Burke & Wills Web
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by William Lockhart Morton

Yeoman & Australian Acclimatiser.
Collins-street, Melbourne.
A seven part series tracing the history of the Victorian Exploring Expedition.
21 December 1861-1 February 1862.

25 January 1862: 8.

Part VI

In continuing our history of this extraordinary and ill-starred Expedition, we find it impossible to believe a large portion of the evidence given before the Royal Commission of Inquiry. In now bringing our history to a close, we shall be compelled to notice some of the misstatements which have been made.

Having made this preliminary remark, let us now follow up the main portion of the Expedition. When Wright turned back from Torowoto at the end of October, the leader obtained the assistance of some blacks to pilot him to Cooper's Creek, which, as we have seen, he reached on the 11th of November. Both horses and camels were even then in an exhausted condition, and one of the camels had actually been abandoned two days before. The animals were brought into this condition although there was abundance of both food and water – although the latter was fast drying up. From the 11th of November to the 16th of December, the leader and his party remained in the neighbourhood of Cooper's Creek, in order to allow the exhausted animals time to recover, yet some of them were frequently used in making excursions to a considerable distance. We have already ventured to state that it must have been the design of the leader, in sending a despatch by Wright from Torowoto for the committee, that Wright should wait at Menindie for a reply. The Commission of Inquiry seems to have thought as Burke had expected Wright to arrive at Cooper's Creek two or three days after Burke's departure, that Wright should not have delayed at Menindie; but the Commission seems not to have considered Burke's lengthened stay at Cooper's Creek. The very length of this period proves that Burke expected an answer from the Committee to his despatch from Torowoto of the 29th of October. That such an answer was expected by Burke, and by the hand of Wright too, may be clearly understood from Brahe's evidence; for this last-named witness states that the last directions given to him by Burke before his departure from Cooper's Creek, on the 16th of December, were "to follow with the despatch within two days" if Wright arrived; and Brahe adds, "he expected Wright to arrive within two days." Burke's calculations about the very day when Wright might be expected are doubtless based upon some data, and the data comprised simply the time necessary for his despatch to reach Melbourne by post, the time necessary for a reply to be forwarded to Menindie, and the time necessary for Wright's journey from Menindie to Cooper's Creek. A careful consideration of this question will convince any man who is capable of being convinced, that these three points constitute the basis of Burke's calculations about the time of Wright's arrival. Upon what other grounds could the leader expect a despatch at all, or exactly at any certain time? We think we have now clearly proved that Wright waited at Menindie in obedience to instructions given him by the leader, and that, therefore, the blame which has been heaped upon him for doing so is unmerited and unjust.

It might have been supposed that by the time the Expedition had got a thousand miles away the Committee would not have been granted an opportunity of adding another drop to its already overflowing cup of iniquity; but it was not so. What became of poor Burke's despatch from Torowoto? If we were to believe the reckless statements made by Dr Macadam before the Commission, it would appear that the Committee never received the despatch till it got it by the hands of Hodgkinson, whom Wright sent from Menindie at the end of the year 1860. What are Dr Macadam's words in his evidence before the commission at its second meeting? After speaking of Burke's despatches from Menindie, he says, "no further despatch was received from him till quite recently, when the Committee had that memorandum sent by him from Cooper's Creek," – alluding to the melancholy memorandum which the leader wrote in pencil just before he died; yet this witness adds, in the next breath:- "After he left the Darling, the next despatch was that sent by Mr Wright per Mr Hodgkinson, on December 19." This evidence, given by the secretary of the Committee, is simply untrue. We learn, by a question put by Sir Francis Murphy, that Burke's Torowoto despatch was received on or before the 3rd of December, and it is published in the Melbourne papers of the 4th. To this despatch, the Committee made no reply. When Burke started from Cooper's Creek on the 16th December, 1860, he took with him Wills, King, and Gray, six camels, one horse, and about three months of provisions, leaving Brahe in charge of the Cooper's Creek depot, and along with Patton, McDonough, and Dost Mahommed. Here, again, the leader committed a fatal mistake in leaving Brahe no written instructions. Brahe, however, states that he was verbally instructed to remain at the Cooper's Creek depot for three months. With Brahe and his party, according to his own statement, enough food was left for twenty-four weeks. For five weeks the men thus left seemed to have kept up their spirits; but their lamentable want of bush knowledge soon reduced them to an abject condition. With plenty of fish in the river, Brahe candidly admits that none of them knew how to catch them, and that the few small ones they procured were got by emptying waterholes. There were plenty of ducks, but after five weeks shooting at those which came to the waterholes near, no more came; and as the ducks did not come to them, they had no spirit left to go in search of them. Had either of this unfortunate party left at Cooper's Creek been possessed of the most common bush knowledge, in a region which supports a considerable native population, and where many different animals abound, the party would have devoted much of its time to hunting and fishing, and thus not only would the men have maintained their health and spirits, but they might have so increased their stores as to have made themselves independent of help for almost any period. For want of exercise, and through lack of healthy occupation for their minds, they lost their appetite, and seem to have sunk into such a state as must soon have ended their days. After living in this helpless half-dreaming state from the 16th December, 1860, till the 21st April, 1861, the members of the party being in ill-health, and having consumed nearly all their provisions – for every man, we are told, had been allowed to eat as much as he liked – the depot was abandoned, and the party started to return to the Darling.

