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Allan Cunningham (botanist)

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Allan Cunningham
Born(1791-07-13)13 July 1791
Died27 June 1839(1839-06-27) (aged 47)
Occupation(s)Botanist, explorer
Known forExploration of eastern Australia
RelativesRichard Cunningham (brother)
Scientific career
Author abbrev. (botany)A.Cunn.

Allan Cunningham (13 July 1791 – 27 June 1839) was an English botanist and explorer, primarily known for his expeditions into uncolonised areas of eastern Australia to collect plants and report on the suitability of the land for grazing purposes.

Early life


Cunningham was born in Wimbledon, London, England, the son of Allan Cunningham (head gardener at Wimbledon Park House), who came from Renfrewshire, Scotland, and his English wife Sarah (née Juson/Jewson née Dicken). Allan Cunningham was educated at a Putney private school, Reverend John Adams Academy and then went into a solicitor's office (a Lincoln's Inn Conveyancer).[1] He afterwards obtained a position with William Townsend Aiton superintendent of Kew Gardens, and this brought him in touch with Robert Brown and Joseph Banks.



On Banks' recommendation, Cunningham went to Brazil with James Bowie between 1814 and 1816 collecting specimens for Kew Gardens. Banks later wrote the Cunningham's collections of orchids and bulbs from this part of South America contributed much honour to the Royal Gardens.[2]

New South Wales


He was soon ordered to the colony of New South Wales and on 28 September 1816 he sailed for Sydney where he arrived on 20 December 1816.[1] He established himself at Parramatta.

Botanist on Oxley's 1817 expedition


Cunningham joined John Oxley's 1817 expedition beyond the Blue Mountains to the Lachlan and Macquarie rivers and shared in the privations of the 1,200 miles (1,930 km) journey. He collected specimens of about 450 species and gained valuable experience as an explorer. Cunningham named the species Acacia pendula and Eucalyptus dumosa during this expedition.

Botanist on P.P. King's 1817-1822 circumnavigation voyages


Cunningham traveled as the ship's botanist aboard HMS Mermaid under Phillip Parker King from 1817 to 1820.[3] The Mermaid was of only 85 tons, but sailing on 22 December 1817 they reached King George Sound on 21 January 1818. Though their stay was short many specimens were found but the islands on the west coast were comparatively barren. Towards the end of March the Goulburn Islands on the north coast were reached and many new plants were discovered. They reached Timor on 4 June 1818 and, turning for home, arrived at Port Jackson on 29 July 1818. Cunningham's collections during this voyage included about 300 species.

Shortly after his return, Cunningham made an excursion south from Sydney, ascending the prominent peak of Mount Keira overlooking the Illawarra region and present day Wollongong. Towards the end of the year he made a voyage to Tasmania arriving at Hobart on 2 January 1819. He next visited Launceston and though often finding the botany interesting, he found little that was absolutely new, as Brown had preceded him. In May he went with King in the Mermaid on a second voyage to the north and north-west coasts.[1] On this occasion they started up the east coast and Cunningham found many opportunities for adding to his collections. One of these was after the ship reached the mouth of the Endeavour River (the site of modern Cooktown) on 28 June 1819.

The circumnavigation of Australia was completed on 27 August when they reached Vernon Island in Clarence Strait. They again visited Timor and arrived back in Sydney on 12 January 1820. The third voyage to the north coast with King began on 15 June, but meeting bad weather the bowsprit was lost and a return was made for repairs. Sailing again on 13 July 1820 the northerly course was followed and eventually the continent was circumnavigated. Though they found the little vessel was in a bad state when they were on the north-west coast, and though serious danger was escaped until they were close to home, they were nearly wrecked off Botany Bay. The Mermaid was then condemned and the next voyage was on the Bathurst which was twice the size of the Mermaid.[1] They left on 26 May 1821, the northern route was chosen, and when they were on the west coast of Australia it was found necessary to go to Mauritius to refit, where they arrived on 27 September 1821. They left after a stay of seven weeks and reached King George Sound on 24 December 1821. A sufficiently long stay was made for Cunningham to make an excellent collection of plants, and then turning on their tracks the Bathurst sailed up the west coast and round the north of Australia. Sydney was reached again on 25 April 1822. Cunningham provided a chapter on botany to King's Narrative of a Survey.[4]

1823 exploration for a pass over the Liverpool Range

Memorial to Allan Cunningham's "discovery" of Cunningham's Gap, Cunningham Highway

In September 1822 Cunningham went on an expedition over the Blue Mountains and arrived at Bathurst on 14 October 1822 and returned to Parramatta in January 1823. His account of about 100 plants met with will be found in Geographical Memoirs on New South Wales, edited by Barron Field, 1825, under the title "A Specimen of the Indigenous Botany ... between Port Jackson and Bathurst".[citation needed]

