Friday, 8 April 2016

On This Day 8 April 200 years ago: Charles Fraser arrived

There are a lot of what we might consider the basics that we don't know about Charles Fraser, though we do know that he arrived in Sydney on 8 April 1816 and went on to contribute much to our knowledge of botany across most of the then-known parts of the continent in the relatively few years that he had left. 

We don't know for sure when he was born in Blair Atholl, Perthshire, Scotland, though "1788(?)" is usually cited for no apparent reason. (Some more recent work by Tim Crampton produces circumstantial, though fairly compelling, evidence that he was born in 1791.) Even his name is a bit shadowy; the Australian Dictionary of Biography calls him Frazer, as do newspaper obituaries of the time. However his gravestone (in St John's Anglican Cemetery in Parramatta) apparently says Fraser, and that is the spelling of the many plant names dedicated to him, and apparently in early records of the Sydney Botanic Gardens. If Crampton's Blair Atholl research does refer to Charles, then 'Fraser' is correct. (Surveyor-General John Oxley, with whom Fraser travelled on three occasions, hedged his bets by referring to him as 'Fraser', 'Frazer' and 'Frazier' in his published journal of the expeditions!)
Dwarf Lantern Flower Abutilon fraseri, Family Malvaceae, central Australia.
Like much relating to Fraser, it is not totally certainly that Sir William Hooker of Kew Gardens named this
widespread plant for Charles (as was common at the time, he didn't specify) but given that he
named it from a specimen collected by Fraser on the Moreton River, I think it's a pretty safe bet.
He arrived as a soldier, a private, but somehow his horticultural or botanical skills (supposedly picked up while working as a gardener in Scotland, both on estates and at major botanic gardens, especially in Edinburgh) were rapidly recognised and valued by the shrewd and liberal Governor Macquarie, and he seems to have undertaken very little guard duty or parade ground drilling. There is circumstantial evidence that he was given almost immediately a supervisory role at the nascent 'government gardens' at Farm Cove, though the first record we have of him being officially in the role is from 1823. 

He did however accompany Oxley on expeditions to inland NSW in 1817, 1818 and 1819 and made major collections of specimens and seeds, including hundreds of new species. Oxley referred to him as the 'colonial botanist' and 'government collector' but it seems these were not formal titles. Allan Cunningham, the 'King's Botanist' accompanied the first of these expeditions, along the Lachlan River, and Fraser worked with him. By next year however Cunningham was sailing round Australia and Fraser was trusted to work as the sole botanist on Oxley's New England and Hastings River expeditions of 1818 and 1819.

He accompanied Commissioner Bigge on his journeys of enquiry into the state of agriculture and trade to Tasmania (then still Van Diemen's Land) and the interior of New South Wales in 1820. 

In 1821 he was formally appointed Colonial Botanist by Governor Macquarie, and soon after persuaded the governor to open a new and larger six hectare gardens at Double Bay; it was the Farm Cove site however which flourished, initially as a food garden, and later as the official Sydney Botanic Gardens, as they are today. (Governor Brisbane, who replaced Macquarie soon afterwards, didn't support the Double Bay site and they languished.) He didn't spend a lot of time in the gardens, but they benefited greatly from his extensive plant collecting. He visited New Zealand (briefly) and Norfolk Island, and returned to Van Diemen's Land. 
Yellow Kapok Cochlospermum fraseri Family Bixaceae, Litchfield NP, south-west of Darwin.
This tree, found across the tropical Top End and Kimberley, was named by Frenchman Jules Planchon
to honour Fraser 16 years after his death.
In 1827 he went with James Stirling to the Swan River; his support of Stirling's enthusiasm for the site led eventually to the establishment of the Swan River Colony, which was to become Perth. (Unfortunately the rich alluvial riverside soils he praised soon change to low-fertility sands away from the river, and he didn't go that far. Later settlers were not at all happy with him.) In 1828 he travelled again with Allan Cunningham, this time to Moreton Bay where they worked on laying out a botanic gardens for Brisbane; Commandant Patrick Logan unfortunately had no interest in it beyond a vegetable garden and much of their work was wasted. 

