Successful Exploration Through the Interior of Australia
by William John Wills
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I need hardly add that as soon as Mr. Ligar finishes this chart I will send you copies of it, as also the report of the commission of inquiry.

The country towards Carpentaria or Burke's Land—as I hope it will be called—seems so good that there can be little doubt of the formation, at no distant date, of a colony on the shores of that estuary;—a project which you have long, I know, had at heart; and before we recall the several parties sent out for the relief of the missing expedition, I trust we shall be able so far to complete the task as to connect the settled country, by Mr. Howitt's aid, with Burke's Land by the best possible route; and, by means of the party sent by sea in the Victoria steamer, to add greatly to our knowledge of the Gulf, and of the embouchures of the different rivers falling into it.

Believe me ever,

My dear Sir Roderick,

Yours very truly,


Government Offices, Melbourne, 25th November, 1861.

P.S.—After I had finished my letter, I received a memorandum from the Surveyor-General respecting Mr. Wills's astronomical observations, which is of so much importance that I enclose it for your information, not having time to get a copy made.


. . .

It has been remarked, with some disposition to draw uncharitable conclusions therefrom, that no religious expressions, or any specific references to that all-important subject, are to be found in the field-books and journals that have been given to the public. On this point, King said, in reply to Question 1714, "I wish to state, with regard to there being no particular tokens of religion recorded in any part of the diaries, that we each had our Bible and Prayer-book, and occasionally read them going and coming back; and also the evening before the death of Mr. Burke, I am happy to say, he prayed to God for forgiveness for the past, and died happy, a sincere Christian."

The curtain drops here on the history of the great Victorian Exploring Expedition, and little more remains to be told of its results or shortcomings. The continent was crossed, the Gulf reached, and the road indicated by the hardy pioneers, which their successors will find it comparatively easy to level and macadamize. Already the stimulant of the Burke and Wills catastrophe has called into active exercise the successive expeditions and discoveries of Howitt, Norman, Walker, Landsborough, and McKinlay. Others will rapidly follow, with the characteristic energy and perseverance of the Saxon race. Now that time has, to a certain extent, allayed the poignant grief of those who are most nearly and dearly interested in the fate of the original explorers; when first impulses have cooled down, and the excitement of personal feelings has given way before unquestionable evidence, we may safely ascribe, as far as human agencies are concerned, the comparative failure of the enterprise to the following specific causes:—

1. The double mistake on the part of the leader, of dividing and subdividing his forces at Menindie and Cooper's Creek;

2. The utter unfitness of Wright for the position in which he was placed;

3. The abandonment by Brahe of the depot at Cooper's Creek;

4. The resolve of the surviving explorers to attempt the route by Mount Hopeless, on their homeward journey;

And lastly, to the dilatory inefficiency of the Committee, in not hurrying forward reliefs without a moment's delay, as the state of circumstances became gradually known to them.

It is not so easy to estimate the relative quantity of blame which ought justly to attach to all who are implicated. Each will endeavour to convince himself that his own share is light, and that the weight of the burden should fall on the shoulders of some one else. Meanwhile, there remain for the heroic men who died in harness without a murmur in the unflinching exercise of their duty, an undying name, a public funeral, and a national monument; the unavailing sympathy and respect which rear an obelisk instead of bestowing a ribbon or a pension; recorded honours to the unconscious dead, in place of encouraging rewards to the triumphant living. A reverse of the picture, had it been permitted, might have been more agreeable; but the lesson intended to be conveyed, and the advantages to be derived from studying it, would have been far less salutary and profitable.


Letters of sympathy and condolence; from Sir Henry Barkly; Major Egerton Warburton; A.J. Baker, Esquire; P.A. Jennings, Esquire; Dr. Mueller; The Council of Ballaarat East; Robert Watson, Esquire; John Lavington Evans, Esquire Meeting at Totnes. Resolution to erect a Monument to Mr. Wills. Proceedings in the Royal Geographical Society of London. Letter from Sir Roderick Murchison to Dr. Wills. Dr. Wills's Reply. The Lost Explorers, a poetical tribute. Concluding Observations.

As soon as my son's death became publicly known, and there could no longer be a doubt on the subject, letters of condolence and sympathy poured in upon me from many quarters. From these I select a few as indicating the general impression produced by his untimely fate, and the estimation in which he was held by those who were personally acquainted with him. The afflicting event was communicated to his mother in Totnes, Devon, by a telegram a fortnight before the regular mail, accompanied by the following letter from Sir Henry Barkly, Governor of Victoria:—

Government Office, Melbourne, November 26th, 1861.


Though you will hear of the bereavement which has befallen you inthe loss of your gallant son from those that are near and dear both to you and to himself, I cannot refrain, in the position I have the honour to hold, from adding my assurance of the sympathy of the entire community with your grief, and the universal admiration of his abilities as displayed throughout the expedition, and which his noble and heroic conduct to the last hour of his life have inspired.

You may rely upon it that the name of William John Wills will go down to posterity, both at home and in this colony, amongst the brightest of those who have sacrificed their lives for the advancement of scientific knowledge and the good of their fellow-creatures.

Believe me, dear Madam,

Yours very respectfully,


Governor of Victoria.

Mrs. Wills, Totnes, Devon.

. . .

Sir Henry also moved in the committee and the motion was carried nemine contradicente, that from the important part Mr. Wills had taken, the expedition should be called, "The Burke and Wills exploring Expedition." Some spiteful remarks by opposite partisans were made in the Melbourne Argus on this very natural and complimentary resolution. An advocate on one side said, "If the expedition had failed would it have been called the Burke and Wills Expedition?—We opine not." To which another replied the following day, in the same columns, "Would the expedition have succeeded if Wills had not been there?—We opine not." None would have regretted these invidious observations more than the generous, free-hearted Burke, and my gallant son, had they lived to see them. They had no petty jealousies. Each knew his position, and they acted throughout with unswerving confidence as friends as well as associated explorers.

It was asserted by Burke's enemies that he was violent, and not having sufficient command over himself, was therefore unfitted to command others. This conclusion, sound enough in the abstract, is more easily made than proved, and in the present instance receives direct contradiction from the undeviating cordiality between the leader and his second. In the cases of Landells and Dr. Beckler, universal opinion pronounced Burke to be in the right.

