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by William Lockhart Morton

Yeoman & Australian Acclimatiser.
Collins-street, Melbourne.
A seven part series tracing the history of the Victorian Exploring Expedition.
21 December 1861-1 February 1862.

4 January 1862

Part III

We last week stated that the appointment of a leader altogether inexperienced had brought us to the close of the second act in the great Exploration tragedy. We now come to the third act. The Hon Secretary of the Committee, at the first meeting of the Royal Commission of Inquiry, in his rambling statement, in which he jumbled together the names of the party with the successful calculations made by capable gentlemen on the astronomical and geological observations, manifested an indecent haste to convince the commissioners that everything subsequent to the appointment of the leader had been left to his judgement and control. He probably thought that this statement would tend to remove from himself and the other members of the committee who had been instrumental in securing the appointment for Mr Burke that responsibility which must forever rest upon them. As well might he have tried to convince a jury that when a man charters a vessel for a distant and dangerous voyage, and then, through nepotism or any other sinister motive, places in command of her a man ignorant of navigation, and even of seamanship in any way, and when through his ignorance the vessel becomes a wreck, and the captain and many of the crew perish, that the charter-party is not responsible to the owners of the vessel for her loss, nor to a higher power for the sacrifice of the lives of his fellow-men. We feel convinced that the public will never exonerate the committee upon such grounds.

But to resume. A leader having been appointed, as we have said, by a majority, during the absence of some of the most experienced members of the committee, and by the withdrawal of others who would not incur the responsibility of making such an appointment, the next thing to be done was to select a party. For subordinate positions, it is understood that there were about 700 applications. For the position of second in command, it was thought by many that a Mr Demsky stood a fair chance. We have ascertained that prior to his own election the leader had been in communication with Demsky, and he was promised the appointment of second in command, on condition of his retiring in favour of Mr Burke; but the coveted appointment once secured, good faith was not kept towards Demsky, and he, a man, we believe, of considerable experience as an American traveller, was thrown overboard without ceremony.

We come now to the appointment of Mr Landells to the post of second in command, and we shall soon see that, although Mr Landells nominally held that position, he actually in some measure divided the chief command with Mr Burke. The committee asked Mr Landells to state, in writing, the terms and conditions upon which he would be willing to undertake the duties of second in command; and in his letter to the committee the following passage occurs:- "I should be entirely charged with all matters relating to the treatment, loading, and working of the camels, and be responsible for their health." To Mr Landells' letter the secretary replied, - "I am instructed by the Exploration Committee to inform you that your letter, stating the terms on which you will accompany the forthcoming Expedition, has been taken into consideration, and the committee has decided that your services shall be accepted as second in command throughout the course of the Expedition," &c. It was also added, "I have to refer you to Mr Burke, the leader, for all instructions." The Committee, no doubt, thought that by the insertion of the latter clause, the supreme command was still preserved to Mr Burke. But how could that be in the face of Mr Landells' terms and conditions? In a letter by Professor McCoy, published by the Herald on the 3rd of July last, we are told that the difficulty connected with Mr Landells' "terms and conditions" was foreseen, at least by the professor – himself one of the Committee - but instead of having the difficulty removed, it appears that the good sense and non-interference of Mr Burke alone were relied upon. Both the leader and the second in command were thus placed by the Committee in a false position, utterly incompatible with the constitution of an exploring expedition. It was just as absurd as if the command of a ship were given to a captain, whilst full control over the sails remained in the hands of the first mate. As the Committee appointed Mr Landells, it is probable that it appointed the other officers of the expedition. Whether the Committee selected the rest of the party, or if the choice was left to Mr Burke himself, is a matter of little moment; the fact cannot be denied that experienced bushmen were rejected. We shall have occasion hereafter to adduce ample proof, based upon their own testimony, that, from the leader downwards, those who entered upon this expedition were, with one or two exceptions, totally inexperienced as bushmen. Amongst the 700 candidates, we happen to know that there were some experienced men of this stamp rejected. This was one of the results of having a leader who himself knew nothing of bush life, and we shall soon see what effect such blundering had on the fate of the expedition.

