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

through the Interior of Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

From the Journals and Letters of William John Wills, edited by his father, William Wills.
London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street.
(Ferguson 18622)

Chapter 11

  • Proceedings in Melbourne Meeting of the Exploration Committee
  • Tardy Resolutions
  • Departure of Mr Howitt
  • Patriotic Effort of Mr Orkney
  • South Australian Expedition under Mr McKinlay
  • News of White Men and Camels having been seen by Natives in the Interior
  • Certain Intelligence of the Fate of the Explorers reaches Melbourne

In March 1861, I began, in the absence of all intelligence, to feel some apprehension for my son's safety, and the result of the expedition. On the 8th, Professor Neumayer, in reply to a letter from me, said:

You have asked me about the Exploring Expedition, and it is really a difficult matter to give a definite answer to the question. I think that by this time the party must have reached the Gulf of Carpentaria, supposing them to have proceeded in that direction. In fact, I think they may have recrossed already a great part of the desert country, if everything went on smoothly after leaving Cooper's Creek. I have a thorough confidence in Mr Wills's character and energy, and I am sure they will never fail. I cannot help regretting that the Committee should not have understood the force of my arguments, when I advised them to send the expedition towards the north-west. This would very likely have forwarded the task considerably. My feeling is not very strong as to the results we may expect from the present attempt. Indeed, as far as science and practical advantages are concerned, I look upon the whole as a mistake. Mr Wills is entirely alone; he has no one to assist him in his zeal, and take a part of his onerous duties from him. Had he been put in a position to make valuable magnetic observations, he would have earned the thanks of the scientific world. But, under existing circumstances, he can do nothing at all for the advancement of this particular branch. However, I hope future expeditions will afford him an opportunity to fill up that deficiency, if he should now be successful. The affair with Landells was nothing more nor less than what I expected and was quite prepared to hear. The man was not more qualified for the task he undertook than he would have been for any scientific position in the expedition. I am confident Mr Wills is all right, and that Mr Burke and he will agree well together.

All this was complimentary and gratifying to a father's feelings. Still, as time passed on, forebodings came upon me that this great expedition, starting with so much display from Melbourne, with a steady, declared, and scientific object, would dwindle down into a flying light corps, making a sudden dash across the continent and back again with no permanent results. Discharges and resignations had taken place, and no efforts were made by the committee to fill up the vacancies. No assistant surveyor had been sent to my son, no successor appointed to Dr Beckler. The last-named gentleman brought back many of the scientific instruments intrusted to his charge, alleging that if he had not done so, Mr Burke, who was unscientific and impatient of the time lost in making and registering observations, threatened to throw them into the next creek. The supineness of the committee was justly, not too severely commented on in the Report of the Royal Commission:

The Exploration Committee, in overlooking the importance of the contents of Mr Burke's despatch 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 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 despatch 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.

During the month of March, the Argus newspaper called attention to the matter, and a letter, signed Lockhart Moreton, expressed itself thus:

What has become of the expedition? Surely the committee are not alive to the necessity of sending some one up? Burke has by this time crossed the continent, or is lost. What has become of Wright? What is he doing?

Then came a letter from Menindie, expressing strong opinions on the state of affairs, but flattering to my son. It was evident to me that these gentlemen knew or thought more than they felt disposed to state directly in words. I have already mentioned that Mr Burke, while within the districts where newspapers could reach him, had been harassed, from the time of his appointment, by remarks in the public prints, evidently proceeding from parties and their friends who thought the honour of leading this grand procession more properly belonged to themselves. Being a gentleman of sensitive feelings, these observations touched him to the quick. When he was no longer within reach, they still continued, but he found defenders in the all-powerful Argus. I am sorry to say, for the sake of human nature, that there were some who went so far as to wish no successful result to his enterprise.