. . .




Vain as must be any consolation that can be offered to you under the circumstances of almost unparalleled distress attending the loss of your son, I cannot but avail myself of our acquaintanceship to express my most humble and hearty sympathy in the terrible catastrophe.

Anger and horror combine to drive us away from the contemplation of the causes of this tragic termination of a feat of heroism and endurance such as has been rarely before achieved; and we turn with deep sorrow and admiration to dwell upon that noble display of faithful, patient courage which calmly awaited an early and unbefriended grave on the spot where the foot-prints of triumph were reasonably to have been expected.

We all share in your grief; and would fain hope that this may somewhat lessen its bitterness to you; but it must be a source of pride and comfort to you to remember that your son died having DONE his duty to his country and his companions. More than this no man can do, live he ever so long, and few there are who do so much.

Permit me to subscribe myself a deep sympathiser with you in your affliction,


The Major had been a candidate for the office of leader, but his conditions as to his second were objected to. The next letter is from a gentleman who had accompanied Major Warburton as second on some explorations from Adelaide. At Totnes I knew him when a boy.

. . .

Dorset Terrace, Adelaide.


I truly sympathize with you in the loss you have met with in so heroic and superb a fellow as your son. I cannot read his journals without wishing that I had been with him, for his qualities as an explorer were perfect in my humble opinion. The news of his sad death has been a great blow to all of us, and we sincerely feel for you in your affliction. But though dead in the flesh, the brave spirit of your son will stand emblazoned on the pages of our country's history as one of those heroes who have died for the cause in which he was engaged, in the flush of victory, cheerfully fulfilling his duties to the last.

I cannot believe that Wright and Brahe ever returned to Cooper's Creek. If they had done so a stockman so well experienced in tracking as Wright must be, would have detected the presence of signs that might escape the eye of one less practised; for it is ascertained now that the stores had been removed about the time that Brahe left, and before, as they say, they returned in company.

I also believe that, had Burke taken his companions' advice, and followed down Brahe's tracks, they would have been saved, for it is well known to all travellers that animals will feel cheered in following the footsteps of their late associates; but to attempt to force his party to explore new country when a well-known route was open to him was little short of madness. I have not patience to criticize Wright and Brahe's conduct. If Brahe had even left more stores, clothing especially, we should have had the pleasure of welcoming the explorers home.

But God's wise providence knows what is best, and in saying, His will be done, I pray that He may comfort you and yours in this great bereavement. Mrs. B. and my daughter unite with me in kindest regards, and believe me to be as ever,

My dear sir,

Your sincere friend,


. . .


St. Arnaud, December 15th, 1861.


I did not like to intrude upon your sorrow before; but I feel desirous of now testifying the sympathy of myself and friends at St. Arnaud with you under your heavy affliction. I had the pleasure of forming an intimacy with your lamented and gallant son during his stay here; an intimacy which soon ripened into a true friendship.

It was in the year 1858, from March to July, that your son stopped in this vicinity, as the promoter of the survey of this town. I was thrown much into his company, and soon learned to appreciate his amiable and noble disposition. My mother and sisters, who also found pleasure in his society, had the deepest regard and admiration for him; and the expedition in which he was engaged therefore possessed an unusual interest for us.

I assure you I can hardly find words to express our feelings, at the thought of his fate, and the base desertion of Burke and himself by those who should have endeavoured to sustain them. I had the most profound confidence in your son's ability as an explorer, knowing well the varied nature of his scientific attainments, his great practical knowledge of bush life, and the clear common sense which was his leading characteristic. Many a time we have talked about him; and every time we mentioned his name the same feeling of assurance in his safe return was always expressed, even to the last. Such was our confidence in him. A week before the sad tidings of his death reached Melbourne, I had a conversation with Mr. Byerly, whom I then met accidentally, and who had just returned from Queensland. Our conversation reverted to your son, and Mr. Byerly coincided with me in my faith in him, but remarked that all his exertions could be of little avail if not properly supported. Mr. Byerly had at first expressed a fear that the party HAD BEEN ALLOWED TO PERISH through the remissness of those whose duty it should have been to use every possible means to rescue them in the proper time. His words were, unfortunately, prophetic.

I know, my dear sir, that almost anything like consolation for you now must come from other than man, but I could not help saying these few words to you; and I know that no persons unconnected by blood with your family, and enjoying such brief personal acquaintance with your son as myself; and mother and sisters, can be more sincerely or deeply moved at the harrowing record of his untimely fate. Indeed, it has cast a gloom over every one; and the hardest heart could not but be affected by such a noble spectacle as the last days of his glorious life present.

It is proposed here to erect an obelisk to his memory, and I am about to get one of the streets named after him. I cannot commit myself to write further on the subject, but will conclude by subscribing myself,

Yours, ever faithfully,


W. Wills, Esquire, M.D.

. . .


December 11th, 1861.


His Excellency informed me by note last night that Mr. Heales thinks to leave the consideration of everything connected with the great and glorious enterprise of your son and Mr. Burke, to the Commission, which Mr. Heales will probably have installed before leaving office.

His Excellency adds, that every thought shall be given, that the family who immortalized their name by the work of your lamented son shall not be forgotten. I hope to be in town to-morrow, and will do myself the pleasure of calling on you.

Very regardfully yours,


. . .

The Melbourne Advertiser, of December the 4th, 1861, contained the following leading paragraph:

It is the intention of Mr. O'Shanassy to place a sum of 5000 pounds on the Estimates towards the erection of a national monument to Burke and Wills, and it is believed a like amount will be raised by public subscription in various parts of the colony; so that the aggregate amount will enable us to raise a memorial worthy of Victoria, and worthy of the heroes whom we design to honour. This is as it should be. Burke and Wills achieved a splendid exploit: their lives were the forfeit of their daring; and we owe it to their reputation, as well as to our own character, to preserve a durable record of their great achievement, and to signalize to after-ages our admiration of its simple grandeur, and our gratitude to the brave men who accomplished it. A time will come when a belt of settlements will connect the shores of Port Phillip with those of the Gulf of Carpentaria; when, on the banks of the Albert or of the Flinders, a populous city will arise, and will constitute the entrepot of our commerce with the Indies; and when beaten roads will traverse the interior, and a line of electric telegraph will bisect the continent. The happy valley of Prince Rasselas was not more verdant or more fertile than much of the country passed through by the explorers, whose loss we deplore; and it is certain that these beautiful solitudes will be rapidly occupied by the flocks and herds of the squatter. Agricultural settlements will follow; towns and villages will be established, gold-fields probably discovered, and waves of population will overflow and will fertilize vast tracts of country which we have hitherto concluded to be a sterile desert. These events will owe their initiation to the adventurous pioneers who first crossed the continent from sea to sea. Theirs was the arduous effort; theirs the courage, endurance, and sustaining hope; theirs the conflict with danger and the great triumph over difficulties; theirs the agony of a lingering death, and theirs the mournful glory of a martyr's crown. Defrauded, as it were, of the honours which would have rewarded them had they lived to receive the congratulations they had earned, it becomes the melancholy duty of their fellow-citizens to perpetuate the memory of Burke and Wills by a monument which shall testify to their worth and our munificence.

