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Thursday, 27 August 2020
Consulate of the Republic of Poland, Woollahra
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

Dobry wieczor

Good evening,

Thank you, Your Excellency, and Consul General for this unique invitation where four Australians are to be honoured by the Government of Poland.  

I seek your indulgence for just a couple of minutes to talk about the long history of the relationship between Poland and Australia.  It goes back to 1803 and, like so much of our history, it is a convict tale.  

Joseph Potaskie had been a member of General Kosciuszko’s army.[1] General Kosciuszko is, of course, the national hero of Poland’s resistance to partition by Russia and Prussia – and who, before that, had played a celebrated role in the American War of Independence against the English.

After the Polish resistance under General Kosciuszko failed, Potaskie fled to London and, while resident there, stole a shawl, for which he was convicted and sentenced to transportation.  It was thus that, in 1803, that he took up residence ‘in the stocks’ as it were, in Hobart, with full board paid for by King George III.

Embracing the romance, as we do in Australia, that comes with a convict past, Potaskie is celebrated as the ‘first known Polish settler’ in the colony (although he was sent to Tasmania!).  

In 1839, another celebrated Pole, Pawel Edmund de Strzelecki
- and herein lies his gubernatorial connection - arrived in Australia with letters of introduction to Governor Gipps.[2] 

Gipps coincidentally was the first Governor to reside in Government House, Sydney, and this year is the House’s 175th anniversary. 

De Strzelecki’s interest was mineralogy and he undertook many excursions into the colony’s interior. 

He discovered silver and gold in the Bathurst region -indeed, he is rightly credited with being the first to find gold in the colony.[3] 

That is not widely known or acknowledged, as Governor Gipps suppressed the information for fear of unrest amongst the convict population.[4]  Even today, a Google search will tell you that Edward Hargraves was the first to find payable gold in Australia.

On another expedition, de Strzelecki climbed what we now know is the highest mountain in Australia.  De Strzelecki  thought the mountain resembled the Kosciuszko Mound in Krakow, erected in commemoration of General Kosciuszko.[5] And so, de Strezlecki gave Mount Kosciuszko its name. 

De Strzelecki’s book, Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, published in 1845, praised by Darwin amongst others,[6] was the unsurpassed source of knowledge on Australia’s geography and mineral geology for nearly half a century.

And, with a synergy with tonight’s event, in 1846, de Strzelecki was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.[7]

Congratulations to tonight’s four recipients of the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit awarded by the Polish Government to ‘foreigners and Polish citizens living permanently abroad’.  Your contribution to the community, including the 52,000 strong Polish community in New South Wales,[8] is proudly acknowledged by these awards.  

May I also honour the Polish community and acknowledge its significant contribution to Australia for over 200 years.

Polish migrants have contributed to many of our major projects, including the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, working in the same landscape where de Strzelecki  once roamed.

With the music of that other national hero, Frederic Chopin, about to fill the room I will finish with this acknowledgement to him, by fellow composer Franz Liszt:

“Music was his language ... [his homeland] lend[s] to his art a mysterious, indefinable poetry which, for all those who have truly experienced it, cannot be compared to anything else.”[9]

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