Burke & Wills Web
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& the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860

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

Chapter 5

  • Instructions Mr Burke.
  • Journey to Torowoto.
  • Mr Burke's first Despatch.
  • Instructions to Mr Wright.

The following paragraphs, from the written instructions issued to Mr Burke by the Exploration Committee, under date 18th of August, 1860, may properly be inserted here:

The Committee, having decided upon ''Cooper's Creek" of Sturt as the basis of your operations, requests that you will proceed thither, form a Depot of stores and provisions, and make arrangements for keeping open a communication in your rear to the Darling, if in your opinion advisable, and thence to Melbourne, so that you may be enabled to keep the Committee informed bf your movements, and receive in return the assistance in stores and advice of which you may stand in need. Should you find that a readier communication can be made by way of the South Australian police station near Mount Searle, you will avail yourself of that means of writing to the Committee

Here follow suggestions as to certain routes recommended to Mr Burke's notice, with the following addition, however:

The Committee is fully aware of the difficulty of the country you are called on to traverse, and in giving you these instructions, has placed these routes before you, more as an indication of what is deemed desirable to have accomplished, than as dictating any exact course for you to pursue. The Committee considers that you will find a better and a safer guide in the natural features of the country through which you will have to pass. For all useful and practical purpose+ it will be better for you, and for the object of future settlements, that you should follow the watercourses and the country yielding herbage, than to pursue any route which the Committee might be able to 'sketch out from an imperfect map of Australia. The Committee entrusts you with the largest discretion as regards the forming of Depots, and your movements generally, but requests that you will mark your routes as permanently as possible, by leaving records, sowing seeds, building cairns, and marking trees at as many points as possible, consistent with your various other duties.

That Mr Burke, in addition to the marking of trees, &c, had various other duties claiming his personal superintendence, as foreseen by the Committee, is worthy of note in this place, and the reader is requested to remember it. The exploring party, under Mr Wright's guidance, left Menindie on the 19th of October; and the following despatch, written by Mr Burke from Torowoto, about two hundred miles farther on, will show the fair reasons that existed for placing confidence in Mr Wright, as well as explain the arrangements made for preserving the communication with Melbourne:

Torowoto, October 29, 1860.
(*Footnote; Received by Committee 3rd December 1860)

Sir,-I have the honour to report that I left Menindie on the 19th instant with the following party :-Messrs. Burke, Wills, Brahe, Patten, McDonough, King, Gray, Dost Mohammed; fifteen horses and sixteen camels, and Mr Wright, who had kindly volunteered to show me a practicable route towards Cooper's Creek, for a distance of a hundred miles from the Darling, and he has more than fulfilled his promise; for we have new travelled for upwards of 200 miles, generally through a fine, sheepgrazing country ; and we have not had any difficulty about water, as we found creeks or waterholes, many of them having every appearance of permanent water, at distances never exceeding twenty miles. Mr Wills's report, herewith forwarded, gives all the necessary details. Although travelling at the rate of twenty miles a day, the horses and camels have all improved in condition; and the country improves as we go on. Yesterday, from Waunomatea to Paldrumati Creek, we travelled over a splendid grazing country, and today we are encamped on a creek or swamp, the banks of which are very well grassed, and good feed all the way from our last camp (44) except for two miles, and here the ground was barren and swampy. Of course it is impossible for me to say what effect an unusually dry summer would produce throughout this country, or whether we are now travelling in an unusually favourable season or not. I describe things as I find them. Mr Wright returns from here to Menindie. I informed him that I should consider him third officer of the Expedition, subject to the approval of the Committee, from the day of our departure from Menindie, and hope that they will confirm the appointment. In the meantime I have instructed him to follow me up, with the remainder of the camels to Cooper's Creek, and to take steps to procure a quantity of salt meat; and I have written to the doctor, (*Footnote; Beckler), to inform him that .I have accepted his resignation, as, although I was anxious to await the decision of the Committee, the circumstances will not admit of delay, and he has positively refused to leave the settled districts. I am willing to admit that he did his best until his fears for the safety of the party overcame him; but those fears, I think, clearly show how unfit he is for his poet. If Mr Wright is allowed to follow out the instructions I have given him, I am confident that the result will be satisfactory; and if the Committee think proper to make inquiries with regard to him, they will find that he is well qualified for the post, and that he bears the very highest character. I shall proceed on from here to Cooper's Creek. I may, or may not, be able to send back from there until we are followed up; perhaps it would not be prudent to divide the party: the natives here have told Mr Wright that we shall meet with opposition on our way there. Perhaps I might find it advisable to have a Depot at Cooper's Creek, and to go on with a small party to examine the country beyond it. Under any circumstances it is desirable that we should be soon followed up. I consider myself very fortunate in having Mr Wills as my second in command. He is a capital officer, zealous and untiring in the performance of his duties; and I trust that he will remain my second as long as I am in charge of the expedition. The men all conduct themselves admirably, and they are all most anxious to go on; but the Committee may rely upon it that I shall go on speedily and carefully, and that I shall endeavour not to lose a chance, or to run any unnecessary risk.