. . .


Melbourne, December 21st, 1861.


I need not assure you that I shall be but too happy to render you any services within my power, and especially such as are connected with doing justice to your poor and great son.

Having been duly authorized by you to secure the pistol of your late son, I will take an early opportunity to claim it for you and bring it to your son Thomas. I will also very gladly do what I can in restoring to you any other property I may hear of as belonging to your lamented son William. As soon as Professor Neumayer returns, we can learn with exactness what instruments were your son's. I will also inquire about the telescope. I believe I forgot mentioning to you, that it would be a source of the highest gratification to me to call some new plant by the name of the family, who claim as their own, one of now imperishable fame. But I will not be unmindful that, in offering an additional tribute, humble as it is, to your son's memory, it will be necessary to select, for the Willsia, a plant as noble in the Australian flora as the young savant himself who sacrificed his life in accomplishing a great national and never-to-be-forgotten enterprise.

Trusting, my dear and highly valued friend, that the greatness of the deed will, to a certain extent, alleviate your grief and sorrow for an irreparable loss, and that Providence may spare you long in health and happiness, for your family.

I remain,

Your faithfully attached,


W. Wills, Esquire, M.D.

. . .

Melbourne Botanical Gardens, January 5th, 1862.


It affords me a melancholy satisfaction that the humble tribute which I wish to pay to the memory of your lamented son, in attaching his name to the enclosed plant, elicited such kind recognition from yourself. I need not assure you that I shall continue to maintain, as I have done on all previous occasions, that only by the skilful guidance and scientific talents of your unfortunate son, the great geographic success is achieved, which he sealed with his heroic death.

We can only now deeply deplore the loss of SUCH a man, and award that honour to his memory which his great exploit for ever merits.

With the deepest sympathy for you, ever dear and respected friend,



The plant is thus registered in the Fragmenta Phytographiae Australiae:—


Speciem Eremophilae Goodwinii (F. M. Report on the Plants of Babble's Expedition, page 17) propinquam tesqua Australiae centralis ornantem, elegi ut botanicis recordarem gloriam nunquam obliviscendam intrepidi et ingeniosi sed infelicissimi Gulielmi Wills, qui primo terram Australiae continentalem a litore ad litus peragravit, sua morte praecocissima in tacito eremo triumphum aeternum agens. [Footnote: I have chosen a species of Eremophila resembling Goodwin's, which adorns the deserts of central Australia, to record by botany the glory never to be forgotten of the intrepid and talented, but most unfortunate, William Wills, who was the first to traverse the continent of Australia from shore to shore, winning for himself, by his too early death in the silent wilderness, an eternal triumph.]


June 6th, 1862.


Once more I wish you a most cordial goodbye, and trust that in the circle of your family you will feel some consolation for the dreadful bereavement which has befallen you in the loss of your son. May it alleviate your affliction to some small extent, to remember that your son has gained by the sacrifice of his precious life a world-wide fame, and an appreciation which will remain unobliterated throughout all ages.

With the deepest solicitude for your health and happiness, I remain, my very dear Dr. Wills,

Your attached friend,


. . .

At an earlier period, the Municipal Council of Ballaarat East paid me the compliment of the subjoined address:—


Council Chamber, Ballaarat East, November 7th, 1861.


The Municipal Council of Ballaarat East, for itself and on behalf of the native community of this district, with feelings of the deepest sorrow and commiseration, beg leave to sympathize with you in the most severe and irreparable bereavement which you are so unfortunately called upon to bear in the loss of your worthy and devoted son, Mr. William John Wills. It would however hope that all possible consolation will be yours in the knowledge of his having nobly and successfully accomplished his mission, the benefits of which cannot be too highly appreciated by the whole of the inhabitants of the Australian Colonies; and which must secure to his future memory, under the unfortunate circumstances by which he was sacrificed, not only honour and fame, but the sympathy, love, and respect of his fellow-men in all parts of Her Majesty's dominions, and in every civilized country throughout the world. These considerations the Council trusts you will endeavour to bring to your aid in overcoming the intense grief with which you must be afflicted.

I am, sir,

In the most heartfelt sorrow,

Yours very truly,



. . .

A proclamation in a supplement to one of the Melbourne Gazettes, towards the end of November, announced that the Governor, with the advice of the Executive Council, had directed that the portions of Main-street, Ballaarat East, lying between the Yarrowee River and Princess Street, shall hereafter be designated Wills Street, in memory of the companion of Burke.

The two following letters, written by Devonians settled in Victoria, appeared in the Totnes Weekly Times:—

Batesford, Geelong, 25th November, 1861.


I have sent you by this mail the sad history of poor Burke and Wills, which I am sure will be read with painful interest by all your fellow-townsmen. The Melbourne papers have been very severe on the Exploration Committee, and it was my intention to have sent you copies of the Argus, from 4th to 9th November, but they cannot now be procured at any price. My brother will lend you his, if you desire it.

Nothing that has occurred here for many years has thrown such a gloom over the whole of the Australian Colonies. We are generally, perhaps, a cold, unfeeling people, but there are few whose hearts have not been touched by this sad event.

