by Edwin James Welch
Edwin James Welch, The Tragedy of Cooper's Creek
The natural sequel to what has already been written was the prompt and unanimous decision of the public to be satisfied with nothing less than the despatch of a party to Cooper's Creek to exhume the remains of Burke and Wills, and convey them to Melbourne for a public funeral. For this purpose, Howitt's party was reconstituted and sent back, but before that part of the story comes under notice, a short account of the three other search parties which were organized in the other Colonies becomes necessary to the proper understanding of the great amount of travelling involved, and the enormous expenditure it entailed.
John McKinlay was a fine specimen of a Scot, born on the Clyde in 1820. He arrived in the colony of South Australia when quite a youth and went on a station owned by his uncle. From that date onwards his life was spent in the bush, through which he travelled extensively and gained the reputation of being one of the best bushmen in Australia. He was offered, and accepted, the leadership of the Burke Relief Expedition which started from Adelaide towards the end of August, 1861, or about two months after Howitt and his Search Party left Melbourne. From what has already been told, it will be evident that McKinlay could not have reached the scene of the tragedy until too late to be of service, even had he been aware of the locality in which it had happened; but he made one discovery which adds to the mystery of the conflicting accounts given about Gray's death and its cause; and one to which considerable importance has been attached on account of the discrepancies it introduced into the original narrative. From McKinlay's journal the following facts are taken. At Lake Hope he obtained a black fellow to sot as a guide across to Cooper's Creek, he being credited with an intimate knowledge of the country in that direction, It soon became evident that he knew "something about the whites" who, he said, had been attacked by the blacks and murdered; in confirmation of which statement he led McKinlay to a. small lake called "Andeginni", about seventy miles to the north west of the Cooper's Creek depot, and pointed out the grave of one of the white men who had been killed by the blacks when the attack was made, He also said that this body was buried by the man's companions after the blacks left, and that another party of blacks came along, dug it up and ate the fleshy parts. To satisfy himself about the truth of this horrible story, McKinlay opened the grave and found the remains of a not long dead European, dressed in a flannel shirt, the skull bearing the marks of two sabre cuts! The mystery increased when they found another newly made grave in the immediate vicinity, evidently dug with a spade, but not so deep as the first and containing some small bones and a quantity of human hair of two distinctly different colors. In a native camp close at hand they also found a pannikin and a tin water bottle and at that camp he captured a black named Kerikeri, who, with an air of pride, admitted that he was one of the attacking party. He also took them to where the white men had their camp when the attack was made, and here they found a quantity of horsehair used for saddle stuffing, leaves from a Nautical Almanac, some empty Ely cartridge shells, and unmistakable tracks of camels and horses.
As though to substantiate his account of what happened, he displayed, on his own body, several recently healed scars left by ball and shot wounds, and ended by declaring that all the other bodies had been eaten. The next morning they were themselves surprised by the sudden appearance of about 40 armed blacks headed by Kerikeri, who tried to surround them, and, as they still pressed on, taking no notice of repeated signals and orders to keep back, McKinlay gave the order to fire. They were, however, most obstinately aggressive and several rounds had to be fired before they dispersed, and McKinlay remarks - "I am afraid that the greatest vagabond of the lot, Kerikeri, escaped scot free."
Naturally, McKinlay was much disturbed by what he had seen; he, therefore, buried a letter at the spot, which he called "Lake Massacre', to the following effect, and returned with his two companions to his main camp, quite satisfied to believe, as any man might have done on the strength of such evidence, that he had found the last camp and discovered the fate of the Burke and Wills Expedition. The buried letter was addressed:
Immediately he reached his camp, men were sent back to Blanche Water with despatches, and when they returned, in about five weeks, McKinley heard, to his utter aston¬ishment, of the rescue of King and the burial of Burke and Wills by Howitt in the middle of September. What then was the solution of the Andaginni mystery? The camp he had found was undoubtedly Burke's, and the body that of Gray, for the locality agreed in every particular with King's description of it. Whose was the second grave, and who made it? But above and beyond all this, what were the two marks-or cuts on Gray's skull, which "looked like sabre cuts"? No solution was possible, for King, the only living witness of what had happened, was unable to offer any, and the time has long since gone by when such might have been possible. The most lamentable result of McKinley's discovery was the recurrence of the discussion as to the actual facts which led up to Gray's death. Wills's version of the "good thrashing" episode was seriously discounted by the evidence of the only survivor, and King was recognised as an ardent champion and defender of Burke against any reflection which might be made on his character as a man, or his actions as an explorer. So the subject was evidently dropped, and the whole story, as told to McKinley, was attributed to the imagination of the blacks and their known ability to exaggerate and magnify trifles.
McKinley then carried out his announced plan of proceeding north, crossed the Diamantina - which he called the Mueller – and gave names, most of which have long since been changed to other creeks and channels. Tried to reach the Gulf waters, but was repeatedly turned back by mangrove swamps and boggy flats, and headed for Queensland, reaching Port Denison in safety after an absence of ten months, signalized by hard work and the discovery of much valuable pastoral country, where only a desert was previously believed to exist. The Royal Geographical Society presented him with a gold watch, and the South Australian Government voted him the sum of £1000.