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as told to Howitt at the Cooper Depot, September 1861

Original item held at the State Library of Victoria, SLV MS13071, Box FB33, Item #255110.
Victorian Relief Expedition Records, Alfred William Howitt's expedition diaries and notebooks.
Diary [of Victorian Contingent Party], 13 August-7 October 1861.
Manuscript, field-notebook, 151 pages.

 

Alfred Howitt wrote 'King's Narrative' from notes in his field-book, and gave it to Brahe to take to Melbourne.
Howitt probably wrote this at their camp at Poria Creek, 9-10 October 1861.
This transcription is held at:
State Library of Victoria, SLV MS13071, Box 2083/1f.
Victorian Exploring Expedition Records, Journals and diaries of members of the VEE, John King.

Narrative

of

John King

Survivor of the Burke & Wills Expedition

 
     

1.

John King's Narrative / Received Nov4/61

Mr Burke, Mr Wills, and I reached the depot at Cooper's Creek, on April 21st, about half-past seven in the evening with two camels; all that remained of the six Mr Burke took with him. All the provisions we then had consisted of one-and-a-half-pound of dried meat. We found the party had gone the same day; and looking about for any mark they might have left, found the tree with "DIG, Apr 21". Mr Wills, said the party had left for the Darling. We dug and found the plant of stores; Mr Burke took the papers out of the bottle, and then asked each of us whether we were able to proceed up the creek in pursuit of the party; we said not, and he then said that he thought it his duty to ask us but that he himself was unable to do so, but that he had decided upon trying to make Mount Hopeless, as he had been assured by the committee in Melbourne, that there was a cattle station within 150 miles of Cooper's Creek. Mr Wills was not inclined to follow this plan, but wished to go down by our old track, but at last gave in to Mr Burke's wishes; I also wished to go down by our old track. We remained four or five days to recruit, making preparations to go down the creek by stages of four or five miles a day, and Mr Burke placed a paper in the plant stating what were our plans. Travelling down the creek we got some fish from the natives; and some distance down one of the camels (Landa) got bogged, and although we remained there for a day and part of the next, trying to dig him out, we found our strength insufficient to do so. The evening of the second day we shot him as he lay, and having cut off as much meat as we could we lived on it while we stayed to dry the remained. Throwing all the least necessary things away, we made one load for the remaining camel (Rajah), and each of us carried a swag of about twenty-five pounds. We were then tracing down the branches of the creek running south, and found that they ran into earthy plains. We had understood that the creek along Gregory's path was continuous, and finding that all these creeks ran out into plains, Mr Burke returned, our camel being completely knocked up. We then intended to give the camel a spell for a few days, and to make a new attempt to push on forty or fifty miles to the south in the hope of striking the creek. During the time that the camel was being rested, Mr Burke and Mr Wills went in search of the natives, to endeavour to find out how the nardoo grew; having found their camp they obtained as much nardoo cake and fish as they could eat, but could not explain that they wished to be shown how to find the seed themselves; they returned on the third day bringing some fish and Nardoo cake with them. On the following day the camel Rajah seemed very ill, and I told Mr Burke, I thought he could not linger out more than four days, and as on the same evening, the poor brute was on the point of dying, Mr Burke ordered him to be shot; I did so, and we cut him up with two broken knives and a lancet; we cured the meat and planted it, and Mr Burke then made another attempt to find the Nardoo, taking me with him; we went down the creek expecting to find the natives at the camp where they had been last seen, but found that they had left, and not knowing whether that they had gone up or down the creek,

 
     

2.