It is scarcely possible that you, accustomed as you are to the green pastures, the shady lanes, and crystal springs of dear old Devon, can realize to the full extent the sickening hardships they had to endure, or the cruel disappointment under which even they at last gave way. I cannot conceive a situation more heartrending than theirs must have been on their return to Cooper's Creek, to find the depot abandoned. They had succeeded in accomplishing the glorious feat which so many brave men had tried in vain to accomplish; they had endured hardships which might make the stoutest heart quail; they had returned alive, but footsore, worn out and in rags, to where they might have hoped for help and succour; they were on their way to where honour and glory, well and nobly earned, awaited them; and now they must lie down in the dreary wilds of an almost unknown country, and die that most horrible of all deaths, starvation, They must have felt, too, that, worse than even this death itself, the fruits of their labours would, in all probability, perish with them, their fate remain unknown, and the glorious page of the world's history which they would have written would be buried in oblivion, and all this—ALL this because

'Some one had blundered.'

It has been decided that the remains are to be brought to Melbourne and have a public funeral. Monuments are also to be erected to the memory of the brave fellows:—

"These come too late, and almost mock whom they are intended to honour."

Poor Wills! you will remember him as a boy. It has occurred to me that Totnes may wish in some way to perpetuate the memory of one who perished so young and with such honour in a noble cause. Should it be so, I have asked my brother to be there with something from me. Every good man must deeply regret his loss, and sincerely sympathize with his relatives and friends.

Your hero has passed to no ignoble grave; He died not ere a deathless fame was won; And earth must count amongst her true and brave, The brave and patient Wills, Devonia's son.

I am, dear Sir,

Yours truly,


To the Editor of the Totnes Times.

. . .


Melbourne, November 26, 1861.

By this mail, I have sent you the public journals of this city, containing detailed accounts of the Exploring Expedition, despatched hence on the 20th August last, to find its way to and return from the Gulf of Carpentaria. Only one of the party has succeeded in accomplishing this unparalleled undertaking, three having fallen victims to hunger and disease. R. O'Hara Burke was the leader of the Expedition, and W.J. Wills, a native of Totnes, and son of a physician from your locality, was the second in command, observer and astronomer. The Expedition had visited the Gulf, and had returned to Cooper's Creek, where a depot had been formed, but unfortunately broken up only six hours before the return of the weary travellers. Their disappointment at finding such to be the case, you must gather from Wills's journal, which was the best kept of the party, and is replete with information of the country through which they passed. To Mr. Wills, senior, the loss of his favourite son is a sad blow, under such distressing circumstances; yet, amid all, young Wills was full of spirit to the last, and his final entry in his journal must have been made just six hours before he breathed his last. For him and for them, the colonists in Australia have shed tears of sorrow, and the Government have given instructions that their remains are to be brought to the city, and interred with all the pomp and solemnity befitting such an occasion. A sum of money is voted by Parliament to mark specially the event by erecting an obelisk in some conspicuous part of the city, most probably in face of one of our Parliament Houses. A number of Devonians, however, have resolved to subscribe, and with the consent of the municipal authorities, wish to mark the event more especially in his native town; and it is thought the Plains, at Totnes, is a suitable place for the erection of such a monument. To that end, subscription lists will be opened in our principal towns, and by next mail I hope to report that satisfactory progress is being made. The school where he was educated (Ashburton), conducted, too, by a Totnes man, Mr. Paige, has not been forgotten; and as there are schoolfellows of Wills's in this colony, they also intend bearing testimony to his worth by placing a tablet, with the consent of the trustees, in the Grammar School of St. Andrew's. None more worthy exists in that ancient hall of learning.

In conclusion, I would just remark that the continent has been traversed from north to south, but there is yet the important feat of crossing from east to west. For whom is this wreath reserved? Is it to be won by a Totnes or an Ashburton man, or one from this country? Time will decide.

I remain,

Yours truly,


. . .

A correspondent to the Bendigo Advertiser concluded a long letter with the subjoined paragraph:—

Poor Wills, the martyr, whose history of the journey is all that is left to us, is deserving of a nation's tears: his youth—his enduring patience—his evenness of temper, which must have been sorely tried—his lively disposition even in extremities—his devotion to his leader—all tend to stamp him as the real master-mind of the expedition, and as such let Victoria be justly proud of him—let no false delicacy keep the memory of the noble youth from the pinnacle it is so justly entitled to.

. . .

The Mayor of Totnes, J. Derry, Esquire, in compliance with a requisition from many of the principal inhabitants, convened a meeting at the Guildhall on the 31st of January, 1862, which was most numerously attended. Eloquent speeches were made, extracts from the letters of Mr. Watson, and Mr. Lavington Evans, were read, and the following resolutions were unanimously passed:

1. That this Meeting is of opinion that a Memorial should be erected in Totnes to the late Mr. William John Wills, who perished at Cooper's Creek on his homeward journey, after, with three others, having for the first time successfully crossed the great Island Continent of Australia.

Perhaps when the subscriptions were received they would be able to decide what form the memorial should assume. It had been suggested that a tablet should be placed in the church, but he, Mr. Cuming, the mover, rather demurred to this: the church would not be a conspicuous place for it; and as many would subscribe who did not attend the parish church, he thought the Plains, or some other public site, should be chosen, but it would be well to leave this matter for the present an open question.

2. That a committee be now formed to solicit subscriptions for the purpose of carrying into effect the last resolution, and that such committee consist of the following gentlemen:—The Mayor, Messrs. Bentall, Kellock, Cuming, Presswell, Heath, Windeatt, Watson, Michelmore, Condy, Clarke, Ough, Endle; with power to add to their number.

3. That as soon as the subscription list is completed, and the Devonshire men resident in the colony have communicated their wishes and intentions to the committee, according to the intimations expressed by them, the committee be requested to call a meeting of the subscribers to decide on the character of the memorial to be erected.

The subscriptions at Totnes have been very liberal, and are still open. Mr. Watson and his family contributed most liberally. The Duke of Somerset gave ten pounds. Each of the members, Admiral Mitchell, and various others five pounds; but the character of the monument has not yet been decided on. At Ashburton Grammar School a memorial has been erected, Mr. Lavington Evans and his brother contributing ten pounds from Australia.

