by Alfred Howitt, 1901.
Journal of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science
The records of Australian Exploration belong to one branch of historical geography and in that aspect I present, this as a contribution which will find its place when the history of the Burke and Wills' expedition shall be rewritten.
In John McKinlay's Journal of Exploration in Central Australia he describes the discovery or a white man's remains, and a subsequent encounter with the blacks, at a place which, for that reason, he called 'Massacre Lake.'
On reading this account I felt certain that the remains were those of Gray, the fourth member, and the first to succumb, of Burke's heroic little party. Doubts have been expressed as to this being so, and being probably the only person who can now throw any light on the question, I have thought it well to record what I know, and the inferences which I draw from McKinlay's account of the events at Massacre Lake.
Burke, Wills, and King, on their return from the Gulf of Carpentaria reached the depot at Cooper's Creek on the 21st of April, 1861, to find it, deserted. Four days previously Gray had died, after being carried on a camel for several days. Wills did not fix the positions of the camps on the return journey after the 11th in Lat. 19° 27' and Long. 140° 59' and therefore the exact place where Gray was buried has remained in doubt. All that can be said is that according to the evidence given by King before the Royal Commission which sat in 1861, it was about 15 miles front Cooper Creek and 70 from the depot.
In the few notes which Burke made there is this record: 'Gray died on the road from hunger and fatigue.' He was the first to die front the same causes as to which Burke and Wills afterwards succumbed. The gradual starvation from which they suffered commenced shortly after they started on their return journey from the Gulf. The rations of provisions were then reduced to quarter of a pound of flour and ten sticks of dried meat per day, and as King puts it, 'as much Portulac as they could collect by the way.' On the 25th of March, Wills found Gray eating skiligolee made from flour which he had taken without permission.
Wills says that he received 'a good thrashing from Burke,' but King says that he 'received six or seven blows with the open hand on the ear.' As King was present, and as Wills was absent at the time, the account, by the former is the most probable. As I have said, Gray died on the 17th April, and his comrades remained there the following day to bury him. They left there some camel pads stuffed with horsehair, a tin-pot and some other things. It is also said that the spot was near a large lake. When I returned to Cooper's Creek on my second journey, formed a depot at a place called by the natives Kallioumaru, or, as it is now shown on the maps Callumurra. I established friendly relations with the Yantruwunta blacks who lived there, and who were those with whom I had found John King. At this time our intercourse was carried on entirely by signs and gestures, they having no English beyond the words 'wilt-fella', 'yarraman' and 'mukketty,' meaning white man, horse and gun. These words must have been transmitted front tribe to tribe until they reached the wild blacks. When I opened up a line of communication with the South Australian settlements at Blanchwater, I obtained a black boy, Frank, who belonged to tilt! Narrinyeri tribe at the Murray River mouth. This boy understood something of the Dieri language, which is near to the Yantruwunta tongue, and thus I was able to communicate with the blacks at Cooper's Creek. When Frank left me I got a Dieri boy from Blanchwater, who understood English as the blacks spoke it at that frontier station. From these two boys I was able to pick up a good deal of the language, and I added to it by constant practice with the Yantruwunta. Thus I was able to explain much information about the geography of the Barcoo Delta, and even about the country north of Sturt's stony desert, on what is now called the Everard or the Lower Diamantina.
Amongst other matters about which I inquired was as to the place where Gray was buried, and I was told it was at a place called Andaginni, where one of the 'warugati wiltfella' (From Warugatti, meaning Emu, but applied by the blacks to the camel, for which they had naturally no name.) that is, Burke's party, was buried by his companions and where also 'whilpra pinnaru' (The word 'whilpra' is a corruption of wheelbarrow, which was applied at that time on the frontier stations to a cart or dray, and was attached to McKinlay because he had a dray with him, the name being passed on from the blacks at the frontier to the wild tribes further out. Pinnaru means elder or headman), that is McKinlay, fought with the blacks. My informants pointed in a north-westerly direction for Andaginni, and said that it, was about four days' journey, or, as I estimated it from 60 to 70 miles distant. At that time I was not aware of McKinlay's account of his being attacked at Massacre Lake, but when I read it , and or his discovery of human remains there, I felt no doubt that it was the body of Gray that he had found.
