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.