The party having been organised and the stores collected, and it having been finally determined that the Expedition should go overland from Melbourne to Cooper's Creek, on the 20th of August 1860, thousands went out to the Royal Park to see it start. We have not yet learned what the stores consisted of, but we know that the total weight of them was twenty-one tons. The Hon Secretary took pains to inform the Royal Commissioners, on their second day of meeting, that, "the calculations in respect to quantity were principally made by Dr Mueller, who was supposed to be more particularly acquainted with the subject, he having gone out with Gregory's northern expedition." This statement may be true, certainly; but we have simply to say that we do not believe that Dr Mueller, or any gentleman of such experience as he possess, could possibly have become responsible for such an impracticable outfit. As to the Hon Secretary's statement, nearly in the same breath, that Mr Burke was cognisant of all that was done, and that he and the sub-committee went through a list of articles, which was agreed to, the simple answer is, that he whom the Committee had chosen as leader was no judge of what was required.

We now come to a very important point. How was such a stupidly cumbrous outfit to be got overland a thousand miles to Cooper's Creek? Captain Cadell, on behalf of the Murray Navigation Company, had offered to take thirty tons of stores in the company's steamers to the Darling gratis; and there was actually a steamer waiting at Melbourne to take the stores round to the mouth of the Murray. Why was the generous offer not accepted; and why was the enormous expense incurred of hiring waggons to take twenty-one tons of goods, by way of Swan Hill, and then over the Murray and Murrumbidgee, to Balranald, and afterwards across the plains to the Darling, when the same goods could have been, for one-third of the amount, and in less time, conveyed by water, even if the committee had paid for their transit? The hon. secretary, when before the commission on its second meeting, said, that Captain Caddell's offer had not been accepted, because Mr Burke thought it "better to have the matter in his own control, so that he would not be dependent on that which accidents might very easily keep from being in time." This statement was not strictly speaking true. The real facts of the case are these – Captain Caddell was one of the few members of the committee who could not be persuaded that Mr Burke, as a man totally inexperienced, was fit to be the leader of such an expedition; and an unworthy suspicion was entertained that, therefore, Captain Caddell, or the Murray Navigation Company, would be mean enough to try to mar the success of the Expedition. The Government and the public had been very liberal with their money, and there was no absolute necessity to be economical.

Before we trace the history of this undertaking further, or follow it onward through all the stages of ruin and disaster, we pause for a moment to consider the warnings which the committee received through the public press of the colony, after making the appointment which it did – warnings which the leader himself referred to in his speech at the dinner given to him at Castlemaine – which the committee, or the Government, did not think it worth their while to notice, but which, as events have proved, were deserving of attention, and which, as we remarked in a former number, may now be read almost in the light of prophecy. Did we consult our own feelings, we would rather not say so much respecting the unfortunate and the undoubtedly brave man who has himself perished, and whom, as we shall prove by the clearest evidence, was the secondary cause of the sacrifice of others; but our history and inquiry would be incomplete, and unworthy of consideration, did we fail to notice documents placed in our hands, or facts which have come under our own observation or within our knowledge.

From a number of letters published about the end of June, 1860, we select the following:

The Leader of the Exploring Party.