At the annual meeting of the Royal Geographical Society of London, held on the 26th of May, 1862, Lord Ashburton awarded the founder's Gold Medal to the representative of the late Robert O'Hara Burke, and a gold watch to King. These were handed to his Grace the Duke of Newcastle, who attended in his public capacity as Secretary of State for the Colonies, and undertook to deliver them to the respective parties, with many justly eulogistic observations. Lord Ashburton read a paper on the progress of geographical science, and Sir R. Murchison, in the course of a notice on Australia, suggested that that portion which had been explored by Mr. Burke should be hereafter called Burke's Land. But it so happened that my son's name was neither mentioned nor alluded to in the published proceedings.

At the first meeting of the Society for the present season, held on the 10th November, 1862, and at which I was present, Sir Roderick Murchison introduced the subject of Australian exploration in his address, in a manner quite unexpected by me. The next day I received the following official communication, which embodied the substance of what he had said, and nearly in the same words.


15, Whitehall Place, 11th November, 1862.


At the first meeting of the Council of this Society, during this session, I brought under the consideration of my associates, a statement of the distinguished botanist, Dr. Mueller, of Victoria, to the effect that the friends of your deceased son were dissatisfied on finding that Mr. Burke, the leader of the late expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria, had received a gold medal, and that Mr. King had received a watch, whilst no testimonial of the services of Mr. Wills had been presented on the part of the Royal Geographical Society.

Permit me to assure you that when the award of the gold medal was made, every member of the Council, as well as myself, who proposed it, felt that to your son alone was due the determination of all the geographical points, by his astronomical observations, and that therefore the honour should be shared between the leader and himself.

Continuing to entertain the same sentiments, and regretting that the rule of the society prevented them from granting more than one gold medal for an expedition, the Council have authorized me to offer this explanation to you, in order that it may be preserved as a memorial.

As nothing less than a medal could have been adjudicated to so good a geographer as your lamented son, so I trust that this explanation, and the words, which fell from me last evening at the general meeting, in eulogizing his valuable services, may prove satisfactory. Rely upon it, that his merits will never be forgotten by my associates and myself.

I have the honour to be, Sir,

Your very faithful servant,


President of the Royal Geographical Society.

P.S. This letter shall be printed in the Proceedings of the Society.

. . .

I replied thus:—


President of the Royal Geographical Society.

27 Arundel Street, Strand, 18th November, 1862.


It was with much satisfaction that I received your letter of the 11th instant, acknowledging the appreciation by yourself and the Council of the Royal Geographical Society, of the merits of my lamented son in the Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition in Australia. That he, and he alone, was the only one who had the least pretension to the title of geographer, is manifest; —therefore it is not strange that Dr. Mueller and my friends in Australia should feel somewhat annoyed in the matter of the Medal.

I am not surprised that it should have so happened under the circumstances. The motto 'Sic vos non vobis', would be appropriate for him in memoriam. The clothes, for the want of which he died, so amply provided by himself, were worn by others; the land discovered has been called exclusively by another name;—the Gold Medal should follow.

Still I am grateful for your well-expressed remarks at the meeting of the 10th instant, and for this written testimonial of the 11th, from yourself and the Council.

I have the honour to be,

Sir Roderick,

Your obedient and humble servant,


Father of the late Explorer.

. . .

Several poetical tributes in honour of the adventurous dead were published in Victoria. I select one which appeared in the Melbourne Herald, on the 1st of December, 1861.


'Tis but a little lapse of time Since they passed from out our sight; Their hearts with hope were buoyant, And each face with gladness bright; And many were the fervent prayers That in safety they might go, Through a hidden land to the distant strand Where ocean billows flow.

Theirs was no gay adventure In some softly pleasant place: They left home's quiet sanctitude To meet a hostile race; To carve a passage through the land, That down its channels wide, With a joyous start might flow a part Of the restless human tide.

Across bleak stony deserts, Through dense scrub and tangled brier, They passed with hearts undaunted, And with steps that would not tire; Through morass and flooding waters, Undismayed by toil and fears, At their chief's command, with salient hand, Fought on the pioneers.

Battled with cold and famine, Battled with fiery heat, Battled o'er rocks till a trail of blood Was left by their wounded feet; Battled when death with his icy hand Struck down the body of Gray;— 'Onward!' they said, as they buried the dead, And went on their gloomy way.

Now gather round your household hearths, Your children by your knee; 'Tis well that they should understand This tale of misery. 'Tis well that they should know the names Of those whose toil is o'er; Whose coming feet, we shall run to meet With a welcome NEVER MORE.

Tell how these modern martyrs, In the strength and pride of men, Went out into the wilderness And came not back again; How they battled bravely onward, For a nobler prize than thrones, And how they lay, in the glaring day, With the sun to bleach their bones.

Tell how their poor hearts held them up Till victory was won; How with fainting steps they journeyed back, The great achievement done. But of their anguish who may know, Save God, who heard each groan, When they saw no face at the trysting place, And found themselves alone!

Left alone with gaunt starvation, And its sickly brood of ills, Stood Burke the sanguine, hopeful King, And the hero-hearted Wills; Sad and weary stood the pioneers, With no hand to give relief, And so each day winged on its way As a dark embodied grief.

Who can guess the depth of agony— That no mortal tongue may tell— Which each felt when slowly dying At the brink of hope's dry well! Deserted, famished garmentless, No voice of friendship nigh, With loving care, to breathe a prayer When they settled down to die.

Yet God be praised, that one dear life Was held within His hand, And saved, the only rescued one Of that devoted band Who went into the wilderness, In the strength and pride of men: The goal was won and their task was done, But they came not back again.

We cannot break their calm, grand sleep, By fond endearing cries; We cannot smile them back again, However bright our eyes; But we may lowly bend the head, Though not asham'd of the tears We sadly shed, for the lowly dead, Cut down in their bloom of years.

And laurel garlands, greener Than war's heroes ever bought With the blood of slaughtered thousands, Shall by loving hands be brought; And sanctified by many prayers, Laid gently in their grave, That the coming race may know the place Where sleep our martyr'd brave.


. . .


