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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.

18 January 1862: 8.

Part V

In its journey up the Darling towards Menindie from Phelp's station, strange events happened in the Expedition. The party was scattered like sheep without a shepherd. It seemed never to have entered the brain of the truly unfortunate leader that the most essential point of discipline to be observed consisted in keeping the party together. When a party is kept together, all its members can not only help, but cheer and encourage each other. It was in this part of the journey that serious conflicts arose between the leader and the second in command. The false position in which the committee had, with its eyes open, placed these two gentlemen, here began to bring about a crisis. The good sense of the leader had been relied on as sufficient to prevent undue interference by him with the peculiar authority of his second in command over the camels. But the good sense appears to have been wanting. A conflict, sooner or later, was unavoidable. The ideas of the two leaders were totally different. Landells accustomed to travel in India, knew that it was essential above everything else that the cattle should be kept in condition; Burke, on the other hand, always away ahead and always restless, impetuous, and eccentric, as the committee very well knew, was heard to declare that if the animals broke down he would crawl across the continent on his hands and knees.

It is of little use now to dwell upon this part of the history of the Expedition, yet we can see in what then took place a presage of subsequent disasters. Landells, we think, took the only course open to him under the circumstances, and resigned. His express agreement with the committee, which had placed him in full charge of the camels, had been violated. Challenged by the leader to fight, what could he do but retire from the party. Dr Beckler, whom we know to be a very quiet, inoffensive, and honourable gentleman, resigned at the same time. Connected with the latter resignation there has ever since existed a secret. Dr Beckler, in his letter of resignation, distinctly stated that his principal reason for resigning was the conduct of the leader towards Mr Landells. What that was we have not learned from Dr Beckler, and the commission has not inquired.

There may have been errors on all sides, yet there was surely enough in what befell the Expedition at this point of its progress to induce the committee to institute an inquiry into the conduct of the Expedition. To this it was again and again urged by many independent correspondents in the public prints. One recommended the appointment of Dr Stuart as leader, with power to choose his companions. Another correspondent said, "It is my firm conviction that if no steps are taken to rectify what is wrong, - if the party is allowed as it is to go on, - if the committee is allowed to pooh-pooh, and to receive with contempt, as it has hitherto done, every complaint bought before it, the whole party will assuredly perish as the sun shall rise to-morrow." In short, it was more than hinted at by many, as may be seen by a reference to the public prints of that date, that serious doubts were entertained respecting the leader's sanity.

We come now to the start of the leader from Menindie for Cooper's Creek. This is a highly important point, because it was then that the long chain of blunders was begun, the end of which we have not yet seen.

On the 19th of October 1860, the leader left Menindie accompanied by Messrs. Wills, Brahe, Patten, McDonough, King, Gray, and Dost Mahomet. The party took fifteen horses and sixteen camels. Mr Wright, who had for some time been overseer on an adjoining station, was taken by the leader, for the purpose of showing him the way for the first 200 miles towards Cooper's Creek, Wright taking with him a blackfellow named Dick, and another. On the 28th or 29th of October, the party reached Torowoto, and from this place Wright and Dick returned towards Menindie, which they reached on the 5th of November. On that very day, Trooper Lyons arrived at Menindie from Swanhill, with despatches from the committee for Mr Burke. Previous to Wright's return, he had been informed by the leader that he should be considered third in command, subject to the approval of the committee. Wright also brought back a despatch from the leader for the committee, but no written instructions were given to him for his own guidance. We confess our inability to understand the full meaning of Burke's despatch sent back by Wright from Torowoto. In one part the leader says, after mentioning his appointment of Wright as third officer, he hopes the committee will confirm the appointment. "In the meantime," – he adds, "I have instructed him to follow me up, with the remainder of the camels, to Cooper's Creek, to take steps to procure a supply of salted meat." Further on he says: - "If Mr Wright is allowed to follow out the instructions I have given him, I am confident the result will be satisfactory." Who was able to prevent Mr Wright following out Burke's instructions but the committee, and that this was the train of thought running through the mind of Burke when he penned these lines is evident from what follows – namely, "and if the committee think proper to make inquiries with regard to him, they will find that he is well qualified for the post, and that he bears the very highest character," The Commission of Inquiry seemed to attach much weight only to a sentence near the end of this despatch – namely, "Under any circumstances, it is desirable that we should be soon followed up."

We think, when it is borne in mind that all these remarks were addressed to the Committee, and not to Wright, it will be perceived that this despatch tends to prove that Wright was not expected by Burke to move to Cooper's Creek until his appointment had been confirmed by the Committee. The only doubtful point against this view is in the quotation first given. In that sentence, when viewed critically, the clause, "in the meantime," refers to the moment when the instructions were given, and not to the date when the following up was to take place. How different would have been the meaning had the sentence ran thus: - "I hope that the Committee will confirm the appointment. I have instructed him to follow me up in the meantime," &c. Why was the whole party not taken on at once, in company with the leader? The reckless propensity to run ahead, and leave the party broken up and scattered, seems to have increased in proportion to the necessity for keeping it together, in order that something like united action might be observed. The whole party seems to have been guided by no rule, and it followed no definite plan. The committee had handed over to the leader the power to do what he liked and just as he liked, as well as to go to the north or the west, according to his pleasure; and this most extravagant of all expeditions, through want of foresight and prearrangement, never seems to have been anything throughout but a miracle of mercy or the plaything of accident.

