Burke & Wills Web
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& the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860

Andrew Jackson
London: Smith, Elder & Co.
(Ferguson 10857)

Chapter 3

  • Formation of the Exploring Party.
  • Exploration Fund Committee.
  • Public Dinner to Mr Burke.

Mr Burke's appointment was immediately followed by the selection of the other members of the Expedition. Mr G.J. Landells, who had originally been entrusted with the importation of the camels, and who had carried out the duties confided to him in the most successful and satisfactory manner, was offered the post of second in command, with the view of securing the aid of his personal superintendence in the management of animals, which had been provided at great expense, and from which much was expected. One circumstance connected with this appointment speaks so strongly to the high feeling and utter abnegation of personal interests displayed by Mr Burke at this period, that it may be fitly mentioned here, to the honour of one of the most active and energetic men ever employed on an expedition of difficulty and danger. It is this: when Mr Landells' salary, which it was proposed to fix at a certain rate, was, on inquiry, found to be higher than that allotted to Mr Burke, the committee at once saw the necessity of augmenting the leader's salary to a greater, or, at least, equal amount. This, however, Mr Burke firmly declined: cordially supporting the proposition in favour of Mr Landells, he said that gentleman's services ought to be secured at his own price or not at all, and that he cared nothing for money himself. How far this frank and manly course operated in setting an example of subordination and forbearance to Mr Landells at a later period, when his adherence began to be of importance, will be seen from the sequel.

The third officer of the expedition was Mr William John Wills, of the Melbourne Observatory. This gentleman-whose patience, perseverance, and noble fidelity to his leader, never at any time forsook him, and whose name is immortalized as Burke's faithful companion in danger and in death-shares with his heroic chief the "honour of being the first to cross the Australian continent from sea to sea. He was born at Totness, Devonshire, in 1834, and, being destined for the medical profession, studied at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and distinguished himself as a student in chemistry. He arrived in Australia in 1852, where, after some years spent with his father in the practice of medicine, during which time he had displayed a taste for, and great ability in the study of, astronomy and meteorology, he was at length nominated to the staff of the Observatory in Melbourne. He applied to join the Expedition, which he did at considerable pecuniary sacrifice, and was at once appointed astronomical and meteorological observer, and third in command.

Doctor Hermann Beckler was appointed medical adviser, and botanist to the expedition. Doctor Ludwig Becker was also attached to it as artist, naturalist, and geological director.

The following were engaged as foremen and assistants in subordinate capacities:- Messrs. Ferguson and Hodgkinson, William Brahe, John King, William Patten, Charles Gray, Thomas F MacDonough, Dost Mohammed, a sepoy, and two natives, named respectively Belooch and Botan : there were fifteen persons in all.

The original committee, which at first belonged exclusively to the Royal Society of Victoria, had latterly become amalgamated with another body, selected at a public meeting for the purpose of raising subscriptions, under the name of the "Exploration Fund Committee" These two, when united, took charge, with the consent of the Government, of all subsequent proceedings, and were presided over by the Hon. Sir William F Stawell, Chief Justice of the colony, as Chairman. The other members were:-

The Hon. John Hodgson, MGC, Vice-Chairman;
Mr Ligar, the Surveyor General;
Mr Hodgkinson, the Deputy Surveyor General;
Professor MrCoy; Professor Neumayer;
Dr Mueller;
Captain Cadell; Mr Selwyn;
Rev Mr Bleasdale;
Dr Gillbee;
Dr Eades;
John Watson, Esq;
Angus McMillan, Esq;
Dr Iffla;
Sizar Elliott, Esq;
Dr Mackenna;
James Smyth, Esq;
Dr Embling.
The Hon Dr Wilkie, Treasurer; and
the Hon Dr McAdam, MP, as Secretary.

These gentlemen, having completed the appointment of the different officers of the expedition, &c, lost no, time in providing the necessary stores and means of transport; and several members of the committee, among whom was Sir William Stawell, assisted Mr Burke in the selection of the various matters necessary to be provided for that purpose. Large quantities of dried meat, flour, biscuit, sugar, forage for the camels and horses, as well as an abundant supply of veterinary and other medicines, were supplied, to the value of nearly ₤5,000; these were calculated to last for twelve months, and were not intended to be trenched upon while the party remained within the bounds of civilization. Nothing that the most anxious care could suggest, to provide for the comfort and safety of the explorers, was omitted; and the most competent authorities in every branch of scientific inquiry, regardless of time and trouble, vied with each other in exerting themselves to give all the assistance and information possible, so as to render the expedition which Mr Burke commanded one of the best equipped bodies that had ever been organized for such a purpose.

