were rehabilitated at the Australian Museum. As a curator for ten years (1864-1874), this hard-working biologist brought the business of the natural history at the Museum into the proper field of science. He embraced the Darwinian Theory of evolution, still fresh from the printing press (The Origin of Species published in 1859). He stood his grand on the science of natural history and the interest of the Museum until the bitter end.

Blandowski, erratic and prone to conflict, was a restless, energetic and imaginative researcher-explorer, mining engineer and naturalist. He was involved in establishing the National Museum of Victoria (now Victoria Museum) in 1854 and as its first curator he supplied the Museum with a massive number of biological specimens - 17,000 alone from the Murray River Expedition in 1857. His collections document the biota that vanished and changed not long after, with the colonial land-use rapidly expanding in the following decades.

Krefft was a skilled artist and left a substantial body of drawings and watercolours, along with numerous drafts of articles prepared for publication. And he produced numerous sketches, later used, without proper credit, in preparation of Blandowski’s impressive work Australia (1862) – a pictorial album focused on Aboriginal people and biota of recently explored regions. As well as innovative pictorial synthesis of anthropological knowledge (well ahead of his time) the author strongly advocated human (not merely biological) nature of Aboriginal Australians.

Even if his views were tinted with some simplistic theories of his time, Blandowski found a way to interact with indigenous Australians in a friendly manner. He engaged Aborigines in gathering plants and animals for the museum collections and he had a keen interest in their tradition and culture. Furthermore, unlike Charles Darwin who suspected a work of some invisible racial factor in the demise of Aboriginal population, Blandowski recognised violence and displacement perpetrated by settlers as a reason for the population decline.

William Blandowski arrived in Australia in 1849 and Gerard Krefft in 1852. They both gravitated to Victoria, then in a stage of economic prosperity and influx of migrants. In 1856-57 Blandowski, with Krefft as his deputy, lead an expedition to explore geography and natural history of the Murray River (up to the Darling River Junction). This was a region in Australian geography with symbolic significance, linked to initial speculation about an inland sea and the heroic efforts of early explorers (Sturt, Mitchell).

The Murray River expedition was the time when both men collaborated, with conflicts, inconsistencies and surprising behaviour of its leader. But this year-long expedition was very fruitful, greatly contributing to Blandowski’s pictorial work Australia, Krefft’s subsequent scientific career at the Australian Museum and the initial growth of the National Museum of Victoria.

Additional information:

The history of the Blandowski family dates to the early 17th century. It was of Polish origin and belonged to the nobility of the Silesia region with the coat of arms 'Wieniawa'. In time the family became germanised and shifted from the Roman Catholic to the Lutheran faith. It is possible that William’s unpredictable conduct was a symptom of mental illness, which became more apparent in the later years of his life.

German migrants and visitors had been coming to Australia from the early decades of the Colony of New South Wales. John Lhotsky (1832), Ludwig Leichhardt (1841), Ferdinand von Mueller (1847), Ludwig Becker (1851) are just some prominent examples. In the 1850s the German population increased rapidly. They were the third largest ethnic group on Victorian goldfields, after British and Chinese.

Reference:

William Blandowski. Australia: William Blandowski's illustrated encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia. Edited by Harry Allen, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2010.