18th August 1862.
Ordinary meeting of the Society. His Excellency Sir Henry Barkly (President) occupied the chair.
Presentation to John King
The first business was the presentation to John King the explorer of the gold watch awarded him by the Royal Geographical Society. The Secretary (at the request of His Excellency the President) read the following extract from a private letter from Sir Roderick Murchison, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, dated May 20 1862:
I told you in my last that I thought it probable we should grant one of our gold medals to the family of Burke; and I am happy to announce to you that at the last meeting of council the award was made as I anticipated, on my own proposition, strengthened as it was by your favourable opinion.
We also give to the good and intrepid King a gold watch, with an inscription.
The Duke of Newcastle has promised to attend and receive these donations on the 26th.
Sir Roderick Murchison,
P.S. (June 23): the watch sent to King cost much more than the gold medal; and I hope the good soldier will like it.
The Secretary next read the following despatch from his Grace the Duke of Newcastle to Governor Sir Henry Barkly:
Downing Street, May 26 1862.
I have to acquaint you that this morning I attended the annual meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, and that, at the request of the president, Lord Ashburton, I undertook to forward to you the accompanying gold watch, which the president and council had determined to present to John King, in testimony of his meritorious conduct during the late Victorian Exploring Expedition, in which Messrs. Burke and Wills unfortunately lost their lives.
I have therefore to request that you will accordingly, on behalf of the president and council, place this watch in the hands of John King and that you will at the same time express to him the satisfaction it has been to me to be the channel of making known to him that his conduct has been appreciated as it deserves.
I have the honour to be, etc.,
His Excellency, Sir Henry Barkly, addressing John King, spoke as follows:
I feel, Mr King, that it would be almost superfluous on my part to add much to the encomiums passed upon you by such high authorities; and to one so modest, as I know you are, I dare say it would be even painful if I were to enter at any length upon a recital of the claims which I consider you possess upon the gratitude and admiration of your fellow colonists. (Hear, hear.) Gratifying as it must be to you--after the liberal honours and rewards which the legislature and people of Victoria have bestowed upon you--to receive this crowning mark of recognition of your services from your fellow countrymen at home, I can quite conceive that it would be more congenial to your own feelings if I had delivered it to you in my own private room. Still I felt it to be a matter of duty, on an occasion of this kind, to make the ceremony as public as possible, not only in justice to yourself but for the sake of the example which your conduct has afforded to all who may be placed in similarly trying circumstances. I feel sure that, even if you entertained any idea of surviving, nothing was further from your thoughts than any considerations of glory or honour when you knelt by the side of the dying Burke to receive his latest injunctions, or when you turned back to perform the last sad offices for your departed comrade, Wills. You did your duty, I am sure, simply because you felt it was your duty. A Christian, you knew it was a privilege to minister to suffering humanity; a soldier, you never dreamt of swerving from the unalterable fidelity which you knew you owed your leader. (Applause.) In such a trying position as that in which you were placed, with the bands of discipline relaxed, the instincts of self-preservation have often led men to act selfishly. Others in your position might have thought that, being stronger than the rest of the party--able perhaps to pursue game, catch fish, or to pound nardoo--it would have been consistent with duty to escape to the nearest settlement, perhaps with the vague idea of sending back assistance to your comrades. I feel satisfied that any thought of deserting never crossed your mind--that you abandoned all desire to serve yourself alone, and that they were determined to share the fate of your companions. The result has proved that you acted rightly and properly. Your example may serve to teach us that the path of duty, generally, under Providence, is the path of safety. And what is about to take place tonight will also teach us another lesson:
I may just refer to the fortunate circumstance that our meeting should be graced by the presence of a gentleman who, partly from motives of humanity, and partly with a view to share in the glory of the enterprise, volunteered to lead one of the subsidiary expeditions sent in search of the missing expedition of which you formed a member. Those subsidiary expeditions, it is well known, have led to a great increase of our geographical knowledge of the interior of the continent; and I believe, among the most brilliant exploits which grace the history of Australian exploration, there is not one more brilliant to be found than the passage made by the party under our friend Mr Landsborough from the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Darling River. (Applause.) I hope Mr Landsborough will be kind enough tonight to give us some information as to his route on the occasion. We all know, without waiting for that explanation, that his journey has conferred a most substantial benefit on all these colonies. It has, there can be no doubt, very much accelerated the formation of a great settlement in North Australia, which may