The narrative I have felt called upon to give to the public, founded on an unexaggerated statement of facts, with many of which no other person could have been so well acquainted, is now concluded,—with the natural anguish of a father for the loss of a son of whom he was justly proud, and who fell a victim to incapacity and negligence not his own. Still, I have no desire to claim merit for him to which he is not entitled, or to abstract an iota from what is justly due to others. The Report of the Royal Commission is to be found at full in the Appendix; unaccompanied necessarily by the mass of conflicting evidence, trustworthy, contradictory, misinterpreted or misunderstood, on which it was based. The members who composed that court were honourable gentlemen, who investigated patiently, and I have no doubt conscientiously. But there were many present, with myself, who witnessed the examinations, and wondered at some points of the verdict. We find the judgment most severe on the leader who sacrificed his life, and whose mistakes would have been less serious and fatal had his orders been obeyed. There is also a disposition to deal leniently with the far heavier errors and omissions of the Exploration Committee; and an unaccountable tendency to feel sympathy for Brahe, whose evidence left it difficult to decide whether stupidity, selfishness, or utter disregard of truth was his leading deficiency.

It now only remains to sum up a brief retrospect of the active spirit of discovery set astir, and not likely to die away, as a sequel to the great Burke and Wills Expedition, for by that name it will continue to be known. We have already seen that the Victoria steamer, under Commander Norman, was sent round to the Gulf of Carpentaria to search for the missing explorers, had they reached that part of the coast; and to expedite and assist land parties in advancing, southwards, to their aid. Captain Norman suffered some delay by the unfortunate wreck of the Firefly, a trader, laden with horses, coals, and straw; and having on board Mr. Landsborough and party, who were to start from the Albert river, or thereabouts. This wreck occurred on the 4th September, 1861, on one of the group of islands to the north, called Sir Charles Hardy's Islands. On the 7th, they were found by Commander Norman, and through his great personal exertions, ably seconded by his officers and crew, he got the ship off, with the greater part of the horses and coals, and nearly all the stores.

On the 1st of October, they reached the mouth of the Albert. On the 14th of the same month, Landsborough started for the head of that river, as far as it was navigable, in the Firefly, under the command of Lieutenant Woods of the Victoria; and on the 17th they were landed about twelve miles up the stream. It was past the middle of November before Mr. Landsborough resumed his onward course; and as his explorations had little to do with an endeavour to discover the tracks of the Victorian Expedition, although he gained much credit by his exertions, it is unnecessary to detail them more minutely here. I shall merely say that he followed a course south by east, skirting the country rather more to the westward than the track followed by previous explorers, and eventually reached Victoria.

Mr. Walker, despatched overland from Queensland, reached the Gulf on the 7th of December, 1861; and reported that he had, on the 24th of November, found well-defined traces of three or four camels and one horse, undoubtedly belonging to the Victorian Expedition, and making their way down the Flinders. With his usual characteristic, he started again on the 11th of December. Mr. Walker, with his party, consisting chiefly of natives, did good service in his progress through Queensland; for when the report reached Melbourne, through Captain Norman, that he had discovered the tracks of the camels so near the sea, it furnished satisfactory evidence of the correctness of my son's journals, although the fatal news of his death and that of his commander had been long received. There were not wanting ungenerous cavillers to insinuate doubts that he and Burke had been at the Gulf. This inference they sought to establish from an expression in one of the few of Burke's notes preserved, to this effect: "28th March.—At the conclusion of report, it would be well to say that we reached the sea, but we could not obtain a view of the open ocean, although we made every effort to do so." At the extreme point they reached, about fifteen miles down the Flinders, the tide ebbed and flowed regularly, and the water was quite salt. The very simplicity of Mr. Burke's remark shows that it was made by a man not given to lying or deceit. Mr. Walker followed the return tracks for some distance, but lost them at about 20 degrees of south latitude, and then struck off direct east for the Queensland district, to inquire, and get further supplies for a new start. At Rockhampton he received the fatal intelligence which had been sent round by sea from Melbourne; and also the news of the discovery of King by the gallant Howitt, to whom all honour is due for his labours in the cause.

But Mr. McKinlay, leader of the South Australian Expedition, of whom I have already spoken more than once, has performed the most extraordinary exploit of all, and has traversed by far the greatest quantity of new ground, but not in the direction originally intended by the government that sent him. Failing in finding the traces of Burke and his expedition, McKinlay took more to the north and north-west between the 120 and 140 degrees of eastern longitude. Yet from some floodings which my son, it will be remembered, pointed out in his journal as occurring from indications on trees, McKinlay changed his course to north and by east until he reached the Gulf of Carpentaria, and then to south and by east, and crossed to Queensland, returning from Rockhampton to Adelaide by water. A glance at the map will show the courses of these respective explorers sufficiently for general purposes. Thus Queensland, by some mysterious influences in its favour, has reaped the whole benefit of these explorations at the least apparent cost. The land discovered by the Burke and Wills Expedition, now named Burke's Land, has been handed over to Queensland by the Home Government, up to Cape York, on the extreme north, in Torres Straits. This vast continent, west of 140 degrees, in which the South Australian, and West Australian governments have so much interest, is, with the exception of Stuart's Line, quite unexplored.

It has been a subject of congratulation by some, that the misadventures, or more properly speaking, the gross errors connected with the Victorian Expedition, have led to results that amply compensate for the loss sustained. It is truly painful to hear, and not very easy for those who are deeply interested, to believe this; and I think the majority of all readers will consider that these losses might have been easily avoided.

The relatives of the sacrificed explorers have to mourn their fate, and the colony of Victoria has spent large sums of money, not for her own benefit, immediate or indirect, present or prospective. She, too, may exclaim "Sic vos non vobis." Lucky Queensland derives the benefit; her boundaries are extended to 140 degrees of east longitude. A great part of this country, formerly supposed to be of a doubtful nature, is now known to be the finest land in the Australias, capable of producing cereals, wines, and tropical fruits; also a vast extent of ground fitted for the growth of cotton. A source of unbounded wealth is thus opened to that fortunate young colony: coals had previously been discovered there. She is also better supplied with timber and forests than the more southern districts. Victoria, with her capital, Melbourne, will have to wait for the extension of railways, marking her position as the centre of commerce, and will in time reap her well-merited reward. Melbourne will always represent the metropolis of the various colonies of Australia.

South Australia, so happy in her abundant produce of corn, wine, and mineral ores of copper and iron, is a most desirable colony, but a great portion of her interior being yet unexplored, her full capabilities cannot at present be estimated. There is no man more likely than John McKinlay, with his robust frame, his energy and activity, to carry out this great object, if the opportunity is supplied to him.

