GILBERT, John (c.1815?-1845)

GILBERT, John (c.1815?-1845)
naturalist.
Nothing is known of the early days of Gilbert. From his Australian diary we learn that his birthday was on 14 March but the year is not given. We know that his father, William Gilbert, was alive and still working in 1846; there is every probability that the son was aged 21 or more when he came from New Zealand to Australia in 1838. Putting one thing and another together we may fairly safely assume that he was born within a few years of 1815. He was engaged by John Gould (q.v.) as an assistant in connexion with his work, the Birds of Australia, and he arrived with Gould at Hobart on the Parsee on 19 September 1838. Both worked in Tasmania for a few months, but on 4 February 1839 Gilbert went to the Swan River settlement. He worked there, mostly in the vicinity of Perth, gathering specimens for Gould for 11 months. He then sailed for Sydney, in the middle of June 1840 took ship to Port Essington in the north of Australia, and in March 1841 sailed to Singapore calling at Timor on the way. From there he sailed for London and arrived about the end of September. He had collected a very large number of birds for Gould, and made many notes on their habits.
In February 1842 Gilbert again left for Australia to obtain further specimens. As on the previous occasion it was agreed he was to be paid £100 a year and expenses. He reached Perth in July and remained 17 months in Western Australia. He travelled considerable distances from Perth, making some of his most interesting discoveries among the Wongan Hills, about 100 miles north-east of Perth. He was a fine naturalist and his notes on birds, their habits, diet, song and the names given them by the aborigines were all of great interest and value. He collected specimens of 432 birds, including 36 species new to Western Australia, and 318 mammals, including 22 species not previously known in the west. By the end of January 1844 he was back in Sydney and during the next six months worked his way to the Darling Downs in Queensland. While he was considering which part of the continent should next be investigated Leichhardt (q.v.) arrived with the other members of his expedition to Port Essington, and Gilbert was allowed to join the party in September 1844. In November it was decided that the party was too large for the amount of provisions they had with them, and Leichhardt ruled that the two who had joined last should return. Eventually, however, it was decided that Hodgson and Caleb, a negro, should return, and Gilbert remained to become later on practically the second in command of the expedition. One member of the party, a boy of 16, was too young to be of much use and the leader's treatment of the two aboriginal members of the party was lacking in tact and consideration. A good deal of responsibility therefore fell upon Gilbert, who was the best bushman of a very mixed company. The progress made for several months was much less than was anticipated and by May 1845 supplies of food were running very short. On 28 June, when approaching the Gulf of Carpentaria, the party was attacked by aborigines at night and Gilbert was speared in the throat, dying almost immediately. Other members of the expedition received several spear thrusts but recovered. Leichhardt then turned south-westerly, skirting the gulf for a while, and reached Port Essington almost exhausted in December 1845. Leichhardt preserved Gilbert's papers and his diary, which, however, was lost for nearly 100 years before its discovery by A. H. Chisholm. Almost everything that is known about Gilbert we owe to Chisholm's researches, which show Gilbert as a man of much ability and fine character. There is a memorial to him in St James church, Sydney.
A. H. Chisholm, Strange New World; A. H. Chisholm, "The Story of John Gilbert", The Emu, January 1940; Mrs C. D. Cotton, Ludwig Leichhardt.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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