Burke & Wills Web
The online digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020

Minutes of Evidence: Day 1

Report of the commissioners appointed to enquire into and report upon the circumstances connected with the sufferings and death of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills.
Melbourne: John Ferres, Government Printer.
Parliamentary papers, No 97, 1861-2. 1862.

Friday, 22nd November 1861.

All members of the Commission were present:

  • The Honorable Sir T. S. Pratt, K.C.B., in the Chair.
  • The Honorable the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly [Sir Frances Murphy MP].
  • The Honorable the Acting President of the Legislative Council [Matthew Hervey MLC].
  • The Honorable J. F. Sullivan, Esq, MP.
  • Evelyn P. S. Sturt, Esq.

Acting Secretary:

  • Mr Dumas, Assistant Clerk of the Legislative Assembly.

The meeting commenced at noon in the large committee room adjoining the Legislative Council Chamber. Sir Thomas Pratt was appointed chairman. Mr Dumas, the Assistant Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, was appointed Secretary for the duration of this meeting.

The Chairman, Sir Thomas Pratt noted the press were present at the Enquiry and trusted they would forbear commenting on the evidence which might be taken from day to day, until such time as it was completed.

Dr Macadam was present to present the books and papers on behalf of the Royal Society of Victoria and Mr Brahe, Mr Haverfield and Dr Wills were also in attendance.

The Honorable John Macadam, Esq., M.D., M.P., examined.

Q1. [Pratt] The Commission wish to be furnished with a statement of the party started up by the Exploration Committee, the instructions given by the committee to them and the supplies with which they were furnished on leaving ? - I have been deputed by the Exploration Committee to bring all the papers connected with the progress of the expedition and to submit them to the Commission for full investigation. I will hand in a list of the parties sent out ant the positions they occupied and a copy of the agreement made with them and the instructions given to them. Robert O'Hara Burke, Esq. was the leader, Mr Landells was second in command Mr Wills was the astronomer and surveyor, Dr. Beckler was medical officer and botanist Dr Becker was artist, naturalist and also undertook to conduct the geological observations, Mr Ferguson was foreman, and there were nine persons besides in the position of subordinates. The names of those persons with their salaries attached will be found in the agreement which will be placed before the Commission. The instructions which were given were regulated according to the duties of the officers of the party. Copies of the instructions to astronomical observer and to the geological observer and to the botanist will also be laid before the Commission. I may state that these were drawn up by committees consisting of gentlemen apparently in every way suited to draw up such instructions as would prove of the greatest public benefit from the observations made. The astronomical part was left to Professor Neumayer, the natural history and botany to Dr Mueller, Professor McCoy, and others, and everything was done to ensure a safe transmission to the committee of all the observations made. Those observations were received at different times, as the books will show, and were taken every care of, and when they required any further examination or calculations, as in the case of Mr wills' notes, the notes were transmitted to the observatory and a person employed so as to make up the calculations and mark out the camps as to their precise positions. The instructions which were sent to Mr Burke I may perhaps be permitted to read at this stage.

(The same was read by the witness. - Vide Appendix A). [Macadam read the instructions given to Burke.] - Those are the main instructions.

Q2. [Pratt] Leaving him a very wide discretion apparently ? -A very wide discretion, and indeed previously to the issue of those instructions, the committee decided to leave Burke entirely to his own discretion when he left Cooper's Creek.

Q3. [Pratt] Is that on record ?-I believe it is on the minutes.

Q4. [Pratt] Will you furnish that to the Commission ? -Perhaps I may leave the examination of the minutes at this stage as they are handed in; I can recur [sic] to them again.

Q5. [Murphy] Were those instructions given in writings ? -Yes.

Q6. Were they in duplicate ? -Yes; and since that copies have been given to the commanders of the several expeditions which went out. There is one point which I would notice here, that the committee distinctly set forth in the instructions themselves, that Mr Burke could make arrangements for keeping open communications in the rear to the Darling if in his opinion advisable, and hence to Melbourne, so that the committee might receive intelligence; and I may quote from a despatch of Mr Burke's which will show the Commission that Mr Burke recognised this responsibility in a letter written from Menindie; in his letter to the committee, dated the 16th October,1860, at Menindie, he says, "It is my intention to form a depot on this river, somewhere in this neighbourhood, and to proceed on towards Cooper's Creek with a small party by a route which will be shown to me by Mr Wright, manager for Mr Baker, and which I have every reason to believe is quite practicable, but I shall not incur any risk, and I shall keep open the communication to the Darling." That is the last despatch to us before he left Menindie.