Since the appointment of a leader of the Victorian Expedition, the propriety of the selection has been much called In question, and people are beginning to feel and express no little astonishment when they, upon inquiry, learn what are the merits and qualifications of the gentleman selected. There is something wrong somewhere, and it is earnestly to be hoped that the Government will exercise due caution before confirming the appointment. There is one most noticeable fact connected with the committee, namely, that these gentlemen who alone were qualified, or at all events most qualified, to select a leader, were not present at the final nomination. It is only necessary to mention the names of Dr Mueller, A. M'Millan, Esq., and the Surveyor-General, who were, from their long experiences as bush-travellers themselves, almost the only men of the whole committee capable of judging between the various candidates. The Surveyor-General, of course, could not be present, but where was Dr Mueller and Mr M'Millan? Is it not a fact that the experienced men of the committee were disgusted and driven out of the field, and constantly absented themselves because they saw the most base and shameless personal motives at work? The public ought at once to demand that a list of the committee be published, with all their attendances at the committee rooms, detailing when they ceased to attend, &c., and a full explanation generally.
When the lives of so many men are at stake, placed in the power of an incompetent man – as I shall endeavour to show the gentleman nominated is – it is time that something were done to prevent the destruction, ruin, and disgrace certain to follow.

Of Mr Burke personally I know nothing. All that can be learned of him is, that he has been seven years in the colony; during the whole time in the police force, - first at the Ovens, latterly at Castlemaine; that he has not had the slightest experience as a bush-traveller; that he knows nothing about exploring, and has never attempted to try anything of the kind; in short, has had no practice whatever as a bushman, never having camped even in the bush, and never been in any part of Australia where there are no roads; that he cannot construct a map of his course, should he be sent with the party; that he is altogether ignorant of any of the physical sciences; that his literary ability is so small that he could not write an intelligent account of the journey; and that he knows nothing whatever of astronomical science – cannot take even the sun's elevation to find his latitude! Surely a more incompetent man never in the world's history entered upon an enterprise so great and responsible. What is here stated as to his want of fitting qualifications cannot be denied, and is known even to the committee that has elected him.

'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.'

Now the nominated leader is all in a haste to start – rather prematurely, for the Government has not yet confirmed the nomination – but what will follow? It is now too late in the season to have any chance of reaching further than the Darling, or, should the party get as far as Cooper's Creek, it will only be in time to sit down and spend the summer in that torrid region, as Sturt did for six months.

With such facts before me, I have, as a citizen of Victoria, fulfilled my duty in thus exposing a shameless transaction, and removed from my door the blood of those that must perish under such leadership.

Again, here is an extract from the letter of another correspondent:

I maintain that he (the leader) ought to have some acquaintance with the scientific subjects, for the conduct of which his officers are specifically selected, and should, in case of the death or illness of an important member of his staff, be able to fill his place with tolerable accuracy and efficiency. Then, again, at the close of their operations, how is a gentleman to write a report that will be a credit to us, if he is ignorant of the several branches of knowledge which he has been sent to enrich? His staff may supply him with notes and detail, but he will be utterly unable to arrange or apply them, so as to compile a scientific register that will be of any practical utility to the colony and the world.

Unless the public are furnished with the scientific qualifications of the chosen leader, there are many who believe the rumour that there has been much shameless abandonment of principle, double-dealing, and pandering to private and party claims that merits exposure. It is by such common-place practices as canvassing for "your vote and interest" that this blunder (as I deem it) has been committed, which should have never been allowed. In fact, such conduct ought to vitiate the result of the election.

If there is not an intelligible reply to this letter, I shall take the liberty of canvassing the qualifications of the committee themselves.

With regard to Mr Burke, I have no reason to speak of him save as a respectable officer in the department with which he has been so long identified, and no doubt possessing many good qualities; but I have yet to learn that he is as fit for the functions he is now called upon to exercise. Mr B. has to blame the committee if he is in his wrong place.

I am, Sir, yours, &c.,

These, and other communications, we are given to understand, the committee treated with silent contempt, because they were supposed to have been written by a disappointed candidate. If that were so, it is probably simply what they deserved, and nothing now would have been heard of them had extraordinary disasters not happened, and had not the results of the Expedition proved that the cautions they contain were well founded. What the committee was bound to consider was, whether there was any foundation for such statements, without calculating whence they had come.

This brings our history to the end of the third act in the Exploration tragedy.

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