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by Edwin James Welch

Edwin James Welch, The Tragedy of Cooper's Creek
ML:MSS 314/225 filed at A1928 (ML CY1115) n.d, c. 190-?, Angus & Robertson Collection.
State Library of New South Wales

Chapter III

The Expedition: Its troubles and divisions

Their progress through the settled districts to Swan Hill, on the Murray, was a continuous round of friendly demonstrations, but from thence on their, way across to the Darling the first small rift in the lute made its appearance; extra wagons had to be hired to divide some of the loads, and much had to be left behind. Some friction also occurred between Burke and Landells in connection with the camels, and Landells resigned, declaring publicly on his return to Melbourne that the failure of the expedition was inevitable under Burke's leadership. But as that was only one side of the story, and as the other was not in evidence, little notice was taken of it until the resignation of Dr Beckler was also announced, as a result of his objections to the autocratic exercise of Burke's authority, he afterwards, however, withdrew it and remained with the party. Arrived at Menindie, but with much of his equipment left behind him on the road, in the shape of two of the wagons and portions of others, the boat, a large quantity of harness and miscellaneous articles, one of the first mistakes became recognizable.

Most of the material thus jettisoned was afterwards identified and its disposal arranged for by Howitt in charge of the Search Party many months afterwards, but much had been lost or scattered.

Unwilling to waste time at Menindie and having decided on his future movements, Burke then became individually responsible for the third, and certainly the most fatal mistake that could have been made, by the appointment of a man named Wright to the position of third officer, Wills becoming second in consequence of the defection of Landells. Wright would appear to have had no credentials other than those provided by himself, but they were excellent. He was, or had been, an overseer of some sort on one of the stations on the river, and claimed to possess a thorough knowledge of the country through which it was intended to travel. At any rate, he won Burke's confidence and was installed in the position, and from that time onward the record became one of a succession of mistakes and disobedience of his leader's instructions, narrowly approaching criminal neglect of duty, and leading finally up to disaster and death.

Although Burke was in no sense hampered by the Committee's instructions, they were positive in at least one direction. He was "to form a depot of provisions and stores at Cooper's Creek, and to make arrangements for keeping open communication with the Darling or with the border police of South Australia". He did neither, but with a recklessness which is even now inconceivable, divided his party and pushed for Cooper's Creek with Wills, seven others and such stores as he could conveniently carry. Wright was left in charge at Menindie with instructions to bring up the balance immediately, instead of which and in spite of all his promises to Burke, he remained nearly three months in camp at Menindie under the flimsy pretext that his appointment had not been confirmed by the Committee, and he had no one to look to for his pay. When this matter was settled to his satisfaction he started for Bulloo and fixed a permanent camp there chiefly because he declared that some of his men were unable to continue travelling, and backed this up with an invented excuse, which had no foundation in fact, that he feared he would be unable to find Cooper's Creek as there was no track to it and he was unable to obtain a native guide. Evidently he was not a fit man to be entrusted with the carrying out of an important duty, least of all one on which the lives of his fellow men depended. That fact was subsequently impressed upon him by the adverse criticism with which his lame explanations were received both by press and public when the truth became known.

In the meantime Burke, secure in the confidence he had placed in Wright, arrived safely at Cooper's Creek with his small party, having covered the distance from Menindie (about 480 miles by their track) with ease and in comparative comfort, the country having recently benefitted by a generous rainfall which had filled the claypans and started a good spring in the grass. Here after a short spell, he again became impatient of delay, and in nits decision to rush the remaining portion of the journey he meet unwisely decided to again divide his already reduced party and make a forced and flying-light effort, to reach the northern coast. That he believed in his ability to do this with such slender support may be taken for granted. Impulsive to a degree, he was an optimist of the first order, and his dread of being forestalled in the attempt urged him on. Added to this was the fact that he was known to have openly declared, in Melbourne, that – "provided he was the first to cross the continent he didn't care if he had only one shirt to his back when the journey ended!" Actuated by such a spirit of determination and reckless disregard for consequences, he made his final plunge into the wilderness, and that he gratified his ambition of being the first to cross from sea to sea is a well-known historical fact. But at what a cost? He managed to crawl back to Cooper's Creek, but without even the one shirt with which he had illustrated his intention of succeeding. That, however, is anticipating much that remains to be told.

Having decided on his plan of action, without, as far as we know, any objection from the gentle-natured Wills, the following arrangement was made. Brake was to remain in charge of the Cooper's Creek depot with Patton, McDonough and a sepoy camel attendant, whilst Burke, Wills, King and Gray made the final rush. They started northwards on the 16th December taking with them six camels, one horse and stores calculated to last them for three months. In his last letter to the Committee, written on the eve of departure, Burke defined his position thus "I shall leave the party which remain here under the charge of Mr Brahe, in whom I have every confidence. The feed is very good. There is no danger to be apprehended from the natives, if they are properly managed, and there is therefore nothing to prevent the party remaining here until our return, or until their provisions run short". The one peculiar fact connected with that document is that the writer completely ignored the existence of Wright, who was Brahe's superior office, and who was then supposed to be on his way to the Creek with the rest of the party and the balance of the stores. As a matter of fact, he should have already arrived there, but Burke, was not aware of that gentleman's unwarranted delay at the Bulloo, which fact makes his silence on the point the more remarkable. Another omission to be noted in this connection is, that Brake received no written instructions with regard to the new duty imposed on him, which was a matter that was prolific of extreme regret when the causes which led up to the sad fate of these men came to be investigated later on.

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