be expected to become, some day, a separate and independent colony. In fact it has formed a fitting addition to the noble efforts which have been made by this colony in the cause of Australian exploration. Those efforts, as we all know, are now about to terminate. Instructions have been despatched to Mr Howitt to return as speedily as possible; and when he brings back the remains of the lamented explorers, Burke and Wills, we shall approach the closing scene of the great drama--or tragedy, as I believe I may call it. I trust on that occasion the public funeral promised to those brave men will be carried out with the enthusiasm which was manifested a year ago, and that active exertions will be used by all concerned to raise an appropriate monument to their memory. (Hear, hear.) I have now great pleasure in handing to King, on the part of the Royal Geographical Society of London, this watch, which bears within, as he will find, an inscription setting forth that it was "Presented by the President and Council of the Royal Geographical Society of London to John King, for his meritorious conduct in the expedition under the lamented Burke and Wills." (Great applause.)
John King, who seemed overpowered with emotion, replied in the following terms:
May it please your Excellency, it affords me much grateful satisfaction to receive this watch, which the Royal Geographical Society of London has been pleased to present to me in recognition of my services during the late Victorian Exploring Expedition, and particularly to the lamented Mr Burke in his last moments. In these particulars, your Excellency, I consider that I simply did my duty--a duty that I would perform over again if I were similarly placed. (Applause.)
Still it is a source of grateful satisfaction to me to know that our achievement has been properly appreciated by the British Government and the great scientific bodies, and also that my humble services have been appreciated by the Royal Geographical Society, and by His Grace the Duke of Newcastle. I beg, through your Excellency, most respectfully to thank His Grace and the Royal Geographical Society for their recognition of my services. Such recognition will always convince me that no man under this or any government will do his duty without meeting his reward. (Great applause.)
His Excellency then introduced Mr Landsborough to the meeting, and intimated that that gentleman would give a narrative of his expedition. His Excellency also introduced two aboriginals who had accompanied Mr Landsborough from Carpentaria.
Mr Landsborough said he had much pleasure in meeting the Royal Society and he was much gratified with the reception that had been accorded him. His expedition had been the second to cross the continent of Australia from Carpentaria, and he had been fortunate in finding a good road. Through the liberality of the Royal Society he had a first rate outfit at Brisbane. Unfortunately the transport Firefly, which conveyed himself and party from Brisbane, was wrecked on Hardy's Island. However, a few days afterwards, they were relieved by Captain Norman of the Victoria. Through the exertions of Captain Norman, his officers, and crew the Firefly was towed off the reef and the horses were reshipped and taken on to Carpentaria. It had been supposed hitherto that the Albert River was not a good place for landing horses; but the Firefly, a vessel of 200 tons, went twenty miles up that river and the horses were landed without difficulty, in fact they walked ashore. He was delighted to find so fine a country. He had had twenty years experience of Australia, and he had never seen better country for stock than he found on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
His mission was to search for Burke and his companions, but he could not shut his eyes to the fact that there was a fine country before them, and that country lying idle--a country, which through the exertions of Burke and his companions, had been opened to the world. (Hear.) The pastoral interest was a great interest still in Australia; and he held it to be a great pity that the stock of the country should be boiled down for tallow when Australia is the finest country in the world for growing wool. He hoped that the discoveries made through the instrumentality of the Royal Society would tend to prevent this. He would now point out the route which he took in search of Burke and his party. In his first expedition he proceeded in the direction of Central Mount Stuart, with the view of trying to discover whether Burke had gone on Stuart's route; he succeeded in travelling about 210 miles, the first 100 of which he followed up a running stream, but after leaving its source he lost much time from the scarcity of water; for this reason, and the precious loss of time caused by the wreck of the Firefly, he deemed it prudent to return to the Depot; this course was adopted with much regret, as the wet season had commenced, a continuance of which for two or three weeks would probably have enabled him to have pursued the route originally intended in search of the traces of Burke. His first impression regarding the stream referred to was that it was created by rain, but as it was evident that no rain had fallen for months he concluded that this idea was incorrect. He afterwards discovered that it owed its source to springs of a kind which he had never before met with, the stream from which, near its source in the valley of the Gregory River, was sufficiently powerful to turn a large mill wheel. On his route back to the Depot he found that this stream, at a point distant from Carpentaria about 80 miles, divided into two branches, one of which flowed into the Nicholson River, and the other into the Albert.
