by William Lockhart Morton
|Yeoman & Australian Acclimatiser.
A seven part series tracing the history of the Victorian Exploring Expedition.
21 December 1861-1 February 1862.
28 December 1861: 8.
In our last number we traced the history of this unfortunate Expedition from the moment of first suggestion of it up to the time when, all the necessary funds having been subscribed, and the two committees that had wrought so harmoniously together been adroitly amalgamated, the curtain dropped to close the first act of the tragedy, on the 23rd of January, 1860.
Having got all the necessary funds collected, another and a more difficult part of the play had to be performed, and it was at this moment that the great and lasting responsibilities of the Committee began.
When committees or individuals, incompetent though they may be to surmount with ease the difficulties in their path, or unable to appreciate fully the weight of the responsibilities imposed upon them, nevertheless go straight onward, as the American poet says, "with heart within and God o'er head," they will generally be successful; but should they fail, they will not be haunted by life-long remorse. With these remarks, let us bring upon the stage the second act of the tragedy. It is here that our difficulties too begin, for much of the play having been behind the scenes, we cannot very well assign to each his part; yet some of the company or committee having let us into the secrets, we proceed with our history.
Subsequent to the 23rd of January 1860, when the collection of funds had been brought to a close, the committee advertised for a leader to the proposed Expedition. This step was taken because there had been some difficulty felt in finding any known explorer to become leader. Mr A C Gregory had been communicated with by Dr Mueller on his own responsibility, and his service could not be obtained. Mr Frank T Gregory, who the other day returned from his successful expedition into Northwest Australia had gone to England. Major Warburton, who had been employed by the South Australian Government in leading the expedition which was sent out to supersede Babbage, had some time before been communicated with by Dr Mueller, also on his own responsibility, and would have taken the command, but the majority of the Committee objected to him, chiefly upon the grounds that he did not belong to Victoria. There could be no other weighty objection to him, if this even was one. He was known to the committee as a gentleman of some pretensions to scientific knowledge, and although he had not actually done much as an explorer, it was known to the committee that he possessed both the resolution and the caution, without which combined, and tact developed by experience, no man is fit to be a leader of an expedition or to be trusted with the lives of other men. It was also known that he was quite an enthusiast in the cause of exploration, had prepared himself by astronomical studies, and had subjected himself to a course of training, in acquiring a practical knowledge of horse-shoeing, &c. Stuart also had been thought of by some, but he, whom the whole world has since heard of on account of his vast discoveries in passing through the centre of the continent again and again, without the loss of a single man, or even the outbreak of any disease, would not do. He was, as the Hon Secretary to the Committee has been heard to remark, prefixing a qualifying adjective, "a Scotchman." If an angel from heaven had come down and volunteered to be leader, he, too, would have been objected to. There is a secret connected with this part of the business – a secret which the Royal Commission of Inquiry might, and which it ought, to have divulged, had it really comprehended how to reach the foundation of all the woes and disasters and loss of life that followed. What the Commission has filed to do, we are compelled to undertake for the public benefit, in order that the votaries of favouritism and nepotism may in all future time confine their unhallowed operations, as heretofore, to the making of appointments which cannot at least eventuate in consigning esteemed and useful fellow-colonists to an untimely grave.
What is the secret? It is this. A powerful clique, embracing a few members of the Committee and some persons outside of it, entered into something like a conspiracy that one man, and he only, should obtain the appointment as leader. Personal friendship, or relationship, alone could have actuated the movers in this matter, and the others became the willing and humble tools of their chiefs. A well-known railway contractor is understood either to have joined this clique ab initio, or to have been one of its originators; and the gentleman who is said to have sacrificed £300 in getting the Hon Secretary of the Committee elected for Castlemaine, is also said to have declared to the gentleman for whom the whole band were working, that "no other man living should lead the Victorian Expedition." We do not know exactly when this clique began operations, yet a pretty good conjecture may be formed from the circumstance that on the 16th of November 1859, the landlord of the hotel where the Hon Secretary, the railway contractor, and others, were in the habit of meeting, became most mysteriously a member of the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria. We cannot be expected to know all the secrets connected with a secret organization, but we are aware, having been told by members of the committee themselves, that the most shameless system of solicitation for "votes and interest" was openly practised, and we know of at least one attempt having been made to get the committee a personal friend of the candidate's, for the purpose of securing a majority, but that gentleman was so manly as to say that he would not so disgrace himself. But though all the secrets cannot be fathomed, it has so happened that some were revealed by the parties themselves.
