Burke & Wills Web
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& the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860

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

Chapter 14

  • Brahe's Journey towards the Darling.
  • He meets with and joins Wright's Party.
  • Brahe and Wright visit Cooper's Creek;
  • but failing to observe the Traces of Mr Burke's Return, rejoin their companions.
  • Brahe arrives in Melbourne, and reports progress.
  • The Committee of the Royal Society deliberate as to what should be done to rescue Mr Burke.
  • Their Approval of his Measures.

While the melancholy events recorded in the two preceding chapters were taking place, Brahe, who, as has been said, quitted the depôt at Cooper's Creek just seven hours before the return of the party from Carpentaria, continued to travel south with his men for seven days; at the end of that period, meeting Wright's party at Bulloo, the two effected a junction. As will be seen from the following extracts, they visited the cache at Cooper's Creek together, but failed to observe any traces of Mr Burke's return: they found nothing which would have led to the opening of the cache and the consequent succour of the brave men then dying of want in the wilderness.

Brahe says, under date 28th April, 1861:

Went very early in search of the horses up the creek. At about daylight I got in sight of them, at the same time observing smoke rising within 300 yards from me, and near the horses. There was not light enough to see well, and I thought I had dropped upon a camp of natives, and resolved to try to obtain some information respecting the Darling party. After going a few yards farther, I MW, to my great surprise, a European advance towards me. It was Mr Hodgkinson. He led me to Mr Wright's camp; and after bringing in our party, with horses and camels, &c, I placed myself and party under the orders of Mr Wright.

Wright, however, states that Brahe joined him on the 29th; which is probably correct, as Brahe's journal was compiled some time after the occurrence of the events it records - partly from recollection, and partly from a few rough notes he had jotted down to assist his memory.

Wright says in his despatch to the Committee, dated 20th June, 1861:

With two of the party of eight dead, and a third dying, further advance, or a longer stay at Bulloo amid unfriendly natives, were alike impracticable; and had our cattle been molested by the natives our fate would have been sealed. Dr Beckler and Mr Hodgkinson, with myself, were the only healthy members of the party, and I decided upon an immediate retreat to Torowoto, at which place I hoped to recruit the sick, and obtain fresh stores from the Darling. On the 28th of April, therefore, I packed up, proposing to start next morning; but during the night a bell was heard, and at daylight a mob of horses, recognized as forming pan of Mr Burke's equipment, were seen feeding near the stockade. Shortly afterwards Mr Brahe came up, and we were gratified to find that he was in charge of a party consisting of Patten, McDonough, and Botan, with twelve horses and six camels (very much infected with scab), on their way to the Darling, from the depôt established by Mr Burke at Cooper's Creek. Mr Brahe at once placed himself and party under my orders.

The following is from Mr Wright's diary:

Monday, April 29, 1861.- Bulloo.
The horses were very troublesome during the night, perpetually trying to steal away; and, though closely hobbled, more than once attempting to swim the broad creek. About three AM a bell was heard from the south, and a number of dark objects, like cattle, could be dimly seen through the darkness. When daylight broke, these objects were recognized as forming part of the mob of horses taken by Mr Burke, and shortly afterwards Mr Brahe came up, and reported that he had just arrived from Cooper's creek, where Mr Burke had left him on the 16th of December in charge of a depôt consisting of Patten, McDonough, Botan, six camels, and twelve horses. Mr Brahe had received instructions to remain at Cooper's Creek for three or four months, but had extended that period to eighteen weeks, and only left when his rations ran short. Previous to leaving he made a cache of provisions, sufficient to enable Mr Burke and party, if competent to retrace their steps, to reach the Darling. Mr Brahe had not followed Mr Burke's track to Bulloo, but had pursued a direct course, and reached the 52nd camp of Mr Burke, eight miles south of my depôt, in about eighty miles. His horses had been one hundred hours without water, but travelled with much less difficulty than could have been hoped for. On proceeding to Mr Brahe's camp I found Patten suffering from scurvy to an alarming extent, McDonough almost unable to work, and Botan complaining. Mr Brahe placed himself under my orders, and I united the two camps in the course of the morning. Of the camels brought down by Mr Brahe I found three- Beer, Rowa and Mustana, suffering severely from scab. The others were in good condition. At a quarter past five this afternoon Mr Becker died.

Tuesday, April 30.- Bulloo.
The night passed quietly, no signs of natives being near having occurred. Early this morning Mr Becker was buried, the stockade pulled down, and the logs used to form, as far as possible, a protection to the dead. Mr Becker's clothes, bedding, tent, &c., being quite unfit for use, were burned, and his other effects placed in a pack for conveyance to Melbourne.

