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1 April 1862

Letter from Commander Norman reporting the return of the H.M.C.S.S. Victoria,
from the Gulf of Carpentaria, together with reports and correspondence.

Melbourne: John Ferres, Government Printer.
Victorian Parliamentary Papers No. 108. 1862.

H.M.C.S Victoria,
Hobson's Bay.

1st April, 1862.


I do myself the honor to forward the accompanying copy of my journal on the late expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria, for the purpose of rendering relief, if possible, to the missing explorers under the command of Mr Burke; and directing the movements of the two (2) land parties organized and despatched on the same mission of humanity, from Brisbane and Rockhampton; and beg to submit the following observations of the voyage and expedition which I had the honor to command for the information of the Government.


1. The voyage from Brisbane to the Barrier Reef (eight days) augured well for a quick passage to the head of the Gulf; but the strong gale which commenced on the 1st of September separated the Victoria from the Firefly, and proved the cause of the sad disaster to the latter, which was most unfortunate, as well as unusual for that season of the year.

2. The Firefly being found a complete wreck on a reef off the weather side of North Sir Charles Hardy Islands, required considerable exertion and care to get her afloat and refitted, so as to continue the voyage. The officers and crew were exposed to considerable danger while performing these duties, and worked very hard in order to get the wreck off before she fell to pieces; but I regret that before this could be done, I found it necessary, with the consent of the master to destroy the spirits and wines which were floating about the wreck, his crew having become quite unmanageable in consequence of their having obtained access thereto.

3. The loss of stores and provisions through this disaster necessitated my victualling the shipwrecked crew and Mr Landsborough's party in addition, to my own. This increased demand on my stores not being provided for, I considered it expedient to reduce the allowance of provisions at once, so as to enable me to remain in the Gulf long enough to perform the duties originally contemplated. For the short allowance the men were promised payment, as is customary in Her Majesty's service. By this timely precaution I was enabled to remain in the Gulf a sufficient time to carry out the main object of the expedition.

4, After several days hard work, an the 12th September we succeeded in getting the wreck afloat, and having prepared the vessel for the reshipment of the horses, we proceeded on our voyage on the 22nd September, with the Firefly in tow, and anchored in Investigator Road on the afternoon of the 29th September, and found the brig Gratia and schooner Native Lass waiting for us.

5, I fortunately found, upon examination, that the wreck could be got into the Albert River, and far enough up to land the horses. The other course left would have been to build a punt, for which I had provided all necessary materials at Brisbane; but this would have caused considerable delay in landing the horses. On the 12th of October the hulk, in charge of Lieutenant Woods, was, after grounding on the bar and laying a tide, towed by boats, and kedged up the river a distance of about twenty (20) miles, where the horses were landed.

6, In consequence of the flood tides occurring during the night only, the labor in performing this task was very great, and demanded the utmost exertions on the part of the officer in charge, to perform that duty successfully and expeditiously.

7. The Firefly was subsequently towed up about one mile and a half above Island reach, and was made a depot there.

8. I have the honor to forward herewith a tracing of this river for your information.

9. The colliers Native Lass and Gratia completed their charter party, and left on the, 31st of October for their destination (Batavia), and by this opportunity I forwarded dispatches addressed to His Excellency Sir Henry Barkly, containing a full and complete statement of proceedings to that date, which I find, however, have not yet been received.

10. On the 6th of November I left the ship in charge of the first lieutenant, and proceeded up the Albert River for the purpose of forming a permanent depot there - starting Mr Landsborough on the south-west expedition, and personally to make a thorough examination of the country in the neighborhood of the river , as far as a boat could proceed a distance of about fifty-five (55) miles.

11. It will be observed, on a reference to my journal, that at every place I visited trees were marked by us, "Vertical broad arrow over V over N" or (Victoria) together with date on most of them.

12. On the 7th and 8th of November I visited Chimmo's and Gregory's trees but could not discover the record left by Mr Gregory. I have, however, since learned that it was removed by the party sent in search of him.

13. On the last mentioned date I also visited the Plains of Promise, which to all appearance, well deserve the name, although, in consequence of many months' drought, not much grass was to be seen on them at that time.