Brahe has been blamed for leaving the depot too soon, but we cannot see wherein this is just. He had been instructed to remain three months – Wills says four months; and he remained four months and five days, and he seems only to have left when the illness of some of his companions, and the near exhaustion of the provisions, warned him to retreat. He could not look into the future, and therefore he could not possibly foresee when Burke might return. He could not but be aware, also, that at that season he might meet with greater difficulties in retreating to Menindie than was experienced in advancing from it. Had he remained longer, death would have ended one or more of the party, and one of them actually did perish a few days afterwards. The only litter for carrying the sick had been abandoned at Balranald, and the account of this poor man's death, lashed on the back of a camel, is perfectly horrible.

There is no denying the fact, that the general character of the leader had produced upon the minds of the settlers on the Darling, and in some measure upon the minds of both Brahe and Wright, a sort of presentiment that he would rush on into the jaws of destruction, and that his safe return was hardly to be expected.

Previous to Brahe's leaving Cooper's Creek on the 21st of April, he deposited in the ground, near the root of a tree, a small quantity of stores, consisting of 50lb of flour, 50lb of oatmeal, 50lb of sugar, and 30lb of rice, and along with these articles he left a note, which gave an incorrect statement as to the actual condition of his party and his cattle, representing the former as in good health, and the latter in good condition. Any departure from the simple truth is at all times, of course, wrong, but in this instance, as the future proved, it was extremely reprehensible.

Let us now see what Wright had been about prior to this date. When Dick, the blackfellow, returned to Menindie on the 19th December, with tidings of the disasters which had befallen Lyons, the trooper, and Macpherson, the saddler, Wright sent off Hodgkinson to Melbourne, whilst Dr Beckler went out to rescue the two perishing men. On the 29th of December, Hodgkinson reached Melbourne, the committee met on the 31st, and Wright was authorised to purchase fresh horses to take stores to Cooper's Creek, not merely to replace those horses which had perished under the care of Lyons, but other cattle as well. Thus was it admitted that Wright had not sufficient carrying-power to take on the stores to Cooper's Creek.

