Journal of Landsborough's Expedition from Carpentaria, in search of Burke & Wills
To Captain Norman of Her Majesty's Colonial War Steamer Victoria, and Commander-in-chief of Northern Expedition Parties.
I have the honour to inform you that the greatest attention was paid by my parties to the horses for the expedition on board the Firefly, and they ought, during the eight days after leaving Moreton Bay, while we had the finest weather, to have done well, if their allowance of five gallons of water each a day had been sufficient for them; but with that allowance they were so thirsty that they did not thrive well. That quantity of water may do well for horses intended for the Indian market, where they can be fattened afterwards; but for our expedition horses, which were intended for immediate service on landing, to be kept in a close hold, confined by the cargo of the vessel, and fed with dry forage (they did not eat the carrots at first, until they had acquired a taste for them) eight gallons of water each per day at least should have been allowed to them.
On Sunday the 1st instant, when Captain Kirby expected to get through the Raine Island passage on the following day, where he hoped to get such calm weather that it would admit of your giving him a fresh supply of water, he allowed our party to give the horses a good drink. On that occasion they drank each, on an average, nine gallons. Towards evening of the same day the breeze freshened into a gale, and about ten at night, when the Firefly was head-reaching under close-reefed sails, we had the misfortune to lose sight of H.M.C.S. Victoria, under your command.
On Monday the 2nd instant the gale continued, and during the night the ship was hove to with her head to the eastward.
On Tuesday the 3rd instant the gale still continued, but Captain Kirby, having got observations of the sun, he boldly made sail in for the reefs, and between eleven and twelve a.m. he sighted the Raine Island beacon, and early in the afternoon he went through the passage, and got into smooth water, where we congratulated ourselves, and were thankful, I hope, to God, for the comparative safety of ourselves, and also of the horses under our charge.
All the horses were alive except one, which, from the sand being pumped from under its feet, had not been able to stand during the gale, and in consequence had been trampled underfoot by the other horses and so much injured that we were compelled to destroy it. About an hour before dark we reached, with a fresh and favourable breeze, a point between the two largest of the Sir Charles Hardy's Islands, where one of the anchors was let go and, upon its dragging, another was let go, which dragged also, until we were close to the lee shore, when it held, fortunately, till after daylight of the morning of Wednesday the 4th instant when, the cable parting, the brig went ashore broadside onto the reef which extends for about half a mile from the base of the bold rocky island. The waves breaking over the ship, the masts were cut away and fell over the side. The smallest boat was then launched and immediately broke in pieces. While the wreck of a masts was being cleared away by a good swimmer called Muller, a Dutchman, in order to get a clear sea to launch the ship's large boat, our party took the opportunity of feeding and watering the horses, and in the meantime the tide had fallen so much that Muller found footing. The boat was launched safely and, on being asked by Captain Kirby, I went ashore with Mr Martin, the supercargo, and a part of the crew. We found we could wade on shore; and, on the previous evening having seen the masts of a ship on the other side of the island, Mr Martin and I went across and found it was a vessel which had sunk within half a mile of the shore in deep water.
At the abandoned camp of the shipwrecked crew we found a copy of The Argus newspaper of the 14th June, a barrel of peas, fragments of paper bearing the names of the Lady Kinnaird and Captain Chorley on them, a part of a child's dress, etc.
On our return to the wreck of a Firefly, we found the crew very busily engaged in carrying stores on shore on their backs, as Captain Kirby did not like using the boat for that service, being afraid of having it injured. In the evening we fed and watered the horses, and Mr Campbell offered to remain on board if he got someone to assist him to attend to the horses during the night; but as there were drunken sailors on board, and I thought the breaking up of the old Firefly not improbable, I did not like remaining or asking anyone else to do so. After the ship struck, the officers and crew considered themselves under no discipline, taking from the stores whatever they wanted, and, I am sorry to say, much of the Expedition spiced beef and other things were stolen, and many things destroyed from recklessness; but I am pleased to add that, after your arrival, when order and sobriety became prevalent, from the prompt and wise measures adopted by you, a considerable quantity of the slops were recovered by a diligent search through the effects brought on shore by the crew of the Firefly.
Shortly after the ship struck I overheard one of the officers say that we were all alike; and now that the vessel was a wreck the cargo belonged to no one in particular; and one of our party overheard another officer say to the crew: "There are twenty-two pairs of (Expedition) boots; help yourselves. There are a pair each for all hands, and a pair to spare."
On the afternoon of Wednesday 4th instant (the day on which we were wrecked) with Captain Kirby's approval I offered the carpenter five pounds to cut the vessel close down to the water's edge to get the horses out. (This, under the circumstances, I hope will meet also your approval.) This he agreed to, and on the following morning when it was almost high-water, he (the carpenter) and Muller swam off to the wreck to do so, and shortly afterwards, when I had found a good place on the island for watering the horses, I accompanied Messrs. Campbell and Martin and three of my aboriginals to the wreck to assist the carpenter in making a breach in the side of the Firefly. To do this work the only tools the carpenter and his assistants had were two adzes and two small tomahawks. My aboriginals, Jamie, Fisherman, and Jackie, worked hard with the tomahawks, and were most able assistants in cutting the vessel down.
On Friday (the 6th instant) we landed safely twenty-five of the horses. We were obliged to land them chiefly at low-water, and then we had to use every precaution to prevent them swimming off to sea; for some of them in the first instance, when we were not watching them, swam off and did not drift ashore until they were exhausted, and one, after swimming for about an hour in different directions, reached the southern island, about a mile distant, with a strong wind and considerable waves against him.
On Saturday the 7th instant, while we were attending to the surviving horse of four which had been trampled down by the stronger horses among the floating empty water tanks, we had the great pleasure of seeing H.M.C.S. Victoria coming to our relief; and I can assure you we were very thankful, and our spirits much cheered by your telling us, after Captain Kirby had intimated to us that he had abandoned the Firefly as a total wreck, and in our presence told his crew that as shipwrecked mariners he had placed them under your charge, that you would do your best under the circumstances to enable us yet to start on our expedition from the Albert River in search of Mr Burke and his companions, and with that view you would endeavour to get the Firefly afloat again, and have her refitted as a transport hulk for the conveyance of our party, horses, and stores; and if you did not succeed in that undertaking (which I hope you will pardon us all for having thought a most hopeless affair) you would in several trips transport our party, horses, and stores in H.M.C.S. Victoria.
Now that the great exertions made by you and your officers and crew in getting the Firefly afloat again, in refitting her, in embarking twenty-five of the horses, with our party and stores, and in transporting them safely to the Gulf of Carpentaria, has been crowned with success, allow me to congratulate you on those events, and to assure you that, these difficulties being overcome, I have now great hopes of carrying out at least satisfactorily, with the assistance of my brave, trusty, and zealous companions, the instructions of the Victorian and Queensland Governments, with those which I may receive from yourself.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
(*Footnote. Captain Kirby of the Firefly has since published a pamphlet in which he states that my party were at times in a great state of alarm, but in fairness to them I may mention that although they had frequently much reason to be so, I never saw them exhibit any traces of fear. He further states that from what he saw of them they showed great ineptitude for camping out. This is surely very unlikely as we were all old travellers, three of my party and myself had at one time been gold-diggers, a mode of life well calculated to give the necessary experience in this way. And as for Captain Alison, who had never been a gold-digger, I observed on the island that his tent was particularly well pitched.)