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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.

1 February 1862:8 8-9.

Part VII

In now bringing in our verdict, at the close of our long inquiry, we shall do so cautiously and fairly, in order that all parties may be justly dealt with. The result of our inquiries is, that all the ruin and disaster, the almost useless squandering of between twenty and thirty thousand pounds, and the loss of life which has followed the Victorian Expedition are clearly traceable to two sources, namely:

1st. The gross mismanagement of everything, arising from a total want of knowledge, judgement, experience, forethought, and general capability, on the part of the leader of the expedition, whilst his equally helpless party could render him no assistance, but only tended to make the ruin more intense; and

2nd. The equally gross mismanagement of everything on the part of the Committee, from the moment the first money was got together up to the present time; which mismanagement was not, in the first instance, the result of a want of knowledge, but a want of honesty and principle on the part of a small clique, which, by the most shameless tricks, and, to use a vulgar phrase, 'artful dodging,' succeeded in perverting and leading into dishonour a majority of the committee, whilst a small minority positively refused to incur the terrible responsibility.

There cannot be a doubt – there is none in our judgement – that, so far as responsibility and criminality before heaven and earth are concerned, the committee, as a body, must for ever be content to occupy the more prominent position. What shall we say, however, of those few schemers within and without the committee, who working behind the scenes to accomplish their designs, and tampering with the honour and dignity of Parliament, at last succeeded?

We mentioned in our last number that we had yet some extraordinary secrets to reveal. One or two of these may be given now, the rest afterwards. We have heretofore mentioned that the position of Mr Landells in the party was incompatible, and could not but lead, sooner or later, to disagreements; we now know that the secretary of the Committee wrote the letter to Mr Landells, accepting his terms, in the presence of that gentleman, in one of the rooms at the Houses of Parliament, and handed the letter of acceptance to him before the Committee could have an opportunity of seeing it! It will furnish some insight into the cunning tactics pursued in connexion with this extraordinary Expedition, and it will also, perhaps, enable our readers to understand how so many thousands of the public money became available for reckless squandering, when we state that, as the Expedition was in process of formation, the secretary, himself a member of the Assembly, expressed his intention to get as many other members as possible elected members of the Royal Society, as more funds would be thus secured! We hence see that "the silent pieces of duty" alluded to by that gentleman in his speech at Castlemaine were not connected solely with getting a certain leader appointed.

It is because the Commission of Inquiry has purposely refused to investigate the deep secret schemes practised from the very beginning, that it must fail to fix the chief blame in the right quarter, for all the calamities, dishonour, and death which ultimately happened. As we have already said, the public will not be satisfied with what must probably be a superficial result and an unjust conclusion. It was utterly useless, and showed an ignorance, perhaps, of human nature, to appoint high officials to hold an inquiry which might result in bringing blame upon fellow high-officials with whom they were in daily intercourse. Should the Assembly not hereafter institute an inquiry, as it should have done at first, when the bones of the unfortunate explorers reach Melbourne, it will be in the power of the coroner – and he will be bound, if called upon - to hold an investigation which will be satisfactory to the bereaved friends of the deceased, and to the public. Let us now state the particulars upon which we base the above verdict.

The chief blame attaches to the Committee; because it appointed a gentleman as leader who new nothing whatever about exploring, who had not the slightest pretensions to a knowledge of bushmanship, either in Australia or any other country; who had never, on any occasion, shown the least aptitude for such pursuits as those of an explorer; who had never exhibited that he was possessed of the slightest knowledge of Australian geography; who could not boast of even a smattering of knowledge of any of the physical sciences, and who was known to everybody acquainted with him as a highly excitable, irascible, changeable, and eccentric individual, who could never sit down calmly and devise a definite plan of operations, and who could never execute, to the letter, such plans as he devised. The committee knew all this. We on one occasion, heard the secretary of the committee say:- "He is the man to make a leader of; he is always screwed up." He then explained that what he meant by "screwed up" was, that "he was always in a high state of excitement." No quality in an explorer can be more likely to lead to ruin and disaster than this.

The Committee not only did this, but it refused to appoint any leader for three months, just as the proper season for starting the Expedition approached. It thus contradicted the correctness of its own resolutions, which had been passed months, if not years, before, and set at nought the opinions of Gregory, and everyone else who knew anything of the Australian climate, and listened to a partisan of Mr Burke, who declared that not the winter months, but the period of tropical rains was the correct time to explore the interior, whereas he must have known that no tropical rains fall, except on the coast districts, within the tropics; and that the dry months of Spring and Summer were not fit for an Expedition to go from Melbourne to Cooper's Creek in.

