by Edwin James Welch
Edwin James Welch, The Tragedy of Cooper's Creek
Formation of the Expedition
There is no reason for supposing that the compact little colony of Victoria had any intention of entering the field of exploration prior to the generous donation of £1,000 by Mr Ambrose Kyte, a retired wealthy merchant of Melbourne and this was generally believed to have been the immediate result of a Club conversation eulogistic of the indomitable efforts so recently made by John McDouall Stuart to penetrate the interior from the south Australian side. The fact that the Government of that Colony had determined upon again despatching him with a better equipped party to push his way through to the northern coast appears to have suggested that Victoria - then in a highly prosperous condition - could effect, in a spirit of friendly rivalry, the name object by a shorter route and at considerably less cost. A public subscription was therefore set on foot and the government was asked to subsidise the fund; the response in each case being prompt and enthusiastic.
Roughly estimated the results totalled a sum of over £12,000, the Royal Society took the matter in hand, a public meeting was called and a committee of 21 members elected with Sir William Stawell, chief justice of the colony, as president. This body of highly reputable citizen, whose actions were destined in the imp mediate future to encounter a storm of severe criticism was, in one most important respect, unfortunately constituted in as much as it comprised only two men whose knowledge of bushcraft and individual experiences of travel, outside the limits of civilization, could be relied on. One of these was Doctor (afterwards Baron) von Mueller who had accompanied A. C. Gregory on his search for Leichhardt; and the other, Professor Neumayer, whose work on the geodetic survey in the wilds of Gippsland and other localities compelled respect for his opinion. With these exceptions nearly all the others were, from the very nature of their occupations, unfitted for the responsibility which the gravity of the duties imposed upon them. Dr Macadam, a professional man who held numerous other appointments, was elected Hon. Secretary, Dr Wilkie Hon. Treasurer, and the work of organizing was at once commenced.
The first thing to be done, naturally, was to make choice of a leader, and in doing this they unwittingly made the first fatal mistake, and one which prejudiced every possible chance of success for the undertaking. Many applications were made for the position but it was finally given to Robert O'Hara Burke as a result, so stated at the time, of his great personal popularity and his professional ability as a leader of men; and because of his well deserved popularity with all classes of the community, the appointment was publicly accepted with satisfaction. His almost complete ignorance of the bush and its requirements was lost sight of in the contemplation of his numerous other really admirable qualities. He was a bright, genial, happy-go-lucky-Irishman, plucky to the verge of rashness, generous to a fault and the idol of his many friends, although suspected of being too much of a martinet in his official capacity. At the time of his appointment he was inspector of police at Castlemaine, but before coming to the colony he had served with some credit as an officer in the Austrian army, Generally speaking, he was a favorite with all who came in contact with him, excepting, perhaps, some of his immediate subordinates, but that he was not by any means well fitted for the position he had been chosen to fill, events were destined to prove.
William John Wills, whose appointment as surveyor to the Expedition was made chiefly on the recommendation of Professor Neumayer, was a young man of distinctly opposite type. A native of Devonshire (England), he came to the colony when in his teens, and acquired a certain amount of bush lore and experience during some years of service on stations in the Riverina district before he became attached to the Observatory. He was a calm, cool, long-headed young man of scientific bent, earnest in his work and accurate in its performance; of gentle, kindly nature, honest and manly in all his attributes, but somewhat too ready to yield to the will of others rather than give cause for offence. He made no effort to secure friends, but retained without effort those he did make. He lived in an atmosphere of content with his surroundings, and met his death in a spirit of true heroism.
Of the other members of the Expedition little need be said at this stage. Burke himself was said to be either directly, or indirectly responsible for most of them. G J Landells, a man of some Indian and Colonial experience was sent to India to purchase camels, and on his return with them was appointed second in command. He also brought John King as an experienced camel hand and two sepoy attendants. Dr Beckler was appointed medical officer; Ludwig Becker, artist, naturalist and geologist; C. Ferguson, Foremen and T McDonough, W Patton, P Langan, C Gray, O Cowen, R Fletcher, H Crocker, J Drakeford, John King and William Brahe associates for general duty. Of the two last named King became famous us the sole survivor of the four who succeeded in crossing the continent; and Brahe, who was a brother of the much esteemed German Consul in Melbourne, achieved an unenviable notoriety for deserting the Cooper's Creek Depot and thereby causing the deaths of the two leaders; a charge as utterly unfounded and absurdly unjust as it was possible to make against a conscientious man whose whole record belied it. This, however, will be referred to in detail in its proper place.