Burke & Wills Web
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& the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860

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

Chapter 16

  • Report of the Royal Commission.
  • Despatch from the Government of Victoria.
  • Reply of the Duke of Newcastle.


By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith.   

To our trusty and well-beloved The Honourable Sir Thomas Simeon Pratt, K.O.B., The Honourable Sir Francis Murphy, Speaker of our Legislative Assembly, The Honourable Matthew Hervey, MP, The Honourable James Forester Sullivan, MP and Evelyn Pitfield Shirley Sturt, Esquire, all of Melbourne, in the Colony of Victoria, Greeting. 

Whereas the Governor of our Colony of Victoria, with the advice of the Executive Council thereof, has deemed it expedient that a Commission should forthwith issue for the purpose of inquiring into all the circumstances connected with the sufferings and deaths of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, the Victorian Explorers: and Whereas it is desirable to ascertain the true causes of this lamentable result of the Expedition to the said Robert O'Hara Burke and his companions; and especially to investigate the circumstances under which the depot at Cooper's Creek was abandoned by William Brahe and his party on the twenty-first day of April last; and to determine upon whom rests the grave responsibility of there not having been a sufficient  supply of provisions and clothing secured for the recruiting of the Explorers on their return, and for their support until  they could reach the- settlements; and generally to inquire  into the, organisation and conduct of the Expedition: also, with regard to the claims upon the Colony of the surviving  members thereof, and of the relatives (if any) of the deceased  members.  Now know ye that we, reposing great trust and  confidence in your integrity, knowledge, and ability, have  authorised and appointed, and by these presents do authorise  and appoint you, Sir Thomas Simeon Pratt, Sir Francis Murphy,  Matthew Hervey, James Forster Sullivan, and Evelyn Pitfield Shirley Sturt, to be Commissioners for the purpose aforesaid :  and for the better effecting the purpose of this Commission, we  do give and grant you power and authority to call before  you such persons as you shall judge likely to afford you any  information upon the subject of this Commission : and to in-  quire of and concerning the premises by all other lawful means and ways whatsoever and this Commission shall continue in  full force and virtue; and you the said Commissioners may,  from time to time, and at every place or places, proceed in  the execution thereof, and of every matter or thing therein  contained, although the inquiry be not regularly continued  from time to time by adjournment: and lastly, that you do  report, as occasion may require, for the information of our  Governor of our said Colony, under your bands and seals, all  matters and things elicited by you during the inquiry under  this Commission.        

Witness our trusty and well beloved Sir Henry Barkly, Knight Commander of the Most Noble Order of the Bath, Captain-General, and Governor-in-Chief of our Colony of Victoria, and     Vice-Admiral of the same, at Melbourne, this twelfth day of November, One thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, and in the twenty-fifth year of our Reign.

Henry Barkly
By His Excellency's command,
(Signed)   R Heales         


To His Excellency Sir Henry Barkly, Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the Colony of Victoria, and Vice-Admiral of the same, &c., &c.

May it please Your Excellency:

In conformity with the term of Her Majesty's commission, we have made inquiry into the circumstances connected with the suffering and death of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, the Victorian explorers.

We have endeavoured to ascertain the true causes of this lamentable result of the expedition, and have investigated the circumstances under which the depot at Cooper's Creek was abandoned by Mr William Brahe. We have sought to determine upon whom rests the grave responsibility of there not having been a sufficient supply of provisions and clothing secured for the recruiting of the explorers on their return, and for their support until they could reach the settlements; and we have generally inquired into the organisation and conduct of the expedition.

Our investigations have been confined to the above matters, the Government having- already taken into consideration the claims on the colony of the surviving members of the expedition, &c.

We have examined all persons willing to give evidence who professed, or whom we supposed to possess, knowledge upon the various subjects of our inquiries and we now, after mature consideration, submit to your Excellency the following Report:

