The story of German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt has long fascinated me, both his life and the search for him after his mysterious disappearance in 1848. I read Darrell Lewis's book Where is Dr Leichhardt when it came out in 2013 and I met Lewis and interviewed him at length about the book.
The book is a forensic look at the clues in the search across all the areas of Australia Leichhardt either visited or intended to visit. Since I first read the book, I moved to North West Queensland, and became quite familiar with much of the west of the state, so I read it again this year armed with more recent knowledge.
There was one story in the book that grabbed my attention this time round. It concerns Andrew Hume, a classic Australian adventurer, bushman, and conman. Hume led a search for Leichhardt in 1874 but perished in the endeavour. There is a monument for him in Noccundra in south-west Queensland.
Hume was born in the English-Scottish border area in 1830 and came to Australia as an infant with his family. He grew up in the Hunter region and spent a lot of time with Aboriginal people, whom he liked and admired. His education was limited but he gained a reputation as an expert bushman who could live off the land like the Aboriginals did.
In April 1866 Hume was arrested in Baradine, New South Wales and charged with robbery under arms. Police testified he had been on a several day bender and held up an inn at gunpoint while drunk. There Hume declared he was the Black Prince, an associate of local bushranger Captain Thunderbolt. He was found a few days later nearby, hungover and in possession of a few provisions, clothing and grog from the robbery. The court at Wellington sentenced him to ten year's hard labour. Hume claimed he was innocent and while few believed this, many felt his punishment was harsh.
While in prison he told his story in a letter to jailers. He said that aged 18 he travelled to the Queensland frontier at Langlo River, north-west of Charleville. There, he said, "the blacks refused to let me pass." Eight years later he went west beyond the frontier doing a great sweep of the area beyond Cooper Creek. He took a third trip in 1862 this time like Leichhardt headed for the west coast but armed only with a horse and a brace of pistols.
He said he crossed "all the rivers running north" and passed dry plains before reaching "the falls" (which Lewis interprets as the fall of water towards the west coast). Here he found water and stayed with the blacks, eventually discovering a white man among them. The man showed Hume two bloodwood trees within 100 miles of each other, one marked with "LC" over "Nov 1847", the other "LC" over "Aug 1848" over "ROCK". Under the first tree was a bottle with letters and near the second were papers in a saddlebag, a quadrant and a telescope. He said he placed both set of artifacts under a rock at the second tree, and the white man told him to alert authorities in Sydney where they were. When Hume arrived back two years and four months later, he was arrested for the incident at Baradine. He said he hadn't told his story earlier because authorities would consider it a ploy to gain release.
Authorities read his letter with interest and he was interviewed by a group of men including the Minister for Lands and the Surveyor-General. Hume told them the white man was aged 55 to 60 and had lived with Aborigines for 18 years. He was the sole survivor of a party which was attacked. He survived because of his medical ability, saving the life of a wounded black. He had refused to return with Hume because he was too old. Hume's inquisitors believed the story.
There were several reasons they should have been more sceptical. None questioned why the trees were marked LC or 1847. Leichhardt marked his trees L and the expedition did not start until 1848. There was no way Leichhardt could have gone that far west by August 1848, as claimed by the second tree mark. If the man had lived with Aboriginal people for 18 years, he was there well before 1848.
There were further interrogations and further discrepancies. Hume claimed there were 70 people in the murdered party of whites (Leichhardt had six or seven comrades). He also claimed to be able to speak 30 Aboriginal languages and said he was the son of explorer Hamilton Hume. He claimed to have found gold and later retracted that statement. While Hume never claimed the party was Leichhardt's, others did. When the claims were printed in 1871, Hovenden Hely, who travelled with Leichhardt in the short-lived second expedition, was suspicious. What did Hume do without packhorses, Hely asked, "Did he do without flour, tea and sugar etc, and drive before him livestock? Or did he subsist by means of his gun?"
Hely made the obvious point about the LC on the trees and the "1847" a year when Leichhardt was still in Sydney basking in the glory of his first expedition. Daniel Bunce, who also travelled in the second expedition, said the LC could be Leichhardt's second in command who Bunce confusingly thought was named Louis Classen (in reality Augustus Classen).
Nonetheless the New South Wales government was willing to finance a Hume expedition. They released him, gave a horse and saddle, a revolver, ammunition and £12 for the journey. They paid for a passage from Newcastle to Roper River where he arrived in January 1872. Initially there were reports he could understand the Roper people, a later report contradicted this. "He was quite unable to converse with them though he pretended he (could)". The journalist's conclusion was Hume's story was "a fabrication and a very clumsy one".