Wednesday, May 1.- Bulloo.
Saddling commenced at six AM, and half-past ten AM we left Bulloo on our return to Menindie. Dr Beckler, Mr Hodgkinson, Mr Brahe, Botan, and myself were the only healthy members of the party; and I did not see the utility of pushing on the depôt to Cooper's Creek for the purpose of remaining there the few weeks our stores would last. Our cavalcade made quite an imposing appearance with its twenty-two horses and fifteen camels, and the spirits of the whole party were animated by the prospect of regaining the settled districts. Several stoppages took place during the day, from the necessity of altering the seat of our invalids or re-adjusting loads; and to show that our departure wits not unnoticed by the natives, firm sprang up at every mile of our progress until me reached Koorliatto, at a tolerably early hour in the afternoon. Patten was greatly fatigued by his ride.

Thursday, May 2.- Koorliatto.
Spelled at Koorliatto. Got up a tent for Patten.

Friday, May 3.- Koorliatto.
As I was anxious to ascertain, before finally leaving the country, whether Mr Burke had visited the old depôt at Cooper's Creek between the present date and that on which he left on his advance northward, or whether the stores cached there had been disturbed by the natives, I started with Mr Brahe and three horses for Cooper's Creek, and reached the headwaters of that creek on Sunday, the 5th, in about seventy miles, steering about WNW. I did not find any water throughout that distance, but crossed several fine large gum creeks, and saw an immense number of native dogs. The remainder of the party stayed at Koorliatto.

Wednesday, May 8.-Koorliatto.
This morning I reached the Cooper's Creek depôt, and found no sign of Mr Burke having visited the creek, or the natives having disturbed the stores. I therefore retraced my steps to the depôt which remained at Koorliatto.

Before the Royal Commission Brahe gave the following evidence:-

When you returned to Cooper's Creek with Wright, how long did you remain there? - I suppose - I could not exactly tell - not more than a quarter of an hour at the depôt.

Did you make any examination about to see who had been there?-Yes; I tied my horse up, and so I believe did Wright, near the cache, and went into the stockade and round it, and examined all the trees.

Could you not discover any tracks? - I saw camel tracks, but supposed them to be our own.

Did you see any impression of human feet? - No impression.

Why? - From the number of raw, and the place being dusty.

Are you bushman enough to be able to follow a track? -Yes.

Have you ever practised it? - Yes, I have, of horses and camels.

Could you tell the difference between the track of a white man and of a native? - Certainly, unless they were barefooted.

Even barefooted? - I should not be able.

You did not discover any track that would lead you to suppose any one had been there? -None. I should certainly have opened the cache if I had thought any one had been there. I thought the natives had been there on account of those three different fire-places.

Did you see any native tracks? - No, not fresh.

At whose instigation did you return after meeting Wright; yours or his?--Mine.

What was the object of that? - I had got right, and Patten he was in the doctor's hands. I thought he required rest there, and would get all right in a fortnight's time. Mr Wright not having gone to Cooper's Creek, I thought that we could not be better employed than in going back there as a last chance for Mr Burke.

Had you a lingering suspicion that he might be there? - Yes, there was still a chance.

When you met Mr Wright, had you then, between the two parties, an abundance of provisions? - I believe so; but I do not know what quantity of provisions Wright had; I never inquired.

Until the time of going back to the Darling, you might have concluded that there was an abundance? - I do not think there was any to spare at the Darling.

By joining Wright's party, had you nothing additional that you could have taken back to deposit at the cache? - Yes, we could have taken some.

You say, I think, that you had abundance with you when you returned to Cooper's Creek with Mr Wright? - Yes, we could have taken provisions from Bulloo.

Did it not strike you to do so? - No.

And that it did not strike either of them to do so is the most unaccountable part of their whole conduct.

The following is from Wright's examination:

Brahe joined you on the 29th of April, and on the 1st of May you turned your back upon the creek; that is, two days afterwards? - Yes, I went about twenty miles back.

On the 1st of May you left Bulloo on your return: at that time you had the number of men I have mentioned, viz. yourself, Hodgkinson, Beckler, Smith, Belooch, Brahe, McDonough, and Dost Mahommed, -two of them ailing, and the rest in tolerable health, with abundance of homes and camels, all in good condition, with abundance of provisions; but having got some distance you thought better of it? - I did not think better of it after going some short distance, because it was my intention as soon as Brahe came in to go to Cooper's Creek, which I stated to him.

After going two days' journey, you did return to Cooper's Creek? - I buried Dr Becker the day after Brahe came, and I shifted the camp about twenty miles farther down the creek, and then went to Cooper's Creek.

Did you take any spare horses with you? - We took a pack-horse.

You did not take any provisions or clothing with you? - No.

How long were you reaching Cooper's Creek? - We reached there on the third day.

What day did you leave? - I do not recollect the day, but the diary will show.