14. In the afternoon we returned to the junction of the Barkly and the Albert, and marked a tree on the west bank, near a fine water hole about 300 yards distant from the river, so that any party perceiving it would have no difficulty in finding the dépôt. I arrived there at 6.30 next morning.

15. During this exploration no traces of tracks of any kind were observed, and finding that we had fixed upon the very best site to form a dépôt , I made arrangements for permanently securing the Firefly.

16. On the 16th of November I started Mr Landsborough and party on the south-western expedition.

17. On the 19th, after procuring supplies from the ship I despatched the first Lieutenant to Bountiful Island to procure a fresh supply of turtle, whilst I remained at the dépôt to despatch Walker on his arrival.

18. On the 25th, as Walker's party had not made an appearance, I again proceeded up the river and explored its eastern bank, which I had not previously closely, examined. I also revisited the places already explored to search for any new track, taking with me the two (2) black boys left behind by Landsborough, for the purpose of assisting to follow up any trail which might be found.

19. After searching every point likely to be visited by Walker, I returned to the dépôt on the 20th, without any great success than before, not having seen any tracks whatever.

21. On the 4th idem I started with the barge to examine the saltwater arm of the river, and arrived at the head of it about 5 p.m. Here we were very severely molested by myriads of mosquitoes and sand-flies.

22. The next morning I started three (3) parties to search for indications of tracks. Trees were marked by us here as elsewhere. Having explored to a distance of about five miles from the river, we returned, and on our way down the river, a large party of blacks made an attempt to surprise us and undoubtedly intended doing mischief, but the boat was going too fast through the water to allow them an opportunity.

23. On the 7th of December Mr., Walker, arrived, with welcome news of having found traces of Burke on the Flinders. A heavy gale was blowing at the time.

24. On the 9th I took Mr Walker on board, to procure a copy of his journal and a tracing of his route; in the meantime we proceeded to Sweer's (sic) Island to obtain from the dépôt the stores necessary for his further use, and that of the ship, and returned with Walker to the dépôt on the 13th of December.

25. On the 20th, I despatched Walker and party to take up the tracks they had found of Burke, and follow them up, arranging at the same time to meet him (at the place marked A on the tracing herewith on the eastern bank of the Flinders on the 28th or 29th idem), in order to examine the tracks myself and obtain my documents which might be found.

26. I must here record my great satisfaction at the determination expressed by this party to follow the tracks they had found of Burke, to wherever they might lead; and was much gratified with the state of the party when they arrived, being in good discipline and in excellent spirits.

27. I returned towards the ship the same day, got on board on the 21st, at 9 a.m., and proceeded to Bountiful Island for a supply of turtle; having obtained which we returned, at 11 a.m. on the 22nd, to Investigator Roads.

28. We left Investigator Roads on the 28th, at 6 a.m., anchored off the Flinders at noon, and started immediately to keep my appointment with Walker. On arriving at the spot at daylight next morning, I found, to my great dismay, that the place we had appointed to meet each other was inundated during the spring tides, so that it would be impossible for horses to come down.

29. After clearing a space around some mangrove trees, a flag was hoisted on one of the most conspicuous, and a bottle containing a memo for Walker was left, stating that I had gone up the river in search of him.

30. I then proceeded up the river to within three miles of Burial Reach, landing twice on my way to explore the banks; but having some doubts in my mind as to my being in the Flinders, from the fact of there being no marks to indicate the entrance, and from the great difference in the courses of the reaches from No. 1 Island to that described by Stokes, I left a record of my proceedings, marked various trees in the vicinity, and returned to the ship, on the 30th of December.

31. On examining Stokes' chart and works which I had left on board, I satisfied myself that I had been in the Flinders; I therefore, on the following morning, despatched the second lieutenant in charge of a few stores I had for Walker, with orders to examine carefully the eastern bends of the river, at places marked on the chart.

32. On Saturday, the 4th of January, I sent up the whaler with provisions for the cutter, and to assist in searching for Walker's or Burke's camp. The whaler returned, after this duty was performed, on the 7th idem.

33. On the 10th I left the ship with the barge and galley for the purpose of prosecuting further search for the camps and relieving the cutter, taking with me eight (8) days' provisions. I left orders with the commanding officer, (Lieutenant, Woods,), that soon as the cutter arrived, he was to proceed with the ship to Sweer's (sic) Island, to issue to the guard of the dépôt there one month's provisions; to call on his way at the Albert, and despatch a boat to obtain a report from the officer in charge of the dépôt there of the state of his party, and to pick up the boat on his return.

