Leichhardt: A Scientist in a Strange Land

Death of Gilbert

“…Mr Gilbert, a collector of birds, was killed by a spear that pierced his heart…”

Letter from Leichhardt to his brother-in-law, 24 January 1845 [<em>sic</em> 1846]

On the evening of 28 June 1845, a group of Aboriginal men attacked Leichhardt’s campsite, mortally spearing John Gilbert and wounding three other members of the party. While there have been various theories and suggestions as to the reason behind the attack, they all indicate that it was a reprisal for actions carried out by the explorers. Had Leichhardt’s party crossed through sacred or ceremonial grounds? Had Leichhardt himself precipitated the attack by taking a bag of waterlily seeds in exchange for some pieces of iron? Were the reports of one of the party committing “…a gross outrage…” against an Aboriginal woman true? It has also been suggested that Gilbert’s death was accidental and the attack was merely a ‘payback’ raid intended to wound the men.

Regardless of the reason for the attack, such an incident clearly demonstrates the risks involved in an expedition into what was uncharted lands, where a perhaps an inadvertent act could have dire consequences. However, it is equally important to note that this was the only violent incident in a journey that took fourteen and a half months and covered nearly 4,800 kilometres.

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