Believing and trusting that these remarks of Mr Moreton and others, would stir up the committee to take some steps to ascertain if Mr Wright was moving in his duty, I contented myself with writing to the Magnetic Observatory, to learn from Professor Neumayer what was going on. He being absent on scientific tours, I received answers from his locum tenens, to the effect that within a month certain information was expected. The committee I did not trouble, as their Honorary Secretary had deigned no reply to letters I had previously sent.

In the month of June, unable to bear longer suspense, with a small pack on my shoulders and a stick in my hand, I walked from Ballaarat to Melbourne, a distance of seventy-five miles, stopping for a couple of nights on the way at the house of a kind and hospitable friend, Dugald McPherson, Esquire JP., at Bungel-Tap. This gentleman has built a substantial mansion there, in the Elizabethan style, likely, from its solidity, to last for centuries. I arrived at Melbourne on Saturday, the 16th of June. On Monday, the 18th, I called on the Honourable David Wilkie, honorary treasurer to the committee. I found him issuing circulars for a meeting to consider what was to be done. My heart sank within me when I found that no measures whatever had yet been taken. I called on those I knew amongst the committee to entreat their attendance. I hastened to Professor Neumayer, with reference to Mr Lockhart's letter, to ask if it had been arranged with Mr Burke that a vessel should be despatched round the coast to the Gulf to meet him there. His answer was that a conversation on that point had taken place between Mr Burke, my son, and himself, but that Mr Burke had enjoined him (the professor) not to move in it, for that, if so disposed, he would himself apply to the committee by letter.

A meeting took place on the evening of the 18th. The opinions were as numerous as the members in attendance. Quot homines tot sententiae [So many men so many questions]. One talked of financial affairs, another of science, a third of geography, a fourth of astronomy, and so on. A chapter in the Circumlocution Office painfully unfolded itself. Mr Ligar rather rudely asked me what I was in such alarm about; observed that "there was plenty of time; no news was good news; and I had better go home and mind my own business." I felt hurt, naturally enough, some of my readers may suppose, and replied that had I not been convinced something was doing, I should scarcely have remained quiet at Ballaarat for three months. A gentleman, with whom I had no previous acquaintance, seeing my anxiety, and feeling that the emergency called for immediate action, appealed to them warmly, and the result was a decision neminem contradicente [nobody contradicted], that it was time to move, if active and trustworthy agents could be found. I offered my services for one, but the meeting adjourned without coming to any decision, and was followed by other indefinite meetings and adjournments de die in diem [from day to day].

On the following day, Dr Macadam, Honorary Secretary, attended (the press of the morning had incited movement) and announced the welcome intelligence that Mr A. Howitt was in Melbourne; that he had seen him; that he was ready to go on the shortest notice. So far all was good. But now I saw the full misery and imbecility of leaving a large body to decide what should have been delegated to a quorum of three at the most. The meetings took place regularly, but the same members seldom attended twice. New illusions and conceits suggested themselves as often as different committee-men found it convenient to deliver their opinions and vouchsafe their presence. Let me here specially except Ferdinand Mueller, MD and FRS, of London, who though a foreigner, a Dane by birth, I believe, has won by his talents that honourable distinction. His energy in all he undertakes is untiring and unsurpassable. On this occasion he was ever active and unremitting, while his sympathy and kindness to myself have never varied from the first day of our acquaintance. The Honourable David Wilkie, at whose private house we met nightly, deserves the highest credit for expediting the business, which ended in the despatch of the party under Mr Howitt. Mr Heales also, then Chief Secretary for the Colony, promised assistance in money, and the use of the Victoria steamer, under Captain Norman, to be sent round to the Gulf of Carpentaria as soon as she could be got ready.