The astounding and heart-rending fact that these abundant stores were withheld from the bravest spirits of the party in their hour of greatest need, and the name of the individual responsible for the fatal neglect, will appear in its proper place hereafter, to the shame and everlasting disgrace of the unhappy man who accepted and betrayed his leader's sacred trust. Mr Burke did not leave the scene of his previous duties without receiving from the inhabitants of Castlemaine abundant proofs of their attachment to him, as well as of the ,high estimation in which his services were held. On Friday, July 6th, 1860, a large and influential assemblage sat down to a public dinner given in his honour, at which it was found impossible to furnish room for all the persons who wished to attend to bid their guest a kind farewell and wish him God speed. To assist in preserving the record of scenes which have acquired a mournful interest from Mr Burke's sad fate, a brief account of what then took place is here transcribed, with a summary of some of the speeches delivered by the principal speakers on the occasion.

The chair was filled by William Froomes, Esq, president of the Municipal Council. W B Collyns, Esq, and Dr Preshaw officiated as croupiers; and all classes of the community were ably represented by men most anxious to give expression to the unbounded enthusiasm which prevailed. After the usual loyal toasts had been given and responded to, the Chairman rose to propose the toast of the evening. He remarked upon the cordial demeanour, urbane and frank manner, and numerous sterling qualities of their honoured guest, and bore testimony to the humanity and discrimination with which he had performed many unostentatious acts of kindness while stationed among them. In thus giving expression to the sentiments of all, it became his duty publicly to assure Mr Burke that, in his glorious undertaking as leader of the explorers, the prayers and best wishes of a thousand hearts would follow and accompany him ; and that, while they regretted the loss they suffered in being deprived of his presence there, they yet felt a pride in the reflection that the man who they believed was destined to penetrate and explore the pathless wilds of Central Australia had some time lived among them, and would at some future period remember, perhaps with pleasure, the parting hours he had spent with his friends that day.

The Rev J Storie also rose to say a few words. A brave man whom they all esteemed was going forth on an enterprise of national importance and great peril, and they had met to wish him with all their hearts "God speed." If there really existed within their great continent a Sahara-a desert of sands, parent of hot winds-they should like to know the fact. If great lakes, on whose verdant banks thousands of cattle might feed, or watered plains which might tempt men to build new cities, let them know the character and promise of the land, by the true report of a true man. As in the ancient days of Bible story brave men were sent to view the Land of Promise, so a gallant band now quitted them on a like errand, and he might assure his guest that while his best wishes accompanied him, he could also promise that his party would be followed by the prayers of one congregation at least, who would remember him before the throne of grace, and pray that he and his brave companions might be preserved from all peril, and having prospered in their enterprise, might come back, safe and triumphant, to be crowned with laurels by a grateful country. Last of all, the meeting was eloquently addressed by Mr Leech. He reviewed the history of exploration from the earliest times. He recognized in the energy of the Anglo-Saxon character a means made use of by Providence to bestow the blessings of civilization on millions of the human race. He pictured the rise and progress of future states within their vast continent, and trusted that the day would come when men of future generations, teaching their children, would say, " My son, the country in which we live was first opened to us by Robert O'Hara Burke." When Mr Burke rose to respond, some time elapsed before the enthusiasm of his admirers would allow him to make himself heard. He said he was about to make his first speech. He felt deeply the warm sympathy and hearty expressions of good-will with which he had that evening been honoured, and knew it was unnecessary for him to say how he appreciated the kind and generous feeling which led those present to encourage a man who found himself appointed to an arduous and difficult position. He had used every fair, honourable, and straightforward means to secure his post. Like all other men under similar circumstances, he had had his detractors, but he hoped that his future conduct would be to these a sufficient answer. With heartiest thanks to all who had been kind to him and to the people of Castlemaine particularly, he would cheerfully encounter his task, and he pledged himself to strain every nerve to bring the expedition to a successful issue. And nobly he redeemed his pledge.

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