Again, the Committee provided the leader with such a cumbrous outfit as must have ruined any party, but which no experienced man would have taken. Twenty-one tons of stuff left Melbourne; and yet, in all this enormous load, even with the addition of three tons of flour extra, purchased on the Murrumbidgee, there was a supply of the necessaries of life for a period of eighteen months only. If the chosen leader was responsible for this, and other errors, as Dr Macadam tried to convince the Commission, meanly, as we think, to save his own skin, the original error still rests with the Committee for appointing a leader who did not, and could not possibly know what was required.

This latter remark applies to every case of mismanagement by the exploring party itself. The blame must always revert to the source whence ultimate ruin to the party, disgrace to the colony, and death to individuals, originated.

But, whilst the Committee must bear the principal blame, as the primary cause of all the disaster and death which have followed, it is quite evident that the leader himself, and the members of the party, have been the immediate instruments of all the disaster and death which have happened.

The main object which the Committee had in view in sending the party through five or six hundred miles of settled country was not attained. Men do not acquire bush knowledge by inspiration. What took place even between Melbourne and Menindie was quite enough had it been calmly and honestly considered, to have convinced the committee, as it did other men, of all that might be expected. Quarrels between the leader and his party; all the men frequently going up in a body to demand their discharge, one on a certain occasion shouting out that they were all treated as convicts; the leader going on a-head, and then hiring with £2 a blackfellow to go back and see what had become of a portion of the party; giving £5 to another blackfellow for finding some camels which were merely in a bend of the Darling; throwing away, and leaving in the bush, numerous articles, waggons and new sets of harness, as an army retreating from an enemy, or an expedition retreating from destruction should alone do; and, last of all, the quarrel between the leader and his second officer on a point which it had been left to his judgement and good sense not to meddle with; - all these things ought to have convinced the committee, as they did the public generally, that all was going wrong.

The leader's dividing his party at Menindie and rushing off to Cooper's Creek, especially at such a season of the year, showed a great want of judgement and skill. If it be true, as a resident at Menindie alleges, that he did so through fear of being recalled, that is no justification. The leader's rejection of experienced bushmen previously, and his now grasping at a shadow of one, in the person of Wright, and making him third officer, although he knew little or nothing of him, showed a profound want of judgement. His forced journeys to Cooper's Creek, and the consequent exhaustion of his horses and camels, are also to be condemned.

But the crowning act of recklessness, or want of judgement, forethought, and experience on the part of the leader, was exemplified in his again dividing the party, and rushing off from Cooper's Creek, before the arrival of the rest of his party, under Wright. The committee took no notice of his despatch from Torowoto; it sent Trooper Lyons after him, and thus destroyed three of Wright's horses. The committee had also assured the leader that he was travelling at the right season, and it seems never to have occurred to his mind that the way between Menindie and Cooper's Creek might become closed. Whilst we, therefore, blame the leader for his want of caution and fore thought, and for not providing against all contingencies, we must never forget that had the Expedition started at the right season, it is certain that none of the disasters we now deplore would have happened.

The two chief points against the Committee may be briefly stated thus:

  • It appointed an inexperienced leader, and then gave him the wrong season to travel in, and he did not know it.

With reference to the leader's journey from Cooper's Creek to his furthest point – wherever that may be, for it is still a matter of doubt – the same exhaustive system of travelling was pursued. It was a race over the country and back again. Few attempts were made by the leader's party to increase its store of provisions, although we are told by King that kangaroos, emus, and waterfowl were numerous; but when it got back to Cooper's Creek, the total want of bush experience in providing food ended in the death of the leader and Mr Wills. In this same Cooper's Creek, where Brahe and his party could not wait through want of provisions and from sickness; and where poor Burke and Wills died of want, Howitt tells us that, from three o'clock in the afternoon till sunset, two of his men caught seventy-two pounds weight of excellent fish.

With reference to the question how much blame is to be attached to the management of Wright and Brahe, we are bound to say that, after the most careful inquiry, we can only find them blameable in a subordinate degree.

Brahe is simply to be blamed for not leaving a correct statement at Cooper's Creek when he left the camp there; and Wright and he are conjointly to be blamed for not taking more stores to Cooper's Creek when they returned to the camp, a short time after it had been abandoned. Had Brahe's statement been a correct one, the leader and his party would probably have made an extraordinary effort to have overtaken him. On that night (April 21) Burke's party arrived at Cooper's Creek – the two parties camped within fourteen miles of each other.

Wright is chiefly to be blamed for undertaking the conduct of the Menindie party to Cooper's Creek, as he must have known that he was not competent to do so, should he lose Burke's track; and this very thing, and the want of water and bad management, made him crawl about for months in the same spot till the talented geologist and artist, Dr Becker, and two others died. A sharp observant bushman could not possibly have returned to the camp at Cooper's Creek without noticing the fact that Burke had been there, and remained for several days.

Whether Mr Wills is to be considered responsible equally with the leader we cannot say, but we know that form the moment the party returned to Cooper's Creek, he was continually giving advice, which was overruled. He was opposed to going down Cooper's Creek to make for Mount Hopeless, and so was King; and poor Wills, to the very last, tried to persuade Burke that their only hope was to join the blacks; and it was their only hope for some time before they died, but his advice was not taken till it was too late.