Q7. [Sturt] Have you any subsequent letters from him ? -We had one from Torowoto, halfway to Cooper's Creek, which was sent back by Mr Wright; that is dated the 29th of October.

Q8. [Sullivan] Have you the whole of Mr Burke's correspondence ? -Yes.

Q9. Will those papers be handed in to the Commission ? -Yes, everything. There is a later despatch dated Torowoto Creek 29th October, 1860, when he was about to start, giving the particulars and the names of the men. He says "Mr Wright returns from here to Menindie. I have appointed him as third officer of the expedition, subject to the approval of the committee, from the day of our departure from Menindie, and I hope they will confirm the appointment. In the meantime I have instructed him to follow me up with the remainder of the camels," and so on. It will be seen by this quotation that Mr Wright was an officer selected entirely by Mr Burke, that he had every confidence in him, and the committee afterwards ratified his appointment.

[Murphy suggested it would be better to proceed in a more formal manner by handing in a list of the party and provisions and stores and then all the correspondence.]

Q10. [Murphy] Would you, after you have read the instructions, hand into the Commission a list of the supplies with which the party started ?-I now hand in the list of stores, horses, and equipments, taken from the Government Storekeeper's books. [The witness delivered in the same - Vide Appendix C.] I may state the committee did not purchase these articles themselves, but all the articles necessary for the expedition were first of all mainly suggested by Mr Burke, approved of by the committee of the society appointed for the purpose, afterwards submitted to the approval of the Honorable the Chief Secretary, and then passed on to the Government Storekeeper, who supplied the articles and furnished us afterwards with the account.

Q11. These are the whole of the things supplied to the expedition at starting ?-Yes, except scientific instruments, &c.

Q12. Was the quantity of provisions fixed for a certain time ?-Yes, it was arranged that the amount of provisions should be capable of supporting the whole party for eighteen months.

Q13. The whole party, men, horses, and cattle of all kinds ?-Yes.

Q14. [Sturt] Had you any correspondence from Mr Wright when he was at Menindie ?-Yes. I may state that though the provisions were calculated to last eighteen months yet it was supposed that by care they might last for two years.

Q15. [Sturt] Does Mr Wright in his correspondence show the quantity of supplies he had at Menindie after Mr Burke had left?-I think not. We have no list of the stores left by Mr Burke at Menindie but we had afterwards a list in this book of the stores brought back by Mr Wright from Cooper's Creek, as well as those left by Mr Burke

Q16. [Murphy] Then in this book are all the stores supplied to the expedition when it started from Melbourne ?-Not only the whole of the stores supplied to the expedition when they started from Melbourne but also the amount of stores found by Mr Howitt at Menindie when he started. The total expenditure for stores, &c., was £4,585/2s./10d.; that included wagons and equipment generally.

Q17. [Pratt] Did not Mr Burke detail to the committee what he had done with those stores and the quantity he left behind at Menindie when he started from there ?-I am not aware that Mr Burke left any detailed account of the stores left at Menindie.

Q18. [Sturt] Did Mr Wright have occasion to send Mr Hodgkinson down to Melbourne, pointing out that fresh supplies and sheep would be required ?-Yes, in his despatch received per Mr Hodgkinson, who arrived on the 30th December, he pointed out the desirability of having an additional supply of horses and about 150 sheep, which he intended to drive on to Cooper's Creek. I may mention that this was received by the committee on the 30th, a meeting was held on the 31st, and within the following two days Mr Hodgkinson was despatched, not only with the £250 for horses and sheep asked for by Mr wright, but £150 more (in all £400), with further authority to expend anything that was deemed necessary.

Q19. That appears in the minutes ?-Yes. Mr Wright was taken on by Mr Burke on the 19th October; on the 29th he arrived at Torowoto, which is about 200 miles from Menindie. Then Mr Burke gave instructions to Mr Wright to return and to bring up the stores as rapidly is possible to Cooper's Creek. Mr wright left Torowoto as I understand on the 31st October, but the first despatch I had from him at Menindie is dated the 19th December. How he occupied himself between those two dates does not appear, considering he had gone up in eight days, and there is a difference here of a month and nineteen days on the return journey, presuming he wrote this despatch the moment he reached Menindie.

Q20. Is this correspondence numbered ?-They are not numbered, but they are all put up and marked distinctly, the numbers are placed upon them as regards each particular letter.

Q21. [Sturt] Had you any letters from Mr Brahe ?-There is just Mr Brahe's report given to us, drawn up by him in town here, but Mr Brahe came on from Cooper's Creek to Menindie after joining Mr Wright at Bulla, and then came on by himself to town.