Let us now review the position of affairs at the time of Wright's return to Menindie, and see what amount of blame attaches to him and others. The Royal Commission laboured hard, apparently thinking to find in the conduct of Wright an explanation for all the earlier disasters of the Expedition after reaching Menindie. Blame has also by many been attached to Brahe. Why, this is about a parallel case to that of a farmer, who, finding a cornstack overturned by a gale, gives instant pursuit to the rats making their escape from the wreck, absurdly thinking them the cause of the catastrophe. Here we cannot but condemn the style of cross-examination followed by Sir Francis Murphy towards Wright, as it was neither fair to him, nor dignified or fair to him on the part of the commissioner. It was, more than anything else, like that of a bullying counsel, feed to do his duty – not to evoke the truth, but to get a prisoner convicted. We know nothing of Wright personally, but we happen to be in possession of the opinions of others regarding him. He has been called a thorough bushman, and he has been pointed to as a proof that bushmanship and bushmen are alike to be sneered at, as even as worthless as new chums for the duties of exploring. The truth is, that Wright is reckoned on the Darling only a very indifferent rough kind of bushman, fit only for station duties in that respect; that he is a decent, honest sort of fellow, but has no headpiece to fit him for exploring. The history of his deeds, as third in command, fully proves that this estimate of him is correct; and the result of his examination under the brow beating of Sir Francis Murphy furnishes corroborative evidence in reference to his mental powers.

We have seen that on the 5th of November he returned to Menindie, and that on the same day Lyons arrived there with despatches, in pursuit of Burke. The despatches were from the Committee, and contained information about Stuart's success – information which Wright and every body at Menindie knew well that Burke had learned before ever he started from that place! With true official bungling, Lyons had been kept in proper ignorance that this was the only important fact to be communicated to Burke. The request that Lyons should deliver the despatches to Mr Burke in person seems to have been made by the Committee; and Lyons being himself a trooper, and knowing that the leader was nothing more, he was probably inspired with the notion that one trooper was as good as exploring as another, and thus became determined to rush into the desert. Here the bungling stupidity and incapacity of Wright became manifest. If Burke was to be overtaken at all, it was by the aid of camels. When Wright turned back from piloting Burke, on the 28th or 29th of October, the Expedition, as we have seen, had got 200 miles from Menindie towards Cooper's Creek; and although trooper Lyons arrived at Menindie on the 5th of November, he did not start after Burke till the 10th. We know that Burke arrived at Cooper's Creek on the 11th. The delay of Lyons at Menindie is thus accounted for by Wright, in his evidence before the commission, at its fifth meeting:- Dr Beckler and Mr Hodgkinson were out on the ranges with the horses. What did Wright do on their return? He actually took three of the horses with which he himself had gone 200 miles with Burke and 200 miles back to Menindie, and gave them to Lyons, to pursue after Burke! Nothing could be more misjudged than this. Wright says he had no other horses; and Dr Beckler states that "Wright expected that Burke would stop for about a week on a large lake on his route, not very distant from Duroodoo." Now, what may be gathered from these facts? Why, that Wright permitted or caused to be done what his judgement ought to have warned him against. What was the use of sending Lyons upon horses that must have already been knocked up? But, then, it appears from the same facts, that Wright had no other horses.

This fact, we think, taken in conjunction with the whole of Burke’s despatch from Torowoto, proves that it was the design of the leader that Wright should wait at Menindie til the committee should send an answer to the despatch. How, in the name of common sense, was Wright to do otherwise than wait til Burke sent back more horses and camels, to take on a proper supply of stores to Cooper’s Creek? It was thus that the committee would have had time to answer Burke’s despatch and Wright an opportunity for preserving meat. Under any other view of the case, is there the slightest intelligence displayed in Burke’s hoping that the committee would confirm the appointment of Wright, and that he might be allowed to follow out the instructions given to him?

After searching through all the evidence, we have failed to find out any reason for Burke’s leaving some of his stores and a number of his men at Menindie, of with the party left there still remained the necessary carrying power for subsequently taking on the stores. Then, again, those stores were actually to be increased in weight by the addition of preserved meat.

On the 19th December, things had come to a crisis. The Expedition was scattered in all directions. Burke and his party had gone from Cooper’s Creek. Brahe was sitting down there. Wright was at Menindie, and Dick (the black-fellow) then returned to Menindie, to say that trooper Lyons and Macpherson were 180 miles off dying of starvation.

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