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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 IV

Enforced desertion of the Depot

Burke and his three companions were no sooner away than Brahe and his men started to erect a stockade for their own protec¬tion, being less sanguine than their leader had expressed-himself to be about the pacific character of the natives; and this precaution was almost immediately shown to have been wisely taken, for the blacks surrounded them in large numbers and harassed both them and their stock by constant visits, impudent demands made by signs accompanied by loud talk and gestures, and petty thefts of any small articles left about the camp. But no attack was made and the small party settled down to a life of enforced idleness, anxiously waiting the return of those who had gone northwards, or some sign of the existence of Wright, from whom nothing had been heard. Four weary months passed in this unsatisfactory manner, but in the meantime they were attacked by scurvy without actually knowing the precise nature of the symptoms. They attributed their sufferings to rheumatism, and it was not until Patton became seriously ill, and unable to move about that Brahe decided to move southwards and endeavor to join forces with and place some of his responsibilities on the shoulders of the missing third officer.

Just here it may be as well to quote from Burke's last despatch to the Committee on the eve of his departure from Cooper's Creek, and which was afterwards published in the Melbourne Argus, to show what his intentions were, Dated 13th December, 1860, it ran thus:

I proceed tomorrow with the party, as per margin, to Eyre's Creek, and from thence I shall endeavor to explore the country to the north of it, in the direction of Carpentaria, and it is my intention to return here within the next three months, at the latest.

Brahe, in confirmation of the time specified by Burke for his return upon the accuracy of his statement that Burke's final instructions to him when bidding "good-bye" were:

Remain three months certainly, or longer if circumstances will permit, for if he was not back in three months I might consider he had perished.

The pity of it that these instructions were not given in writing! However, Brahe maintained his position at the Creek depot for five weeks beyond the allotted time of three months, and only decided to leave it when both he and his men were suffering acutely and becoming worse daily. Could he have foreseen the terrible tragedy that was to result from his departure, he would assuredly have remained but that was impossible; and the blame that it was afterwards sought to attach to him for "deserting his leader and disobeying his instructions", was in no sense modified by a consideration of the extremely difficult position in which he was placed. Human lives were at stake on either hand, and he acted, as he believed, for the best; certainly in the interest of those for whom he was directly responsible. It was all he could do to move his small party at all. Riding caused them excruciating pain, and compelled them to travel very slowly, and in spite of all the attention and care they could bestow upon him, Patton died before they were able to effect a junction with Wright.

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