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through the Interior of Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

From the Journals and Letters of William John Wills, edited by his father, William Wills.
London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street.
(Ferguson 18622)

Chapter 5

  • Postponement of the Exploring Expedition projected at the beginning of 1860
  • My Son's Letter to his Sister on going into Society
  • Mr Birnie's Opinion of him, and Extract from his Lecture
  • Letter from William to his Mother on Religious Views and Definitions of Faith
  • His last Communications to his family at Home, before the Departure of the Expedition

I omit my son's letters of January and February, 1860, as they contain nothing on scientific matters, or on the subject of Australia, although interesting in other respects. They mark the habitual tone of his feelings and principles, his constant habit of self-examination, his study of his fellow-men, and how strongly he was impressed with the truth of Pope's grand conclusion, that 'Virtue alone is happiness below.'

'You will be glad to learn,' he says, writing to his mother on the 17th of March, 'that the Exploring Expedition is postponed for six months, for want of a suitable leader, as none of the candidates who offered their services were thought qualified in a scientific point of view.' [Footnote: Oddly enough, Mr Burke, who was afterwards chosen, with many requisites of a high order, was deficient in this, which, indeed, he never for a moment pretended to possess.] 'You need not work yourself up to such a state of excitement at the bare idea of my going, but should rather rejoice that the opportunity presents itself. The actual danger is nothing, and the positive advantages very great. Besides, my dear other, what avails your faith if you terrify yourself about such trifles? Were we born, think you, to be locked up in comfortable rooms, and never to incur the hazard of a mishap? If things were at the worst, I trust I could meet death with as much resignation as others, even if it came to-night. I am often disgusted at hearing young people I know, declare that they are afraid of doing this or that, because they MIGHT be killed. Were I in some of their shoes I should be glad to hail the chance of departing this life fairly in the execution of an honourable duty.'

The following selections from his numerous letters at this time are little more than extracts, and form but a small portion of the whole. All speak his admiration of a great and beneficent Creator, derived from the study of his works. He had a great distaste for sectarianism, and for a too slavish devotion to forms and conventionalities, whether in religious or social practice, fearing lest these extremes might savour of untruthfulness or hypocrisy.

Magnetic Observatory, Melbourne,
April 18th, 1860.

My dear Bessy,
The mail was to have closed to-morrow, but the Emeu has met with an accident which will delay it for another week, so that I hope to treat you to a long letter.

I was much disappointed at receiving nothing from you this month. It would be a first-rate plan to do what a friend of mine was recommending to me only this evening, namely to commence an epistle at the beginning of each month, and add a little daily, adopting as your motto the Latin proverb, Nulla dies sine linea, which means, No day without a line. You might at least favour me with a few monthly. It would be as much for your own benefit as for my pleasure. Pray don't send a poor excuse again about waiting for an answer to a former letter.