The Melbourne Argus, of June 19th, contained the following leading article:

The public will be glad to learn that the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society have at length resolved to set about partly doing what in April last we urged upon them. A small party is to be despatched to Cooper's Creek with means to supply necessaries to the Exploring Expedition, and to make all possible efforts to ascertain the whereabouts of Mr Burke. It is well this should be done, and that quickly, for we some eight months since learned that Mr Burke had provisions calculated to last his party for five months only. But this is not all that should be done. When referring to this subject two months ago, basing our calculations on the knowledge we then had--and it has since received no increase--we reckoned that Mr Burke, who left Menindie on the 19th of October last, would reach Cooper's Creek by the beginning of November, and that if he determined upon making for the Gulf of Carpentaria, he might be expected to reach the north coast by about the middle of March last. If his provisions enabled him to do this, it is unlikely they would suffice him for a return journey southwards, or an expedition westward. We cannot think, then, that a party sent to Cooper's Creek should be regarded as sufficient.
Why should not the Victoria be utilized? Were she sent round the west coast to the point Mr Burke might be expected to strike--if, instead of bearing north, after reaching the centre, he has turned westward, as we anticipated he might do--he would possibly be heard of there. If not, the Victoria would be still so far on her way to the Gulf of Carpentaria--the only other goal he is likely to aim at reaching. Two expeditions, therefore, should at once be despatched--the party to Cooper's Creek, and the colonial steamer round the coast. Let it not be said to our disgrace that anything has been neglected which money or energy could have done to insure the safety of the men who have devoted themselves to a work in which the whole civilized world is interested, and of which, if now carried on with success, this colony will reap all the glory. It is a work which all men must have at heart, whether as lovers of their fellow-men, of science, or of their country. Let it not be marred by aught of niggardliness or supineness. The work must be well and quickly done. The progress of Mr. Stuart and of Mr Burke is now watched with the warmest interest and sympathy by men of science in Europe. Mr Stuart is well and generously cared for by the South Australian Government and people. What will be said if Victoria alone, by parsimony or apathy, allowed her Exploring Expedition to fail or her public servants to suffer unnecessary hardships, or even death?
As to the men to whom the inland expedition is to be intrusted, some conversation took place at the recent meeting of the Exploration Committee. Dr Wills, of Ballaarat, father of Mr. Wills, second in command with Mr Burke, was present, and offered to accompany the party. Professor Neumayer suggested a gentleman named Walsh, from his own office, as suitable for the enterprise; and Dr Embling, it is rumoured, supports Mr. Landells as a fit person for the post of leader. We have nothing to say for or against the two former suggestions, but this last demands notice. We consider that Mr Landells has already shown himself singularly unfitted to fill a post of this kind.

Mr Howitt's offer did away with the necessity for my pressing to go. Although I felt tolerably confident in my own physical powers, I should have much regretted had they failed on experiment, and thereby retarded rather than aided the object in view. Mr Walsh went, but was of no service, as he lost the sight of one eye in the first observation he attempted to make; but Mr Howitt proved equal to the emergency and did the work.

[Footnote: A strange incident connected with Mr Walsh's misfortune was reported abroad, but I do not vouch for its truth. When under surgical treatment for his impaired vision, it was said that the operators in consultation decided on an experiment to test the powers of the retina to receive light, and in so doing blinded the other eye. Mr Walsh went to England, having had a sum granted to him by the Victoria government. Whether he has recovered his sight I know not.]

Mr Howitt being equipped and despatched, I returned to Ballaarat, somewhat relieved, after my fortnight's anxious labours with the committee; but on the evening of Friday, the 5th of July, I was startled by reading the following statement in the Melbourne Weekly Age:

The news from the Exploring Expedition.

