The Victorian Exploring Expedition was, without doubt, a complete disaster which became the focus of furious debate and outrage. How could the great procession of wagons, camels and horses that left Royal Park have simply evaporated? Who was to blame for so many needless deaths?
Controversy leads to Royal Commission
The Victorian government of the day, under Richard Heales, was at first inclined to let the Committee conduct its own inquiry into the expedition. Opponents of the government, however, and anyone else who was interested in knowing where nearly 50,000 pounds of public money had gone, raised an outcry which forced a Royal Commission of Inquiry. The evidence they gathered remains a crucial store of information about the expedition.
Committee members treated preferentially
Several of the Commissioners had personal connections to the Royal Society, and when the members of the Exploration Committee took the stand, they were not questioned with the same rigour applied to someone like William Brahe, an 'ordinary' member of the expedition, who had already been tried in the court of public opinion for being unlucky enough to leave camp only hours before Burke, Wills and King returned. Even under soft questioning, the Committee members were greatly embarrassed when it came out that they had failed to pay the sole survivor John King his wages because he had neglected to fill out the necessary forms.
Report blames Brahe and Wright
The report of the Royal Commission laid most of the blame on Brahe for leaving Camp LXV, and William Wright for taking so long to follow up the expedition with supplies. To do this, it ignored evidence which exonerated Brahe and mitigated Wright's culpability. If the purpose of this Commission of Inquiry was to dissipate the furious public controversy around the expedition, it did not succeed. Dispute about the true sources of failure - about where praise and blame should lie - continued unabated for many years.