You reached Cooper's Creek on Wednesday, the 8th of May, and you say you found no signs of Mr Burke having visited the creek, or of natives having disturbed the stores; how did you arrive at that conclusion? - There was no mark above ground showing that any white man had been there. There were two or three fires about the place, which I supposed had been made by blacks: I looked at those fires particularly, and there was not a stick of wood as large as one of the pen-sticks on the table which was not burned; just as a black fellow makes a fire: he just brings what is enough to keep a fire, and no more. I took Brahe there, and told him to take particular notice to see if the place war, in the same way he left it ; and he looked at it and said it was. The place had been covered over, and everything was so much like he had left it, that he did not know it had been disturbed.

Did you leave any record at Cooper's Creek of your having been there? - No, I did not; I intended doing so, but I thought if I disturbed the place where the things were buried and took the bottle up, the chances were the blacks, as I supposed they had been at the depôt, would discover them. I was not very sure whether they were watching us; we had seen a smoke the night before, and being over cautious, I would not take the bottle up to put a note in it.

There was a mark of the 21st April on the tree, that was left unaltered? - Everything was left just as Brahe left it, according to his account.

If Mr Burke had returned there, how was he to know anybody had been there? - They could have seen my horse tracks where the things were buried. I remarked to Brahe he ought to have buried those things two or three days before he left, and put the horses in under the shade, as he had been doing before; and I said, “At all events we will put our horses in here now, and let them walk about on it, and the blacks will never think of digging there, if they should happen to be looking about."

Would there have been any difficulty in putting W. for Wright, and the 8th of May under the 21st April? - I could have done that with a knife, if I had had the presence of mind to do so.

You did not go to the creek at all? - No.

You did not make any search, in fact? - I just stayed there, and had a look round about the place; in fact, I first thought of camping there that night; but the horses I had taken with me being horses that had been at Cooper's Creek with Mr Brahe, he said, "If we stop here to-night the horses will certainly go back five miles up the creek, to the place where they used to run, and we shall have to walk up there in the morning for them" and I thought it just as well to camp where the horses were used to stop as to camp there. When I saw no marks showing that any white men had been there, I was very anxious to get back to my depôt as soon as I possibly could do so, knowing the state the men were in.

Would it not have been possible to have sent Mr Brahe, or some other trustworthy person, back to the sick people, and yourself have gone on up to Cooper's Creek, and remained there for some time?-It would have been impossible to have done so.

It will be remembered that twenty-two days after this visit, on the 30th of May, Mr Wills visited the place for the last time.

Wright and Brahe, having rejoined their companions, proceeded towards Menindie, via Torowoto, and reached the Darling on Tuesday 18th of June, 1861. Brahe left for Melbourne on Friday, the 21st of June, taking with him an account of his and Wright's proceedings, and such papers as had been addressed to the Committee by Mr Burke when he quitted Cooper's Creek for Carpentaria on the 16th of December, 1860.

On the morning of the 30th of June, 1861, the day before Mr Burke's death, Brahe arrived in Melbourne, and delivered his despatches into the hands of Dr McAdam, Honorary Secretary to the Committee, who, having been apprised of Brahe's approach by telegram on the previous day, had communicated with Sir Henry Barkly, and arranged to lay the papers before his Excellency and Sir William Stawell at the earliest possible moment. This was accordingly done. The same afternoon (being Sunday) a special meeting of the Committee was held to hear the documents read, and determine what steps should be taken for the relief of the explorers. At this meeting Brahe was examined, and gave an account of all that had occurred within his knowledge up to that time. He explained his reasons for leaving Cooper's Creek before Mr Burke's return, and gave such additional information, with respect to the habits of the natives and state of the country, as he considered might be useful to any relief-party proceeding in search of his leader.

It will be appropriate in this place to show what were the opinions held at this time by the leading members of the Committee, with regard to those proceedings of Mr Burke which were found fault with, after a full knowledge of actual results had been obtained - results, be it observed, not attributable to any want of care or forethought on the part of Mr Burke, but arising from the disregard of instructions, and a fatal want of stedfastness, on the part of those to whom he had intrusted the means of affording him relief.

Sir William Stawell (Chief Justice) said:

A great many difficulties might have met Mr Burke, any one of which would account for not hearing from him. His men might have been attacked with scurvy, and be still alive, without being able to move any distance; and they might be in some place waiting the arrival of the rainy season. That was but one of the thousand chances that might detain him. Although he (Sir William) was anxious to get the worst from Mr Brahe, he was not afraid of Mr Burke after the wise and careful way he had proceeded to Cooper's Creek, and the manner in which he had followed the instructions of the Committee. He thought that Mr Burke mould have satisfied himself that the course north from Cooper's Creek was not practicable; and that then he went to the west, after getting over the Stony Desert. Stuart's country had plenty of water and feed; and it could not be a bad season at which he started; for a fortnight after, Stuart, who had been over the country before, went out a second time. Although they must necessarily feel anxious about Burke and his party, there was no ground for despairing at all. The question was, what steps should they take in order that assistance might reach him as speedily as possible?