Before bringing them forward, however, we ought to mention, that about the beginning of the year 1860 the Exploration Committee advertised for a leader, and all applications were to be sent in by the end of February 1860. Whether this was done in good faith or no we cannot say, but we are in a position to vouch for the truth of the following circumstances:- On or about the 15th February, one who had some intention of responding to the invitation by the Committee, and who had been asked by several members of it to come forward, happened to meet in Collins-street one of the Committee. In the course of conversation, it was incidentally mentioned that he had some thoughts of sending in an application, when the committee-man tried to dissuade him from doing so, by stating that the Committee had already made up their minds. Having ascertained in other quarters the name of the gentleman to be appointed, and having heard from various members of the Committee that the most shameless system of canditure for "vote and interest" was going on, the person referred to determined to send in an application. He believed the statement that had been made to him, and all his subsequent inquiries from other members of the committee tended to convince him that the statement was true; he therefore determined to send in an application, designedly so worded that it might appear as a caution to the Committee, and, at the same time, a censure upon the disgraceful "touting" which had taken place. This was, perhaps, the first caution bestowed upon the committee, and as such the extracts we are enabled to give will probably be read with interest by the public:
To the revelations of the Hon Secretary of the Committee we are indebted for a little insight into the manner in which the secret and silent operations were carried on which eventually placed a leader totally inexperienced at the head of the exploring party. We make the following extract from the Mount Alexander Mail of the 6th of May last year. It is portion of a political speech delivered by Dr Macadam, the honorary secretary to the Exploration Committee:- "He (Dr Macadam) might fairly take credit to himself for the assistance he had rendered to the exploration cause, at the head of which exhibition (expedition?) was Mr Burke, their fellow townsman. He had been the proposer of Mr Burke, and had seen, as far as possible, that the vote for exploration purposes had been properly distributed. (What about the I O U's?) This was one of the silent pieces of duty that a member could do with" (not without, bear in mind), "appearing on the surface – without sounding brass or tinkling cymbal." In the last two sentences the language is disguised certainly, yet it can only have one meaning. There is but one train of thought in both, and the allusion to a silent duty performed without sounding brass or tinkling cymbal, when the operator to the eyes of the public seemed to be a mere superficial sham, is alike characteristic of the individual and significant of his real meaning.
When the time arrived for opening the applications, it was found that about a dozen had been sent in, and a sub-committee was chosen from amongst the general committee to examine them, and report accordingly. This sub-committee did not select any one candidate, but it named three or four of them as better fitted than the rest, the gentleman who subsequently gained the appointment being amongst the rejected. When the committee itself met to decide finally upon the choice of leader, instead of doing so, it came to the extraordinary resolution to postpone making the appointment for three months, chiefly upon the ground that the months of March, April, and May, or the cool winter months of the ex-tropical regions, were not the proper season of the year to make the appointment, or to start the Expedition. The committee thus contradicted itself, declared its own resolutions (already alluded to) wrong, pronounced the valuable opinion of that experienced explorer, Mr A. C. Gregory, as unworthy of attention, set itself up in opposition to all past experience, and proved incontestably its utter ignorance of the climate of the west, and even of the south-west, districts of New South Wales. What valuable advice did the experienced Gregory vouchsafe to the committee in a letter to Dr, Mueller, and published in the Transactions of the Royal Society? He says :-"With reference to the time of year that the Expedition should commence, the party should be fully equipped and at the out-stations not later than March, and if practicable, return before the ensuing summer, and not remain out at the depot during the hot season, for it would be cheaper and better to send another party out the following year, than to keep the first out in the field, if the equipments were stored at one of the out-stations.
After three months had elapsed, or in the month of June, the committee met to appoint a leader. The long interval had not been misspent. The clique had now secured a subservient majority of votes; several members who had themselves acquired by experience a knowledge of what a leader should be, were either unavoidably absent, or they absented themselves designedly. The result was that a gentleman whom the sub-committee had three months before rejected as unworthy of a moment's consideration, got the appointment, not because he had adduced any fresh proofs of fitness for the fearfully responsible duties of the office, - not because he had the slightest bush experience, - not because he professed the least knowledge of any of the physical sciences, or possessed the requisite mental and moral qualities to constitute him a fit man to be the leader of the greatest Expedition that had ever been fitted out in Australia, but solely through the influence of a wicked nepotism, which had found willing tools to perform "silent duties" by the sale of their own honour, and the sacrifice of the interests and reputation of Victoria.
Thus ends our history of the second act in the great Exploring tragedy.