we slept in their gunyahs that night, and on the following morning returned to Mr Wills. The next day, Mr Burke, and I started up the creek, but could see nothing of them, and were three days away, when we returned and remained three days in our camp with Mr Wills. We then made a plant of all the articles we could not carry with us, leaving five pounds of rice and a quantity of meat, and then followed up the creek to where there were some good native huts. We remained at that place a few days and finding that our provisions were beginning to run short, Mr Burke said, that we ought to do something, and that if we did not find nardoo, we should starve, and that he intended to save a little dried meat and rice to carry us to Mount Hopeless. The three of us then came to the conclusion that it would be better to make a second attempt to reach Mount Hopeless as we were then as strong as we were likely to be, our daily allowance being then reduced. Mr Burke asked each of us whether we were willing to make another attempt to reach the South Australian settlements, and we decided on going; we took with us what remained of the provisions we had planted- two-and-a -half- pounds of Oatmeal, a small quantity of flour, and the dried meat; this with powder and shot and other small articles made up our swags thirty pounds each, and Mr Burke carried one Billy of water and I another. We had not gone far before we came on a flat, where I saw a plant growing which I took to be clover, and on looking closer saw the seed, and called out that I had found the Nardoo; they were very glad when I found it. We traveled three days, and struck a watercourse coming south from Cooper's Creek; we traced this as it branched out and reformed in the plains, until we at last lost it in flat country; sandhills were in front of us, for which we made and traveled all day but found no water; we were all greatly fatigued, as our rations now consisted of only one small Johnny cake and three sticks of dried meat daily. We camped that evening about four O'clock, intending to push next day until two O'clock p.m., and then should we not find water, to return. We traveled and found no water, and the three of us sat down and rested for one hour and then turned back. We all felt satisfied that had there been a few days' rain we could have got through: we were then, according to Mr Wills's calculation, forty-five miles from the creek. We traveled, on the day we turned back, very late, and the following evening reached the nearest water at the creek. We gathered some nardoo and boiled the seeds, as we were unable to pound them. The following day we reached the main creek- and knowing where there was a fine waterhole and native gunyahs, we went there intending to save what remained of our flour and dried meat for the purpose of making another attempt to reach Mount Hopeless. On the following day Mr Wills and I went out to gather nardoo, of which we obtained a supply sufficient for three days, and finding a pounding stone at the gunyahs, Mr Burke and l pounded the seed, which was such slow work that we were compelled to use half flour and half nardoo. Mr Burke and Mr Wills then went down the creek for the remainder of the dried meat which we had planted; and we had now all our things with us,

 
     

3.

gathering nardoo and living the best way we could. Mr Burke requested Mr Wills to go up the creek as far as the depot, and to place a note in the plant there, stating that we were then living on the creek, the former note having stated that we were on our road to South Australia. He also was to bury there the field-books of the journey to the Gulf. Before starting he got three pounds of flour and four pounds of pounded nardoo, and about a pound of meat, as he expected to be absent about eight days. During his absence I gathered nardoo and pounded it, as Mr Burke wished to lay in a supply in case of rain. A few days after Mr Wills left, some natives came down the creek to fish at some waterholes near our camp. They were very civil to us at first and offered us some fish. On the second day they came again to fish, and Mr Burke took down two bags, which they filled for him. On the third day they gave us one bag of fish, and afterwards all came to our camp. We used to keep our ammunition and other articles in one gunyah and all three of us lived together in another. One of the natives took an oilcloth out of this gunyah, and Mr Burke seeing him run away with it followed him with his revolver and fired over his head, and upon this the native dropped the oilcloth; while he was away, the other blacks invited me away to a waterhole to eat fish, but I declined to do so as Mr Burke was absent, and a number of natives were about who would have taken all our things. When I refused, one took his boomerang and laid it over my shoulder, and then told me by signs that if I called out for Mr Burke (as I was doing) that he would strike me; upon this I got them all in front of the gunyah and fired a revolver over their head, but they did not seem at all afraid until I got out the gun, when they all ran away. Mr Burke hearing the report came back, and we saw no more of them until late that night, when they came with some, cooked fish and called out "white fellow." Mr Burke, then went out with his revolver, and found a whole tribe coming down, all painted, and with fish in small nets carried by two men, Mr Burke went to meet them, and they wished to surround him; but he knocked as many of the nets of fish out of their hands as he could, and shouted out to me to fire. I did so, and they ran of. We collected five small nets of cooked fish. The reason he would not accept the fish from them was that he was afraid of being too friendly lest they should be always at our camp. We then lived on fish until Mr Wills returned. He told us that he had met the natives soon after leaving us, and that they