The expedition, having been provided and equipped in the most ample and liberal manner, and having reached Menindie, on the Darling, without experiencing any difficulties, was most injudiciously divided at that point by Mr Burke. It was ain error of judgment on the part of Mr Burke to appoint Mr Wright to an important command in the expedition, without a previous personal knowledge of him; although, doubtless, a pressing urgency had arisen for the appointment, from the sudden resignations of Mr Landells and Dr Beckler. Mr Burke evinced a far greater amount of zeal than prudence in finally departing from Cooper's Creek before the depot party had arrived from Menindie, and without having secured, communication with the settled districts as he had been instructed to do; and, in undertaking so extended a journey with an insufficient supply of provisions, Mr Burke was forced into the necessity of overtaxing the powers of his party, whose continuous and unremitting exertions resulted in the destruction of his animals, and the prostration of himself  and his companions from fatigue and severe privation. The conduct of Mr Wright appears to have been reprehensible in the highest degree. It is clear that Mr Burke, on parting with him at Torowoto, relied on receiving his immediate and zealous support; and it seems extremely improbable that Mr Wright could have misconstrued the intentions of his leader so far, as to suppose that he ever calculated for a moment on his remaining for any length of time on the Darling, Mr Wright has failed to give any satisfactory explanation of the causes of his delay; and to that delay are mainly attributable the whole of the disasters of the expedition, with the exception of the death of Gray. The grave responsibility of not having left a larger supply of provisions, together with some clothing, in the cache, at Cooper's Creek, rests with Mr Wright. Even had he been unable to convey stores to Cooper's Creek, he might have left them elsewhere, leaving a notice at the depot of his having done so. The Exploration Committee, in overlooking the importance of the contents of Mr Burke's dispatch from Torowoto, and in not urging Mr Wright's departure from the Darling, committed errors of a serious nature. A means of knowledge of the delay of the party at Menindie was in the possession of the Committee, not indeed by direct communication to that effect, but through the receipt of letters from Drs. Becker and Beckler at various dates up to the end of November, without, however, awakening the Committee to a sense of the vital importance of Mr Burke's request in that dispatch that he should 'be soon followed up', -or to a consideration of the disastrous consequences which would be likely to result and  did unfortunately result, from the fatal inactivity and idling  of Mr Wright and his party on the Darling.     

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; and it must be borne in mind, that, with the assurance of his leader, and his own conviction he might each day expect to be relieved by Mr Wright, 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 which  could alone afford succour to the weary explorers should they  return by that route. 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. It does not appear that Mr Burke kept any regular journal, or that he gave written instructions to his officers. Had he performed any of these essential portions of the duties of a leader, many of the calamites of the expedition might have been averted, and little or no room would have been left for doubt in judging the conduct of those subordinates who pleaded unsatisfactory and contradictory verbal orders and statements.

We cannot too deeply deplore the lamentable result of an expedition, undertaken at so great a cost to the colony; but while we regret the absence of a systematic plan of operations on the part of the leader, we desire to express our admiration of his gallantry and daring as well as of the fidelity of his brave coadjutor, Mr Wills and their more fortunate and enduring associate Mr King; and we would record our feelings of deep sympathy with the deplorable sufferings and untimely deaths of Mr Burke and his fallen comrades.

T S Pratt, Matthew Hervey, E P S Sturt, Francis Murphy, J F Sullivan. 1861

Copy of a Despatch from Governor Sir H Barkly, KCB, to his Grace the Duke of Newcastle, KG (No. 92.)

Government Office, Melbourne, November 20, 1861.

My Lord Duke,
The mystery in which the fate of the Victorian Exploring Expedition was shrouded when I lately alluded to it, was soon afterwards dispelled on the arrival of Mr Brahe from the relief party, under Mr Howitt, with intelligence that King, the sole survivor, had been found living among the natives on Cooper's Creek, his companions Burke, Wills, and Gray, having perished from exhaustion on retuning from the Gulf of Carpentaria, which it now appears they reached in safety in the month of February last.

How thoroughly indeed the gallant band accomplished their perilous mission will be seen from the journals and charts of their leaders, which are fortunately preserved to us, and serve incontestably to prove, that, without distracting from the credit due to M'Douall Stuart, whose route was unknown to them and far distant from that they followed, to Burke and Wills exclusively belongs the honour of first crossing the Australian Continent from sea to sea! The details of their discoveries, and of their sufferings, will be best learned from the simple and touching narrative which poor Wills left behind him, coupled with the statement of King, which has been taken down by Mr Howitt; but l will continue for your Grace's information the brief sketch of the history of the Expedition, begun in my Despatch of 20th July, No. 64.

I then mentioned that Mr Burke had quitted the depot on Cooper's Creek on the 16th December last with half his party, leaving the other half there under Mr Brahe, whom he promoted to the rank of petty officer on the occasion, but with the expectation that the command would almost immediately be assumed by Mr Wright, whom he had directed to join him m soon as possible with the stores left behind at the Darling; and I described how Mr Brahe, after waiting beyond the time Mr Burke had anticipated being absent, and hearing nothing either of his or Wright's party, abandoned the depot on the afternoon of the 21st April, first burying such provisions an he could spare, after retaining enough to carry him to the Darling.

It now appears that on the evening of that very day, by a strange fatality which seems thenceforth to have prevailed to the end, Burke, Wills, and King (Gray having died four days before), reached the depot, in far too weak and exhausted a state to follow the retreating party with the slightest hope of overtaking them, though that night they slept only fourteen miles off!