King is no doubt quite right when he says that Burke was the leading man of the party. It is enough for us to know, however, that any little information which has been given of the new country travelled over is from the pen of Wills.

There is one difficult point in connexion with Wills's journal. King, in one place, represents that Wills always consulted Burke as to what he should put in the journal; but he had previously stated, in reference to the unfortunate Gray's thrashing, that what Wills had stated was not correct. If the first statement be true, we may depend upon it that what Wills has stated about the thrashing of Gray is not overdrawn. We have no doubt that the friends of Mr Burke are more influential than the relatives of poor Gray; and everything will, of course, be done to wipe out for ever be a stain upon Burke's name and memory. But, in putting the best face upon one's conduct, we cannot allow it to be done at the expense of another. The truth should either be stated or nothing said at all. Since the fate of Gray has excited much sympathy, and since in his illness he seems to have been treated with no kindness or proper feeling, and his character has been branded as that of a thief, we feel bound to do justice to his name. He was the best bushman of the party – the strongest and most willing and useful man; and it is exceedingly mean to attempt to bring disgrace upon his name, in order that the leaders may be vindicated. Gray had been ill for some time, had been unfeelingly looked upon as shamming, had probably asked for some flour – a well-known colonial remedy, as it is erroneously considered, for dysentery – had helped himself to a little, to cure his complaint, was found taking it, and called up and punished. This was on the 25th of March, and on the morning of the 17th of April he was found dead in his rug. To strike a weak sick man, in any way and under any circumstances, must ever be regarded, to use the mildest term, as an unmanly action; but what should we say if we knew that he had been knocked down, kicked, and so ill used, that King would have shot the leader, if he had a pistol; and that poor Gray was never afterwards allowed to have his meals with the others? Yet this is just – as we learn from a most reliable source – what King stated to some of Howitt's party at Cooper's Creek.

As we said at the beginning of our inquiry, there has been so much adroit concealment of facts, that the whole truth cannot be known.

Now, a few words as to the results of this Expedition. We have been blamed for not perceiving their greatness, and for not joining in a wild song of triumph. We have studied and watched this exploration business from the very beginning. We have placed on one hand the fact that as much money has been squandered as would have been enough to have explored every region, still unknown, throughout this continent, and we have placed on the other, one single line, traced from Cooper's Creek to Carpentaria, the position of which line there are no data for accurately determining; the very direction in which some of the rivers flow cannot be ascertained, whilst no description of the country, or bearings of the hills, or landmarks, to the right or left of the line are given. Geological and botanical sciences have not been enriched by any new discoveries. The opinions of inexperienced men as to the value of the country for pastoral settlement, cannot be relied on. With all these considerations before us, we cannot see that the results are very great. If we are told to rejoice that the Continent has been crossed, we answer that it will be time enough to do that when it is ascertained where the Expedition got to. With our personal knowledge of the high tides within the tropics of the N.E. coast, and with our knowledge of the fact that the tidal wave is not diminished, but increased, by passing through Torres' Straits, we must refrain from believing that there was only a tide of six inches seen at the Gulf of Carpentaria, or that any tide at all could be seen where the country was all under fresh water. Neither can we avoid noticing one extraordinary remark in the leader's journal, as follows:-

28th March.- At the conclusion of report, it would be well to say that we reached the sea, but we could not obtain a view of the open ocean, although we made every endeavour to do so.

This singular passage is to be received with doubt, viewed in conjunction with the fact that in Wills's journal he mentions box and swamp gum trees as seen at the furthest point reached, whereas had even the neighbourhood of the sea been reached, the eucalypti would have given place, first to melaleuca, and, as the coast was neared, mangroves would have been observed; neither is there any mention made of the raspberry-jam tree, which Leichhardt says is abundant on all the rivers of the Gulf within the influence of saltwater; and the Nonda, or its fruit, is never alluded to.

Let the world read the extraordinary letter of instructions drawn up by the Committee, with its account of many great geographical problems to be solved, but not one word about crossing the continent; and then look at what has been imperfectly done, and which, up to the present moment, is not finished, whilst about £30,000 have been already squandered; let it review these things, and all the death and disaster, and baseness, connected with the undertaking, and it will not say there is any cause for triumph. The letter of instructions placed on one hand, and the raw inexperienced recruits for exploring purposes on the other, invest the whole affair with an aspect of infinite absurdity, quite enough to make the committee an object of scorn and ridicule to the end of time. The last sad act in this tragedy has yet to be performed. The remains of the two unfortunate brave men are not to be allowed to rest in peace in the graves that best become them; their bones are to be shaken in canvas-bags, on horseback, over a thousand miles. Every part of the tragedy will then be complete, and the dark curtain may fall.

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