Central Australia: Origin and results of the Victorian exploration expedition [A Tribute to the Memory of Burke and Wills, 1862]

[Editor: This article, about the Burke and Wills expedition, was published in A Tribute to the Memory of Burke and Wills (broadsheet), 1862.]

Central Australia.

Origin and results of the Victorian exploration expedition.

The burial of Burke in the wilderness.

Nothing could be more uncertain, not even the Great Asian Mystery of Benjamin Disraeli, than the popular notions prevalent, till within the last few years, of the character of central Australia. People of the highest intelligence, as well as those gifted with vivid imaginations, held the most opposite views, on the subject. While one believed in the probability of a great inland lake or sea, another put faith in a vast central desert. Sonic thought broken chains of rocky mountains a very likely actuality in such a region; while others maintained that a vast expanse of stunted forest was its most probable characteristic. Nobody that we know of urged the opinion that the leading features of the unknown interior were (generally) likely to be similar to those of the island-continent already known. Hence it is not surprising that British novelists should occasionally indulge in curious ideal sketches of those parts of Australia beyond the “limits of civilization”, and treat us to desolate wilds or bright oases, as fancy suggested, quite unlike anything which the Australian Settler’s positive experience had taught him to believe in.

Although the public mind was confused about this mystery, there were not persons wanting who had really moderate — although none had or could have exact — views on the subject; and although all, more or less, expected, one day or another, to hear of something startling about it, still a spirit of rational desire to get at the truth existed amongst us, and that spirit has at last succeeded in realising most gratifying results. — These results have been bought dearly — have been purchased at the sacrifice of the lives of some of the best men who ever came amongst us. The Bones of the Great Leichardt are bleaching amongst the wilds of the interior, and, not many months ago, Burke and Wills became victims to their cravings for discovery.

It is a remarkable circumstance connected with the history of exploration in this country, that each successive expedition (except the first) illustrated the mistakes of its predecessor. It cannot be denied that in some respects each was an improvement on the one which went before it, still the fact is patent, that none of them really did away with all former errors — that none of them can be pronounced complete in the details of their pre-arrangement. The great cause of failure, we believe, has been a want of combination between all parties interested in, or responsible for, the success of the movement. Our earlier explorers — Sturt, Mitchell, and Oxley — met with difficulties which we can reasonably pronounce insurmountable. The reason is obvious, because at the time those intrepid men faced the wilderness — a fearful phrase, by-the-way, has this facing the wilderness become amongst us! — the Country was not prepared to undertake exploration on a really broad and scientific scale. More ought to have been (and could have been) done for Leichardt; but unfortunately more was not done, and Leichardt — a lamentable consequence — is now no more!

The recent Victorian expedition was got up on a broader and a more rational basis than any that went before it, still its last incident is full of sorrow and bitter regrets. It had its origin in this wise.

An advertisement appeared in the Argus newspaper about two years ago, in which an anonymous individual offered to give the magnificent sum of One Thousand Pounds towards the equipment of an expedition to explore the mysterious interior, on condition that an additional sum of Two Thousand Pounds should be raised for the purpose. The people of Victoria — true to the go-a-headism which they really possess or affect to possess — grasped at the offer of the nameless person just alluded to, and sent in subscriptions so rapidly that in a comparatively short time sufficient funds were raised for the purpose specified. Whilst the money was pouring in from all quarters, it was proposed and carried that the general direction of the undertaking should be placed in the hands of a body of savans. This was an unfortunate determination as the event proved; and for the simple reason, that savans as a rule, are not the most practical men in the world. Dean Swift, or some one quite as satirical, once said, that “he never knew a parson who knew the real value of a shilling” — we might change the expression and say, we never knew philosophers who cared much about details — their conceptions are too sublime ever to stoop to miserable minutiae. It is our firm belief that if a dozen plain, practical, common-sense men had been on the Victorian Exploration committee, arrangements would have been made, by which the lives of the explorers would in all probability have been saved. But this is somewhat irrelevant to our present narrative.

Sufficient funds having been procured, and Camels (an excellent idea) having been imported from Arabia for the undertaking, nothing remained but to organise an exploring party and appoint a leader to superintend them. This was done, and on the twentieth of August, 1860, a thoroughly efficient body of explorers, about a dozen in number, under the command of Robert O’Hara Burke, who had for his lieutenant William John Wills, set out to explore the mystery of central Australia. “They were,” writes an accurate chronicler, “supplied with five-and-twenty camels, as well as horses, stores, instruments for scientific observation, and everything that the Exploration Committee deemed desirable to ensure the success of the undertaking. Full of high hope, and animated by a sense of the reliance placed upon them, and the magnitude of their purpose, the gallant leaders were cheered at their departure from the Royal Park by a vast multitude assembled to wish them God speed. There was something in the pride, pomp, and circumstance of their setting out to endure they knew not what, and to unveil what no one could foreshadow, that called before the fancy the embarkation of the great explorers of the days of Ferdinand and Isabella, with its chivalrous aims, and its daring invitation to the fellowship of danger.”

We need not, O Reader, follow them through that long and painful journey so valuable in its positive results to the general public, — but alas! fatal to those who heroically undertook it. People will now build monuments, and carve gilded epitaphs, to do honour to their memory. This no one with a particle of right feeling can object to. But far higher must be the way we honour the illustrious dead. We must teach our children to reverence their memories, and to study the great achievements of their lives, so that none of the things they did may be forgotten, or nothing that is due to them be left undone. The most imperishable monument of a great event is its transmission from generation to generation.

A Tribute to the Memory of Burke and Wills (broadsheet), South Sydney (NSW): W. T. Baker, [1862]

[Editor: Changed “inperishable” to “imperishable”.]

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