Burke & Wills Web
The online digital research archive of expedition records
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& the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860

Andrew Jackson
London: Smith, Elder & Co.
(Ferguson 10857)

Chapter 11

  • Disappointment and Depression of the Party on finding the Depot deserted.
  • Brahe's Journal of his Stay at Cooper's creek.

It is not easy to imagine what must have been the feelings of the explorers. Here they were, just returned from an enterprise of unexampled difficulty and danger, which they had brought to a successful termination at the expense of an unheard of amount of privation and suffering, only to find themselves deserted in their greatest need by companions on whom they had implicitly relied for succour. Such sudden depression of spirits, reacting on a state of high hope and exultation, must have had a withering effect on frames already exhausted by famine, and travel-worn to the last degree of human endurance. Their condition may be better imagined than described.

The sufferers themselves say comparatively little on the subject, but we learn from King that Mr Burke was for some time too much excited to do anything: and well indeed he might be. After looking round in a state of bewildered astonishment at the forsaken camp, and noticing that some articles were scattered about which would certainly have been taken away if a mere change of station near the spot had been intended, Mr Wills noticed that a tree had been marked with the words “DIG. 21st April, 1861" and at once exclaimed, "They have left here today!" He immediately set to work with King to open the ground beneath, and found in a box a few inches below the surface a supply of provisions which had been left for them by Brahe, and a bottle containing a note which was speedily handed up to and read aloud by Mr Burke. It ran as follows :

Depot, Cooper's Creek, April 21, 1861.

The Depot party of V.E.E. leaves this camp to-day to return to the "Darling." I intend to go S.E. from Camp 60, to get into our old track near Bulloo. Two of my companions and myself are quite well; the third- Patten-has been unable to walk for the last eighteen days, as his leg has been severely hurt when thrown by one of the horses. No person has been up here from the “Darling." We have six camels and twelve horse in good working condition.

William Brahe.

Now it must be observed that this note did not contain an accurate description of the real state of the Depot party. None of them were quite well, neither were the camels and horses in such good working condition as was represented. Had the explorers known this, they would, in all probability, have decided on following Brahe as soon as they could, and if they had done so they would, doubtless, have been saved. But who could cherish the faintest hope of overtaking a party able to push on with all the vigour of health and strength, at the rate of twenty or thirty miles a day, under circumstances like these? The camels were completely done up, for they had been pressed to the utmost that day, and were not able to travel another mile. The explorers themselves were utterly exhausted. King touchingly says: It was as much as one of them could do to crawl to the side of the creek for a billy of water. They therefore determined, as any men mould have done under the circumstances, to refresh themselves for a day or two with the provisions that had been left, and then endeavour to reach the nearest settlement in the best manner they could.

The following entry by Mr Wills, under date Sunday, 21st April, 1861, is taken from the diary :

Arrived at the Depot this evening, just in time to find it deserted. A note left in the plant by Brahe communicates the pleasing information that they have started to-day for the Darling; their camels and horses all well and in good condition. We and our camels being just done up, and scarcely  able to reach the Depot, have very little chance of overtaking them. Brahe has fortunately left us ample provisions to take us to the bounds of civilization, namely:- Flour, 50 Ibs. ; rice, 20 Ibs. ; oatmeal, 60 Ibs; sugar, 60 Ibs; and dried meat, 15 lbs. These provisions, together with a few horse-shoes and nails and some odds and ends, constitute all the articles left, and place us in a very awkward position in respect to clothing. Our disappointment at finding the Depot deserted may easily be imagined - returning in an exhausted state, after four months of the severest travelling and privation, our legs almost paralysed, so that each of us found it a most trying task only to walk a few yards. Such a leg-bound feeling I never before experienced, and I hope never shall again. The exertion required to get up a slight piece of rising ground, even without any load, induces an indescribable sensation of pain and helplessnees, and the general lassitude makes one unfit for anything. Poor Gray must have suffered very much many times when we thought him shamming. It is most fortunate for us that these symptoms, which so early affected him, did not come on us until we were reduced to an exclusively animal diet of such an inferior description as that offered by the flesh of a worn-out and exhausted horse. We were not long in getting out the grub that Brahe had left, and we made a good supper off some oatmeal porridge and sugar. This, together with the excitement of finding ourselves in such a peculiar and almost unexpected position, had a wonderful effect in removing the stiffness from our legs. Whether it is possible that the vegetables can so have affected us, I know not; but both Mr Burke and I remarked a most decided relief and a strength in the legs greater than we had had for several days. I am inclined to think that but for the abundance of portulac that we obtained on the journey, we should scarcely have returned to Cooper's Creek at all.