Mr Ligar (Surveyor-General) said:

Looking to what Mr Burke was about, he conceived that, on the whole, he had attempted to carry out the instructions of the Committee in the best manner possible. The first instruction was to make a route to the Gulf of Carpentaria, keeping Stuart's track on his left, and Gregory's on his right: he did it, and failed; and then he tried to get into Stuart's track. He (Mr Ligar) was convinced that Mr Burke was in Stuart's country, or he was pushing to where Dr Mueller and Mr Gregory went, lower down. What Mr Brahe had done since parting with Mr Burke, was a matter the Committee could leave for consideration two or three days hence. It was very interesting, and would make a continuous narrative of the Expedition up to the last that was seen of the leader. What they should rather bend their minds to now was how to reach Mr Burke, and succour him. It struck him that Mr Burke weakened his party by dividing it into three. Thus far he disagreed with him.

Sir William Stawell:

It must not be forgotten that Mr Wright and party were to follow the main party with provisions, and join Mr Burke.

Dr Mueller urged the necessity of acting promptly; but the party must be sufficiently strong, so that if scurvy attacked them, aid could be detached to attend the sick; which could not be done with a small party - indeed, a small party would be stopped, as Mr Wright's had been, by sickness. It was necessary to procure the aid of the natives, if possible, for their quick eye would discover traces in the wilderness that no Caucasian eye could discover. It was incumbent on the committee to send aid speedily. Calculating the provisions that Mr Burke's party had with them, he found that, with the prudence and economy that they might suppose Mr Burke would practise, they would have average rations for five months. Economizing still more, and with the assistance of game and wild animals the party might procure, the provisions might be made to go still further. Although there was room for great fear and anxiety to be entertained, he did not consider Mr Burke's case hopeless. Prompt measures should be adopted, as Mr Burke might find it possible to spin out his rations till succour reached him. Mr Burke, if tied up, would reasonably expect the Committee would send succour.

Dr Wilkie pointed out, that when the Expedition first started, there were eighteen men in it. The fact was that at this moment the Committee had only four men in the field. He thought that, under those circumstances, with the aid of a large vote from the Legislature, that the Committee should provide succour on a liberal scale. They should send a party sufficiently strong to leave a subsidiary party at the depôt, Cooper's Creek, to which they should take stores; so that if Mr Burke returned, he might be secure. It was incumbent on the Committee to arrange at once to send a large party under Mr Howitt - say ten or eleven. Mr Wright's party intended to reach Cooper's Creek in three weeks; when half-way they were attacked by scurvy, and there they remained within 200 miles of Menindie. Mr Wright could send no one away for succour; and had it not been for the return of the party from Cooper's Creek the whole must have perished. The committee had simply to strengthen Mr Howitt's party, or to reorganize it with different instructions from those already issued. He could leave four men at Cooper's Creek while he proceeded in search of Mr Burke with the main strength of his party.

Sir William Stawell thought they should pass the resolution, and settle the strength of the party. That would be something gained, and would enable Mr Howitt to make despatch with his arrangements next day. Doing something to save a day would be doing a great deal.

Dr Gilbee thought the proper organization of the party was of more importance than gaining a day; and he moved the adjournment of the meeting till next day, when they would have Mr Brahe's written statement to guide them; while, in the meantime, Mr Howitt, as well as the Committee, could give their most earnest consideration to the whole subject.

Sir William Stawell thought it would be a great pity that they should adjourn, having so unusually met on a Sunday, without doing something, (Hear, hear). All they knew now was that four men whom they sent out required aid. They could arrive at a resolution to send aid, which would enable Mr Howitt to proceed with his arrangements; they need not settle the number now; they could determine eventually the minor details. The men's lives were depending on a thread, perhaps. (*Footnote; In everything connected with this expedition, Sir William Stawell appears to have been conspicuous throughout for the practical nature of his views, and the energy with which he at all times urged the necessity of prompt action. He it was, who, when the account of Stuart's discoveries as forwarded to Mr Burke, wrote at the same time a private note begging that nothing short of the actual fulfilment of his mission should cause Mr Burke to relax in his efforts to succeed.).

The above extracts, therefore, go to show that the very measures subsequently animadverted upon unfavourably were, on the whole, stamped with the approval of the Committee as a body at this time. The report of the Royal Commission will be given at length in a subsequent chapter, and the reader can then judge for himself as to the justice or otherwise of its strictures on the conduct of the brave man who added millions of habitable acres to the dominion of his country at the cost of his life.

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