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Commission's Report

Report of the commissioners appointed to enquire into and report upon the circumstances connected with the sufferings and death of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills.
Melbourne: John Ferres, Government Printer.
Parliamentary papers, No 97, 1861-2. 1862.

Published in Melbourne on Saturday, 22 February 1861.

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To His Excellency Sir Henry Barkly,


Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the Colony of Victoria, and Vice-Admiral of the same, &c., &c.

Report of the commissioners appointed to enquire into and report upon the circumstances connected with the sufferings and death of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, the Victorian explorers.

Melbourne: John Ferres, Government Printer.
Parliamentary papers, No 97, 1861-2.

 
     

 

May it please your Excellency -

In conformity with the term of Her Majesty's commission, we have made inquiry into the circumstances connected with the suffering and death of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, the Victorian explorers.

We have endeavoured to ascertain the true causes of this lamentable result of the expedition, and have investigated the circumstances under which the depot at Cooper's Creek was abandoned by Mr William Brahe. We have sought to determine upon whom rests the grave responsibility of there not having been a sufficient supply of provisions and clothing secured for the recruiting of the explorers on their return, and for their support until they could reach the settlements; and we have generally inquired into the organisation and conduct of the expedition.

Our investigations have been confined to the above matters, the Government having already taken into consideration the claims on the colony of the surviving members of the expedition, &c.

We have examined all persons willing to give evidence who professed, or whom we supposed to possess, knowledge upon the various subjects of our inquiries and we now, after mature consideration, submit to your Excellency the following Report:-

The expedition, having been provided and equipped in the most ample and liberal manner, and having reached Menindie, on the Darling, without experiencing any difficulties, was most injudiciously divided at that point by Mr Burke. It was an error of judgment on the part of Mr Burke to appoint Mr Wright to an important command in the expedition, without a previous personal knowledge of him; although, doubtless, a pressing urgency had arisen for the appointment, from the sudden resignations of Mr Landells and Dr Beckler. Mr Burke evinced a far greater amount of zeal than prudence in finally departing from Cooper's Creek before the depot party had arrived from Menindie, and without having secured, communication with the settled districts as he had been instructed to do; and, in undertaking so extended a journey with an insufficient supply of provisions, Mr Burke was forced into the necessity of overtaxing the powers of his party, whose continuous and unremitting exertions resulted in the destruction of his animals, and the prostration of himself and his companions from fatigue and severe privation. The conduct of Mr Wright appears to have been reprehensible in the highest degree. It is clear that Mr Burke, on parting with him at Torowoto, relied on receiving his immediate and zealous support; and it seems extremely improbable that Mr Wright could have misconstrued the intentions of his leader so far, as to suppose that he ever calculated for a moment on his remaining for any length of time on the Darling, Mr Wright has failed to give any satisfactory explanation of the causes of his delay; and to that delay are mainly attributable the whole of the disasters of the expedition, with the exception of the death of Gray. The grave responsibility of not having left a larger supply of provisions, together with some clothing, in the cache, at Cooper's Creek, rests with Mr Wright. Even had he been unable to convey stores to Cooper's Creek, he might have left them elsewhere, leaving a notice at the depot of his having done so.

The Exploration Committee, in overlooking the importance of the contents of Mr Burke's dispatch from Torowoto, and in not urging Mr Wright's departure from the Darling, committed errors of a serious nature. A means of knowledge of the delay of the party at Menindie was in the possession of the Committee, not indeed by direct communication to that effect, but through the receipt of letters from Drs. Becker and Beckler at various dates up to the end of November, without, however, awakening the Committee to a sense of the vital importance of Mr Burke's request in that dispatch that he should "be soon followed up," - or to a consideration of the disastrous consequences which would be likely to result and did unfortunately result, from the fatal inactivity and idling of Mr Wright and his party on the Darling.

The conduct of Mr Brahe in retiring from his position at the depot before he was rejoined by his commander, or relieved from the Darling, may be deserving of considerable censure; but we are of opinion that a responsibility far beyond his expectations devolved upon him; and it must be borne in mind, that, with the assurance of his leader, and his own conviction he might each day expect to be relieved by Mr Wright, he still held his post for four months and five days, and that only when pressed by the appeals of a comrade sickening, even to death, as was subsequently proved, his powers of endurance gave way, and he retired from the position which could alone afford succour to the weary explorers should they return by that route. His decision was most unfortunate; but we believe he acted from a conscientious desire to discharge his duty, and we are confident that the painful reflection that twenty-four hours further perseverance, would have made him the rescuer of the explorers, and gained for himself the praise and approbation of all, must be of itself an agonising thought, without the addition of censure he might feel himself undeserving of.

It does not appear that Mr Burke kept any regular journal, or that he gave written instructions to his officers. Had he performed any of these essential portions of the duties of a leader, many of the calamities of the expedition might have been averted, and little or no room would have been left for doubt in judging the conduct of those subordinates who pleaded unsatisfactory and contradictory verbal orders and statements.

We cannot too deeply deplore the lamentable result of an expedition, undertaken at so great a cost to the colony; but while we regret the absence of a systematic plan of operations on the part of the leader, we desire to express our admiration of his gallantry and daring as well as of the fidelity of his brave coadjutor, Mr Wills and their more fortunate and enduring associate Mr King; and we would record our feelings of deep sympathy with the deplorable sufferings and untimely deaths of Mr Burke and his fallen comrades.

T S Pratt
Matthew Hervey
E P S Sturt
Francis Murphy
J F Sullivan
1861

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