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.
11 January 1862
Simple-minded people will probably suppose that all the evidence that has been given before the Royal Commission of Inquiry embodies an honest statement of facts, but there can be nothing more erroneous than such a supposition. In following up our inquiries, we shall be compelled to point out that those instances where truth has been sacrificed upon the altar of expediency.
In our issue of last week, we referred to the starting of the Expedition on the 20th of August 1860. The anxious crowd had been kept waiting nearly all day, and it was evident that, by the grossest mismanagement, the party was about to start before it was ready; but the leader had fixed upon that day, and he stated to the officers of his party that unless he got away from Melbourne he would be ruined – that he had lost £500. About an hour or so before dark, a start was effected, whereas the party by that time should have finished its day's journey, and have been encamped for the night.
It is unnecessary to follow the Expedition throughout its journey through the territory of Victoria. With the exception of a few trifling mishaps nothing worth recording occurred. It is worth while, however, noticing that the leader nearly every night abandoned his party, and sought the shelter of the nearest public-house or station – a proceeding which we think of some importance, as it was calculated to produce an unfavourable impression on the minds of the men under him. If a leader does not share in the hardships of his party, and remain at the post of duty, the men are sure to remark upon it – and the leader thus gradually, and without knowing how, loses his influence. At Messrs. Booth and Holloway's station, on the Loddon, Bowman, who had been with Gregory on two expeditions, and who was reckoned by that able bushman and explorer one of the best men he had ever commanded, was taken into the party. At Swan-hill, Charles Gray was added, upon the recommendation chiefly of Mr Foster, the resident inspector of police. Here the Expedition crossed the Murray at the punt, and proceeded on its way to Balranald, on the Murrumbidgee, passing over a flat swampy tract, flooded to some extent by the back waters of the swollen rivers. At Balranald, two tons of flour were purchased; and an equal weight of stores, consisting of a large quantity of rice, ten bags of sugar, a chest full of gunsmiths' tools, guns, pistols, and ammunition were here left behind. Here, too, the only litter the party possessed for carrying the sick was unwisely abandoned, contrary to the advice and remonstrance of the second in command. It is important to note these facts with regard to provisions because King has stated, in his evidence before the Commission of Inquiry, at its fourth sitting, that he 'knew nothing of any stores left behind anywhere.'
The leader had by this time received a letter from the Committee, instructing him to reduce his expenses; and several of the men, amongst whom was Ferguson, the overseer, were attempted to be got rid of in the following manner:- They were ordered to remain behind with the stores left at Balranald, and to come on afterwards. Ferguson soon found out the contrivance, and there was a great storm between him and the leader in consequence. Challenges to fight were freely given by Ferguson, but not accepted. The disturbance ended by Ferguson and one or two others leaving the party. Ferguson, on his return to Melbourne, tried in vain to get a hearing with the committee, and went the length subsequently of threatening it with an action; but his Honour the Chief Justice of Victoria, in his capacity as a member of the committee, assured his brother committeemen that Ferguson had not a leg to stand upon. There was no urgent reason, therefore, why he should be heard, and there was no great necessity for according him simple justice.
At Balranald one or two blackfellows were obtained to pilot the Expedition across the plains to the Darling. This showed a want of confidence in himself, on the part of the chosen leader, but a want of knowledge of even how to travel now began to manifest itself. Up to the time the party left Balranald it had never been without a track to follow, with the exception of a short distance on the Terrick Terrick Plains, between the Campaspe and Loddon Rivers. To cross the wide, trackless saltbush plains lying between the Murrumbidgee and the Darling, produced the following results:- Camping places were not selected till after dark, sometimes till after midnight, when it could not be seen whether there might be any food for the cattle or not. At every camp, lots of tools, axes, and spades were left. The leader went away ahead, and left his seven waggons to shift for themselves. Through want of water or overdriving, the pack-horses, although almost without loads, were so knocked up that some of them lay down from exhaustion. As illustrative of the recklessness of the statements made before the Commission of Inquiry by the secretary of the committee, we quote what he said on the second day of the inquiry:- "The waggons having been left, the camels had to be loaded. Burke had carefully abstained from loading the camels before, in order that they might be in good condition when they were required." This is simply untrue, for the camels were first heavily loaded at Balranald, on the Murrumbidgee; sixteen of them took across from thence four tons to the Darling. When the leader, the horses, and the camels had arrived at the Darling, and when there was no signs of the seven waggons coming up, Dr Beckler was sent back to see what had become of the latter; and subsequently, the camels were sent back about forty miles towards Balranald, to bring on four more tons of dead-weight out of the waggons. The waggon-horses had become exhausted from over-driving and want of water. We think it necessary to refer particularly to such facts, because the committee, having