by William Lockhart Morton
|Yeoman & Australian Acclimatiser.
A seven part series tracing the history of the Victorian Exploring Expedition.
21 December 1861-1 February 1862.
21 December 1861
Never, perhaps, in the history of human affairs has a more righteous retribution overtaken a body of men entrusted with the discharge of responsible duties, than that which has fallen upon the Exploration Committee; and never, certainly, has an instance happened wherein so many intelligent and honourable men, occupying high positions in a community, have been made the victims of a designing few, created and brought together for the express purpose of accomplishing a certain object.
The correctness of these remarks will become sufficiently known as we proceed with the history of this extraordinary affair. We would rather not have undertaken this history; we had hoped that the Royal Commission of Inquiry would have rendered it unnecessary; but as that Commission has merely surveyed the outside of the whitewashed sepulchre, and has been spending days and days in chasing the withered leaves of the desert, and has been in vain rubbing its eyes, to get rid of the handfuls of fine desert sand judiciously thrown into them, we have no alternative but to undertake this duty. There are many, we are sorry to remark, disposed to say, 'The thing is done, it cannot be undone; the men are all dead who have suffered; it is better that all should be now hushed up.' But such men forget that the history of the past and the errors of the past are recorded, for the benefit of the present and the future.
The sittings of the Commission may now be considered over, and we may shortly expect the report, which, of course, will only be in keeping with the evidence brought before it; we, therefore, consider that the press is now at liberty to institute an enquiry, so long as it does not anticipate the Commission in its decision.
But to begin our history. That Victoria should organize an exploring expedition was first projected by Dr Wilkie, at a meeting of the Philosophical Institute, now the Royal Society of Victoria. In the second volume of the Transactions of the Institute we find the first report of the original Exploration Committee, which held its first meeting on the 14th of November, 1857. In this report the primary design of the proposed expedition is made known. We shall only mention it now, but we shall have opportunities hereafter to point out how strangely it was departed from.
After getting all the available evidence, including a long letter from A C Gregory, the explorer, the committee came to the determination that the Expedition would traverse the continent from east to west, as near the Tropic of Capricorn as the features of the country would permit, as that route would prove in every point of view the most valuable in its results. As a preliminary step, however, they recommended that a light party should open up a way between the Darling and the Barcoo (Cooper's Creek, or the Victoria of Mitchell). They next express an opinion regarding the season of the year when the party should be at the Darling. This was a most important point, and we shall hereafter see how utterly it was disregarded afterwards. "Your committee recommend that the Exploring party should reach the Darling River before the beginning of March." We invite particular notice to this recommendation; because we shall have occasion to prove that, contrary to this sound advice, the amalgamated committee boldly declared that the winter months were not the proper time to start from the Darling, and they purposely and wilfully managed that the party should not be at the Darling till the dry summer weather had fairly set in. With their own recommendation before them, the committee cannot plead that they did not know which was the proper course. They recommended one thing and deliberately did just the opposite. Why was this? We shall presently see.
On the 4th of January 1858, a public meeting was got up, at which the speakers were chiefly members of the Philosophical Institute. Dr Macadam has stated in his evidence before the Royal Commission of Inquiry, that a committee was appointed at a public meeting, and that the said committee was afterwards amalgamated with the committee of the Institute. But at the first public meeting held there was no committee appointed to represent the public in the management of the Expedition. At that meeting there was a deputation appointed to wait upon His Excellency, and afterwards on the Chief Secretary, with the view of submitting to the Government the resolutions of the public meeting, and asking for the sum of £2,500 to be placed on the Estimates in aid of the proposed Expedition.
The Government of Mr Haines' thus applied to, did not accede to the request, but an intimation was given that in the following session 'the Parliament would be in a better position to vote the necessary funds.'
On the 1st of September, 1858, another public meeting was got up, at which a committee was appointed to take the necessary steps for raising £2,000 by public subscription, some person unknown having placed £1,000, as then announced, in the hands of Sir William Stawell, upon condition that double that amount, for the purpose of exploring the interior, should be raised within twelve months.
This second committee was called the 'Exploration Fund Committee.' This committee consisted of seven gentlemen, four of whom were actually members of the other committee, ie. the Exploration Committee of the Philosophical Institute or Royal Society!
On the 23rd of January, 1860, another public meeting was held, at which the final report of the Exploration Fund Committee was read and adopted. At this meeting it was announced that more than £2,000 had been subscribed, and that the Parliament had voted £6,000.
We have gone out of our way to inquire into this part of the business, because there is displayed throughout something which we do not like in the ringing of changes between the names of the Exploration Committee and the Exploration Fund Committee, when four of the seven names in the latter actually belonged to the former. It is nothing short of burlesque to find the latter committee, in its report, saying that:
We should think so when four, or a majority of the seven members composing the former committee belonged, as we have already said, to the latter. What followed? All the money required having at the date of the meeting here referred to been collected, the Exploration Fund Committee was no longer wanted; a member of the other committee, therefore, proposed that, as it is now essential that there should be only one Exploration Committee &c., it is hereby resolved that, the Hon. treasurer, the Hon. Dr Wilkie, M.L.C., be authorised to transfer the subscriptions to the Exploration Fund, to the credit of the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria, subject to the condition that the members of the Exploration Fund Committee shall be added to the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society.
In other words, that four gentleman should be added to that committee to which they already belonged, together with three new names.
We have dwelt upon these curious facts because they make known that the majority of the committee – honourable and shrewd men as they undoubtedly are – permitted themselves, even at this early stage to become like 'dumb driven cattle' by some arch-schemer amongst their number: and they also prepare the mind for the discovery of probably an infinite variety of scheming tricks throughout the whole conduct of the Expedition, so far as the transactions of this now immortalised committee are concerned.
We have thus, for the present, said enough towards opening up a thorough inquiry such as ought to have been undertaken by the Royal Commissioners, who, having failed to begin at the beginning, purposely – as Sir Francis Murphy declared at their first sitting – must in their final decision arrive at a mere superficial, and therefore an unsatisfactory, and very probably an unrighteous conclusion.