Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

A Twenty Years' Error in the Geography of Australia
(S291: 1878)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed in the Nature issue of 20 June 1878. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with:

     [[p. 193]] In almost every detailed map of Australia, including some of the latest, we find, at the head of the Alligator River, in about S. lat. 13°, and E. long. 133°, some such note as this:--"Steep walls, 3,800 ft." This is copied from the map illustrating "Leichardt's Journal," published in London in 1847. This map was (as stated in the preface) drawn by S. A. Perry, Esq., Deputy Surveyor-General of New South Wales, from materials furnished by Leichardt, and was engraved in London by Arrowsmith. As Leichardt only returned from his first expedition at the end of 1845 or beginning of 1846 he could have had no opportunity of correcting or revising this map. Mr. James Wilson, the geologist to the North Australian Expedition under Mr. A. C. Gregory, having passed over much of the same country, and finding the plateau nowhere more than 1,600 feet above the sea, came to the conclusion that Leichardt's supposed statement was an engraver's or printer's error which had escaped correction, and gave his reasons for this view in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. i. p. 230, and subsequently in the same society's Journal, vol. xxviii. p. 137 (1858). Notwithstanding the extreme improbability--almost amounting to absurdity--of there being precipices of the enormous height of 3,800 feet, in a country where there were no important mountains, and where Gregory, who had passed within eighty miles, and M'Douall Stuart, who had passed within forty miles of the place, found nothing but a moderately-elevated plateau, with ravines never exceeding 600 feet deep, no notice appears to have been taken of Mr. Wilson's correction, but the "3,800 ft." has been copied again and again in works of reputation and authority. We find it even in the new edition of the "Encyclopædia Britannica," art. "Australia," given as an established fact in the following words:--"On the north side of the continent, except around the Gulf of Carpentaria, the edge of the sandstone table-land has a great elevation; it is cut by the Alligator River into gorges 3,800 ft. deep."

     The curious thing is, however, that this marvellous phenomenon, which, if it existed, would be unapproached in Australia and equalled nowhere but among the mountains of the great continents, is not even alluded to in the published journal of the traveller who is supposed to have discovered it! On Leichardt's map the "steep walls" are noted between the stations of November 10 and 11, but in his "Journal" we find no reference to anything remarkable till November 17, when he comes to the head of a magnificent valley, into which he was obliged to descend, and which caused him much delay and circuitous explorations on account of its steep rocky walls estimated by him to be "1,800 feet high." It is pretty clear, then, that the [[p. 194]] "3,800 feet" is a map error, and that even the 1,800 feet is merely an estimate, and probably an over estimate; for we must take into consideration the evidence of other explorers in the same region, and the appalling effects of coming, in a nearly level plateau, to the brink of such a precipitous rocky barrier.

     I am making a similar correction to the above by means of a note in a work I am now engaged upon (on Australian Geography), but as the error has obtained such wide circulation and seems so hard to kill, it becomes advisable to call attention to it as soon as possible, and in a way that will be likely to attract attention.

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