As an evidence of the superior quality of the country through which he passed on his expedition to the south-west he might mention that the horses travelled as well as if they had been stable fed. He had travelled in Queensland and New South Wales and had never found horses stand work as well as those horses did at Carpentaria.
On returning to the Depot he and his party rested for three weeks and again started to find the tracks of Burke and his companions. They had heard that tracks had been seen by Mr Walker on the Flinders River, they tried to follow Walker's tracks to the Flinders, but although he had preceded them only by about two months, his tracks could not be followed, owing to the rain which had fallen. They proceeded to the Flinders, but they could find no traces of Burke. They followed up the river for about 280 miles through a magnificent country. When they reached this point they left the Flinders, and in less than twenty miles further got to the watershed of the Thomson, one of the main heads of the Cooper River. When they had proceeded about 100 miles down the valley of the Thomson they found a tree which had been marked by a companion of Landsborough's in a former expedition several years before, which he was glad to be able to show, as a proof of his knowledge of the country, to the members of his party who knew nothing of him till about a week or ten days before he started on the expedition. Having followed down the valley of the Thomson, through fine country, from the tree referred to to a point within 270 miles of Burke's Depot at Cooper's River; they were most desirous to have gone to that place but their supplies were very limited, and the blacks had repeatedly told them through Jemmy, one of the party, who understood their language, that they had not seen any exploring parties with camels. They therefore deemed it the better plan to strike across, about 50 miles, to the Barcoo, the main head of the Cooper River. This they accordingly did, and then proceeded to the Warrego, which they followed down till they struck the Darling.
On reaching settled country they were very sorry to hear of the melancholy fate of Burke, Wills, and Gray. They were hospitably received by the settlers, but the season was dry and their horses fared much worse in the settled districts than in crossing from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Darling. In conclusion Mr Landsborough expressed his acknowledgments for the warm reception which had been accorded to him and his willingness to answer any questions that might be put to him.
In reply to questions: Mr Landsborough said he thought the Flinders River was about 500 miles long. The most elevated land on the Flinders appeared to be about 1000 to 1500 feet high. The climate of Carpentaria he believed to be very dry excepting in the months of January, February, March and April. The bed of the Flinders when he left it was 120 yards wide, with a shallow stream flowing along its surface. His party came through the country at a very favourable season of the year. Thunderstorms and rainy weather might be expected until the end of April, and sometimes as late as May. On the heads of the Gregory River the country was of a basaltic character; and on the Flinders there was abundance of quartz and ironbark country. He saw about 50 miles of the latter description of country and believed from his previous knowledge that it extended to the coast. The range dividing the Flinders from the Cooper River country he estimated to be from 1000 to 1500 feet high, while that which he crossed on his expedition to the south-west, though about the same height, was of quite a different character, being composed of a basalt different from any he had seen before. The slopes of the tableland were grassed with spinifex, which is almost worthless. All basaltic country he had seen previously in other parts of Australia was exceedingly well grassed.
