Burke & Wills Web
www.burkeandwills.net.au
The online digital research archive of expedition records
© 2012

by Edwin James Welch

Edwin James Welch, The Tragedy of Cooper's Creek
ML:MSS 314/225 filed at A1928 (ML CY1115) n.d, c. 190-?, Angus & Robertson Collection.
State Library of New South Wales

Chapter IX

Burial of the leaders
King's story

Several days passed before any coherent account of what had happened could be obtained from the physically broken-down man. His constant craving was for food - more food, and this was generously supplied in the shape of boiled rice, mixed with ghee, for which he had acquired a taste during his life in India, and of it there was, fortunately, a plentiful supply in the camp for the use of the camels. Sugar, of which he could never get enough, was stirred into this, and there was always some one close at hand to spoon-feed him when the demand was made. Then he would roll over and sleep for an hour or two and wake to ask for more.

Under this treatment he improved daily and became more communicative, though his talk was constantly interrupted by floods of tears and moans. The first thing to be done was, of course, to discover the bodies of the leaders, if possible, and give them proper burial, and acting on such directions as King was able to give, a funeral party composed of Howitt, Welch, Brahe, and King himself, on a led horse, proceeded slowly down the creek for about seven miles to a spot where two bough gunyahs stood in the sand close to the main channel. These were evidently portions of an old native camp, and in one of them, partly covered by boughs and sand by King on his final visit to the spot, lay all that remained of poor Wills. With no human being near him in this lonely spot, his heroic spirit had passed into the unknown, his two companions having left him, at his own request, to try and obtain food from the blacks. And they never met again! The body was sadly dismembered by native dogs, the bones of the arms and legs being scattered widely, and the head missing. The trunk, being partially protected by the raggedy remains of an old singlet, was matted together amongst the horse-hair of the camel-pad on which he died, but the dog tracks all round the spot were too plain to be mistaken.

All that could be collected of the remains was interred in a deep hole in the sand, under the gunyah; and the nearest tree, a large sound gum, was deeply branded with a chisel:

W. J. WILLS
N.N.W XLV Yds.
AH

Not having a prayer book, Howitt read with great feeling the 15th Chapter of 1st Corinthians and the return to Camp followed such protection as could be made for the security of the grave.

King was prostrated by the scene and unable to act as guide to the body of Burke, three days after, when Howitt, Welch, Brahe, Dr Wheeler and Aitken proceeded according to directions a similar distance up the creek and reached Camp 31, already described, and not to be mistaken on account of the heap of pelican feathers previously referred to. The locality exactly answered King's description of the place where the body was to be found, and it was, perhaps, fortunate that it was not discovered on the way down as it would have caused delay, although its identification would have been impossible, owing to ignorance of the now disclosed facts, and King's rescue might have been still further postponed.

A close search, however, resulted in the finding of a complete skeleton, some of the small bones only missing, concealed among the marsh-mallows, and a rusty Colt's revolver loaded and capped at some distance from it. That the body had been dragged by dogs from its original position was evident, but being uncovered, it had escaped a similar dismemberment to that of Wills. Here then, at last, was all that was left of the gallant leader who, in spite of all his mistakes, richly deserved a better fate. A grave was dug at the foot of a gnarled old box tree, the skeleton rolled in a Union Jack, brought from the camp for the purpose – fitting shroud for a brave man who had fought his last fight against death in one of its worst shapes - was reverently interred, and the 11th Chapter of St. John was read by Howitt as the uncovered group stood with bowed heads and hearts full of real sorrow.

The tree was marked;

R. O'H, B.
21. 9. 61.
A.H.

and the mound piled with heavy logs.

At intervals, and by slow degrees, King, whose condition was improving daily, told the tale of the disaster, which is condensed to avoid the repetition of much that was afterwards learned when Wills's field-books were exhumed at the Depot.

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