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Annual Address of the President of the Royal Society of Victoria.

28 April 1862

Extract from the address, concerning the conduct of the Victorian Exploring Expedition.

 

Mr Vice-President and Gentleman of the Royal Society,

.....I am led to a loss nearer home - to a vacancy in our own ranks, humbler far [then the recent death of Prince Albert], yet not the less acutely perceptible within our limited circle. I am aware that the Anniversary Addresses from this chair have not hitherto been prefaced by the necrology of deceased members, so customary on similar occasions in the learned societies of Europe. Our origin is too recent, our numbers to small, the scientific reputation of the greater part of our members, too inconsiderable, to render such a practice expedient; but you will bear with me , I know, while making an exception in favour of one of our earliest and most indefatigable contributors, Dr Ludwig Becker - the more especially as he fell victim to the cause of scientific exploration, which this society has ever had so much at heart.

It was not his, indeed, to take part, as he so ardently desired, in the great exploit which has covered our land with so much grief and so much glory, the first crossing of the Australian continent from sea to sea, Like many another brave man, he was fated but to form one of the baggage-guard whilst victory was being won. But whenever the history of the Burke and Wills Expedition is written, the name of Ludwig Becker will, like theirs, rank with those of Cunningham, Kennedy, Leichhardt and the rest of that notable band who have sacrificed their lives in the cause of science, and for the benefit of generations yet unborn that shall inhabit this vast continent.

......Another most important matter which, when I last addressed you, occupied the attention of the leading members of our Society, and has continued to engross much of their time and consideration throughout the year. I mean the exploration of the interior. When I then alluded to the glorious race across the continent between the expeditions fitted out in this and the adjacent colony of South Australia, we little dreamt, alas! that the victors were on the point of returning from it, to find the Depôt forsaken by the comrades they had left there, whilst the well-equipped party despatched months previously to reinforce them, baffled by scarcity of water, by disease, and by the hostility of natives, was about abandoning altogether the attempt to reach the spot. I will not harrow your feelings by describing the melancholy results of these unforeseen mischances. How bravely Burke struggled to the last gasp to accomplish his mission by regaining the settlements; how nobly he was seconded by Wills in all his efforts; how faithfully King, who by God's providence stands here to-night, the sole survivor, adhered to both in the hour of direst extremity - these are recollections indelibly engraved on all our memories.

I proceed to a less painful theme. The Continent has been crossed - the mystery solved - the victory, dearly purchased though it be, is ours. It remains but to honour to the ashes of the victors, and to evince our admiration for their devotedness by rearing a monument worthy alike of their heroic exploit, and of the community whose gratitude it is destined to commemorate.

Brief and imperfect as were the notes left of their journey, they form a most important addition to our previous geographical knowledge, as shewing the narrow limits of Sturt;s Stony Desert, and the existence of good and well-watered country beyond it, stretching to the very verge of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

This knowledge has been since largely extended by the subsidiary expeditions sent in quest of the missing explorers, which have connected their discoveries in every side with regions previously visited, and established the existence of a broad belt of fertile country with soil of volcanic origin, stretching from east to west at varying distances from the northern coast, and watered by streams flowing, in come cases, in that direction, but mainly towards the south.

As four of these expeditions besides a fresh one under that intrepid veteran, McDouall Stuart, are still in the field, we may reasonably hope to acquire further information of value as to the nature of the interior, and to fill up some of the blanks which still remain on the map of this continent.

Hitherto, owing to the chiefly hurried movements of these parties, and their light outfit, the collections made in the various branches of natural history have not been very extensive. No new genera of plants have, I fear, gladdened Dr Mueller's eyes; nor has Professor McCoy many novel zoological specimens from this source to produce to-night.

As, however, the South Australian party is this time accompanied by an experienced naturalist, Mr Waterhouse, whilst our own Mr Howitt, is an ardent and skilful collector, it may fairly be anticipated that these explorations will ultimately prove by no means barren even in these respects.

One result indirectly bearing on zoology has been fully established in several of these expeditions, the perfect fitness of the camel as a beast of burden in the hottest and driest parts of Australia. Large orders, it is stated, have been in consequence already sent to India on behalf of these remotest South Australian settlers, and though in the more temperate clime of our own Australia Felix no absolute necessity for such aid may arise, I think that the Acclimatization Society is wise in trying to keep up the breed now that it has been introduced for exploration purposes at so heavy an outlay. I regard the Society as an invaluable auxiliary in many ways to our labours, and sincerely trust that the noble Zoological Garden it is founding in the Royal Park, will facilitate the various important experiments contemplated by its founder, and that it is destined to become a permanent institution in the land.

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