He had no doubt that the rivers on the north side of Barkly's Tableland were supplied by springs. Barkly's Tableland divides the northern from the southern waters. He crossed it on his first expedition. He had never been to the west of the Thomson. Immediately after leaving the watershed of the Flinders he got onto that of the Thomson. On returning to the Albert from his expedition to the south-west he came to a river which he named O'Shanassy, which has long and deep reaches of water. In the waterholes on the southern side of Barkly's Tableland, which he followed down for seventy miles, he found plenty of fish, and his impression was that these fish came up from rivers farther to the south-west. It was the dry season when he was there, but he could see traces of water where it had spread for several miles across the country in the wet season. He had no doubt that, if he had been able to go farther down, he should have got to a large river.
Dr Mueller observed that this seemed to augur well for any expeditions that might be undertaken from the south of the Gulf of Carpentaria to the south-west. He begged to ask whether, in following down the tributaries of the Thomson, Mr Landsborough met with any traces of Dr Leichhardt? It would appear from the information supplied by Mr Walker that Leichhardt took the tributaries of the Thomson in order to be able to skirt the desert of Captain Sturt. Mr Landsborough said he went from near Port Denison to the heads of the Thomson River some years ago, and the probability was, he thought, that Mr Walker saw his tracks or those of Cornish and Buchanan, who had also gone from Rockhampton to the heads of the Thomson. The party of Mr Peter McDonald (a Victorian) also went from Rockhampton to the southern side of the range several years ago. In his (Mr Landsborough's) first expedition he endeavoured to find Leichhardt's tracks on the heads of the Thomson, but unsuccessfully.
Dr Iffla asked whether Mr Landsborough in the course of his brilliant journey across the country met with many bodies of natives, and whether they evinced a friendly or hostile disposition.
Mr Landsborough did not admit that it was a brilliant journey. (Laughter.) He saw very few blacks. The largest number he saw at a time was about thirty. He saw no tracks of blacks and he could not imagine that they were numerous. He always avoided having much intercourse with the blacks. He seldom had any trouble with them until this expedition. On the Barcoo River a number of blacks who had previously appeared most friendly approached the camp in the middle of the night and, but for the watchfulness of Jemmy, might have knocked them on the head. They were driven away, but the next morning they appeared disposed to attack the party. Under those circumstances he was obliged to fire upon them. One volley and a few shots however were sufficient to get rid of them. He came upon the Flinders above the navigable point. The range which he crossed to the south-west of Carpentaria was a tableland, that between the Flinders and the Thomson consisted of a series of hills and mountains with passes between them, as Mr Walker had described in his journal.
His Excellency inquired what were Mr Landsborough's impressions and ideas of the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria with reference to the settlement there of Europeans at any future time?
Mr Landsborough replied that, although living in the open air and not having the best of food, the country agreed admirably with him. While his party and the crew of the Victoria were at Carpentaria there was very little sickness among them, nor was there fever and ague. The shores were very level. There was nothing that could be called a hill for 60 or 100 miles. Although a very dry country, there was rain for about three months in the year, and there were in some seasons large floods. He did not reach the Flinders River until two or three months after Walker's party, and he could not then find Burke's tracks. He considered he could not be expected to find them, since Mr Walker, a gentleman whose great perseverance and bush experience were well-known, who was then two months before with a larger party than his and twice the equipment, could not follow them up. He could not even find Walker's tracks. He believed it was impossible for Burke and Wills to have gone within sight of the sea, because saltwater creeks spread all over the country for ten miles from the sea. This was his opinion from what he saw at the mouth of the Albert, and he had no doubt that the mouth of the Flinders was of the same character.
His Excellency said he was sure that they all felt very much obliged to Mr Landsborough for the cheerful alacrity with which he had replied to all questions, and the amount of information about his journey which he had laid before the meeting. The remaining business on the paper would be postponed. He was afraid that a great many of those present were attracted to the meeting rather by the exploration information than the scientific papers announced to be brought forward. However this might be he would call upon them to give three hearty cheers for Mr King and Mr Landsborough.
The Society then adjourned.