Q22. [Sullivan & Murphy] Then there was no correspondent with the committee but Mr Burke; until Mr Burke finally left he was the only correspondent of the committee ?-We had afterwards correspondence with Mr Wright and personal interviews with Mr Brahe who came back on one occasion, and Mr Hodgkinson who came back on another.

Q23. Until the time that Mr Burke finally ceased corresponding, did you have any correspondence with any other member of the expedition ? -No, with the exception of his last letters from Cooper's Creek.

Q24. Were the communications with Mr Hodgkinson, when he returned, personal, or was there any written correspondence ?-No; he only brought Mr Wright's letter.

Q25. Have you any minutes of Mr Hodgkinson's communications with the committee ?- No; Mr Hodgkinson himself made a statement which appeared in the press afterwards.

Q26. [Pratt] Did it come to your knowledge as secretary, that Mr Burke expressed the strongest desire to the committee to be left untrammelled by instructions ?-No, not particularly; because Mr Burke understood that from Cooper's Creek he was to consider himself free; that was the general understanding.

Q27. [Sturt] Did the committee give Mr Burke any instructions as to forming a depot at Cooper's Creek ?-Nothing further than in the general instructions.

Q28. Those were definite instructions for the formation of a depot at Cooper's Creek ?- Yes; it says "The committee invest you with the largest discretion as far as the forming of depot s and other camps generally."

Q29. Which depot seems not to have been formed ?- There was a depot formed at Cooper's Creek, and left in charge of a portion of the party.

Q30. [Hervey] Is there any correspondence or interview recorded with Mr Landells ?- There is a letter from Mr Landells when he arrived here with an account of certain unpleasant circumstances which had transpired between Mr Landells and Mr Burke, and some difference of opinion as to the management of the camels and so on, but nothing appertaining at all to direction as regards route.

Q31. Will you formally hand in the letters and documents ?- Mr Landells report forms one of the letters. - The witness handed in the following documents, viz:- Instructions and Minutes of the Committee.

1. A List of the Supplies furnished.
2. Correspondence and Despatches of Mr Burke
3. Mr Wright's Diary.
4. Despatches from Dr Becker.
5. Dr Beckler's Statement in relation to his resignation.
6. Meteorological Notes by Dr Becker.
7. Letters from Dr Becker.
8. Mr Hodgkinson's Statement in reference to Mr Landells.
9. Dr Becker's Diary up to 14th November [1860].
10. Letter of Mr Wills to Professor Neumayer, in reference to Mr Landells resignation.
11. Correspondence relating to the purchase of horses by Mr Wright.
12. Despatch from Mr Howitt from Pamamoroo Creek.
13. Diary of Mr howitt from 1st September to 9th October 1861.
14. Mr Howitt's Despatches.
15. Despatches from Captain Mayne, the Auditor-General in Sydney.
16. Despatches from Mr Knowles, left by Mr Howitt in charge of the Menindie depot .
17. Mr Landells' Report in reference to his resignation.
18. Mr Wright's second Despatch.
19. Mr Hodgkinson's Statement with reference to the depot at Menindie.
20. Despatches containing the particulars of the return journey of Mr wright
21. Mr Howitt's further Despatches, received 31st October [1861] and 4th November [1861].
22. Narrative of John King.
23. Mr William Brahe's Report.
24. Despatches from Captain Norman from Brisbane, received 26th August [1861].
25. Further Despatches from Brisbane from Captain Norman, received on 7th September [1861].
26. Agreement for conveyance of coals to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
27. Notes of Plants by Dr Beckler (three papers).
28. Further Despatches from Captain Mayne in reference to Rockhampton Expedition.
29. Mr Wills' Reports up to 15th December [1860], at Cooper's Creek.
30. The Charter-party in reference to the Firefly, for conveying men, horses, and stores from Brisbane to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
31. Copy of a Letter from Sir Henry Barkly to Sir George Bowen, with reference to the fitting out of the Expedition from Queensland.
32. Report of Dr Beckler, the Health Officer to the Expedition.
33. Dr Becker's Despatches and Diaries.
34. Original list of horses supplied to Mr Wright at Menindie.
35. Documents referring to expenses at Menindie.

Q32. [Murphy] What men of the original party are available for examination if the Commission were desirous of examining them ?-You have Mr King, who is on his way to Swan Hill at present, and may be expected here on Monday. Mr Brahe is also here. Mr Wright I have telegraphed for to South Australia.

Q33. He was not one of the original party ?-No; he was originally from Menindie. Mr McDonough who was one of Mr Brahe's party from Cooper's Creek, and is now in town waiting lest he should be required. There is also Dost Mahommed, a sepoy, at Menindie at present; Mr Hodgkinson's evidence would have been important, but he is now with Mr McKinlay's party.

