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Strzelecki, Sir Paul Edmund de (1797–1873)

Paul Edmund de Strzelecki,

Paul Edmund de Strzelecki,

State Library of Victoria, H11401

The death of so remarkable a man as the late Sir Edmund de Strzelecki better known as Count de Strzelecki demands more than a passing notice. The deceased was a native of Polish Prussia, and it is stated came of a good family in that country. Some of his education was obtained at the High School at Edinburgh. In early life Count de Strzelecki devoted himself to travelling and exploring remote parts of the world with the view of perfecting his scientific knowledge, and, as he himself records, before the age of 35 he had visited and made explorations in North and South America, and West Indies, the South Sea Islands, the Javanese Islands, China, India, Egypt, New South Wales, and Van Dieman's Land. In the last named island he met Sir John Franklin, who assisted him greatly in his explorations in Australia, and it is worthy of remark that Count de Strzelecki received from the Tasmanian public on leaving their shores in 1843 a very flattering address, in which they record in touching terms how much their country is indebted to his "scientific knowledge and indefatigable exertions," and acknowledge "that example which has testified to them the reality and dignity of his calling, who exchanges the ordinary pursuits and pleasures of life for the patient and self-denying investigation of the works of God." To this address was added a substantial subscription of £400, and Count de Strzelecki, in giving vent to the "emotions of honest pride and pleasure with which he received the address and subscription," stated that the testimonial led him to determine on publishing his Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land, a description "comprehending the fruits of five years of continual labor during a tour of 7,000 miles on foot through those countries." This book, which became a standard work in Australia, the Count published in 1845, and dedicated to Sir John Franklin, then on the eve of his departure on his final and fatal voyage of discovery to the North Pole. The main object of Count de Strzelecki's visit to Australia was to examine its mineralogy. This investigation led him to the conclusion that portions of the country abounded in gold, and having informed Sir George Gipps, the then Governor, his report was transmitted to Lord John Russell, then Secretary of State for the Colonies; but as at that day the free whites in Australia were a mere handful compared with the convict population, Count de Strzelecki was requested not to make his discovery public. The fact of his having been the first to foretell the existence of gold was, however, acknowledged some few years ago at the International Congress, when, on the suggestion of Sir Roderick Murchison, a gold medal was awarded to the Count for his investigations and reports made by him on the subject. In the course of his explorations Count de Strzelecki also discovered and mapped that valuable tract of country now known as Gippsland, perhaps one of the most fertile districts in Australia. The publication of the Physical Description of New South Wales brought Count de Strzelecki to the notice of literary, scientific, and philanthropic society in London, and soon after, having expressed a desire to become naturalised among us, Lord Overstone, then Mr Samuel Jones-Loyd, assisted him in procuring the necessary certificate from Her Majesty's Secretary of State entitling him hence forward to most of the rights and privileges of a British subject.

The autumn and winter of 1846-7 will long be remembered in these islands. The food of the greater portion of the inhabitants of Ireland and of the western districts of Scotland had utterly failed. The "Corn Law" precluded the ready introduction of a substitute, for there had been previously an absolutely prohibitory duty on Indian corn, and it so happened that this was the only meal which could be easily procured, as not only had potatoes faded, but wheat, barley, oats, and rye had been scarce crops all over Europe. With the view of alleviating this national calamity the "British Relief Association'' was organised, having for its Committee of Administration the leading merchants and bankers of the City of London, Mr. Jones-Loyd, Baron Lionel de Rothschild, Mr. Thomas Baring, Mr. Thomas Hankey, Mr. Robert Hanbury, Mr. Charles Bevan, and the late Messrs: Abel Smith, Samuel Gurney, and W. G. Prescott were prominent members of the Board. Mr. Jones-Loyd, now Lord Overstone, was unanimously elected Chairman. It is recorded by Sir Charles Trevelyan in his Irish Crisis that "a painful and tender sympathy pervaded every class of society, from the Queen on her throne to the convict in the hulks, expenses were curtailed and privations were endured in order to swell this Irish subscription." The response to the Committee's appeal was certainly most gratifying, the amount received from all sources being about £600,000, probably the largest subscription for relief purposes ever raised even in this country. The first act of the Executive was to appoint a Provision Committee and dispatch food to Ireland; the second to send active agents to superintend the distribution of these supplies. Count de Strzelecki was selected as one of these agents, and appointed to the charge of the counties of Sligo and Mayo, and his letters, which are given in the report of the Committee, may at this day be read with interest and profit. On his arrival he reported that "no pen can describe the distress by which I am surrounded. It has actually reached such a degree of lamentable extremes that it becomes above the power of exaggeration and misrepresentation. You may now believe anything which you hear and read, because what I actually see surpasses what I ever read of past and present calamities." To the alleviation of this great misery Count de Strzelecki devoted himself, and his success was undoubted, though obtained at the cost to himself of an attack of the terrible famine fever, traces of which adhered to him for the remainder of his days, The satisfaction which he gave to the Committee was so great that at the close of the season's operation, when they resolved on the withdrawal of their agents, the famine being stayed, and, to use the Count's own words, "the affecting and heart rendering crowds of destitutes having disappeared," it was resolved to continue his services in Dublin as sole agent of the Association to superintend the Committee's relief measures during the winter 1847-8. This he did, and the measures adopted by him were not only calculated to alleviate the pressing calamity, but many of them had in view ulterior objects, such as teaching the Irish peasant the use of a more substantial diet than the potato, and indoctrinating the young with habits of order and cleanliness. It is to be hoped that these benevolent regulations are not even now entirely lost on the 900,000 children who during the winter of 1848 were attending schools in the west of Ireland, at which meals were provided by the British Relief Association. For these important services Her Majesty nominated Count de Strzelecki one of the first Civil Companions of the Bath, an honor which he much prized, as its bestowal fully recognised him as an Englishman. In the words of Lord Overstone when conveying to the Count the resolution of thanks of the Committee, he had, indeed, afforded "abundant proof that he possessed those high moral qualities which the British public always holds in the highest esteem." On his return to London in 1849, Count de Strzelecki found himself famous. Society rejoiced in him, and during the rest of his life he maintained a high position in the ranks of science and literature. His circle of acquaintance was very large. He assisted, too, in a great many patriotic and benevolent works. Thus he was an active and esteemed member of the late Lord Herbert's Emigration Committee; of the Crimean Army Fund Committee; and of the Duke of Wellington's Emigration Committee. He also devoted his attention to the rescue of young women and girls from the dangers of the streets of London, and was the means of sending some thousands to a new home in Australia. At the close of the Crimean war Count de Strzelecki accompanied his friend, the late Admiral Lord Lyons, on a visit to Sebastopol, and he was with the late Lord Herbert throughout his fatal illness, having accompanied him to Spa, where he went in the vain hope of re-establishing his shattered health.

On the reconstruction of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, some few years ago, Her Majesty was pleased to nominate Count de Strzelecki one of the Knights of the Order, a distinction as nobly won by him during his Australian career as was the "Bath" by his able administration while acting as Agent of the Committee of the British Relief Association during the great Irish famine.

Sir Edmund de Strzelecki was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and had received the Honorary Degree of D.C.L. from the University of Oxford. He died, as was briefly recorded at the time, at his residence in Saville-row, on the 6th inst., after a short illness, aged 77 years.

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'Strzelecki, Sir Paul Edmund de (1797–1873)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/strzelecki-sir-paul-edmund-de-2711/text26121, accessed 22 August 2014.

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