I must now return to the subject of my last. I hope you have carefully considered the remarks contained therein; and I wish to draw your attention to other matters not so immediately connected with religion, but which may seriously affect your prosperity and happiness in this world. I fear that mamma is too much inclined to discourage your going into society. If so, with all due deference to my dear mother's experience and judgment, she has adopted a mistaken view. You will perhaps say, you do not care for society. So much the worse; that proves the evil of seclusion. I had the same ideas once, and greatly to my disadvantage in a general sense, although in one point they may have been beneficial, by making me devote more time to my studies. But I am doubtful even about that. At any rate, girls are differently situated. Having no need of deep scientific knowledge, their education is confined more to the ordinary things of the world, the study of the fine arts, and of the manners and dispositions of people. It is often asserted that women are much sharper than men in estimating character. Whether that be the case or not, is more than I can say, but I think it ought to be, because women have better opportunities and more leisure than we have for noticing little peculiarities and the natural expression of the features. Now, my advice would be, to go as much as you can into quiet, good society, and moderately into gay; not to make it the business of life, as some do, who care for little beyond frivolous amusements, and that merely for the sake of killing time. But go to these places, even if you do not like them, as a duty you owe to yourself and others, even as you used to go to school, when you would rather have remained at home. You should cultivate, as much as possible, the acquaintance of ladies from other parts of the country, especially of those who have travelled much. This is the best way of rubbing off provincialisms, etc. Perhaps you think you have none; nevertheless I shall be prepared for some whenever I have the felicity of seeing you. You cannot think how disagreeable the sound of the Devonshire drawl is to me now, and all people of the county that I meet have it more or less. You will, no doubt, wonder how I have become so changed, and what has induced me to adopt social views so different from those I formerly held. The fact is, that since I have been here, I have been thrown into every variety of companionship, from the highest to the lowest, from the educated gentleman and scholar to the uncultivated boor. The first effect was, a disposition to admire the freedom and bluntness of the uncivilized; but more personal experience showed me the dark as well as the bright side, and brought out in their due prominence the advantages of the conventionalities of good society. While in the bush, this conviction only impressed itself partially, but a return to town extended and confirmed it. When we are in daily contact and intercourse with an immense number of persons, some of whom we like, while we dislike or feel indifferent about many others, we find a difficulty in avoiding one man's acquaintance without offending him, or of keeping another at a distance without an insult. It is not easy to treat your superiors with respect void of sycophancy, or to be friendly with those you prefer, and at the same time to steer clear of undue familiarity, adapting yourself to circumstances and persons, and, in fact, doing always the right thing at the proper time and in the best possible manner. I used to be rather proud of saying that it was necessary for strangers to know me for some time before they liked me. I am almost ashamed now not to have had sense enough to see that this arose from sheer awkwardness and stupidity on my part; from the absence of address, and a careless disregard of the rules of society, which necessarily induce a want of self-confidence, a bashful reserve, annoying to sensible people and certainly not compensated for by the possession of substantial acquirements, hidden, but not developed, and unavailable when wanted. I find now that I can get into the good graces of any one with whom I associate better in half an hour than I could have done in a week two years ago. I know no one who puts these matters in a better light than Lord Chesterfield in his Letters to his Son, which you most probably have read.

Since I wrote to you last, I have received some light on the subject of FAITH, which I was not at that time aware of. In a discussion with a gentleman on religious matters, some remarks were made upon faith and charity, which led to an analysis of the original Greek word used to express the former by St. Paul, which has been translated "faith," and is generally accepted in the ordinary sense we attach to that word in English; namely, an implicit trust in what you are told, without question or doubt. But this friend of mine, who is a splendid Greek scholar, called my attention to the fact that the Greek word, for which we have no exact equivalent, means an openness to conviction, or a willingness to receive after proper proof; not a determination to believe without investigation. He also pointed out to me what I was less prepared to hear, that the charity spoken of does not mean, as I supposed it to express, conscientiousness, but love and good fellowship, in action and speech; in fact, more in accordance with the sense in which the word is commonly understood. This will show you the evil of coming to conclusions on insufficient data. Depend upon it, you must always hear both sides of a story before you can get at the truth.

I am going out to dinner this evening expressly to meet two of the finest girls in Melbourne. Some of my cautious friends say that I am running a great risk, and that I shall never recover from the effects. I cannot say that I feel much frightened. If anything serious should happen, and the consequences are not immediately fatal, I shall add a few lines to-morrow. Look sharp about photographs. I begin to suspect you are ashamed to show your faces in this remote region.

Give my love to H., C., etc., and accept the same from,
Your ever affectionate brother,
William J Wills

P.S. 19th.--The elements interposed to save me from the danger I wilfully determined not to avoid. It rained so heavily last evening that the syrens stayed at home.

In the month of May 1860, I went to Melbourne for a few days, and spent many pleasant hours with my son. I found him contented and happy. His appointment to the Exploring Expedition, so long the yearning desire of his heart, he appeared to consider as a fait accompli. He was in comfortable lodgings, and had established an intimacy with a gentleman of superior literary acquirements, personally acquainted with many London celebrities of our day. I remember the delight with which he came to my hotel and said:

'You must dine with me to-day; I want to introduce you to a person you will much like. His greatest fault is one you possess yourself, a turn for satire, which sometimes makes him enemies.'

On the same morning he had announced to his friend with beaming eyes, '

'My father is here;' and when the next day that same friend wished to engage him to an evening party, he replied: 'You forget that I have a wild young father to take care of.' Alluding again to this, in a letter to his mother, on the 17th of May, he says:

[17 May 1860]

You must excuse a brief epistle this time. The Doctor has been in town for a few days lately, and of course seduced me into all sorts of wild habits. He is looking well, in good condition, but not so fat as he was two years ago.