[Pratt asked of Dost Mahomet "Does he speak English or is it difficult to make him comprehend what is meant?" Brahe said it was difficult to make him understand in English what was meant. He spoke Hindostanee. He was at Menindie at the moment.]

Q34. [Pratt] Where is Dr Beckler ?-I cannot say. I believe he can be reached [through Dr Mueller]. [Dr Wills thought Dr Beckler was with Professor Neumayer, somewhere near the Murray. He had that morning seen a letter from Professor Neumayer.] Macadam - Those are all the persons who went on with the expedition to any extent. There is another man, Smith, at Menindie, who was with Mr Wright's original party; he is now attached I think to Mr Howitt's party.

[Hervey asked whether the maps placed on the table were for the use of the Commission? Macadam replied 'Certainly, but the surveyor-general would provide them with a new and complete map embracing Wills' last notes'.]

Q35. King, Brahe, McDonough, Beckler, and Hodgkinson, were the original party of Mr Burke ?-Yes

Q36. Then of Mr Wright's party who remained behind, we have Doctor Beckler and Mr Hodgkinson ?-Yes.

Q37. And Mr Smith, who is at Menindie now ?-Yes. I would wish to put in a copy of the last manuscript account by Mr Brahe, and also Mr King's narrative, and Mr Wills' notes, transcribed by the committee appointed for the purpose.-[The witness delivered the same.]-I would wish to make one statement; I have already spoken of the rapidity and despatch on the part of the committee in providing the required supplies for Mr Wright The next visit we had from a member of the party was after the disastrous result winch occurred under Mr Wright when Mr Brahe came to town; he arrived on the Sunday morning at half-past eight; the committee met that afternoon, and in four days afterwards Mr Howitt's party was strengthened and despatched, and I think it only a matter of justice to the committee, to state that Mr howitt was in the field with his party to ascertain the reason why we had no information before Mr Brahe arrived in town with the news. He met Mr Brahe, I think on this side Swan Hill; Mr Howitt returned with him, and the party was increased and strengthened in order to meet the additional necessities of the case. The date on which the committee first considered the propriety of sending on a party lest anything should be wrong, because previously to that they had rested on the assurance that the communication would be kept open, was on the 13th of June; Mr Brahe arrived on the 30th June, but Mr Howitt's party was in the field on the 26th of June. Finally Mr Howitt left for good on the 4th of July. I mention these dates to show that no loss of time occurred.

Q38. Would you furnish to the Commission that information on a precis for the use of the Commission ?-I will furnish a list of dates for the use of the Commission. Then the notion of sending a steamer to the North was entertained by the committee on the 24th of June, before the news came by Mr Brahe; but, as the members of the Commission may be aware, that vessel, although finally decided upon to go (or at all events, the proposition to the Government was made), was under repairs, and could not be despatched for some three weeks. There is only one other circumstance which I would state - that Mr Burke, from the evidence, must just have been dying when Mr Brahe was on his way between Sandhurst and this. I was also going to remark that Mr wright wrote to the committee on the 19th of December from Menindie. He left Menindie for Cooper's Creek on the 26th of January; he arrived at Bulla 70 miles from Cooper's Creek, on the 4th of April; he was at Bulla on the 4th of April, 70 miles from Cooper's Creek; Mr Burke arrived there on the 21st, and then Mr Wright had a most ample supply of provisions of all kinds, including, as one article, twenty packages of preserved vegetables: he had flour, rice, pickles, and everything that could have conduced to the prosperity of the party, and those were, for the most part, brought back to Menindie afterwards. On the 29th of April he met Mr Brahe coming back from the creek, eight days after Mr Burke's arrival, and he reached the Darling on the 18th of June.

[Pratt said it would be desirable for Macadam to hand in the statement he had just made in writing to be placed with the other statements.]

Q39. In the documents that we have shall we find the quantity of provisions taken on by Mr Burke, and the quantity of provisions taken on by Mr Wright, and the quantity of provisions still left at Menindie as yet undisposed of ?-We have no official information of the amount of provision taken on by Mr Burke: he thought he would not wait for the total supply, and took a certain portion and carried it on. We have an account of the stores he took with him from Cooper's Creek with his party of four, and the amount left by Mr Brahe; but if Mr Hodgkinson can be found out, as he was acting as storeman at Menindie, I have no doubt he will be able to give information upon the subject of stores.

The witness withdrew.
Adjourned to Wednesday next [27 November 1861], at one o'clock.

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