Burke & Wills Web
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& the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860

Andrew Jackson
London: Smith, Elder & Co.
(Ferguson 10857)
1863.

Chapter 4

  • Departure of the Expedition.
  • Journey to Menindie on the River Darling.
  • Landells withdraws from the Party.
  • Mr Burke's difficult Position.
  • Division of the Party.
  • Measures for Formation of permanent Depot in the Interior.

On the 20th of August, 1860, the Expedition quitted the Royal Park at Melbourne. Headed by Messrs. Burke, Landells and Wills, and amidst a burst of popular enthusiasm which seemed to pervade all classes, the heroic adventurers started on their perilous mission. On the 24th the Expedition camped at Sandhurst, and on the following day proceeded en route to Swan Hill, which it reached on the 6th of September; and at this place it was most hospitably entertained by the leading inhabitants prior to its taking leave of the colony of Victoria. It then entered the adjoining territory of New South Wales, and proceeded towards the Darling, a tributary of the Murray River, into which the former flows about 120 miles south of Menindie. At this last-named place Mr Burke established his first Depot. He reached it about the 23rd of September, and although the journey so far had been easy, yet the whole of the stores had not arrived.

A difficulty here arose with Mr Landells, which led to that gentleman's withdrawal from the party. It would seem that Mr Landells had laid such stress on the importance of the position he himself held in the expedition, that he was unable to control certain feelings of impatience at the exercise of authority on the part of Mr Burke; although it was distinctly understood before the expedition left Melbourne that "no divided authority could be recognized, nor could the absolute authority of the leader be permitted to be called in question." (*Footnote; Letter from Professor McCoy to Mr Landells, dated 24th November 1860.) Indeed, it is difficult to conceive how any man in his senses could attempt to interfere with the absolute supremacy of command indispensably necessary in an enterprise of such danger and importance. At all events, as has been said, a difficulty arose. Mr Burke, considering that some rum which had been brought up for the use of the camels endangered the sobriety of his men, decided on leaving it behind; but to this prudent measure Mr Landells would by no means consent. Big with his own importance, and putting out of sight the necessity of implicit obedience to his chief, who was striving, at the peril of fame, fortune, and life, to fulfil the duty with which he had been entrusted; moreover, disregarding the possible evil effect of his withdrawal upon other members of the party, who, already growing faint of heart, only sought a decent opportunity of retiring from their posts; and influenced himself, it was afterwards publicly suggested, by feelings of misgiving, Mr Landells resigned. Whatever may have been his views with regard to the necessity of supplying rum to the camels, two things are certain -One, that these animals did most effectively perform their work subsequently without the administration of any spirituous liquor-the disease from which they chiefly suffered (the scab) being cured, not by the use of rum, but by the application of an ointment composed of brimstone and grease; the other, that his withdrawal immediately led to the resignation of the medical officer of the expedition. Thus Mr Burke was placed in a position of the gravest difficulty at the very moment when the actual dangers of the exploration commenced, and which required to be met with unity of purpose, firmness, and decision.

Although Mr Burke was thus suddenly deprived of the services of two persons upon whom he was justified in relying for cordial assistance and zealous support, he did not suffer the circumstance to interfere with the vigour of his action, or his prompt execution of the duties he had undertaken to perform. The following extract from a letter written by him to his sister at this time will show how soon dangers and difficulties began to beset him, and how resolutely and courageously they were encountered:

I received your letter, and have read it over and over again. It has been the greatest relief to my mind from dwelling on the difficulties and obstacles which obstruct me in the arduous task I have undertaken. I am waiting here for some stores I was obliged to leave behind ; but if I wait too long my horses will grow mad from eating an herb which grows upon the river, so that I am not in the most pleasant position in the world, even at present. I long to see you, the more, now that it is likely to be so long before we meet again ; but if I accomplish my task, I will go straight home to receive your congratulations in person. I am confident of success, but know that failure is possible; and I feel that failure would, to me, be ruin ; but I am determined to succeed, and count on completing my work within a year at farthest.

Accepting, then, in its widest sense, the responsibilities of his position, Mr Burke immediately set himself to look for fit persons to replace those who had forsaken him, and at once promoted Mr Wills to the post of second in command. He afterwards met with a Mr Wright, who volunteered to show the party a practicable route towards Cooper's Creek, four hundred miles farther on, where it had been decided to establish a permanent Depot; although different settlers and gentlemen on the river had endeavoured to persuade Mr Burke that it was not possible to get there at that season of the year. On this point, however, Mr Burke determined to be satisfied by immediately putting himself in front at the post of danger, examining the route, and testing the degree of dependence that might be placed on Mr Wright's promises. To avoid, however, compromising the safety of the whole party by rashly entangling them, encumbered with heavy baggage, in the mazes of an unknown country, without any reserve, he requested Dr Beckler to remain at Menindie in charge of the heaviest portion of the stores until arrangements could be made to forward them to Cooper's Creek. To this the doctor readily consented; for, though unwilling to accompany the party beyond the settlements, he had no objection to continue his employment under safe circumstances. Mr Burke accordingly divided the Expedition into two parts, one to act with himself as an exploring party under Mr Wright's guidance, the other to remain with Dr Beckler until measures should be completed to send them on for the establishment of a permanent Depot in the interior.

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