34. I met the cutter at Station A, on her way down to the ship. The officer reported having found the track of camels at a waterhole, but had not discovered any traces of the camps of either Walker or Burke. I ordered him to return to the ship and proceeded myself up the river.

35. At 6 p.m. on the 10th we camped at the place marked, E on the tracing, but the swarms of mosquitoes and sand-flies so tormented us that we could get no rest.

36. In the morning explored the plains for three hours. We found them dry mud, apparently overflowed at every spring tide, with the exception of some small rises.

37. During this morning we came across the tracks of a horse, together with the footprints of a man walking alongside, going north; also, other tracks leading south.

38. We returned to the boats, and proceeded up the river to the place marked G. Camped at 5 p.m., on the east bank, and, guided by Wilson, who had previously seen them, went to examine the tracks of the camels which the officer of the cutter bad discovered, and found them at a dry waterhole about 250 yards from the banks of the river.

39. At this camp the country assumed a more pleasing aspect, its features bearing altogether a different character. Instead of mud and mangroves, we found acacia, box, gum; wild plum, and other trees while the soil was clothed with luxuriant grasses.

40. I started on the 13th in the galley to explore the river further up. After about four miles we came to what proved to be the Burial Reach of Stokes; at the head of this reach the banks of the river were of a rocky formation, and the bed of the same nature, with only six inches water at low tide and very level, so that we had to carry our boat nearly half a mile : here the river divides itself into two arms, the one bearing south and the other south-east. I proceeded up the latter for about eighteen miles, passing over four rocky bars, at each of which we had to get out and haul our boat over.

41. Finding no indications of any one having visited this neighborhood, we marked a tree, and returned to the first rocky bar ; anchored there until the flood tide made, which was 10 p.m., and reached the camp at Burial Reach at 7.30 a.m. on the 14th of January. We marked a large gum tree prominently, and deposited a bottle containing a memo of our search for Walker.

42. On, the 15th I returned towards the ship, making search on my way down and examining the arms of the river, but without making any discovery whatever. I reached the ship on the 16th of January, and started for Investigator Roads, where we anchored at 5 p.m.

43. At 11.30 a.m. on the 4th of February we anchored off the Albert; and sent the whaler, in charge of Lieutenant Gascoyne, up to the dépôt.

44. At 11.30 p.m. on the 6th idem Landsborough returned with the whaler, and reported his arrival at the dépôt on the 19th January, having penetrated in a south-west direction a distance of about two hundred (200) miles, when he was forced to return for want of water, as mentioned in his report already before you.

45: On the 7th I sent Lieutenant Gascoyne, in charge of the cutter and whaler, with stores for Landsborough's party, instructing him to render assistance in conveying the horses and stores to the eastern bank of the river; after which he was to relieve the guard, take away all stores, with the exception of those he was instructed to deposit in the iron tank for the use of any party falling back upon the dépôt, abandon the dépôt, and return to the ship.

46. On the 9th of February the boats returned to the ship; on which date I proceeded, to Investigator Roads to complete the coaling.

47 On the 12th I left Investigator Roads and anchored at Bountiful Island at 8 p.m. On the 15th arrived at Booby Island, landed and examined the stores, and found them as mentioned in the journal.

48. Passed into the Straits through Prince of Wales Channel, and anchored at the eastern end of Albany Island, at 7 p.m.

40. On the 16th weighed at 4.30 a.m., and anchored, with Hagerstone Island bearing east, in ten fathoms.

50. At 5.30 a.m. on the 17th weighed, and anchored at No. VIII. Island . Here we discovered a rock awash not noted in either chart or guide. Surveyed the next day, and examined the doubtful Chilcott Rocks, which I found to exist, and in near1y the same position as that assigned them on the chart. This subject, I will make a special report upon forthwith.

51, From hence the voyage was continued by making the most of the small quantity of coals on board, cutting wood to replenish the stock, and taking every advantage of tides, winds, and weather ; arriving at Port Dennison on the 27th of February. Having obtained a supply of fresh provisions, we left on the 28th idem, and at 11.30 a.m. on the 6th of March anchored in Keppel Bay. After procuring supplies from Rockhampton, I left on the 12th, and anchored at Brisbane on the 14th.