Cunningham soon became more interested in expeditions of discovery than botany and in 1823 he set out from Bathurst to explore inside the Great Dividing Range.[5] With five men and five horses, he journeyed north from Bathurst, along the Cudgegong River, passing through what is now Rylstone and Coolah and then eastwards looking for a pass through the Liverpool Range. Unable to find one, he returned west through what is now Merriwa and then north to the base of the ranges there. On 7 June, after some difficult climbing, he came across a gap in the mountains which he named Pandora's Pass, which he thought would allow for a practicable road to the Liverpool Plains.[6] This pass was soon superseded however by more accessible passes found to the east. He returned to Bathurst through an undeveloped Mudgee on 27 June 1823.[7]

Cunningham also undertook an expedition to what is now Canberra in 1824. He travelled with three convicts, three horses and a cart and he travelled via Lake Bathurst, Captains Flat and the valley in which flows the Queanbeyan River. Poor weather prevented him from continuing his journey south.[8]

Voyage to Moreton Bay in 1824


In September 1824 Cunningham accompanied John Oxley on his second expedition to Moreton Bay and explored up the Brisbane River.[9]

Voyage to New Zealand in 1826


Cunningham had long wished to visit New Zealand and on 28 August 1826 he was able to sail on a whaler.[1] He was hospitably received by the missionaries in the Bay of Islands, was able to do much botanical work, and returned to Sydney on 20 January 1827. Accounts of his work in New Zealand will be found in Hooker's Companion to the Botanical Magazine, 1836, and Annals of Natural History, 1838 and 1839.

1827 exploration of discovery to the Darling Downs


In probably his most famous expedition, Cunningham set out to explore the area to the west of Moreton Bay in 1827, crossing to the west of the Great Dividing Range from the Hunter Valley and travelling north. On this journey, Cunningham named many geographical landmarks including the Dumaresq River, Macintyre River, Condamine River, the Darling Downs, Mount Dumaresq and the Burrell or Gwydir River. He wrote in his diary that the lush grassland plains on the Darling Downs were ideal for livestock grazing. Exploring around Mount Dumaresq, Cunningham found a pass, now known as Cunninghams Gap.[10]

Further exploration of the Moreton Bay region


Cunningham returned to the Moreton Bay penal colony in 1828, setting off from Brisbane with Patrick Logan, Charles Fraser and five men to find Mount Warning and to establish the route to Cunningham's Gap which he did, on 24 July.[5] The peaks on either side of the gap were also named, Mount Cordeaux and Mount Mitchell. After exploring the McPherson Range area, Cunningham travelled on the south side of the Gap whereas the highway today runs further north, through the gap, from the small township of Aratula. Spicer's Gap which runs parallel to Cunningham's Gap was actually the pass first identified by Cunningham in 1827.[11] After its rediscovery in 1847, Spicer's Gap was used as a stagecoach route. In 1829, Cunningham explored the Brisbane River.

Contributions to botany


Australia's most prolific plant collector of the early nineteenth century, Cunningham had been sent to Australia to expand the collection at the King' Garden at Kew and he was given the title of "King's Collector for the Royal Garden at Kew". He was so successful that a hothouse built for specimens from Africa was renamed "Botany Bay House". Although his main role was to collect propagation material, his lasting legacy are his herbarium sheets which are thought by his biographer, Anthony Orchard, to exceed 20,000.[12]

It is often thought that Cunningham published few papers on botany and in his obituary, John Lindley wrote, "How little he regarded posthumous fame is seen by the fewness of his published works, a brief sketch of the Flora of New Zealand being the only systematic account of his Botanical discoveries...".[13] In fact, although he was effectively barred from publishing on botany whilst employed as "King's Collector", he nevertheless later published seven major papers, and 57 shorter papers on subjects including taxonomy, geology, physical geography and zoology. He was one of the first scientists to publish papers on botanical geography.[14]

Cunningham was concerned that many of his discoveries sent to Kew were not published, allowing others, including William Baxter to be credited with their discovery. (Baxter had risked arrest and a possible flogging for undermining Cunningham's work by sending specimens to commercial interests.)[15] When Cunningham returned to London, he sent duplicates of his herbarium specimens to other botanists, including de Candolle, Schauer, William Jackson Hooker, Bentham, Lindley and others, who published his descriptions with acknowledgement to "A.Cunn.".[12]

Later life


In 1831, Cunningham returned to England, but went back to Australia in 1837 on board Norfolk as government botanist, resigning the following year on finding that he was required to grow vegetables for government officials. On 27 June 1839, he died of consumption in Sydney, and was buried in the Devonshire Street Cemetery. In 1901, his remains were "reverently removed" and re-interred in an obelisk within the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney.[16]


  • "Brief View of the Progress of Interior Discovery in New South Wales". Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London. 2: 99–132. 1832. doi:10.2307/1797758. ISSN 0266-6235. Wikidata Q108673781.