At that time I had been living very frequently on little more than one hard egg per day. Milk and coffee in the morning, and half a pound of meat twice a week. In another letter to his mother, shortly after the above date, he says:

I have not heard from my father for the last fortnight. I am in very good lodgings, at a boarding-house, not working hard, and have time to cultivate some agreeable society. The landlady is all that can be desired and more than could be expected--the company far above the average. There is Mr B., a barrister and Cambridge man, first rate; and a nice old lady, Mrs. F., very intelligent and good-natured. We three are great friends. Taking it altogether, the house is so comfortable, that I did not go to the theatre once last month.

The mutual good opinion may be estimated by the following introduction from the gentleman alluded to above, to the Colonial Secretary at Perth, in the event of his explorations leading my son to Western Australia:

I pray your hospitality for Mr W J Wills, for whom I have a very high esteem and friendship. He makes me happy beyond flattery by permitting me to think that I add something to his life. You cannot fail to like him. He is a thorough Englishman, self-relying and self-contained; a well-bred gentleman without a jot of effeminacy. Plucky as a mastiff, high-blooded as a racer, enterprising but reflective, cool, keen, and as composed as daring. Few men talk less; few by manner and conduct suggest more. One fault you will pardon, a tendency to overrate the writer of this letter.

This gentleman, Mr Birnie, is a son of the late Sir Richard Birnie, so long an eminent police magistrate in London. At the close of a lecture which he gave at Ballaarat on the 24th of May, 1862, subsequent to the disastrous intelligence of my son's death, he introduced the following remarks, as reported in a colonial paper:

If amusement and gravity might be held compatible, they would bear with him in pronouncing the name of William John Wills. (Cheers.)

The lecturer, when first in Melbourne, lived at a boarding house, and there he met Wills. Their friendship soon grew and strengthened, in spite of the difference of their ages. Of the man as a public explorer, everybody knew as well as he did.

Professor Neumayer said that Wills's passion for astronomy was astonishing, and that his nights were consumed in the study. Yet his days also were spent in enlarging his literary attainments. But with all this labour, Wills never disregarded the commoner duties and virtues of life. Even at the breakfast-table he was as neat and clean as a woman. At the ball, of which he was as fond as a child, he was scrupulously temperate, and in speech pure as a lady. Wills read Sharon Turner, Hazlitt, Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and commented on all. Of Tennyson's In Memoriam he said it was wonderful for its frequent bordering on faults without ever reaching them. He was a student of literature as well as of astronomy and science. Much intercourse they had had, and when the lecturer heard of his death he felt glad that nothing existed for recrimination or self condemnation. Wills was a great admirer of Shakespeare, and his remarks on that author were original and striking. This tribute the lecturer would lay upon his friend's bust, and humble though the offering was he felt it would be accepted. The lecturer with much feeling concluded a peroration of eloquent eulogy upon his deceased friend, amid the loud and prolonged applause of the audience, who had cheered him at frequent intervals throughout the whole of his discourse.

Mr McDowall moved a vote of thanks to the lecturer, seconded by Mr Dimant, both gentlemen highly complimenting Mr Birnie for his kindness in giving his services on the occasion.

The vote was carried by acclamation, and Mr Birnie, in acknowledging it, implored the audience not to let the movement die away. The proposed monument could not be too good for the fame of the heroic explorers, and particularly as commemorating the patient, pious, unselfish manliness of Wills to the latest moment of his life. (Cheers.)

The proceedings then closed.

In his ordinary letters to me, and in his journals of the Expedition, which he knew were likely to become public documents, my son seldom or never touched upon the all-important subject of religion. This has given rise to an opinion broadly hinted in Australia by some, and of course believed by more, that he was either a sceptic or a downright infidel. Nothing could be further from the truth. His mother's love had instructed him early and zealously in the doctrines of Christianity, and prepared his mind for a conviction of their divine truth when he reached an age which would enable him to exercise his own judgment. As I have already mentioned, even in childhood he had an inquiring mind and a disposition to take nothing for granted without investigation. Hence the questions which sometimes surprised and puzzled his instructress. The tendency grew with his growth, and displayed itself in his mode of dealing with every branch of knowledge comprised in his education. If a new fact in science or an improvement in a mathematical or surgical instrument came under his observation, he closely examined their bearing and use before he adopted them or subscribed to their truth or utility. Those who question before they believe are not unfrequently pronounced unbelievers because they question; an inverted mode of reasoning equally uncharitable and illogical. My son had an undisguised dislike to any ostentatious display of religious sentiment and phraseology, particularly on the part of those who were not teachers by calling. He sometimes suspected more cant than sincerity in the practice, and thought these matters better suited for inward communication between man and his Maker than for public exhibition on common occasions. With my wife's permission I insert the following letter, now for the first time placed in my hands:

Flagstaff Observatory, Melbourne,
June 17th, 1860.