Fraser's work, which also included experimentation on eucalyptus oil and growing cotton, was valued highly in Sydney however, and by 1829 he was being paid £200 a year, plus a grant of £150 for past expenses. Sadly he didn't live long to enjoy the benefits. In 1831 he was taken ill while returning from Bathurst with cartloads of live plants, and died in Parramatta of 'apoplexy' - a stroke.

Hakea fraseri Tregole National Park, central southern Queensland.
This tree was named by the great Scot Robert Brown, shortly before Fraser's death.
However, it seems likely now that true Hakea fraseri is limited to a small area of New England in NSW, and that
the Queensland populations are better included in H. lorea.
Never mind, at the time I took the picture both I and the Queensland Parks Service thought it was Fraser's tree,
and they might change their minds again...
The obituaries and tributes were generous; the Sydney Monitor spoke of "the urbanity of his manners, and his universal and unremitting benevolence", as well his achievements. They singled out in particular "the roads and walks of the Domain, the last work of his planning". The Colonial Times of Hobart however, perhaps being a little further from the action, felt freer to make a couple of other interesting observations, while being also unstinting in its praise of his accomplishments. For instance "his talents threw him continually into every variety of company, of which he was usually the convivial and agreeable companion. Paradoxical as it may seem, yet it is the way of the world - for a man having such numberless acquaintances as he, perhaps none had in proportion fewer friends." This seems a curious comment - it would be hard to imagine a modern obituary remarking on someone's lack of friends. And perhaps illuminatingly with regard to his early death (at somewhere between 40 and 43, depending on which version of his birth year we accept): "Naturally of a plethoric habit, his convivial disposition probably contributed not a little to induce the apoplectic attack...". Plethoric is a medical term for unnaturally red-faced; as a non-medical person it seems to me this could refer to high blood pressure, though the reference to his 'convivial disposition' does appear to imply a fondness for imbibing. 

We don't know the truth of that (as is so often the case with matters relating to Fraser), and it's none of our business really. Few would know his name now, but he contributed quite a bit to the early knowledge of Australian plants, and especially in introducing them to the public via the botanic gardens. All who have strolled in the Sydney Botanic Gardens and the Domain are in his debt and it doesn't hurt us to acknowledge that. 

Burra Eremophila fraseri, family Scrophulariaceae (though traditionally included in Myoporaceae)
Mount Magnet, inland Western Australia.
I had already included this photo, based on what turns out to be a long-standing misconception on my part.
I now learn that it was not named by Ferdinand von Müller for Charles Fraser, but for Sir Malcolm Fraser
(again, not the recent Prime Minister, but a 19th Western Australian surveyor-general).
However it's a lovely flower and I've put it outside of the actual article; do I get away with that?



Martin said...

To answer your final question: its your blog so you can get away with anything. At least that is the rule in my blog!

May I ask a question - even though I think you have answered it in the paragraph above the picture of Eremophila fraseri?

Thank you for permission!!

Do we - or more specifically you - know why someone with a background of botany/gardening (a) became a member of the military and (b) came to Australia in that role? Or is it that he wanted to come to Australia and becoming a soldier seemed the cheapest way (not wishing to make a stereotyped comment about Jocks).

Ian Fraser said...

In practice of course you're right with your opening observation!

Re the question; while for friendship's sake I shall overlook the Sassenach slur in brackets, I think the essence is correct. One of the things I like about this story is the number of unknowns; no-one has really looked into him, but I suspect that as a lowly gardener there wouldn't be much of a paper trail. My guess is that he wanted to come here and start a new life, but with presumably no money, no education and no sponsor, the army was probably his only option. He only joined up the previous year. The mystery is how he moved so suddenly into the Governor's favour. It all intrigues me.

Martin (again) said...

I followed your link to Tim Cramston's research and was interested to see a link to our home area in that Fra*er was part of an Oxley expedition to the Lachlan and had visited Lake Bathurst. That research really does make him seem an International Man of Mystery, although his time in Australia seems to be far better documented than the material about the UK.

Ian Fraser said...

Absolutely right about the latter observation. In fact once he got established here we do have a pretty fair handle on his doings (at least publicly, not nearly so much privately).