 
     

4.

were very kind to him, and had given him plenty to eat both on going up and returning. He seemed to consider that he should have very little difficulty in living with them, and as their camp was close to ours he returned to them the same day and found them very hospitable and friendly, keeping him with them two days. They then made signs to him to be off He came to us and narrated what had happened, but went back to them the following day, when they gave him his breakfast, but made signs for him to go away; he pretended not to understand them, and would not go, upon which they made signs that they were going up the creek, and that he had better go down: they packed up and left the camp, giving Mr Wills a little nardoo to take to us. During his absence, while Mr Burke was cooking some fish during a strong wind, the flames caught the gunyah and burned so rapidly that we were unable not only to put it out but to save any of our things, excepting one revolver and a gun. Mr Wills having returned, it was decided to go up the creek and live with the natives if possible, as Mr Wills thought we should have but little difficulty in obtaining provisions from them if we camped on the opposite side of the creek to them. He said he knew where they were gone, so we packed up and started. Coming to the gunyahs where we expected to have found them, we were disappointed, and seeing a nardoo field close by halted, intending to make it our camp. For some time we were employed gathering nardoo, and laying up a supply. Mr Wills and I used to collect and carry home a bag each day, and Mr Burke generally pounded sufficient for our dinner during our absence; but Mr Wills found himself getting very weak, and was shortly unable to go out to gather nardoo as before, or even strong enough to pound it, so that in a few days he became almost helpless. I still continued gathering, and Mr Burke now also began to feel very weak, and said he could be of very little use in pounding; I had now to gather and pound for all three of us. I continued to do this for a few days; but finding my strength rapidly failing, my legs being very weak and painful, I was unable to go out for several days, and we were compelled to consume six days' stock which we had laid by. Mr Burke now proposed that I should gather as much as possible, in three days, and that with this supply we, should go in search of the natives - a plan which had been urged upon us by Mr Wills as the only chance of saving him and ourselves as well, as he clearly saw that I was no longer able to collect sufficient for our wants. Having collected the seed as proposed, and having pounded sufficient to last Mr Wills for eight days, and two days for ourselves, we placed water and firewood within his reach

 
     

5.

and started; before leaving him, however, Mr Burke asked him whether he still wished it, as under no other circumstance would he leave him, and Mr Wills again said that he looked on it as our only chance. He then gave Mr Burke a letter and his watch for his father, and we buried the remainder of the field-books near the gunyah. Mr Wills said that in case of my surviving Mr Burke, he hoped that I would carry out his last wishes, in giving the watch and letter to his father. In travelling the first day, Mr Burke seemed very weak, and complained of great pain in his legs and back. On the second day he seemed to be better, and said that he thought he was getting stronger but on starting, did not go two miles before he said he could go no further. I persisted in his trying to go on, and managed to get him along several times, until I saw that he was almost knocked up, when he said he could not carry his swag, and threw all he had away. I also reduced mine, taking nothing but a gun and some powder and shot, and a small pouch and some matches. In starting again, we did not go far before Mr Burke said we should halt for the night; but as the place was close to a large sheet of water, and exposed to the wind, I prevailed on him to go a little further, to the next reach of water, where we camped. We searched about and found a few small patches of nardoo, which I collected and pounded, and with a crow, which I shot, made a good evening's meal. From the time we halted Mr Burke seemed to be getting worse, although he ate his supper; he said he felt convinced he could not last many hours, and gave me his watch, which he said belonged to the committee, and a pocket-book to give to Sir William Stawell, and in which he wrote some notes. He then said to me, 'I hope you will remain with me here till I am quite dead - it is a comfort to know that some one is by; but, when I am dying, it is my wish that you should place the pistol in my right hand, and that you leave me unburied as I lie.' That night he spoke very little, and the following morning I found him speechless, or nearly so, and about eight o' clock he expired. I remained a few hours there, but as I saw there was no use remaining longer I went up the creek in search of the natives. I felt very lonely, and at night usually slept in deserted wurleys belonging to the natives. Two days after leaving the spot where Mr Burke died, I found some gunyahs where the natives had deposited a bag of nardoo, sufficient to last me a fortnight, and three, bundles containing various articles. I also

