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Annual Address of the President of the Royal Society of Victoria.

25 April 1864

Extract from the address, concerning the conduct of the Victorian Exploring Expedition.


Your Excellency and Gentleman,

......The most glorious work of the Royal Society has been brought to a formal termination during the past year, by the presentation at our Meeting in August last of the "Final Report of the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria". This great undertaking of exploring a route from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria through the central area of the Australian continent, was set in motion by the anonymous donation by a member of our Society, Ambrose Kyte Esq., of £1,000 on condition of our Exploration Committee raising £2,000 more, by public subscription, within a year. The condition was fulfilled, and with this £3,000 of private money in hand the Government of the Colony was asked for £6,000 in addition, which, with that enlightened liberality which has always distinguished the Victorian Parliament towards scientific objects, was voted at once, and the task of organising the Expedition was confided to the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society, and vigorously commenced. Five thousand pounds worth of camels, both of the swift pans of the strong carrying breeds, were dent for to India, and on their arrival the members of the party were appointed, and equipped with a most ample provision of stores of every kind that could be useful.

When the most advanced portion of the party with their stores had reached Cooper's Creek a Depot was formed there, and left in charge of Mr Brahe and a small party, while the leader, R O'Hara Burke, with only Wills and King and Gray, pushed on, and gave this colony the glory of sharing in their brilliant achievement of first opening a path across the Continent, and proving that the great interior, instead of being a barren arid waste, as was previously supposed, was in reality for the most part a rich pastoral country, opening a boundless future of greatness to our colony, which, from its commanding position on the seaboard, and Great Melbourne and Murray River Railway, must reap all the material advantages to be derived from supplying the wants and receiving the merchandise of the settlers, who are rapidly taking up the new country. Not only may this direct route possibly afford a line for telegraphic communication by Batavia and India with England, but our Exploration Committee can claim, by the labours of the explorers sent out on the main and subsequent assistant expeditions, to have achieved the valuable result of showing the connection by a wide tract of fertile, well-grassed and comparatively well watered country between the lands discovered by Leichhardt on the Burdekin, those of Burke towards Carpentaria, those discovered by Stuart towards Arnhem's Land, and those of the two Gregory's from North West Australia to the Northern parts of West Australia. So rapid has been the occupation of this hitherto unknown country, that on the east coast alone the sheep stations now taken up and stocked extend from the settled districts in an unbroken line to within one hundred miles of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The heroic success and melancholy death of Burke and Wills are known in every civilized part of earth, but from ignorance or forgetfulness of facts, the blame has been thrown on the Committee of such neglect or mismanagement as it was supposed had led to the death of these two lamented men. Although a member of the Exploration Committee myself, I think the feeling of indignation which prevented the Committee as a body from defending itself against these animadversions, is probably unfair to the public, which is never wilfully unjust or ungenerous, and I take this occasion to clear the Royal Society of blame by a simple statement of facts, the more willingly as they are not distinctly set forth in the published reports.

It was said the Committee established no Depot with stores at Cooper's Creek, and henceforth the misfortune.

The fact is, the Expedition started with ample stores and instructions, (both of which can be seen in the formal reports published), which were sufficient to insure success. The leader, however, divided his party and stores, taking on with him to Cooper's Creek only the smaller portion, and leaving the larger party to follow under the leadership of a bushman, Mr Wright, appointed and instructed, not by the Committee, but by Mr Burke himself in the field, when the Expedition was practically beyond the control of the Society. This person failed to carry out the instructions of Mr Burke for the immediate advance of the reserve party and stores to Cooper' Creek. Mr Brahe remained at his post with his little party and the stores first brought up, at the Depot at Cooper's Creek, until long after the date at which Burke on parting with him left him orders to return; and as it was well known that if the Gulf of Carpentaria were reached, the safest and easiest route home would be by the watered and grassed north-east coast line leading down to the settled districts of Queensland - and this route has actually formed the subject of their last conversation - Brahe felt at last that there was a probability that Burke was already at home by that route, and that at any rate the time had arrived, not only when he had overstaid the period allotted him by Burke, but when the provisions had become so far reduced (as Wright and the reserve party had not come up), that he had only enough left to carry his party down to the next Depot, and leave a sufficient supply buried to bring down Burke and his companions also, of they should come.

This reasoning was approved at the time by the Committee and the public, and it was obvious apparently (not then having the knowledge of after events), that the party could do no good by remaining beyond this point, but, on the contrary, that further delay would diminish the stock of food already reduced to the lowest point of safety for both parties; yet, when the subsequent misfortune became known, this man was assailed with almost inhuman cruelty and injustice by the press and the public, as the direct cause of the calamity which followed, and I was almost alone in raising my voice in his defence, by showing that his conduct was approved when the public knowledge of following events was no greater than his at the time.