I have, &C.
(Signed) R O'Hara Burke, Leader
PS -The two blacks and four horses go back with Mr Wright.

The foregoing despatch proves that Mr Burke had been at some pains to make inquiries respecting the man he had nominated as third officer of the Expedition Mr Wright had been for three years in charge of a cattle station on the river Darling, but had recently been thrown out of employment in consequence of a change of owners. He professed to have a knowledge of the country, and did really display such knowledge. In addition to this, he bore "the very highest character." Yet Mr Burke has been blamed for trying to secure his services 'without a previous personal knowledge of him!' and that, too, at a time when a pressing urgency had arisen for the appointment, from the sudden resignations of Mr Landells and Dr Beckler." Besides, the Committee were aware of Mr Wright's nomination on the 3rd December, and if they had had any objection to it, might even then have replaced him by another person in sufficient time to save the lives of the explorers by forwarding relief, as so distinctly requested by Mr Burke. He did all in his power to make the arrangements as complete as possible; and had his directions been attended to, it is probable that not a single life would have been lost on the expedition. His object was to push on while the wet weather lasted, and while his party preserved the vigour of health and strength. Had he waited, squandering his time until the approach of the warm season, he would have found the supply of water dried up in many places, and his progress in consequence impeded and protracted, while at the same time both men and beasts would have grown more and more exhausted, and less able to perform their work. It is to the rapidity of Mr Burke's progress that his ultimate success is due. The following extract from Mr Wright's report, who started one hundred days after his leader (nearly three months later than he should have done), will show how prudent Mr Burke was in his calculations, and how correct his views were:

The route followed by Mr Burke at the period of his transit abounded in water: the rapidity with which he progressed afforded no opportunity to the natives of forming hostile combinations, and the , men under his charge preserved their health. But when I moved onwards from the Darling, the advance of summer had dried up nearly all the watercourses, and the ravages of scurvy reduced the effective strength of my party to an alarming extent.

Mr Wright then, having escorted the party as far as Torowoto, took leave of them there on the 31st of October, bringing back with him two blacks and four horses, and having first received and engaged to carry out the following instructions: 'To return to Menindie, and bring up the stores as rapidly as possible to Cooper's Creek'.

In support of the fact that these instructions were plainly enough given, it may be said that the words themselves are taken from the evidence of the Honourable Dr McAdam before the Royal Commission (Ans 19), and he afterwards adds (Answer 613), 'The Committee considered that Mr Wright would unquestionably have left immediately'. Brahe states (Answer 197) that Mr Burke expected Wright at Cooper's Creek 'within two days' from 16th December. McDonough states (Answer 403) that Mr Burke said to him on 15th December, 'I expect Mr Wright up in a few days-a fortnight at farthest. I left him positive instructions to follow me'. King states (Answer 693) that on the 16th December Mr Burke told the party 'he then expected Mr Wright daily'. Wright himself states in his evidence (Answer 1235), 'I gave Mr Burke my word that I would take the remainder of the party out as soon as I returned'. In his first despatch, also, to the Committee, Wright says, under date 19th December, 'I have the honour to inform you that, pursuant to a previous understanding with Mr Burke, it was my intention to rejoin that gentleman with the members of the party and stores at present in this camp'. And further on 'As I have every reason to believe that Mr Burke has pushed on from Cooper's Creek, relying upon finding the Depot stores at that watercourse upon his return, there is room for the most serious apprehensions as to the safety of himself and party, should he find that he has miscalculated'.

Yet this man, with such a dreadful conviction on his mind, could bear to fritter away his time from the 5th of November to the 26th of January, without doing a single thing towards actually performing the imperative though simple duty with which he had been entrusted! Mr Burke's arrangements seem to have been all that human foresight could suggest. Can any reasonable person doubt that Wright knew perfectly well the exact nature of his instructions, and foresaw the disastrous consequences almost certain to ensue should they be disregarded?

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