Cunningham memorial obelisk in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

Some of Australia's plants: Araucaria cunninghamii (hoop pine), Archontophoenix cunninghamiana (Bangalow palm), Banksia cunninghamii, Lysiphyllum cunninghamii (jigal), Casuarina cunninghamiana (river sheoak), Centipeda cunninghamii (old man weed), Ficus cunninghamii, Medicosma cunninghamii (bone wood), Nothofagus cunninghamii (myrtle tree, Tasmania), Pennantia cunninghamii (brown beech), and Polyosma cunninghamii (rainforest featherwood) commemorate Allan and his brother Richard, a botanist.[17] The Cunningham Highway is named in honour of Allan. The genus Alania was created by Endlicher in Cunningham's honour.[18] Robert Brown named the conifer genus Cunninghamia after both Allan Cunningham and Dr. James Cunningham, a British doctor who introduced the trees into cultivation in 1702.[19]

A species of Australian lizard, Egernia cunninghami, is named in honour of Allan Cunningham.[20]

The Australian federal seat of Cunningham, which stretches from Port Kembla in the south of Wollongong to Heathcote in southern Sydney, was named after him in honour of his being the first European explorer to visit the Illawarra region.[21]

The locality of Allan, Queensland was named after him.[22]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Dictionary of Australian Biography Cl-Cu". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Project Gutenberg Australia. Archived from the original on 26 July 2015. Retrieved 25 January 2018.
  2. ^ "Allan Cunningham". Sunday Mail. No. 267. Queensland, Australia. 8 July 1928. p. 26. Retrieved 19 November 2023 – via National Library of Australia.
  3. ^ Konishi, Shino; Nugent, Maria; Shellam, Tiffany, eds. (2015). Indigenous intermediaries: new perspectives on exploration archives. Acton, A.C.T.: ANU Press. p. 88. ISBN 9781925022773. OCLC 917505639.
  4. ^ King, Phillip Parker; Cunningham, Allan (1827), "A Few General Remarks on the Vegetation of Certain Coasts of Terra Australis", Narrative of a Survey of the intertropical and western Coasts of Australia : performed between the years 1818 and 1822, vol. 2, John Murray, pp. 497–533
  5. ^ a b Roberts, Beryl (1991). Stories of the Southside. Archerfield, Queensland: Aussie Books. p. 42. ISBN 978-0-947336-01-1.
  6. ^ Whitehead (10 June 2013). Pandoras Pass. Sunnyland. p. 220. ISBN 978-0-9757163-8-0.
  7. ^ Heaton, John Henniker (1879), Australian dictionary of dates and men of the time : containing the history of Australasia from 1542 to 1879, George Robertson, p. 49, archived from the original on 27 September 2012, retrieved 12 November 2012
  8. ^ Exploring the ACT and Southeast New South Wales, J. Kay McDonald, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1985 ISBN 0-86417-049-1
  9. ^ Oxley, John (1925). "Extract from Field Books of Mr. John Oxley". Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. 2 (3): 137–157. Archived from the original on 30 April 2012. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
  10. ^ Lee, Ida (1925), Early Explorers in Australia, Methuen, archived from the original on 13 November 2012, retrieved 9 November 2012
  11. ^ Environmental Protection Agency (Queensland) (2000). Heritage Trails of the Great South East. State of Queensland. pp. 34–35. ISBN 978-0-7345-1008-2.
  12. ^ a b Orchard, Anthony (12 May 2014). "The dispersal of Allan Cunningham's botanical collections". Telopea. 17: 43–86. doi:10.7751/telopea20147421.
  13. ^ Lindley, John (1840). "Miscellaneous Notices - Death of Mr. Allan Cunningham". Edwards's Botanical Register. 26: 1–3. Archived from the original on 10 November 2016. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  14. ^ Orchard, Anthony E. (14 November 2013). "Allan Cunningham's cryptic publications". Telopea. 15: 191–204. doi:10.7751/telopea2013022.
  15. ^ Endersby, Jim (2000). "A Garden Enclosed: Botanical Barter in Sydney, 1818-39". British Journal for the History of Science. 33 (3): 313–314. doi:10.1017/S0007087499004033. ISSN 0007-0874. JSTOR 4027955. S2CID 145561289.
  16. ^ "Allan Cunningham". Sydney Morning Herald. 29 June 1901. p. 9. Archived from the original on 31 March 2024. Retrieved 29 September 2010.
  17. ^ Allan Cunningham 1791–1839 Archived 7 August 2008 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on 27-1-2009
  18. ^ "CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names". Archived from the original on 31 March 2024. Retrieved 25 March 2023.
  19. ^ Brown, Robert (1866). "On the structure of the female flower in Cycadae and Coniferae". The Miscellaneous Botanical Works of Robert Brown. Vol. 1. p. 461. Archived from the original on 21 January 2022. Retrieved 22 April 2020.
  20. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Cunningham", p. 63).
  21. ^ "Australian Broadcasting Commission electoral information - Seat of Cunningham". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 28 October 2010. Retrieved 15 January 2011.
  22. ^ "Allan (entry 45903)". Queensland Place Names. Queensland Government. Retrieved 13 March 2014.
  23. ^ International Plant Names Index.  A.Cunn.
  • Cunningham's Pandora's Pass, Tracking and Mapping the Explorers, 1823, Volume 4, 2nd Edition, Sunnyland Press