From the report of this Committee meeting which took place on the last day of the year, some rather curious facts appear. Hodgkinson represents the stores at Menindie as only equal to that of the whole of the goods taken on by Burke, originally twenty-four tons. Dr Macadam, who knows well the meaning of the phrase "stage effect," after asking Hodgkinson if the animals had been overworked, and getting an answer in the negative, put emphatically the question, "May I ask you, Mr Hodgkinson, have you lost a single horse or camel in the ordinary progress of the Expedition?" Hodgkinson answered, "Not one;" and that was greeted with a "Hear, hear." Hodgkinson had never been beyond Menindie, and the question put to him was therefore of no value, but as a vain prop to a tottering Committee and a hopeless cause. But there is a very singular statement, which was made by Hodgkinson on that occasion. He referred to some accounts due at Menindie, but which Wright had not paid, because "the ratification by the Committee of his appointment as third officer, never reached him, the letter containing it having gone on to Mr Burke." If Hodgkinson was in error in making this statement, the committee would doubtless have corrected him, but as it did not, what are we to understand by it? No letter or despatch had gone on to Burke, except the one which Lyons tried in vain to take, and it had been sent from Melbourne long before the committee was aware of Wright having been appointed. It is clear, therefore, that this statement made by Hodgkinson is not to be relied on. It was thought desirable to send a medal to Dick, the native blackfellow, for his conduct in the relief of Lyons and Macpherson, and Captain Cadell had one made of brass, to be taken up by Hodgkinson, who started from Melbourne on the last day of the year. This medal got with him as far as Sandhurst, but, as if it had been designed that everything connected with this Expedition, or as if to illustrate a universal want of brains and forethought in its management, the medal was there left, in the trousers-pocket of Mr Commissioner Anderson, where it remains to this day for aught we or the public know.

Hodgkinson reached Menindie on the 10th or 11th of January, 1861, yet we find that Wright did not start thence till the 26th of that month. This was a long delay, but he had first to purchase horses, and then probably break them in to carry packs.

Wright's party, at starting from Menindie, consisted of Dr Becker, artist and geologist; Dr Beckler, surgeon; Hodgkinson, Stone, Smith, Jones, and Belooch. Previous to starting, Wright had sent out water seventy miles in advance; yet, in the face of this, he has stated before the commission, that he thought he could go at any season of the year to Cooper's Creek. The committee, roused to spasmodic action by the tidings brought from Menindie, soon again sank into repose, and weeks and months passed away; and though the committee was urged again and again to take steps to find out what had become of the whole party, it not only turned a deaf ear to the advice, but in various ways made known its displeasure towards those who presumed to advise it. For nearly five months after Wright left Menindie, nothing was heard of the Expedition. On the 29th of June, however, a startling telegram was received from Sandhurst, intimating that three of Wright's companions and one of Brahe's were dead - that Brahe had abandoned the depot at Cooper's Creek - and that all had retreated to Menindie, amidst ruin, sickness, and death. It then became knon that Brahe, on his way back to Menindie from Cooper's Creek, had met with Wright on the 28th of June.

A few days after this Wright and Brahe made a flying visit to Cooper's Creek. On the evening of the very day that Brahe first abandoned the depot (April 21), Burke, Wills, and King had returned, Gray having died some time before. The leader and his party had dug up the stores buried for him, and had camped several days there; but he left no mark on any tree, and thus neither Wright nor Brahe had the slightest suspicion that any one had been there.

About the middle of June, the committee had resolved to send out a contingent party, and Mr A.W. Howitt (a son of "William and Mary Howitt"), was made leader. About the time that Howitt first left Melbourne, poor Burke and Wills were breathing their last at Cooper's Creek. Had the committee not treated with neglect the advice given it in The Argus on the 17th of April, 1861, and in various letters from the 21st till the 24th of that month, as well as at an earlier period, Burke and Wills might have been saved from a lingering death. Yet was the committee to blame for not sending relief earlier? There ought to have been no relief required had it throughout done its duty.

On the 2nd of November, 1861, the melancholy news arrived from Sandhurst that Howitt had found King at Cooper's Creek, and that Burke and Wills had both perished there, after having crossed to Carpentaria and back. Having given these dates and facts, we have now to express our intention, in our next number, to allot to each party concerned his reward of praise or blame. Our verdict may differ widely from that which the Royal Commission will arrive at, for, as if it too had been intended to be a mere make-believe, it has not searched into the root of the matter; yet its members put questions to certain witnesses touching individual character, beyond the bounds which they had themselves laid down. We have yet some extraordinary secrets to reveal, but there are some facts in the history of this Expedition which must be passed over, simply because it would be highly improper to print them.

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