I have quoted the essential parts or Wills's diary, Burke's notes, and King's evidence, which have a bearing upon the death of Gray, and on the identification of the place where he was buried.
I now add particulars, which I find in John McKinlay's Journal, as to his visit to Massacre Lake, and other extracts which seem necessary to place the whole matter in a clear light.
He started from Adelaide on the 16th of August, 1861, as leader of the Burke Relief Expedition, and arrived at Blanchewater, the then furthest out cattle station, on the 22nd September. A few days before arriving there he was informed that natives had brought in a report of some white men and camels being seen at some inland water by them, or rather by others of the Pandoo, or Lake Hope. tribe. From Lake Hope he went forward, and finally formed a depot at another lake some 50 or 60 miles to the north, which he called Lake Buchanan. In addition to the white men who formed his party, he had the before-mentioned black boy, Frank, whom he picked up at a station further down the country. He also had two blacks from Blanchewater, who, however, ran away from him at Lake Hope, where he obtained a, Dieri black named Bullingani. This man was subsequently with me as a guide, but ran away in the night with some of my things.
On 29th October McKinlay, having formed his depot camp at a place called Wantula, at the outlet of Lake Buchanan, started in search of the waters at which the white men were supposed to be, taking with him two of his party, Hodgkinson and Middleton, and the blackfellow Bullingani, who, he says, 'seemed to say that he knows something of the whites.' McKinlay then says that Bullingani told that the natives whom they saw at place called Moolionthurunie, had murdered the white men they were looking for. That night they reached a place called by Bullingani, Kadhai-baerri, and which McKinlay renamed Massacre Lake. He then describes the finding of a grave in which there were the bones of a white man, enveloped in a flannel shirt. The blackfellow said that this man was killed by the natives, who surprised the party, and that his companions buried him, but after they left the blacks dug up the body and at the muscular parts. McKinlay says that they found a second grave evidently dug with a spade or shovel, and a lot of human hair of two colours, but found in it no other remains excepting one little bone. They also found a pint pot and a tin canteen in a native camp.
On the following morning McKinlay rode after and caught a local native called Kerikeri, who, according to Bullingani, was one of the murderers. This man took them to a camp, where he dug up a quantity of baked horsehair for saddle-stuffing, and told them that 'the saddle was burned, the iron-work kept, and the other bodies eaten.' Also that there was a pistol at a creek to the north-east which McKinlay sent him to fetch. He said further that there was a rifle or gun at the lake last passed, with other articles, and finally he displayed on his body, before and behind, the marks of ball and shot wounds, now quite healed, which had so disabled him that he had to be carried about for some considerable time.
McKinlay says that the following morning, just as they were getting up, and not very clear yet, forty blacks came, headed by Kerikeri, bearing torches, shields, &c. and endeavouring to surround them. As they did not retire when he ordered them back, he gave orders to fire on them, 'seeing nothing left but to be butchered themselves.' Several rounds were fired before they left, but he says that he was 'afraid that the messenger, the greatest vagabond of the lot, escaped scot free.' This appears to refer to Kerikeri.
Such, then, is the information which I have been able to collect as to the death of Gray and the place of his burial. It may be accepted as settled that Gray died and was buried at a place called Andaginni, and that. Andaginni and Massacre Lake are the same place. The camel pads stuffed with horsehair, the tin pot, and other things left behind by Burke at Gray's grave, appear to account for the baked horsehair dug out by Kerikeri, and for the pint pot and the tin canteen found by McKinlay. Fragments of paper, pieces of a nautical almanac, and an exploded Ely cartridge picked up near to where there was the dung of camels and horses, which had been tied up a long time ago,' is strong evidence that the spot was the one where Burke camped. The distance from Cooper's Creek, as given by King, is approximately correct, assuming that the position of Massacre Lake on McKinlay's map can be depended on.
But the second grave which McKinlay says was dug with a spade or shovel is difficult to account for, unless one considers that it was the original grave, in which Gray was buried, but in that case one musts accept the further conclusion that the body was dug up and the skeleton reburied in another grave. Such a conclusion would suggest that the blacks had eaten the flesh and reburied the bones.