But now comes the sad story of the unaccountable chapter of unlucky mischances which clouded all the glories of the Expedition, by the loss of the leader and his second. Brahe buried the stores at the foot of a tree,a nd put a notice with the word "dif" upon it, and the better to conceal the cache from the natives, lit a fire over the spot, and then tied some camels during the last night over the place, so that by their soiling and trampling the ashes into the earth all traces of the excavation might be obliterated. And then, on the morning of the 21st April, he left the Depot - on the very day on which Burke, Wills and King returned to it. The Explorers opened the cache and found the ample supply of food, and, as we now know from the survivor, king, they debated about following the party who had only a few hours before left the spot, and which, as a first day's journey is generally short, would be encamped so near that the night would probably be sufficient to come up with them. But, unfortunately, it was decided not to follow, but to remain to recruit their strength; and when sufficiently recovered to undertake a journey, they determined, instead of following the obvious track home, to endeavour to find a new one into South Australia, in which they failed, although without knowing it they had actually reached within sixty of the station at Mount Hopeless, when they exhausted their strength and provisions by returning again to Cooper's Creek. The most inconceivable part of this unlucky series of mischances has yet to be told, and has never been clearly set down.

Before leaving Cooper's Creek for Mount Hopeless, the explorers buried their papers &c., in the cache from which they took the food, and then with fatal accuracy restored everything above to the exact condition in which they found it - they not only lighted their fires over the disturbed ground, as Brahe had done, but actually picketed their camels to the tree, to trample in the ashes and leave their soil and footmarks exactly as he had left them, and finally, by an almost incredible mischance, they neither defaced nor altered Brahe's notice on the tree, nor added any note or mark or sign of their own to show that they had been there. And this cost our heroes their lives. For while they were on their fruitless journey towards South Australia, Mr Brahe, having joined Mr Wright, returned with him to Cooper's Creek on the 8th May, so as to get a further chance of seeing if the party had returned from Carpentaria, but they found everything exactly as Brahe described it to Wright his having left it; and the latter who was an excellent bushman seeing the ashes and camel marks &c., was convinced that no natives could have disturbed the cache, and as the notice on the tree was not interfered with, it seemed no white man had been there; and so not wishing to disturb the cache, and having nothing further to add to the previous notice, they returned to bring the remainder of their parties now suffering from sickness, back to the settlements; and when Burke and his companions shortly after again came to Cooper's Creek they did not recognise any sign of their visit which might have cheered them to exertions to follow even then the tracks homewards towards Menindie.

When Brahe's news came of the non-arrival of Burke within a time to which the provisions he took with him could have lasted his party, the Exploration committee immediately equipped several relief parties; HMCSS Victoria, under Commander Norman, was dispatched to the Gulf of Carpentaria, to make search by boats up all the rivers on the banks of which Burke might be, and to convey horses and stores for a land party under Mr Landsborough, to form a Depot on the Albert River, and to follow any tracks of Burke until he was found. At the same time a party of native black mounted trackers was dispatched, under Mr Walker, to search north from Queensland in hopes of meeting the travelers if they were coming that way. While the South Australian Government aided promptly by sending the party under McKinlay to search the northern districts of South Australia, in case the Victorian Expedition might have taken that direction; and finally, a party with large stores was dispatched from Melbourne, under Mr Alfred Howitt, to replenish the Depot at Cooper's Creek, and maintain it as long as any of the relief parties were in the field and might want aid.

All these parties aided greatly in the unexampled advance made in knowledge of Australian geography, and the energy and liberality of the Victorian Government cannot fail to redound greatly to the credit of the colony at home, when it is known that Victoria's share of the expense of the explorations was £35,000, while the only other contributor, Queensland, gave but £500, and that to be spent within her own boundaries.

To Mr Howitt's party, as you know, it was alone permitted to give any succour to the missing explorers, and he found on hid return to Cooper's Creek that the only survivor was King, a brave young soldier, formerly in the Indian Army, and who having tended Burke and Wills to their death, and preserved their papers with a faithful devotion and constant heroism worthy of the Victorian Cross, was found living in a deplorable state among the natives.

The Government and Parliament in voting a public funeral for the leaders that fell, and £4,000 to erect a monument to their honour as well as any other mark of respect that could be suggested, and granting the survivor, King a pension of £180 a year for life, have shown a noble spirit pf appreciation for the services of the explorers; and I trust, after what I have said, that it will be clearly seen that for the misfortune at the close of the Expedition no shadow of blame directly or indirectly can attach to the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society.

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