William Brahe

Adventurer 150 Years: 150 Lives

57 Little Collins-street west, Melbourne,

Nov. 12, 1861.


The Hon. Secretary of the Exploration Committee.


Sir,-Various charges having been advanced in the public journals against my conduct while in the service of the Exploring Expedition, I am most anxious to vindicate my character without any further delay.  It was my intention to leave the public to judge from the result of the proposed investigation; but as the press does not seem inclined to wait until I am fairly tried, I am induced to take this step.

It is material for my purpose that I should have the evidence of Mr. Wright in corroboration of some of the following statements, and it is also important that I should be enabled to refer to the journal of the medical officer, Dr. Beckler; but as any delay on my part may be misjudged in a manner injurious to myself, I shall no longer withold any remarks upon the imputations that have been thrown upon me.

The chief accusation appears to be, that I left the depot at Cooper's Creek earlier than I should have done, and contrary to instructions.

In my report to the Exploration Committee, having date June 30, 1861, I stated that my instructions received by word of mouth, were, to remain at the depot three months, or longer if provisions and other circumstances would permit.  Mr. Burke's despatch from Cooper's Creek dated 13th December 1860, published in The Argus of the 1st July last, contains the following:-'I proceed to-morrow with the party, as per margin, to Eyre's Creek, and from thence I shall endeavour to explore the country to the north of it, in the direction of Carpentaria, and it is my intention to return here within the next three months at latest.  I shall leave the party which remains here under the charge of Mr. Brahe, in whom, I have every confidence; and there is nothing to prevent the party remaining here until our return, or until their provisions run short'.

Mr. Burke, it will be observed, having spoken of the period of his return as being within the next three months at latest is a clear indication of his impression as to the time we should remain at the depot.  Mr. Burke also repeatedly said that he should run no risks, and would not advance without seeing his retreat secure.  Also, upon my asking Mr. Burke whether we should put ourselves on short allowance as a prudent measure in regard to the uncertainty of his return, he said that there was no reason for so doing as it was impossible for him to be longer away than three months with the provisions he had.  He also handed me a small parcel of pocket books, which he described to me as being of a private nature, which he directed me, in the event of his not having returned before my departure, to destroy.  This packet I accordingly burnt, in the presence of McDonough, before leaving the depot.  It should be mentioned here that Mr. Will's [sic] field-book records that they took only three months' provisions.  A short time before Mr Burke's departure from Cooper's Creek, when talking with him about the time of his probable absence, I mentioned that he might be compelled to make for Queensland.  The thought then seemed not to have struck him.  On the last day, when I accompanied him on his journey from the depot, he again told me that he must be back in three months, or I might consider him perished.  I remarked upon this, 'Or on your way to Queensland;' and his answer was, 'Just so'.

This much I mention to account for the belief that I felt that Mr. Burke had taken some other course, and would not return to Cooper's Creek.  The opinion which I had arrived at as to the probability of Mr. Burke's party having succeeded in making the Gulf, and afterwards traversing the shorter distance and known practicable track to Queensland, I often spoke of to Mr. Wills and my companions.

But more than all of this determined my proceeding.  I was no longer in the same position as when I had merely to follow our leader's daily instructions.  I had an authority deputed to me, and a discretionary power to act, after the expiration of the time to which my definite orders supplied.  I was responsible to my employers and to my conscience for the exercise, in this position, of the judgement I possessed.  The serious illness of Patten, and the other reasons stated in my report fully justified to my mind the course I took, and at no moment since have I been able on reflection, to reproach myself for it.  My final instructions from Mr. Burke were to remain three months, certainly; or longer, according to circumstances.  I waited five weeks longer than this period, and then decided to return, in the exercise of discretion with which I was entrusted.  The accident of my leaving the depot by so few hours before the arrival of Mr. Burke and his companions is a misfortune that no one can deplore more deeply than myself.  Had I disregarded any specific instructions, or left myself open to any charge of neglect of duty, it is quite certain that so strict a disciplinarian as Mr. Burke would have left a record of his opinion, or at least expressed himself strongly on the subject to his companions.  Mr. Burke, however, only writes on this point in his last despatch-'Greatly disappointed at finding the party gone'.  The evidence of his surviving companion, moreover, will show that on the way back from Carpentaria Mr. Burke and Mr. Wills discussed their movements in the event of their not finding a party at Cooper's Creek.  The allusion in the latest memorandum of Mr. Wills to 'the depot party having left contrary to instructions' I can merely say I cannot explain.  Mr. Wills, in conversation at departure, expressed a hope that I would be able to wait four months; and, recollecting this wish, I felt glad that I was enabled to prolong my stay for that period.  However, my ultimate instructions were distinctly given to me by Mr. Burke, as already stated.