52. We left Brisbane on the 24th, and arrived at Sydney on the 27th March.

53. We left Sydney Harbor on the 28th, and reached Hobson's Bay on the 31st March.

54. I have the honor to report further, for your information, that the navigation of the Gulf of Carpentaria was found free from danger, from Booby Island to Bountiful Island. From the latter place to about eight (8) miles off the Albert River, the water shoals gradually to five (5) fathoms at seven (7) miles from the shore, to three (3) fathoms at four (4) miles, and two and a half (2-1/2) fathoms at three (3) miles; the nature of the bottom being mud. Many discolorations were seen and passed through, with no perceptible change in the depth of water. They are at first alarming, having all the appearance of sand banks with but few feet of water on them.

55. In the channel of the bar across the Flinders was found five (6) feet at low water, and at the Albert River four (4) feet ; the rise and fall being nearly the same at each, viz., from six (6) to twelve (12) feet.

56. Inside the bars both rivers are free from dangers for the first nine (9) miles; beyond which they are equal, if not superior, to the Brisbane and Fitzroy Rivers.

57. There is only one tide in the twenty-four hours, and high water occurred between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m.

58. The winds in October and November were mostly from the S.E. in the morning, E, at noon, and N, towards sunset; calms during the night.

59. December 6th and 7th, a heavy gale set in from the N.E., with torrents of rain, which flooded the plains for some days. This gale veered to north, clearing up at N.W., leaving this monsoon all the month.

60. From January to the middle of February, the winds prevailed mostly from N.E. and N. to N.W., but with no great strength; frequent calms.

61. The country on the banks of both rivers, for the first fifteen to twenty miles from the sea, is the same monotonous mangrove and mud, more or less flooded with the spring tides, and swarming with insects. Higher up, as the land rises, vegetation improves rapidly, and the scenery, although mostly very flat, is good and promising for tropical vegetation. The first rains produced good grass, which grew at the rate of an inch per diem, by actual measurement ten days after the rain fell.

62. Alligators and crocodiles were seen, but they are neither large or numerous, and were both shy and timid. Some few snakes on the banks of the river were seen; they were supposed to be of the water species.

63. The mosquitoes, sand-flies, and the common fly were most numerous and troublesome. Every scheme was resorted to to (sic) obtain rest at night, but to no purpose if there were not a strong wind.

64. Investigator Roads, as is mentioned by Flinders and Stokes, I found a, good anchorage, secure from all winds, easy of access, and having good holding ground.

65. The natives of Bentinck Island numbered about sixty (60), are treacherous beyond conception, and those seen up the rivers ought not to be relied upon with any confidence.

66. I may here remark, with reference to the arrangement made between Walker and myself as to our meeting on the Flinders about the 29th of December, it was distinctly understood that, should any accident or unforeseen circumstance prevent my being at the place of meeting at the appointed time, he was not to remain longer than four days after the date specified, but to carry out his instructions, and follow up Burke's track.

67. My impression is, that on finding no record he determined upon losing no time in pushing on, or, that finding the place of meeting to be what I have reported, viz., low, swampy, and inaccessible, he decided at once upon abandoning the fulfilment of the engagement rather than delay his search for the missing explorers.

68. In concluding this report, it is my pleasing duty to express my high sense of the very satisfactory manner in which the officers and, with very few exceptions, the crew, have performed their duties : their conduct throughout the labors and exposures of the voyage has, in my opinion, been most exemplary, and deserves every praise.

69. In particular I would invite the especial attention of the Government to the invaluable services of the first lieutenant, the surgeon, and the chief engineer : to the energy of Lieutenant Woods in examining and marking the river, and working the Firefly up to the dépôt station, and his unremitting attention to the cleanliness of the ship; to Dr Patterson's careful and close attention to the sick ; and to the never-failing efficiency of Mr Griffiths, I attribute the safe return of the Victoria, and without the loss of any of the officers or crew, with the exception of Mr Frost, the gunner, who, I regret to report, lost his life from the accidental discharge of his fowling-piece, and who, during his long service on board this vessel, commanded my unvarying approbation and esteem

I have the honor to be, Sir,
Your most obedient servant,
W H Norman, Commander.

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