undoubtedly started the Expedition at the wrong season, the secretary, Mr Macadam, has endeavoured to prove to the commission that the Expedition started at the right season. He said, at the second sitting of the commission, that "at the time Burke left Melbourne, it was considered he had ample time to reach the Darling, and cross over to Cooper's Creek at the most favourable part of the year." If the committee, or any other body, ever considered anything of the kind, it had no foundation whatever for arriving at such a conclusion, and it only thus now makes known its lamentable ignorance of the climate of that portion of the continent. Is there a single individual to be found, possessing the slightest knowledge of that region, who does not know that the most favourable part of the year for crossing the plains between the Murrumbidgee and the Darling, or between the Darling and Cooper's Creek, was over before the time the Expedition left Melbourne? July is the most favourable month for crossing the former, and the same month, or August, the latter. We cannot help referring here to the extraordinary statement vouchsafed by Professor Neumayer, in his remarks made before the Royal Society on his return from the Darling. The professor actually extols the leader for getting across to the Darling before the rainy weather had set in; but upon a member of the society questioning him on the point, he admitted that the rainy weather he referred to was one or two thicker showers. To talk of rainy weather on the Darling in October or November was about the most absurd thing imaginable. Had it not been that the rains during that year were unusually late, such a party could not have crossed the Darling plains at the time it did. The settlers on the Murrumbidgee had told Mr Burke that unless he pushed on he would be unable to cross the plains. We have already seen how a neglect of the seasons on the part of the committee caused both horses and camels to be more used than was necessary, and we shall soon see that the same neglect, coupled with a wild and incompetent management, that was continually dividing the party, soon led to disastrous results.
The point on the Darling where the Expedition emerged from the scrub and the plains was opposite Mr Phelp's station. Let us see what took place there. Six miles up from the station a temporary depot was formed. Spirits, provisions &c., were left at Mr Phelp's station. Presents of rice were given to the men on the station, and two dozen of brandy, which had been presented to the Expedition for medicinal purposes, were made a present to Mr M'Pherson, Phelp's overseer. The camel trunks were also left there. For a fortnight, during which the temporary depot remained six miles up the Darling from this station, the leader abandoned his party nearly every night, and sought the shelter of Mr Phelp's homestead. When the depot was broken up, two new waggons were left in the bush, and there they are lying to this day. Twelve sets of new harness were also abandoned, and a whole waggon-load of odds and ends that had cost a lot of money even to convey from Melbourne thither, were left to the mercy of anyone. The leader, it is true, asked M'Pherson to have such things removed to the station; but the gentleman, having no time to devote to duties which did not belong to him or his master, refused to have anything to do with the abandoned articles. "What," said the messenger sent to him, "must we leave the waggons and goods in the bush?" "Take your waggons and things away," was the rejoinder; "I don't want you to leave anything on the station." The horses went on almost without loads, and a heavier duty was now imposed upon the camels than they could endure. The second in command remonstrated, and he was instructed to throw nine camel loads, if he liked, into the river – and a quantity of things were so disposed of. It was here that Bowman, Gregory's old man, and nearly the only Australian bushman in the party, left it.
Professor Neumayer, in his remarks above referred to, made before the Royal Society, gave an account of the circumstances under which Bowman left the Expedition. He said it was because Bowman was dissatisfied with the leader's proposed mode of payment. There never was any statement made more untrue than this. The truth was, that Bowman had been so imprudent on one or two occasions as to contrast the superior skill and management of Gregory with the bungling of the Victorian leader; and of course, he whom the nepotistic grace of the committee had placed in supreme command could not endure such an impertinence, and Bowman, stripped of the Expedition livery, retired from the party almost in a state of nudity, as if he had been an aboriginal savage. We have nothing to do with the task of finding out who is responsible for this untruth. That belongs to others. We fearlessly make such revelations, because our investigations are, day by day, making known to us that the same duplicity has not only been practised by other interested parties, but real and important facts have apparently been purposely suppressed and concealed, in order to give a false colour to everything connected with this extraordinary Expedition.
From Phelp's station, the Expedition journeyed up the Darling, and arrived at Menindie, astonishing the experienced settlers on that river by the absurdity and eccentricity of its movements, nearly everyone thinking that such an Expedition was sure to come to grief. This we know, not merely from what has been published on the subject, but from conversation with some of the settlers themselves. One or two of these old bushmen had, months before, kindly offered their advice to the committee, and all information in their power, but Dr Macadam had written to say that the committee had all the information required.
Having traced the Expedition as far as Menindie (the Laidley Ponds of Sir Thomas Mitchell), this finishes our history of the fourth act of the tragedy.