They found the food that had been left for them; and, after remaining sorne days to recruit, resolved, most unfortunately, instead of returning the way they had come, to try and reach the out-settlements of South Australia, not above 150 miles distant. Had they taken the route to Menindie, they would have almost immediately met Mr Wright's advancing party, which had been delayed by causes already related.

Depositing a letter, therefore, to this effect in a bottle, which they replaced in the ‘cache', but again by fatal mischance neglecting to alter the inscription which Mr Brahe had left on an adjacent tree, or to leave any outward sign of their visit, they started on a south-west course; but misfortune pursued their steps; one of the two camels which survived got bogged inextricably, and the other became so weak that they thought it best to kill it for food; and, after wandering on till their limbs could carry them no farther, they decided to return, at a point where, though they knew it not, scarce fifty miles remained to be accomplished, and just as Mount Hopeless would have appeared above the horizon, had they continued their route, for even another day.

Meanwhile, Brahe, as described in my previous despatch, revisited the depot in company with Wright, whom he had met some days after leaving it; but, perceiving no change, they, as a climax to this sad chapter of accidents, resumed their final journey to the Darling without opening the cache, or discovering the letter which Burke had substituted for theirs in the bottle!

Thus left to perish in the wilderness, the hapless explorers determined as a last resource to seek succour from the aborigines, whom they had at first viewed with suspicion. This was freely and generously afforded, so far as it was in their power to give it; but the season was now mid-winter, the clothes of the unfortunates were in rags, and the scanty diet of fish and ‘nardoo' (the spores of a species of marsillea which the natives make into bread) was too unnutritious to restore frames weakened by previous over-exertion and want of nourishment, and with minds depressed by disappointment and despair, both Burke and Wills gradually sank under their privations, dying about the end of June, whilst we in Melbourne were still ignorant of the abandonment of the depot, as well as of the obstacles which so long delayed Mr Wright's arrival at it.

So fell two as gallant spirits as ever sacrificed life for the extension of science, or the cause of mankind! Both were in their prime; both resigned comfort and competency to embark in an enterprise by which they hoped to render their names glorious; both died without a murmur, evincing their loyalty and devotion to their country to the last.

Robert O'Hara Burke, born in 1821, was the second son of James Hardiman Burke, of St. Clerans, County Galway, an estate now possessed by the eldest son, Major Burke, late 88th Regiment. The youngest son, Lieutenant Burke, RE, fell at the passage of the Danube in July, 1854, pierced by no less than thirty-three wounds.

Robert, like him, commenced his career as a cadet of the Woolwich Academy, but left at an early age to enter a regiment of Hungarian Hussars in the Austrian service. When this was disbanded in 1848, he obtained an appointment in the Irish Constabulary, which he, in 1853, exchanged for the police force of this colony, of which he was at once made an inspector. On the news of the Crimean war, however, he hastened home on leave of absence in hopes of getting a commission, but finding himself too late to share the glories of the campaign, returned to resume his duties here, in the discharge of which he rendered himself most popular at some of the chief gold-fields towns. When the Exploring Expedition was resolved on, his love of adventure and thirst for distinction led him to apply for the command, and in the interval which elapsed before the Exploration Committee decided in his favour, he devoted himself with his habitual energy to qualifying himself for such a post in every possible way.

William John Wills was born at Totness, Devonshire, where his father practised medicine, in 1834, and, being destined for the same profession, entered at St. Bartholomew's, and distinguished himself, especially as student in chemistry. In 1852 the news of the gold discoveries induced him to try his fortune in this colony, and he settled at Ballarat, where he was subsequently joined by his family, and continued to assist his father for several years. His taste, however, had always been for astronomy and meteorology, and he passed all his leisure hours at the office of Mr Taylor, the head of the Crown Lands Survey in that district, where he gave such proofs of ability as to be put in charge of a field party. Here he soon attracted the notice of the Surveyor-General, Mr Ligar, and on the establishment of a magnetic and meteorological observatory in Melbourne, under Professor Neumayer, he was attached specially to the staff, where he remained until selected for the post of observer and surveyor to the Exploring Expedition, with which his name will ever be indelibly associated. He, too, is not the first of his family to lay down his life for his county; his cousin, Lieutenant Le Viscomte, Dr Wills' sister's son, having accompanied Sir John Franklin in the Erebus on the Arctic Expedition.

Gray, it may here be added, who died of exhaustion on his way back from Carpentaria, was originally a seafaring man, whom Mr Burke enlisted on the Darling; whilst John King, who alone lives to tell the tale, and may be expected in Melbourne shortly, was formally a soldier, who, it is stated, came to this colony on obtaining his discharge from some regiment in India.