As for Brahe, nothing that can be said here can add to the bitterness of his reflection, that if he had stood stedfast for only one day more, he would have saved his leader. Seven hours more, and he would have had the unspeakable pleasure-the enduring honour - of rescuing from suffering and death, and restoring triumphant to their country, the brave men who had trusted him. But he was wanting in fortitude: he failed in the determination to stand firm in the exercise of his duty, in the face of all discouragement. Had he possessed but a tithe of the endurance and devotion of his chief, pressed though he was by the entreaties of a sick comrade, he would have stood his ground. The beasts he had would have supplied his party with food for many a day: indeed, they were, even then, far from being at the end of their stock of provisions. However, it fell out otherwise. The man Patten, who had been complaining for some time, had begged hard, as for his life, to be taken back to Menindie, and Brahe- who, as well as the other European, McDonough, seems to have entertained an idea that Mr Burke might not come back that way - at last yielded.

The following journal, drawn up by himself before the sad results of his conduct became fully known, will show all that Brahe felt able to say in his own defence at the time it was written:

To the Hon. Secretary, Exploration Committee, Melbourne.
Melbourne, June 30, 1861.

I have the honour to report to you, for the information of the Committee, that on the 16th of December last, Mr Burke gave me charge of the Depot formed by him at Cooper's Creek, and started for Eyre's Creek on route for the Gulf of Carpentaria, at 6.40 AM., on the same day. His party consisted of himself, Mr Wills, King, and Gray. He took with him six camels and one horse. The party was provided with provisions for twelve weeks. I accompanied the party for a distance of twenty-two miles along the water-course of the creek. The party remaining at the Depot consisted of myself, Patten, McDonough, and Dost Mahomed. My instructions, received by word of mouth, were to remain at the Depot three months or longer, if provisions and other circumstances would permit. I left the party at four o'clock, PM., on the same day, and returned to the Depot. On the following day, the 17th December, we commenced cutting timber, for the purpose of erecting a stockade.

December 22.
Natives, about twenty-five in number, approached the camp, but I considered it advisable not to allow them to come near the tents.

December 30.
On several days during the week were annoyed by a number of natives. On Wednesday they succeeded to steal six camel pack-bags which we had washed that morning, and spread out on the turf on the water's edge to dry. The thief, by keeping under shelter of the high bank, escaped unobserved. Noticing the 100s only late in the afternoon, I did not think it advisable to go in pursuit.

During the night of Thursday I observed two blacks within one hundred yards of the camp, but, on my shouting to them, they ran off. On the 23rd finished the stockade, twenty feet by eighteen feet, and put up Mr Burke's tent within it. In this tent I kept the ammunition and firearms. From within the stockade we had the other tents and the camels, which were kept tied up at night, under cover of our guns.

December 31.
Observed some blacks stealing stealthily along the banks of the creek, towards the camp, while one of them directed them from behind a big tree. I allowed them to come within twenty paces of the camp, when, suddenly, I called out to them, we, at the same time firing off our guns over their heads. They seemed much frightened, and hardly able to run away. Great numbers of blacks camped near us.

January 6, 1861.
A large number of natives came to the camp, whose demeanour roused my suspicions. Got hold of a young native, and shoved him off, when he fell down. In the afternoon the whole tribe returned, the men armed, some with spears and some with boomerangs; most of them had painted their faces and bodies. I met them at a short distance from the camp, and marking a circle round it, I gave them to understand that they would be fired at if they entered it. On some of them crossing the line, I fired off my gun into the branches of a tree, when they retired, and did not molest us any more.