The unexpected news of Mr Burke's expedition of discovery, which we publish this morning, is positively disastrous. The entire company of explorers has been dissipated out of being, like dewdrops before the sun. Some are dead, some are on their way back, one has come to Melbourne, and another has made his way to Adelaide, whilst only four of the whole party have gone forward from the Depot at Cooper's Creek upon the main journey of the expedition to explore the remote interior. The four consist of the two chief officers and two men; namely, Mr Burke, the leader, and Mr Wills, the surveyor and second in command of the party, together with the men King and Gray. This devoted little band left Cooper's Creek for the far interior on the 16th of December last, more than six months ago, taking with them six camels and one horse, and only twelve weeks' provisions. From Mr Burke's despatch we learn that he meant to proceed in the first place to Eyre's Creek; and from that place he would make an effort to explore the country northward in the direction of the Gulf of Carpentaria. He states also that he meant to return to Cooper's Creek within three months at the farthest; that is, about the middle of March. Before starting on this route he had already tried a passage northward between Gregory's and Stuart's tracks; but he found this passage impracticable, from want of water. He does not state anything that would enable us to form an opinion of what his intentions might be after leaving Eyre's Creek, beyond his saying that he meant to push northwards towards the Gulf. Neither does it appear that he left any instructions or directions upon the matter with Mr Brahe. He merely informed the latter that he meant to run no risks, and that he would be back within a brief stated period, and that Mr Brahe was not to wait for him at the Depot beyond three months. Mr Brahe's statement, in fact, throws very little light upon the probabilities of Mr Burke's future course, after leaving the Depot at Cooper's Creek. He accompanied him one day's journey, some twenty miles or so, on his way towards the north. But he seems to know very little of what Mr Burke's ultimate intentions were. Perhaps, indeed, Mr. Burke himself had no very definite scheme sketched out in his own mind, as to any settled purpose for the future, beyond his trying to make the best of his way in the direction of the Gulf of Carpentaria. He probably never entertained the idea of its being necessary to plan out various different alternatives to adopt, in case of the failure of any one particular course of proceeding. The facility and despatch with which he had got over the ground to Cooper's Creek may have produced too confident a state of mind as to the future. And his having learned that Stuart had, with only two or three companions, advanced within a couple of days' journey of the northern coast, would tend greatly to increase that too confident tone of mind. Both circumstances were likely to produce a feeling, especially in a sanguine temperament like Burke's, that there was no need of his arranging beforehand, and leaving behind him, with Mr Brahe, plans of intended procedure on his part, the knowledge of which would subsequently give a clue to his fate, in case of his continued absence. He seems not to have formed any anticipation of a vessel being sent round to meet him on the north coast, according to Mr Brahe's account.

What then did he propose to do, and what is likely to have become of him? The fear forces itself upon us, that, acting under the influence of excessive confidence, arising from the causes already referred to, Mr Burke and his little band of three companions went forth towards the north in a state of mind unprepared to meet insurmountable obstacles; that difficulties, arising chiefly from want of water, sprung up in his path, and assumed greater magnitude than the previous experience of the expedition could have led them to anticipate; and that if the little party has not succumbed to these difficulties before now, they are to be sought for either on the northern coast, by a vessel to be sent there for that purpose, or in the country towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, by an overland party despatched in that direction. Indeed, both attempts should be made simultaneously, and with the least possible delay. The present period of the year is most propitious for the inland journey, both on account of the abundance of water and the moderate temperature incident to the winter season. There should not be a moment lost, then, in forwarding this portion of the search; and the coasting portion of it should be commenced as soon after as possible.

The sufferings to which the unhappy men are exposed will be understood from Mr Wright's report of what befell the party under his charge. They were prostrated by scurvy, as well as being additionally enfeebled by the irregular supply of water. And at length four of their number, worn out by their sufferings, perished by a wretched, lingering death in the wilderness. There is something deeply melancholy in such a fact. Poor Becker! He had scarcely the physique for encountering the toils of such an expedition. However, regrets over the past are vain. What is of importance now is to save the remainder of the party, if possible. And perhaps the best way of opening up the search inland would be for the committee to avail themselves of Mr. Howitt's offer to proceed at once, with an enlarged party, including Mr Brahe, to Cooper's Creek, and thence to Eyre's Creek, and northwards towards the coast, should they not previously have encountered Mr Burke and his companions on their return.