At the Roper Hume expected to get horses and help for his search and when that did not happen, he worked for six months on the Overland Telegraph Line. When he telegraphed the government to say he had not received a horse, South Australian authorities said Telegraph Line leader Charles Todd had issued instructions to give him all the help he needed. Hume claimed Todd reneged and he "gave up in disgust".
Hume said he travelled south towards Alice Springs where he saw explorer Peter Warburton and his camels before Warburton went missing in the Tanami Desert. Todd investigated Hume's claims and found them untrue. Hume said he found the long-lost white man again at Sturt Creek, where he learned his name was Classen from Leichhardt's party. Hume then returned to Tennant Creek to get materials so Classen could write his story which he worked on for 35 days. He said he found Leichhardt's skeleton in a "coolaman" (hollowed tree). Classen wrote 61 pages and added 75 pages of Leichhardt's writing which Hume packed in a satchel with a telescope, watch and sextant and headed back to the Roper River camp.
There he showed an overseer snippets from the writing which the witness identified as Aboriginal language. Hume replied it was Classen's writing. Hume claimed another page was in German but the overseer recognised it as shorthand in the signature of a local drover. He also displayed the compass which witnesses said looked too new. When they found the name of a Telegraph man engraved inside the lid, they laughed at Hume. Enraged, he threatened to shoot anyone who suggested he was lying.
Hume returned to Brisbane where he was interrogated by explorer and surveyor Augustus Gregory and Rev John Dunmore Lang, the latter joining the list of dignitaries impressed by his stories. But Gregory found Hume's description of Sturt Creek did not tally with his own knowledge. When Hume told him he saw the tyres of Leichhardt's dray wheel, he rejected the whole story knowing Leichhardt had no wagons on his final trip. More discrepancies appeared in the news reports. Hume claimed Classen returned from a trip to find Leichhardt beaten senseless before dying and the other men fled in mutiny.
Hume refused to show anyone his evidence since his Roper embarrassment. Newspapers reported that someone who sneaked a look while Hume was drunk found only blank paper and a few old newspapers. On his return to Sydney he was due to show them to Lands Minister John Bowie Wilson. But the night before the meeting Hume claimed someone cut the bag open and stole the contents leaving only an empty bag and a telescope marked LL DHD.
Despite this fiasco, Hume retained supporters who still believed his story. His strongest supporter was Eccleston Du Faur, (who later helped another conman looking for Leichhardt, Jack Dick Skuthorpe). Du Faur, a public servant and patron of the arts and exploration, funded Hume's return to the Northern Territory when the government refused. Hume set off again in July 1874 tasked to bring back Classen and whatever relics he could find. When the expedition threatened to founder in Murrurundi due to a Hume drinking spree, Du Faur went there and convinced him to continue in a party of three.
They crossed into Queensland and went to Nockatunga where they should have turned west-north-west to Cooper Creek but instead went south. After a day they realised their mistake but rather than turn back they struck out west expecting to find the Cooper. Sadly for them the creek changes direction in that region and they rode parallel to it rather than directly towards it. They entered waterless sandhill country in hot conditions and four days after leaving the southern track Hume ordered a retreat to the nearest water. It was too late. One of the party, stockman Lewis Thompson, returned to Nockatunga to raise the alarm but they found Hume dead, 25km from where Thompson left him. The body of the third man was never found.
Hume's quest ended in failure. Darrell Lewis says there was some truth in what he said based on his wide experience in remote areas and among Aboriginal people. Hume may have heard of stories of a wild white man living far beyond the frontier which newspapers had reported since 1859. But much of what he said was invention such as the drays he saw or the camels from Warburton's missing expedition.
The detail Lewis found intriguing was the name of the tribe he said Classen was with: the Piltenarina or Piltamarranam. He said this was strikingly similar to Bilinara (Pilinara) the name of a tribe on the Victoria River, not far from Sturt Creek. Though if this is not mere chance, Lewis said he may have heard the name from Aborigines on the Telegraph Line rather than those with Classen.
Lewis said Hume was a classic conman, "charismatic, plausible, intelligent... and probably self-delusional". His education was limited but he was clever and imaginative, able to convince many of his authenticity. If all he wanted to do was get out of jail, he could simply have melted into the outback on release. "His tenacity in sticking to his story and continuing to try and prove it was true is remarkable, and for some this was proof of his veracity," Lewis wrote.
He said Hume's claim of spending 10 years wandering across Australia to the west coast was "preposterous". But given the limited information of the outback and of Aboriginal culture at the time, there were very few who could contradict him.