 
     

6.

shot a crow that evening; but was in great dread that the natives would come and deprive me of the nardoo. I remained there two days to recover my strength, and then returned to Mr Wills. I took back three crows; but found him lying dead in his gunyah, and the natives had been there, and had taken away some of his clothes. I buried the corpse with sand, and remained there some days, but finding that my stock of nardoo was running short, and as I was unable to gather it, I tracked the natives who had been to the camp by their footprints in the sand, and went some distance down the creek shooting, crows and hawks on the road. The natives, hearing the report of the gun, came to meet me, and took me, with them to their camp, giving me nardoo and fish. Then they took the birds I had shot and cooked them for me, and afterwards showed me a gunyah where I was to sleep with three of the single men. The following morning they commenced talking to me, and putting one finger on the ground and covering it with sand, at the same time pointing to the creek saying 'white fellow,' which I understood to mean that one white man was dead. From this I knew that they were the tribe 'who had taken Mr Wills's clothes. They then asked me where the third white man was, and I also made the sign of putting two fingers on the ground and covering them with sand, at the same time pointing up the creek. They appeared to feel great compassion for me when they understood that I was alone on the creek, and gave me plenty to eat. After being four days with them, I saw that they were becoming tired of me, and they made signs that they were going up the creek and that I had better go downwards; -but I pretended not to understand them. The same day they shifted camp, and I followed them, and on reaching their camp I shot some crows, which pleased them so much that they made me a breakwind in the centre of their camp, and came and sat round me until such time as the crows were cooked, when they assisted me to eat them. The same day one of the women, to whom I had given part of a crow, came and gave me a ball of nardoo, saying that she would give me more only she had such a sore arm that she was unable to pound. She showed me a sore on her arm, and the thought struck me that I would boil some water in the billy and wash her arm with a sponge. During the operation, the whole tribe sat round and were muttering one to another. Her husband sat down by her side, and she was crying all the time. After I had washed it, I touched it with some nitrate of silver, when she began to yell, and ran off, crying out 'Mokow! Mokow!' (Fire! Fire!). From this time, she and her husband used to give me a small quantity of nardoo both night and morning, and

 
     

7.

whenever the tribe was about going on a fishing excursion he used to give me notice to go with them. They also used to assist me in making a wurley or breakwind whenever they shifted camp. I generally shot a crow or a hawk, and gave it to them in return for these little services. Every four or five days the tribe would surround me and ask whether I intended going up or down the creek; at last I made them understand that if they went up I should go up the creek, and if they went down I should also go down; and from this time they seemed to look upon me as one of themselves, and supplied me with fish and nardoo regularly. They were very anxious, however, to know where Mr Burke lay, and one day when we were fishing in the waterholes close by, I took them to the spot. On seeing his remains, the whole party wept bitterly, and covered them with bushes. After this, they were much kinder to me than before, and I always told them that the white men would be here before two moons; and in the evening when they came with nardoo and fish they used to talk about the 'white-fellows' coming, at the same time pointing to the moon. I also told them they would receive many presents, and they constantly asked me for tomahawks, called by them.' Bomay Ko.' From this time to when the relief party arrived, a period of about a month, they treated me with uniform kindness, and looked upon me as one of themselves. The day on which I was released, one of the tribe who had been fishing came and told me that the 'white fellows' were coming, and the whole of the tribe who were then in camp sallied out in every direction to meet the party, while the man who had brought me the news took me over the creek where I shortly saw the party coming down.

 
     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
     
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