My dear Mother,
The mail arrived here only two or three days ago, being nearly a fortnight behind time. I have received your letter of the 13th of April, and one from Bessy. Your endeavours to show that my remarks on religion were wrong, have tended to convince me more clearly that I was right, and that you, partially at least, misunderstood what I said. I did not charge you with being openly uncharitable or of plainly condemning any one; nor do I blame you for believing you are right. We all think we are right, or we should not believe as we do. But I do blame those who pronounce everybody wrong but themselves; for as far as we can judge, one may be as near the truth as another. How often we hear VERY religious people, compassionately remarking upon a neighbour's death: "Ah, poor dear fellow, he was such a good sort of man! I hope and trust he died in the faith!" meaning, of course, their own peculiar tenets, and obliquely implying that, in spite of all his estimable qualities, they have great doubts of his salvation. For my part, I consider this as bad as the outspoken uncharitableness of bigots and persecutors in the olden days. The inference may be true, but it is not we who have a right to think, much less to utter it.

But I must now come to the more precise point on which we differ--the meaning of a single expression, which I think I have named in a former letter. I allude to the word FAITH, which, as I was always taught to interpret it, appeared to my apprehension analogous to CREDULITY, or a blind belief without question;--an explanation which went against my conscience and conviction whenever it occurred to me from time to time. As I grew older I felt it to be wrong, although I was not sufficiently informed to explain it differently. What perplexed me was that St. Paul should advocate such a servile submission of the intellectual faculties which God has bestowed upon man; such an apparent degradation of the human mind to the level of the lower creation as to call upon us to lay aside our peculiar attributes of reason, common sense, and reflection, and to receive without inquiry any doctrine that may be offered to us. On this principle, we should be as likely to believe in the impostor as in the true saint, and having yielded up our birthright of judgment, become incapable of distinguishing between them. I have thought much on the subject with the assistance of better authorities and scholars than myself, and will now endeavour to explain what I consider St. Paul meant by FAITH, or rather by the Greek word Piotis, which has been so translated. After you have read my explanation, and carefully examined your own mind, will it be too much to expect an admission that of the three great elements of Christianity, faith, hope, and charity, you have hitherto had more of hope than of the other two? The Greek word used by St. Paul signifies something more than faith, or implicit belief, as many render it. It means a self-reliant confidence arising from conviction after investigation and study--the faith that Paley advocates when he says, "He that never doubted never half believed." It implies, in the first place, an unprejudiced mind, an openness to conviction, and a readiness to receive instruction; and then a desire to judge for ourselves. This must be followed by a patient investigation of evidence pro and con, an impartial summing up, and a conclusion fairly and confidently deduced. If we are thus convinced, then we have acquired faith--a real, unshakeable faith, for we have carefully examined the title deeds and know that they are sound. You will surely see that faith in this sense, and credulity, a belief without inquiry, are the very reverse of each other, and how much superior is the former to the latter. Credulity is a mere feather, liable to be blown about with every veering wind of doctrine. Faith, as St. Paul means it, is as firm as a castle on a rock, where the foundations have been carefully examined and tested, before the building was proceeded with.