It is somewhat disheartening to find that when Mr Wright returned for the last time to the Cooper's Creek Depot, namely, so recently as the first week in May--that is, five months after Burke set out on his final excursion--he did not think it necessary to make any examination of the country, as far at least as Eyre's Creek. It might naturally be supposed that on finding, by examining the concealed stores, that Mr Burke had not revisited the Depot, Mr Wright would endeavour to make some search for him, to the extent of a few days' journey at all events. Before turning their back finally upon the solitude where their companions were wandering, one last search might have well been made. But perhaps the disabled condition of the men, horses, and camels may be taken to account for this seeming neglect. It may not be too late even now, however, to make amends for this strange oversight, by hastening on Mr Howitt's party. The whole expedition appears to have been one prolonged blunder throughout; and it is to be hoped that the rescuing party may not be mismanaged and retarded in the same way as the unfortunate original expedition was. The savans have made a sad mess of the whole affair; let them, if possible, retrieve themselves in this its last sad phase.

I returned immediately to Melbourne, and found the committee in earnest at last, the Government aiding them in every possible way. Mr Heales offered all the assistance he could give. The Victoria, which I thought had been made ready, was now put under immediate repair. Proceedings were reported in the Herald as follows:

The adjourned meeting of the Exploration Committee was held yesterday afternoon, in the Hall of the Royal Society, Victoria Street. Dr Mueller occupied the chair, in the unavoidable absence of Sir William Stawell.

The minutes of the previous meeting were read and confirmed.

The Chairman said the honorary treasurer would lay before the committee the result of the interview the deputation had the honour to hold with the Chief Secretary that day. Unfortunately they had not had the advantage of Dr Macadam's assistance, but he was glad that gentleman was now present, and that they had one member of the Government.

The Honourable Dr Wilkie, M.L.C., said that Dr Mueller, himself, and Dr Wills, father of Mr Wills, a member of the expedition, waited on the Chief Secretary and communicated to him the resolution passed by the Exploration Committee, strongly recommending the Government to give the Victoria steamer for the purpose of proceeding to the Gulf of Carpentaria in aid of Mr Burke's party. He might state that the deputation entered fully into the whole question, and that the Chief Secretary very cordially promised that the Victoria should be given, and that at the same time he (the Chief Secretary) said it was the desire of the Government to promote the wishes of the Exploration Committee, as far as possible, in rendering assistance to Mr Burke. Further discussion took place with reference to other matters, which would immediately come under the consideration of the committee;--as to the sending a land party from Rockhampton; and the Government had promised every possible assistance that they could render.

Mr Howitt, who returned the next day, was soon despatched again with increased means, to follow up his work in aid. A communication was immediately opened with the Queensland Government on the north-east to get up an expedition under some competent person, but at the charge of Victoria; and Mr Walker, who had already acquired note as a leader of a party of native police, was proposed for the command. Captain Norman with the Victoria steamer was to start as soon as possible, coasting round to the Gulf, taking with him a small tender; whilst Walker, or whoever might be appointed in Queensland, should proceed north, overland. Nothing further could be done in Melbourne by the committee or Government; but I have now to narrate a noble act on the part of a private individual. James Orkney, Esquire, MLA for West Melbourne, had a small steamer of sixteen tons, built by himself from a model of the Great Eastern, which was quite ready for sea; and having also a captain willing to embark in her, he undertook to send her round to the Gulf of Carpentaria at his own charge. The adventurous gentleman who offered his services was no less a personage than Wyse, the skipper of Lord Dufferin's yacht on his celebrated voyage to the North Seas, which his lordship has commemorated in his delightful little book entitled, Letters from High Latitudes. The Sir Charles Hotham, for so the little craft was called, was intended to precede Captain Norman, as the Victoria would take at least a fortnight in equipping. She was expected, from her light draught of water, to render much aid in exploring the rivers and steaming against currents. She left on the 6th of July, towed out of Hudson's Bay by the Sydney steamer. The weather became stormy, and the steamer was compelled to cut her adrift during the night. Left to herself and her gallant captain, with a crew of two men only, she made her way to Sydney. During this time the coast was visited by severe gales, and much anxiety was felt for the Sir Charles Hotham. The agents of the Sydney steamer regretted that they had not heard of the proposed arrangement a few hours earlier, as they would readily have taken her on deck. But they did all that was in their power.