How far the sufferings of these devoted men arose from preventable causes, and in what degree any person or persons are to blame for the disastrous termination of a scheme, apparently so carefully devised, and which up to a certain point was eminently successful, are questions still to be determined, and regarding which I express no opinion, because a Commission has been appointed by this Government to investigate the whole matter.

The liveliest sympathy was manifested by the entire community on receipt of the glorious though disastrous news, both Houses of Parliament passing resolutions expressive of profound regret at the death of the Explorers, and of an earnest desire that every mark of respect should be shown to their memory; and it has since been settled, in pursuance of these resolutions, that Mr Howitt shall be commissioned to send down their remains for a public funeral, and that a monument shall be erected to record an achievement, of which Victoria may well feel proud.

Apart, indeed, from the interest which must ever attach to the melancholy fate of these brave men, the results attained by the Expedition are of the very highest importance, both to geographical science, and to the progress of civilization in Australia. The limits of the Stony Desert are proved to extend very little farther north than the point to which Sturt penetrated so many years ago, whilst the country beyond is even more adapted for settlement than that which M'Douall Stuart has discovered to the westward of it. According to the summary which poor Burke himself deposited on his return to the depot, there is a practicable route to Carpentaria, chiefly along the 140th meridian of east longitude. ‘There is some good country between Cooper's Creek and the Stony Desert; from thence to the tropic all is dry and barren, but between the desert and the gulf a considerable portion, though rangy (ie: hilly), is well watered, and richly grassed.'

It has been remarked, too, by the transcriber of Wills' field-book, ‘that the Expedition, except when actually crossing the desert, never passed a day in which they did not traverse the banks of, or cross, a creek or other watercourse.'

Such, in fact, is the impression made on the squatters by the accounts received, that the occupation of ‘Burke's Land' with stock is already seriously contemplated, and there seems little reason to doubt that, in the course of a few years, the journey from Melbourne to Carpentaria will be performed with comparative facility by passing from station to station. To show the rapidity with which this sort of settlement proceeds in Australia, I may mention that much of the country between the Darling and Cooper's Creek, which the several parties from Victoria have traversed, is already taken up, so that not only sheep but cattle are now depastured within twenty-five miles of Mount Bulloo, not far from which Burke's expedition struck the creek in question, stretching thence easterly along the Queensland boundary in an almost unbroken chain. To the westward, also, the country towards the South Australian settlements is likely to be occupied ere long.

I hope to be able to enclose a tracing of the entire route of the Burke and Wills Expedition, but the Surveyor-General has, of course, experienced some difficulty in connecting the various rough charts, and checking the calculations as to longitude, &c. A fuller description of some parts of the country may also be obtainable when King can be further examined, and there can be little doubt that our knowledge of the portion bordering on the Gulf of Carpentaria will be much extended by the labours of the surveyors on board her Majesty's colonial steamer Victoria, as well as by the party likewise despatched for the relief of Burke overland from Queensland.

It seems, indeed, not improbable, that one or other of these parties, on discovering the record left by the explorers at the mouth of the Flinders River (not the Albert, as they conjectured), and supposing them never to have got back to their depot on Cooper's Creek, may pursue their tracks to the southward until themselves are in danger; and it has been deemed advisable, in order to guard against my casualty of this sort, as well as for the purpose of connecting Burke's tropical discoveries with the depot by the best practicable route, to instruct Mr Howitt to establish his head-quarters for the summer there, making short excursions in every direction around, which, without exposing his men to serious risk, will be better for them than idleness or inactivity.

Some time may thus elapse before the full value and extent of these discoveries can be ascertained, but meanwhile it may be asserted, without fear of contradiction, that to the liberality and enterprise of one of her youngest colonial off-shoots, backed by the heroic self-devotion of Burke and Wills, Great Britain owes the acquisition of millions of available acres, destined at no distant day to swell her imports and afford fresh markets for her manufactures.

I have, &c.
(Signed) Henry Barkly.

Copy of a Despatch from his Grace the Duke of Newcastle, KG, to Governor Sir H Barkly, CB.

Downing Street, January 27, 1862.

I have read with the greatest interest the intelligence conveyed in your despatch of the 20th November, respecting the fate of Mr Burke and the adventurous persons who accompanied him on his recent disastrous expedition. I am fully sensible of the advantages which their dearly-bought success will confer on geographical science and on their Australian fellow-colonists, and I gladly embrace this opportunity of expressing the admiration which I feel of the spirit of enterprise in which their task was undertaken, the perseverance with which it was pursued, and the patience and mutual fidelity which, even to the unhappy termination of their labours, appear never to have forsaken them.

I have, &c.
(Signed) Newcastle.


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