The Australias altogether comprise a country capable of conferring happiness upon countless thousands of the Saxon race. Everything is to be found, if the right people only are selected. Let them comprise youth, vigorous health, temperate habits, persevering industry, and morals based on sound Christianity, and their success and advancement in life is as certain as anything can be pronounced in this world of uncertainty.

While these pages are going through the press, the last mail from Melbourne informs us that Mr. Howitt was expected to arrive in that capital towards the middle of December, 1862, with the remains of Messrs. Burke and Wills. Arrangements are being made for a public interment of the most imposing character. If numbers can add to the effect, they are not likely to be wanting. Circulars have been officially addressed to nearly 250 public bodies and societies throughout the colony, inviting the different members to join in the ceremony. Replies have been received from by far the greater portion, stating their willingness and desire to join in this last testimony of respect for the lamented explorers. The monument, for which 5000 pounds has been voted by Government, is to be erected in the Reserve surrounding the Parliament House.




Exploration Committee, Royal Society of Victoria, Melbourne, 18th August, 1860.


I am directed by the Committee to convey to you the instructions and views which have been adopted in connection with the duties which devolve upon you as Leader of the party now organized to explore the interior of Australia.

The Committee having decided on Cooper's Creek, of Sturt's, as the basis of your operations, request that you will proceed thither, form a depot of provisions and stores, and make arrangements for keeping open a communication in your rear to the Darling, if in your opinion advisable; and thence to Melbourne, so that you may be enabled to keep the Committee informed of your movements, and receive in return the assistance in stores and advice of which you may stand in need. Should you find that a better communication can be made by way of the South Australian Police Station, near Mount Serle, you will avail yourself of that means of writing to the Committee.

In your route to Cooper's Creek, you will avail yourself of any opportunity that may present itself for examining and reporting on the character of the country east and west of the Darling.

You will make arrangements for carrying the stores to a point opposite Mount McPherson, which seems to the Committee to be the best point of departure from this river for Cooper's Creek; and while the main body of the party is proceeding to that point you may have further opportunities of examining the country on either side of your route.

In your further progress from Mount McPherson towards Cooper's Creek, the Committee also desires that you should make further detours to the right and left with the same object.

The object of the Committee in directing you to Cooper's Creek, is, that you should explore the country intervening between it and Leichhardt's track, south of the Gulf of Carpentaria, avoiding, as far as practicable, Sturt's route on the west, and Gregory's, down the Victoria, on the east.

To this object the Committee wishes you to devote your energies in the first instance; but should you determine the impracticability of this route you are desired to turn westward into the country recently discovered by Stuart, and connect his farthest point northward with Gregory's farthest Southern Exploration in 1856 (Mount Wilson).

In proceeding from Cooper's Creek to Stuart's Country, you may find the Salt Marshes an obstacle to the progress of the camels; if so, it is supposed you will be able to avoid these marshes by turning to the northward as far as Eyre's Creek, where there is permanent water, and going then westward to Stuart's Farthest.

Should you, however, fail in connecting the two points of Stuart's and Gregory's Farthest, or should you ascertain that this space has been already traversed, you are requested if possible to connect your explorations with those of the younger Gregory, in the vicinity of Mount Gould, and thence you might proceed to Sharks' Bay, or down the River Murchison, to the settlements in Western Australia.

This country would afford the means of recruiting the strength of your party, and you might, after a delay of five or six months, be enabled, with the knowledge of the country you shall have previously acquired, to return by a more direct route through South Australia to Melbourne.

If you should, however, have been successful in connecting Stuart's with Gregory's farthest point in 1856 (Mount Wilson), and your party should be equal to the task, you would probably find it possible from thence to reach the country discovered by the younger Gregory.

The Committee is fully aware of the difficulty of the country you are called on to traverse; and in giving you these instructions has placed these routes before you more as an indication of what it has been deemed desirable to have accomplished than as indicating any exact course for you to pursue.

The Committee considers you will find a better and a safer guide in the natural features of the country through which you will have to pass. For all useful and practical purposes it will be better for you and the object of future settlement that you should follow the watercourses and the country yielding herbage, than pursue any route which the Committee might be able to sketch out from an imperfect map of Australia.

The Committee intrusts you with the largest discretion as regards the forming of depots, and your movements generally, but request that you will mark your routes as permanently as possible, by leaving records, sowing seeds, building cairns, and marking trees at as many points as possible, consistently with your various other duties.

With reference to financial subjects, you will be furnished with a letter of authority to give orders on the Treasurer for the payment of any stores or their transport, cattle, sheep, or horses you may require; and you will not fail to furnish the Treasurer from time to time with detailed accounts of the articles for which you have given such orders in payment.

Each person of the party will be allowed to give authority for half of his salary being paid into any bank, or to any person he may appoint to receive the same; provided a certificate is forwarded from you to the effect that he has efficiently discharged his duty.

The Committee requests that you will make arrangements for an exact account being taken of the stores and their expenditure by the person you place in charge of them.

The Committee also requests that you would address all your communications on subjects connected with the exploration to the Honorary Secretary; and that all persons acting with you should forward their communications on the same subject through you.

You will cause full reports to be furnished by your officers on any subject of interest, and forward them to Melbourne as often as may be practicable without retarding the progress of the expedition.

The Committee has caused the inclosed set of instructions to be drawn up, having relation to each department of science; and you are requested to hand each of the gentlemen a copy of the part more particularly relating to his department.

I have the honour to be, Sir,

Your most obedient servant,

(Signed) JOHN MACADAM, M.D.,

Honorary Secretary, E.C., R.S.V.

Robert O'Hara Burke, Esquire.

Leader, Victorian Exploring Expedition.

. . .


VICTORIA: By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith.

To our trusty and well-beloved The Honourable SIR THOMAS SIMSON PRATT, K.C.B., The Honourable SIR FRANCIS MURPHY, Speaker of our Legislative Assembly, The Honourable MATTHEW HERVEY, M.P., The Honourable JAMES FORESTER SULLIVAN, M.P., and EVELYN PITFIELD SHIRLEY STURT, Esquire, all of Melbourne, in the Colony of Victoria, GREETING.