Mr Orkney soon received the pleasing intelligence that his little craft was safe in Sydney Harbour, but requiring some repairs. These were completed with as much speed as possible, Mr. Orkney bearing every expense, including that of the telegrams, which was considerable. Again the miniature steamer proceeded from Sydney, northward; but after some progress, Wyse, steering her into shallow water, near shore, to anchor for the night, ran her on the peak of the anchor, which made a hole in her bottom, and quite incapacitated her from further service. Thus Mr Orkney lost the hope he entertained and the satisfaction he would have enjoyed, of being serviceable to the lost explorers; but the credit due to him is far from being diminished by his want of success, and the patriotic effort deserves to be recorded to his eternal honour. Through this incident I made his acquaintance, and ever since we have been, and I hope shall continue to be, sincere friends.

My anxiety for my son's safety interfered with my attention to ordinary professional avocations. I accordingly left Ballaarat for a time, and continued in Melbourne, casting about to see how I could render myself useful in the great object of my thoughts. At first I inclined to go round to the Gulf with Captain Norman, and obtained permission to do so, when an announcement reached Melbourne by telegram to the effect that the South Australian Government had decided on sending an Expedition from that quarter, and asking for the loan of some camels, with the use of the two that had strayed in that direction, and had been brought down to Adelaide from Dr Brown's station. These turned out to be two of the three that my son had lost when out on an excursion from Cooper's Creek, the circumstances of which have been already mentioned. Mr McKinlay was at that time in Melbourne. He immediately started by the Havelock steamer to offer his services as leader of the party. I sent a letter to Sir Richard McDonnel, the Governor, by him, proposing to accompany them as surgeon, and to assist as guide. I received a reply by telegram asking if I would put myself under Mr McKinlay, and also requesting from the Government some additional camels. I obtained permission from Mr. Heales to have those that might be useful, and in three days started in the Oscar (since lost) with the camels.

On arriving in Adelaide, I found that the South Australian Expedition was instructed to proceed, in the first instance, to Cooper's Creek, whither Mr Howitt had already gone. This I thought a mistaken direction, as Howitt would be there before us, and the north and east search being amply pro vided for, it appeared profitless. The Government also proposed a surveying tour on their own account, in conjunction with the search for the missing explorers. These plans not exactly falling in with my view of the business, I gave up my intention of forming one of the party. Mr McKinlay was a fine fellow, well adapted to the work; his companions strong and lively, and of a proper age, neither too old nor too young. Having seen him off, I determined to remain for a time in Adelaide, a delightful place, where I found some of the kindest and most agreeable acquaintances I have ever had the good fortune to meet with.

The South Australian Register, of the 24th of August, 1861, gave the following summary of the measures in progress:

Our readers will perhaps be surprised to learn that a new exploring expedition has just been sent to the northern interior. To explore is clearly one of the missions of South Australia; but this time the object is less one of curiosity than humanity. With Mr Stuart and his party still engaged in the work of opening a route to the north-west coast, no one would have thought it desirable, under ordinary circumstances, to undertake fresh explorations. But the whole colony has been moved by the dreadful doubt which hangs over the fate of Mr Burke, the Victorian explorer, who, with three men, left Cooper's Creek at the beginning of the year; having only a few months' provisions with him. They have not been heard of since, and there is not much hope entertained of their safety. But all that can be done to assist them or to ascertain their fate is being done. The three adjacent provinces have sent in search of the lost explorers, and this colony has also despatched its expedition for the same good purpose. Mr McKinlay, an experienced bushman, has left Adelaide upon this chivalric task, taking with him six men, twenty-four horses, and four camels. His first duty is to seek for Burke, and in the next place to obtain a knowledge of unexplored country in the north.