In collateral evidence of what I have just said, I may instance the often-repeated injunction to accept things as little children; which cannot mean with the ignorance and helpless submission of infancy, but with minds free from bigotry, bias, or prejudice, like those of little children, and with an inclination, like them, to receive instruction. At what period of life do any of us learn so rapidly and eagerly as in childhood? We acquire new ideas every time we open our eyes; we are ever attracted by something we have not observed before; every moment adds to our knowledge. If you give a child something to eat it has not been accustomed to, does it swallow it at once without examination? Does it not rather look at, smell, feel, and then taste it? And if disagreeable, will it eat merely because the new food was given to it for that purpose? On the contrary, it is more inclined to reject the gift until influenced by your eating some yourself, or by other modes of persuasion. Let us then, in like manner, examine all that is offered to our belief, and test it by the faculties with which the great God has endowed us. These rare senses and powers of reasoning were given to be used freely, but not audaciously, to discover, not to pervert the truth. Why were so many things presented as through veil, unless to stimulate our efforts to clear away the veil, and penetrate to the light? I think it is plain that St. Paul, while he calls upon us to believe, never intended that we should be passively credulous. [Footnote: My son might have further enforced his view by a passage from St. Paul, 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5 verse 21, had it occurred to him: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." By this the apostle implies, according to Archbishop Secker's commentary, all things which may be right or wrong according to conscience. And by "proving them" he means, not that we should try them by experience, which would be an absurd and pernicious direction, but that we should examine them by our faculty of judgment, which is a wise and useful exhortation.] Credulity was one of the most prominent engines of the Romish Church, but there was a trace of sense in their application of it. They taught that the ignorant and uneducated should have faith in the doctrines introduced to them by their betters, and those who had found time to investigate the matter; but some, in the present day, support the monstrous delusion that enlightened and well-trained intellects, the most glorious of all the earthly gifts of God, should bow to canting and illiterate fanaticism.

Adieu for the present, my dear mother,
and believe me ever your affectionate,
and I hope unbigoted son,
W J Wills

This letter was the last but two he ever addressed to his mother, and I have not transcribed the whole. It is long and discursive, considering how much he had on his hands at that time, and how completely he was occupied with the pending expedition. In his next he refers to some apprehensions expressed by maternal solicitude that his religious convictions might be altered by a friend who entertained extremely different views.'I intended, my dear mother,' he says, 'to have replied at length to one of the remarks in your last, but I fear I must be very brief. Your idea that I am influenced by --'s notions of religion is amusingly erroneous. I never imagined that I could have written anything to warrant such an impression; but it shows how careful we should be to make clear statements so as to avoid being misunderstood. Mr --'s religion is to my mind supremely ridiculous; I can only find two points in its favour, namely, its charity and moral principles. But these, although admirable in themselves, do not go far towards proving the truth of the theological notions entertained by its adherents. I can assure you that such ideas of religion are quite as far removed from mine as yours can be.'

His final letter announces the certainty of his being about to start on the enterprise so long projected. He had hitherto withheld the fact, from a wish not to distress his mother unnecessarily while there was a chance that any unforeseen obstacle might create further delay.

Flagstaff Observatory, Melbourne,
July 25th, 1860.

My dear Mother,
I am glad to be able to inform you of a matter that you perhaps will not much like, although I do not know why you should object to it. It is that we expect to start on this exploration trip in a few weeks. You will find some particulars on the subject in the Argus that I have sent to Charles. I fancy we shall not be away so long as was at first intended; probably not more than twelve or eighteen months.

I anticipate being able to send you a letter sometimes, as well as to receive yours to me, as they propose keeping up a communication with Cooper's Creek. Professor Neumayer will probably accompany us as far as the Darling River, taking an opportunity, at the same time, to prosecute the magnetic survey. This will make matters very pleasant, as well as being of great advantage to me in many respects.

We shall be travelling through the country in the most favourable and pleasant season, when there is plenty of water, and everything fresh and green. It will take us about two months to get to Cooper's Creek.

I do not give up my position in the Observatory, having obtained leave of absence for the time during which we may be engaged in the exploration. I am sorry I cannot give you more particulars respecting our projected tour, but you will hear enough about it by-and-by.

I received a letter from my father a day or two since, in which he speaks of coming down before I start. I do not expect to have time to go to Ballaarat before we leave.

I sent you by the last mail one or two small photographs of myself, and a locket for Bessy, which she asked me for some time ago. I hope they arrived safely. There was also a photograph of my father on paper. I have to thank some one, name unknown, for the Totnes papers that I received by the last mail. They appear to be well edited, and are decidedly a credit to the town. I had heard of the paper before, but did not expect to find it so good as it is.

I suppose you have had a favourable view of the comet that has made its appearance lately. It was visible here for about a week: at first it was of a good size, but being so low down in the west, at sunset it could only be seen for a short time, and then it was comparatively dim, owing to the twilight. Since then it has rapidly disappeared, moving in an east-south-easterly direction. With you it was probably very fine.

With kind love, etc., etc.,
Believe me, my dear mother,
Your affectionate son,
William J Wills

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