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Chapter 17: The aftermath...

William Brahe left Howitt and the Burke Relief Expedition at Poria Creek in Queensland and raced to Melbourne with the news of Burke and Wills' death. The news caused uproar and overshadowed the excitement of the first Melbourne Cup which was run on Thursday 7th November 1861. The Exploration Committee met on Monday 4th November 1861 where Sir Henry Barkly, the Governor of Victoria suggested the Victorian Exploring Expedition be renamed 'The Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition.'

A Commission of Enquiry was established which sat in November and December 1861 and reported in January 1862. The Commissions' final report criticized Burke for dividing the party at Menindee and the Cooper, criticized Burke for employing Wright in a position of authority, criticized Burke for not keeping a journal or writing down his instructions, severely criticized Wright for not leaving Menindee earlier with the stores, stating :

The conduct of Mr Wright appears to have been reprehensible in the highest degree.

The report went on to criticize the Exploration Committee for its inaction in Melbourne when it suspected things were not going well. The Commission did not blame Brahe for leaving the Depot, rather it stated :

The conduct of Mr Brahe in retiring from his position at the depot before he was rejoined by his commander, or relieved from the Darling, may be deserving of considerable censure; but we are of opinion that a responsibility far beyond his expectations devolved upon him.he still held his post for four months and five days, and that only when pressed by the appeals of a comrade sickening, even to death, as was subsequently proved, his powers of endurance gave way, and he retired from the position. His decision was most unfortunate; but we believe he acted from a conscientious desire to discharge his duty, and we are confident that the painful reflection that twenty-four hours further perseverance, would have made him the rescuer of the explorers, and gained for himself the praise and approbation of all, must be of itself an agonising thought, without the addition of censure he might feel himself undeserving of.

Despite these criticisms, the Commission expressed its admiration of the brave and gallant effort by Burke, Wills and King, stating :

"We cannot too deeply deplore the lamentable result of an expedition, undertaken at so great a cost to the colony. We desire to express our admiration of his [Burke's] gallantry and daring as well as of the fidelity of his brave coadjutor, Mr Wills and their more fortunate and enduring associate Mr King."

The Legislative Assembly proposed a public funeral for Burke and Wills and a burial with a memorial in the Melbourne General Cemetery. The Exploration Committee resolved that Howitt be engaged to return the remains of Burke and Wills to Melbourne for the funeral. Howitt returned to the Cooper in 1862 and exhumed the bodies of Burke and Wills. He returned to Melbourne at the end of December 1862 and the bones were laid in state at the hall of the Royal Society of Victoria for two weeks. On Wednesday 21st January 1863, Victoria held its first state funeral, with a public holiday being declared and 60,000 people turning out for the procession. Burke and Wills were buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery and the inscription on the grave read :

In memory of
Robert O'Hara Burke
William John Wills

The first to cross the continent of Australia
Comrades in a Great Achievement
Companions in Death
And Associates in Renown

www.burkeandwills.net.au Burke & Wills Web The digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020, Dave Phoenix