December 24.
I should like to explore the neighbourhood a little, but cannot safely leave the camp for longer than three or four hours; one of the men looking after the camels the greater part of the day, while the other is away from four to five hours daily, to prevent the horses from straying. I should have mentioned that I had charge of six camels and twelve horses; two of the camels very scabby. Grass is getting. very dry and scarce near the camp. We are obliged to hang all our stores on boughs of trees, to protect them from the rats, of which we killed about forty every night for some time.

February 26.
I rode up a conical hill, bearing NW by N from the depot. It is distant about nine miles, and one of a chain of hills running NE and SW. From the top of this hill I saw another range, distant about fifteen or twenty miles, much broken, and considerably higher than the one I was on. The county between the two is stony, like that between the first range and the depot.

March 1.
Natives less numerous. Looking out anxiously for Mr Burke's return. One day I took a ride up the creek, which joins Cooper's Creek opposite our camp, coming from ESE, following it up about six miles, and found bed and banks thickly timbered with myall. The country in that direction is very stony. From the top of a stony rise I saw a low range, running E and W, distant about fifteen miles. Blacks passing now and then, offering us nets and fish. We made it a rule never to accept the least thing from them, but made some of them little presents, as left-off clothes.

March 15.
About twenty-five natives, with their families, passed here last night, on their may up the creek, offering nets and fish. They gave me to understand that there would be plenty of water in the creek shortly, and that we might swim on the flat the stockade was on.

April 1.
During the first twenty-four days of March the heat has been greater than might be expected for the season, and especially the nights mere intolerably sultry, a great deal more so than the warmest of January. On the 24th there was a sudden change; it began to blow hard; the nights became very cool. On the evening of the 29th we observed lightning in all quarters, and heard thunder in the north. A slight shower of rain fell between eight and nine o'clock PM, and another on the following morning, not sufficient, however, to lay the dust. The blacks stole a camel pack-saddle from us on the 27th while I was away from the camp. They carried it about a mile down the creek, where Patten overtook them, and recovered the saddle, but it was torn to pieces.

April 1.
Patten commenced shoeing the horses, lest he might become incapacitated by disease, as he felt very unwell.

April 4.
Patten, after shoeing two horses, was obliged to take to his bed, suffering acute pain, and was not afterwards able to move about.

April 15.
atten is getting worse. I and McDonough begin to feel alarming symptoms of the same disease.

April 18.
here is no probability of Mr Burke returning this way. Patten is in a deplorable state, and desirous of being removed to the Darling to obtain medical assistance, and our provisions will soon be reduced to a quantity insufficient to take us back to the Darling, if the trip should turn out difficult and tedious. Being also sure that I and McDonough would not much longer escape scurvy, I, after most seriously considering all circumstances, made up my mind to start for the Darling on Sunday next the 21st. The horses have lately got into the habit of straying; missed five of them a few days ago, and found them about fifteen miles from the camp. Last Monday we had a welcome rain for the first time since the 8th December (except some slight showers on the 24th and 25th March). The last three days have been fine and cool, but now it again looks like rain, although the barometer is very high, higher indeed than it has been during our stay here.

April 21.
Left the depot at ten o'clock AM, leaving 50 lbs of flour, 50 lbs of oatmeal, 50 Ibs of sugar, and 30 lbs of rice buried near the stockade at the foot of a large tree, and marked the word "Dig" on the tree. I took 150 Ibs of flour, 75 Ibs of sugar, about 70 Ibs of oatmeal, 1 bag of rice, 4 Ibs of tea, and a small quantity of biscuits. Taking into consideration that we would be obliged to travel slowly on account of Patten, and on account of the scarcity of water, which I calculated to have to contend with, and would probably be on the road to the Darling at least six or seven weeks, I considered that I could not take less provisions. Patten was placed on a quiet camel. We travelled very slowly, and halted at five o'clock PM., having made about fourteen miles.

There can be no doubt that Brahe afterwards, when too late, felt exceedingly sorry for what he had done, and said that had he known the party would have returned the night they did, he would have remained there certainly. (*Footnote; Royal Commission, Question 1732). Of course he would. And it would he hard upon him not to take into consideration the trying circumstances of the case in which he stood. Harassed by the earnest pleadings of the dying man, he no doubt intended to act for the best, and if he failed in firmness of character at this trying moment, it mould be unfair towards him not to admit that a like misfortune might in a like case have befallen a much better man.

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