After general instructions, Mr McKinlay's duties were more specifically defined:

You will in all matters keep the following objects in full view:

Firstly. The relief of the expedition under the command of Mr. Burke, or the acquiring a knowledge of its fate. This is the great object of the expedition under your command.
When you may have accomplished the foregoing, or may have deemed it necessary to abandon the search for Mr Burke, then,

Secondly. The acquiring a knowledge of the country between Eyre's Creek and Central Mount Stuart.

Thirdly. The acquiring a knowledge of the western shores of Lake Eyre. A separate letter of instructions is given to you and the particular matters to which you will direct your attention in this locality.

I had been in Adelaide nearly a month when I was startled by the following note, from Major Egerton Warburton:

September 19th.

My dear Sir
Would you kindly call in at my office? I have important news which must interest you.
Yours very truly,
J Egerton Warburton.

I hastened to him, and asked, almost breathlessly, "What news--good or bad?" He replied, "Not so bad"; and then gave me the information which was made known in the House of Assembly that night, and embodied in the Adelaide Advertiser, the next day, to the following effect:

On Thursday morning, considerable interest was excited in Adelaide by a rumour to the effect that intelligence from the interior had been received of Burke's party. We lost no time in instituting inquiry, and found that the report was certainly not unfounded. It was stated that a police trooper in the north had sent down information, derived through a black, that at a long distance beyond the settled districts some white men were living, and that the black had obtained a portion of their hair. The white men were described as being entirely naked, and as living upon a raft on a lake, supporting themselves by catching fish: that they had no firearms nor horses, but some great animals, which, from the description given by the native, were evidently camels. There could, therefore, be but little doubt as to this being Burke's party, or a portion of it; and as soon as it was ascertained that the rumour had some tangible kind of foundation, public curiosity for fuller and more authentic details speedily rose very high. On the assembling of Parliament, the Commissioner of Crown Lands, desirous of allaying the anxiety of the public, read from his place the letter brought by the native, of which the following is a copy:


Wirrilpa, September 12, 1861.

I have the honour to forward the following particulars gathered from the blacks, seeming to refer to Mr Burke and party. A black fellow called Sambo, who has lately come in from Lake Hope, brought with him the hair of two white men, which he showed to the cook and stockman at Tooncatchin. He says it was given to him by other blacks, who told him that there were white men living much farther out than where he had been. Frank James, one of Mr Butler's stockmen, saw Sambo again on the 6th instant, and tried to get the hair from him. He had unfortunately given it away to other blacks. James promised him tobacco for it, and he has promised to get it again. Sambo says that the white men are naked, have no firearms or horses, but animals which from his description are evidently camels; that they sleep on a raft, which they build on the water. They live on fish which they catch with nets made with grass. Sambo says that the other blacks had told him that the white men arrived there this winter. According to Sambo, the people are twenty sleeps from Tooncatchin, by way of Lake Hope Creek. I do not think that these sleeps on the average exceed ten miles, so it is probable that they are on or near Cooper's Creek. Sambo is quite willing to go out all the way with a party of white men. He also says that the blacks on Lake Hope Creek are afraid of these white men. I received the above information from Mr H. Butler, Frank James, and Cleland, on my arrival at Blanche on the 8th instant. Knowing that Mr McKinlay and party were on their way, I accordingly left Blanche on the 9th, and I met Mr. McKinlay and party to-day on Bandnoota Plain, 145 miles south of Blanche, when I put that gentleman in possession of the above particulars.

I have etc.
James Howe, Police Trooper.

To George Hamilton, Esquire, J.P., Inspector of Police.