I was very anxious to proceed from Cooper's Creek with Mr. Burke, and his parting orders were, that if Mr. Wright's party should arrive at the depot within two days after his (Mr. Burke's) leaving, I was to follow his tracks with the despatches brought by Mr. Wright, and to join him for the remainder of his journey, in which case Gray was to return.  This statement can be corroborated by King, and I merely introduce it in justice to myself as evidence that I had never shown any unwillingness to share the dangers of the expedition, or to be ready to contribute to its success in any manner that our leader might think fit to direct me.  The imputation cast upon me by a Melbourne weekly paper, that I had shown cowardice, or a mean-spirited anxiety for my own comfort and safety, I repel with the strongest indignation.

The second charge against me is, that I exhibited a want of attention or discernment in not discovering, when I returned to the depot with Mr. Wright, that the cache had been disturbed and that Mr. Burke and his companions had visited the depot.  I have already stated that, upon careful examination, the cache presented no appearance of having been touched; that there was no discoverable mark upon the trees, and no indication of white men having been there.  Mr. Burke's return being so soon after my departure, caused the tracks of his camels to correspond in the character of age exactly with our own tracks.  The remains of three separate fires left is to suppose that blacks had been there.  The fires had turned to mere ashes, and left no perceptible evidence from the disposition of the sticks as to the well-known custom of the natives to light numerous fires, but it was obviously very improbable that three white men should have made three separate fires.  This I afterwards spoke of to King.  Some scraps of clothing which I remembered to have left had all disappeared, including minute fragments, such as only the natives we considered likely to have taken.  The ground above the cache was so perfectly restored to the appearance it presented when I first left it, that in the absence of any fresh sign or mark of any description to be seen near, it was impossible to suppose that it had been disturbed.  I can only further remark that Mr. Burke's party not having left any sort of record of their visit to the depot was an omission that seems perfectly incomprehensible.  We well knew that, if the blacks had discovered the cache they would have left it open, and we felt a natural, full assurance that if Europeans had disturbed the cache, and had reason to anxiously desire that their followers should be made aware of it, they would have left some mark conspicuously adjacent.

I have been charged with inconsistency in having alleged, as an urgent reason for my departure, the serious illness of Patten, and also having said that McDonough and myself felt alarming symptoms of being similarly affected.  The truth of all this is borne out by subsequent events and the doctor's evidence.  In my hurried memorandum I stated that 'two of my companions and myself are quite well'.  The explanation of this is, that we did not understand the nature of the severe rheumatic pains we had suffered from when I wrote this document, and I did not consider it important to give a more particular account.  Also I did not expect that there was any chance of Mr. Burke's returning and finding the paper, and I must here state distinctly that I never spoke of illness of McDonough and myself to the committee as a reason for my departure from the depot.

My belief that it would take us seven or eight weeks to reach the Darling was founded on the knowledge of the dry condition of the country, and on the illness of Patten necessitating our travelling slowly.  Mr. Burke's track, I was convinced it would be impossible to follow, as I could hardly hope to find any water from Bulloo to Torowato, a distance of 140 miles.  My after experience confirmed this opinion as to the scarcity of water.

It has been stated, also, as an accusation against me of thoughtlessness or neglect of duty, that when I returned to the Cooper's Creek Depot with Wright from Bulloo, I did not take provisions to increase the stock at the cache.  In reply to this charge, I have to say that I believed that if we did not hear of Mr. Burke's party at the depot, there would be no reasonable expectation of their returning there at all, and if they should be met with by us, the store of provisions was amply sufficient to enable them to return with us to Bulloo.  Moreover, we had to traverse eighty-five miles of perfectly waterless country, and of course we were obliged to travel quickly.  We were also anxious to return to Bulloo as soon as possible on account of most of the men there being sick and the apprehended hostilities of the natives with whom Mr. Wright's party had been in continual collision.

Every point in this statement I am ready and anxious to refer to and explain more fully when the opportunity is afforded to do so.

I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,




The Argus 14 November 1861.


Last Updated: 01-Sep-2008 17:08.