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& the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860

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

Chapter 8

  • Wright's Inactivity and Disregard of Mr Burke's Instructions.
  • His Inability to account for his Conduct.

The advantage of attending to the rule of conduct laid down in the precept, 'Act, act in the living present," was not, unfortunately, illustrated in the conduct of Mr Wright, whose proceedings, or rather want of proceedings, will now be detailed.

As has been mentioned, Mr Wright returned to Menindie from Torowoto with positive instructions" (*Footnote; Vide Chapter V), to follow Mr Burke and bring up the reminder of the stores to Cooper's Creek. The poet's advice, however, indicates what Mr Wright ought to have done; and well would it have been for his future reputation-not to speak of his peace of mind-if, even at the eleventh hour, he had made an attempt to bring up the smallest quantity of provisions to save the lives of two of the bravest and most heroic men ever sacrificed by inexcusable apathy and neglect.

Mr Wright, with his promise to take out the remainder of the party as soon as he returned still fresh upon his lips, reached Menindie on the 5th of November, 1860, and had he shown a tithe of the energy of his gallant chief, might have successfully performed all that was expected of him. He well knew, as has been already proved, that Mr Burke depended entirely upon him for the means of keeping up a communication with the Darling and with Melbourne, and must have been aware of the fatal consequences almost certain to result to the advanced party if he neglected the instructions he had received. Time was then most precious: every day was of importance. He knew the nature of the country he had to pass, and the difficulty there was in going through it at a later season. He knew that Mr Burke had gone up at the very latest period when he could probably succeed; and yet from the 5th of November to the end of the following January he did absolutely nothing.

On his arrival at Menindie, Wright found a trooper named Lyons waiting with despatches for Mr Burke, which contained information as to recent discoveries made by McDouall Stuart, who had penetrated much farther into the interior than any previous explorer; the particulars of his progress having been forwarded by the Melbourne Committee for Mr Burke's information. These despatches were, after a delay of five days, forwarded by the trooper who brought them, escorted by a native guide, and accompanied by a man named McPherson, who was required to shoe the horses at Cooper's Creek. On the way, however, they knocked up their horses, lost their road, and, after travelling far beyond their destination, only succeeded in being able to send back the native with news of their sad plight; but they mere rescued from starvation by a party sent in search of them near the end of December.

There was, however, nothing to prevent the reserve party on the Darling from being formed and pushed on to Cooper's Creek with at least a portion of the stores; and had Mr Wright paid the least regard to the positive instructions he had received, he would at once have done this, and have made use of the post-office at Menindie to forward information of his movements to the Committee, who then could, and would, have backed him up in the same manner as they subsequently did, when alas ! it was too late. He, however, strange to say, wasted precious time in most shameful inactivity: making frequent trips to see his family who were living twenty-one miles off, suffering his party to spend their time uselessly in what one of the witnesses called "knocking about," and allowing the precious days to slip unheeded by; while his unaccountable conduct was notoriously a matter of astonishment and comment to all the persons staying at Menindie at the time.

Wright's excuses for having acted in this manner are none of them satisfactory, and they all appear to have originated in the man's excessive timidity and want of energy. The slightest difficulty overcame him. He was, in fact, that great object of contempt to the other sex-a coward. He seems to have feared everything. He feared that his appointment might not be confirmed by the committee-that the animals he had (nine camels and seven horses) would not be able to carry up a ‘really serviceable quantity of provisions'. He feared that his wife and family, who were staying at the station he had lately been in charge of, would not get safely and comfortably to Adelaide, whither he wished to send them. When at last, after. unheard-of delays, he did make an attempt to proceed, he was still haunted by the same wretched faint-heartedness. He became afraid of ‘the blacks', or that some of his men might die; although he could hardly have expected that an expedition of the kind could be carried on without some casualties. "To make omelets, one must break eggs;" and Englishmen are seldom accustomed to set an undue value on their lives when employed on a service of difficulty and danger.

But this would, perhaps, excite nothing beyond a feeling of pity for the man, were it not that Wright's prevarication before the Royal Commission compelled the gentlemen who composed it to dismiss him from their presence with disgrace, as a person who had contradicted his own assertions, and rendered himself unworthy of belief. He stated that he had written a letter on his return from Torowoto to Menindie, forwarding Mr Burke's despatch of the 29th of October, and requesting that his appointment as third officer of the expedition might be confirmed. But this letter, if written at all, never reached the Committee, and he had kept no copy of it. He stated that he wrote it himself, although all other papers forwarded by him were invariably written by another person in consequence of his imperfect education; and as his excuse of waiting for the confirmation of his appointment appears by evidence to have been an after-thought, (*Footnote; Royal Commission, Questions 1698 and 1802), and was not put forward until nearly two months subsequently to his reaching Menindie from Torowoto, it may well be doubted whether his story of having written such a letter can be received with any degree of confidence. Certain it is that in other respects it is impossible to believe his statements, for in his first despatch to the Committee, dated the 19th of December, 1860, he says, "I delayed starting; merely because the camels left behind by Mr Burke were too few in number, and too inferior in carrying powers, to carry out a really serviceable quantity of provisions;" yet in his examination before the Commissioners he stated that his principal reason was not that, but that he was waiting 'for the confirmation of his appointment ; and on being pressed on more than one occasion to say how he reconciled these two statements, he was unable satisfactorily to do so. The two last questions put to him were answered as follows:-

Question 1702.-Then it is to be presumed that the Commission may consider that you have no answer to make to reconcile the statement in this despatch with your garbled statement made to the Committee ?-I have no particular answer to make to that question.

Question 1703.-It should be pointed out to you, that unless you can answer that question satisfactorily, you stand in an awkward position before this Commission? - No answer.
The witness withdrew.

In fact, Wright was guilty of flagrant and most culpable neglect of Mr Burke's instructions; for he never at any time forwarded the smallest quantity of provisions or clothing to Cooper's Creek, although the stores at his command were abundant, and sufficient means of transport quite within his reach. Even when he reached the place in company with Brahe, on the 8th of May, 1861, both men being mounted and having a spare pack-horse with them at the time, he did not bring even a morsel of bread or a cup of cold water to help the poor sufferers then pining away for lack of food in the wilderness in the very hour of their victory ! Of the grave responsibility resting upon him, it is needless to say another word here.

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