By Eric Shackle *

SYDNEY, Australia. - If some people want to change the name of Australia's highest mountain because Tadeusz Kosciuszko never visited this country, we might as well change the name of Sydney, since Lord Sydney never visited us, either.

Lord Sydney, an English politician, was Britain's Home Secretary in 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip arrived with the First Fleet and named the landing-place Sydney Cove.

Canada's Sydney Nova Scotia (population 26,000), on rugged, freezing Cape Breton Island, was also named after Lord Sydney. It too boasts a Sydney Harbour, with a ferry from Sydney to North Sydney (just as we had before the Harbour Bridge was built). Each city has a Pitt Street (named after William Pitt, British Prime Minister 1760-1820) and a George Street (named for King George III, British sovereign 1760-1820).

Lord Sydney was a politician little known outside Britain, but Kosciuszko was an international hero and one of the outstanding world figures of his time. Even today, his dashing exploits are commemorated in many parts of the United States and Poland.

Kosciuszko was born near Brest (now in Belarus). His first military training was as a cadet of the Military Academy in Warsaw. He continued his education in France.

At the age of 20, he went to America, to serve with the colonial forces in the American War of Independence (1775-1783). He soon became General George Washington's chief engineer and strategist, contributing to the decisive American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. (We have a place named Saratoga on the NSW Central Coast; the U.S. has 13 of them).

The following year he directed the construction of several fortifications for the Continental Army. In 1783 (just five years before the First Fleet arrived in Sydney) he was granted United States citizenship, a pension, estates, and the rank of brigadier general.

He returned to Poland the next year, attaining the rank of major general in the Polish Army. He was commander-in-chief of the only Polish uprising to be named after its leader - the Kosciuszko Rising. Following the second partition of Poland, by Russia and Prussia, he led a 1794 rebellion for Polish independence, but was overcome by combined Russian and Prussian forces. He was wounded in battle, and imprisoned for two years.

On being released from prison, he continued to fight for a free Poland on the diplomatic front from his refuge in England, and later Switzerland, where he died in 1817. His remains were carried to Krakow and were buried in 1819 among the kings' tombs in the cathedral. The people, reviving an ancient custom, raised a huge mound to his memory near the city.

(Twenty-one years later, in 1840, when Polish explorer Paul Strzelecki reached the top of Australia's highest mountain, he thought the outline of the summit resembled that mound, and later wrote "Although in a foreign country, on foreign ground, I could not refrain from giving it the name Mount Kosciuszko.")

Kosciuszko left most of his money and some of his land to help free blacks in America. Eventually, however, his will was contested by family members, and his wishes were never fulfilled.

The United States showed its regard for their wartime hero by giving his name (which they spelt without a "z") to towns in Mississippi and Texas, a county in Indiana, and an island in Alaska. In New York, a bridge that bears his name is crowned with the emblems of both the U.S. and Poland. They differ in shape, but the symbol is the same: an eagle.

Kosciusko Mississippi (pop. 6986) has a museum featuring a permanent exhibit about Kosciuszko, the man, and revolving exhibits about Kosciusko, the town. The Kosciusko Heritage Foundation, comprising community volunteers, built, funds and staffs the museum.

Kosciusko Texas was named for General Kosciuszko when it was established about 1890 as a rural supply point for Polish and German settlers brought to the area by the San Antonio and Gulf Railroad. In 1900 the population was 22, but by 1990 it had risen to 390, including many of Polish descent.

A recent edition of its local newspaper, the Wilson County News, has as its main item a report headed "The Bells Toll for Kosciuszko," describing the dedication and unveiling of "a much-awaited historical marker" at St. Ann's Catholic Church, on the 254th anniversary of the General's birth earlier that month.

There's one more Australian link: by a strange coincidence, a village in Indiana's Kosciusko County is named Sidney (spelt with an "i").

FOOTNOTE: Few Australians have ever seen a portrait of Tadeusz Kosciuszko. There's a good one on the Internet, at the Mississippi website http://www.kopower.com/coc/thad.jpg

* Eric Shackle is a retired journalist living near Sydney, Australia, who spends much of his spare time (his wife says too much) surfing the Internet and writing about it. His articles have been published by leading newspapers including the New York Times, the Toronto Globe and Mail (Canada), the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), and the Straits Times (Singapore).

Copyright © 2000 Eric Shackle. Media wishing to reprint this article should e-mail eshackle@ozemail.com.au

Reprinted with permission of author.