The Surveyor-General (Mr Goyder) says that from the general tenor of the letter he inclines to the opinion that the white men are on some of the newly-discovered waters between Cooper's Creek and Eyre's Creek; and if so, this is precisely in the direction that Mr McKinlay would, according to his instructions, have taken. But the most gratifying portion of the whole statement is that which assures us of Mr McKinlay being placed in possession of the whole of the circumstances of the case; and considering the date when the information was given him, there is little doubt but that Mr McKinlay, as the reader's eye rests on these words, is ON THE SPOT INDICATED by the black; and should this prove to be correct, and the party be saved, South Australia will have, in the cause of humanity, reason to rejoice that the Parliament took such prompt and vigorous measures to send out the relief expedition. The Commissioner of Crown Lands telegraphed to Melbourne, without delay, the substance of the trooper's letter; but it is not likely that any practical use could be made of it there, though it would revive the hopes of many of the friends of Burke and his party. If the white men spoken of in the letter are where Mr Goyder imagines them to be, it is not very likely that Mr. Howitt's relief party would find them; so that it may, after all, be the destiny of South Australia not only to find men to cross the Australian continent, but to relieve and restore other explorers who have failed in that hazardous attempt.

Mr Burke's party consists of himself as leader, Mr Wills, astronomer and surveyor, and who is second in command,--two men, six camels, and one horse. Dr Wills, who is now in Adelaide, having come round from Melbourne with the additional camels, says that the two camels which a short time since made their way into this colony overland, and were brought to town from Truro, were two out of the three that belonged to his son, and that they were allowed to stray, by a man left in charge of them whilst Mr Wills was engaged in some astronomical pursuits. The man left the camels to make some tea, and, on his return, the animals had disappeared. Two of them, as already stated, have been recovered, but no tidings have been received of the third, unless it be the one recently said to have arrived at Fort Bourke. We hope we shall soon have further information, not only respecting Burke and his party, but also of Stuart, the time of whose anticipated return now draws on rapidly.

We had scarcely written the above lines when we received a private telegram, informing us that Mr Stuart was on his way to Adelaide.

This intelligence raised my sinking hopes to a high pitch. I felt convinced that this was the missing party. The black fellow had described the animals, which the natives called "gobble gobble," from the noise they made in their throats. Mr McKinlay put little faith in the story; and I was vexed to hear by the next report from him that he was not hastening to the rescue. But it would then have been too late. The white men alluded to were, unquestionably, Burke, my son, and King, with exaggeration as to their being without clothes, and living on a raft.

Shortly after this I returned to Melbourne, and in another week the sad catastrophe became public beyond all further doubt. The intelligence had reached Melbourne on a Saturday night. I was staying at that time at the house of my kind friend Mr Orkney. He had gone to the opera with Mrs Orkney and another lady, and came home about half-past ten. I was surprised at their early return, and thought something unpleasant must have happened. A servant came to say that he wished to speak with me privately, and then I received the terrible communication which had been announced at the theatre during an interval between the acts. As soon as I had sufficiently recovered the shock, we proceeded in a car to the residence of Dr Wilkie, the treasurer of the Committee. He had heard a report, but was rather incredulous, as nothing official had reached the Committee. At this moment, Dr Macadam, the Honorary Secretary, came in. He was perfectly bewildered, believed nothing, and had received no telegram. "But," said I, "when were you at your own house last?" "At seven o'clock," was the reply. "Good God!" I exclaimed, "jump into the car." We proceeded to his house, and there indeed was the telegram, which had been waiting for him some hours.

The next morning, Sunday, November the 3rd, Brahe arrived at an early hour at the Spencer Street Station, having been sent in by Mr Howitt with the journals and letters dug up in the cache at Cooper's Creek. I was anxiously waiting his arrival. Dr Macadam was also there, and appeared confused, as if he had been up all night. He insisted on dragging me on to the Governor's house, four miles from Melbourne, Heaven only knows with what object. With some difficulty I obtained from him possession of the bundle of papers, and deposited them for safety in the hands of Dr Wilkie. I have nothing more to say of Dr Macadam, except that I sincerely trust it may never be my fortune to come in contact with him again, in any official business whatever. He is a man of unbounded confidence in his own powers, ready to undertake many things at the same time; and would not, I suspect, shrink from including the honorary governorship of the colony, if the wisdom of superior authority were to place it at his disposal.

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