The facts, as we can see them, show that the circumstantial account given by McKinlay of the killing of a white man, or a party of white men by the blacks, on the authority of statements made to him by Bullingani and Kerikeri, is not founded on fact. This has pressed upon me ever since I first read McKinlay's journal, and for the following reasons:
Bullingani, when I first knew him some months after this time, knew no English, and Kerikeri must have been equally ignorant of it.
Moreover, McKinlay did not speak Dieri or Yaurorka.
Frank could not have acquired much of the Dieri tongue, because be only entered the Dieri country about a month before, and, besides, he was not with the party at Massacre Lake.
The other two blacks from Blanchwater deserted McKinlay at Lake Hope.
The absence of any means of communication with those wild blacks that McKinlay had to do with is brought out clearly by certain passages in his journal. On 26th October, that is, after he returned to the depot from Massacre Lake, he writes that he 'will send Mr Hodgkinson with others of the party to the settlements to procure additional stores' and to procure a native who can speak the language of the natives at Lake Buchanan, 'as the 'blacks he had did not know one word, nor, on the contrary, did the natives there understand them. As to Buliingani, he writes on the 1st of November. 'I wish he understood a little English, as he then would be of much use.'
It seems, therefore, certain that none of the circumstantial account of the killing, of a white man, or a party of them, could have been given by Bullingani or Kerikeri by word of mouth, and if given at all must have been by signs or gestures. The Lake Eyre tribes are able to communicate freely with each other by sign language but, from my knowledge of the practice, I have no hesitation in saying that it would be impossible for anyone unacquainted with the system of gesture language to have understood such an account as that attributed to these blacks, if given in it. One is therefore necessarily driven to the conclusion that McKinley entirely misunderstood such signs and gestures as they may have used when the grave or graves, together with the horsehair and other things, were found.
As to the attack by the blacks, it is quite possible that they intended it, but it is against such a conclusion that they should come up when it was beginning to be daylight, and that they should make such an attack shouting and carrying torches.
As it seemed to me quite possible that an account of this affair might have been known to the Dieri of Blanchewater, about the time it happened. I wrote, asking for information, to Mr Frank James, lately Superintendent of Police in Victoria, and who at the time of which I am speaking, was the manager of the Blanchwater Station. In reply, he sent me particulars of the statements made to him by the Dieri at that time, which I now condense from his more extended account.
The blacks said that some of them fell in with McKinlay and three of his party on a branch of Cooper's Creek, and tried to tell him about the fate of Gray, Burke and Wills, and the rescue of King; that they guided McKinlay to Gray's grave, which he opened and closed up again, moving to a lake near by, where he camped for the night, a few of the blacks remaining with him. During the night these blacks left him to join some others who were camped on the lake, and told them what they had seen and heard. Some of these then went to have a nearer view of the white men, but the man on watch roused the others, who immediately fired on them, killing some and wounding others. The blacks always declared that they went with no hostile intention, but had the arms for protection, their women being, left at the camp. None of them ever varied in their account of this occurrence.
It is not possible to say whether the blacks intended to attack McKinlay or not. My own experience of these Yaurorka tells both ways. Some six or eight months after McKinlay's affray with them, I camped on the north-western branch of Cooper's Creek, about 20 miles to the north east of Andaginni, and not far from a strong camp of blacks on the other side of the water channel. In the evening, it being bright starlight, I observed a number of them standing on the further bank of the river, which there was about 2 chains in width, some of them being in the water. After watching them in the starlight for some time, I shouted a warning to them, which I had learned from the black boy, Frank, ordering them to go away, or that. I would shoot them. They then went away. The following morning I went to their camp, and, through Frank, told them that if I saw blacks about my camp in the night I should 'kill them with the Mukketty,' that is the gun. The old men with whom I was talking said that they were only looking at us.
The conclusion to which I have come to, after considering the whole of McKinlay's account, is that the grave which he found was that of Gray, and that he entirely misunderstood what the blacks tried to communicate to him.