WHEREAS the Governor of our Colony of Victoria, with the advice of the Executive Council thereof, has deemed it expedient that a Commission should forthwith issue for the purpose of inquiring into all the circumstances connected with the sufferings and death of ROBERT O'HARA BURKE and WILLIAM JOHN WILLS, the Victorian Explorers: and WHEREAS it is desirable to ascertain the true causes of this lamentable result of the Expedition to the said ROBERT O'HARA BURKE and his companions; and especially to investigate the circumstances under which the depot at Cooper's Creek was abandoned by WILLIAM BRAHE and his party on the twenty-first day of April last; and to determine upon whom rests the grave responsibility of there not having been a sufficient supply of provisions and clothing secured for the recruiting of the Explorers on their return, and for their support until they could reach the settlements; and generally to inquire into the organization and conduct of the Expedition: also, with regard to the claims upon the Colony of the surviving members thereof, and of the relatives (if any) of the deceased members: NOW KNOW YE that we, reposing great trust and confidence in your integrity, knowledge, and ability, have authorized and appointed, and by these presents do authorize and appoint you, SIR THOMAS SIMSON PRATT, SIR FRANCIS MURPHY, MATTHEW HERVEY, JAMES FORESTER SULLIVAN, and EVELYN PITFIELD SHIRLEY STURT, to be Commissioners for the purpose aforesaid: and for the better effecting the purpose of this Commission, we do give and grant you power and authority to call before you such persons as you shall judge likely to afford you any information upon the subject of this Commission: and to inquire of and concerning the premises by all other lawful means and ways whatsoever: and this Commission shall continue in full force and virtue; and you the said Commissioners may, from time to time, and at every place or places, proceed in the execution thereof, and of every matter or thing therein contained, although the inquiry be not regularly continued from time to time by adjournment: and lastly, that you do report, as occasion may require, for the information of our Governor of our said Colony, under your hands and seals, all matters and things elicited by you during the inquiry under this Commission.


WITNESS our trusty and well-beloved SIR HENRY BARKLY, Knight Commander of the Most Noble Order of the Bath, Captain-General, and Governor-in-Chief of our Colony of Victoria, and Vice-Admiral of the same, at Melbourne, this twelfth day of November, One thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, and in the twenty-fifth year of our Reign.


By His Excellency's command,

(Signed) R. HEALES.

. . .




In conformity with the terms of Her Majesty's commission, we have made inquiry into the circumstances connected with the sufferings and death of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, the Victorian explorers.

We have endeavoured to ascertain the true causes of this lamentable result of the expedition, and have investigated the circumstances under which the depot at Cooper's Creek was abandoned by Mr. William Brahe. We have sought to determine upon whom rests the grave responsibility of there not having been a sufficient supply of provisions and clothing secured for the recruiting of the explorers on their return, and for their support until they could reach the settlements; and we have generally inquired into the organization and conduct of the expedition.

Our investigations have been confined to the above matters, the Government having already taken into consideration the claims on the colony of the surviving members of the expedition, etc.

We have examined all persons willing to give evidence who professed, or whom we supposed to possess, knowledge upon the various subjects of our inquiries: and we now, after mature consideration, submit to your Excellency the following Report:—

The expedition, having been provided and equipped in the most ample and liberal manner, and having reached Menindie, on the Darling, without experiencing any difficulties, was most injudiciously divided at that point by Mr. Burke.

It was an error of judgment on the part of Mr. Burke to appoint Mr. Wright to an important command in the expedition, without a previous personal knowledge of him; although, doubtless, a pressing urgency had arisen for the appointment, from the sudden resignations of Mr. Landells and Dr. Beckler.

Mr. Burke evinced a far greater amount of zeal than prudence in finally departing from Cooper's Creek before the depot party had arrived from Menindie, and without having secured communication with the settled districts as he had been instructed to do; and, in undertaking so extended a journey with an insufficient supply of provisions, Mr. Burke was forced into the necessity of over-taxing the powers of his party, whose continuous and unremitting exertions resulted in the destruction of his animals, and the prostration of himself and his companions from fatigue and severe privation.

The conduct of Mr. Wright appears to have been reprehensible in the highest degree. It is clear that Mr. Burke, on parting with him at Torowoto, relied on receiving his immediate and zealous support; and it seems extremely improbable that Mr. Wright could have misconstrued the intentions of his leader so far, as to suppose that he ever calculated for a moment on his remaining for any length of time on the Darling. Mr. Wright has failed to give any satisfactory explanation of the causes of his delay; and to that delay are mainly attributable the whole of the disasters of the expedition, with the exception of the death of Gray. The grave responsibility of not having left a larger supply of provisions, together with some clothing, in the cache, at Cooper's Creek, rests with Mr. Wright. Even had he been unable to convey stores to Cooper's Creek, he might have left them elsewhere, leaving notice at the depot of his having done so.

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 the 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.

The conduct of Mr. Brahe in retiring from his position at the depot before he was rejoined by his commander, or relieved from the Darling, may be deserving of considerable censure; but we are of opinion that a responsibility far beyond his expectations devolved upon him; and it must be borne in mind that, with the assurance of his leader, and his own conviction, he might each day expect to be relieved by Mr. Wright, he still held his post for four months and five days, and that only when pressed by the appeals of a comrade sickening even to death, as was subsequently proved, his powers of endurance gave way, and he retired from the position which could alone afford succour to the weary explorers should they return by that route. His decision was most unfortunate; but we believe he acted from a conscientious desire to discharge his duty, and we are confident that the painful reflection that twenty-four hours' further perseverance, would have made him the rescuer of the explorers, and gained for himself the praise and approbation of all, must be of itself an agonizing thought, without the addition of censure he might feel himself undeserving of.

It does not appear that Mr. Burke kept any regular journal, or that he gave written instructions to his officers. Had he performed these essential portions of the duties of a leader, many of the calamities of the expedition might have been averted, and little or no room would have been left for doubt in judging the conduct of those subordinates who pleaded unsatisfactory and contradictory verbal orders and statements.

We cannot too deeply deplore the lamentable result of an expedition, undertaken at so great a cost to the colony; but, while we regret the absence of a systematic plan of operations on the part of the leader, we desire to express our admiration of his gallantry and daring, as well as of the fidelity of his brave coadjutor, Mr. Wills, and their more fortunate and enduring associate, Mr. King; and we would record our feelings of deep sympathy with the deplorable sufferings and untimely deaths of Mr. Burke and his fallen comrades.







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