by Edwin James Welch
Edwin James Welch, The Tragedy of Cooper's Creek
Sturt's horse - Public funeral - Coincidences
Nothing now remained to be done. All the search parties had returned, and the worst was known. Howitt had started again for Cooper's Creek to bring back the remains of Burke and Willa for public interment in the Melbourne Cemetery, his party consisting of some of those who had accompanied him on the first trip and a few fresh hands in place of some who resigned, chiefly because they had no desire to go over the same ground again on such a mournful errand.
Welch, Aitken and Phillips decided to go with him, but Dr Wheeler was among those who did not, and the vacancy created by him was filled by the appointment of Dr P Murray, a gentleman whose name came into much. prominence later on in connection with the Ladies' Search Expedition for traces of Leichhardt, under McIntyre, and in the "Carl" case.
As might be expected, there is not much information to be derived from the Journal of Howitt's return trip to the Creek, as he travelled over his own tracks made when coming down. But in starting from the Darling he elected to follow that River up to Mount Murchison Station instead of leaving it behind him at Menindie, and the choice was wisely made for many reasons, which need not be enumerated, being of interest only to travellers by the same route. Cooper's Creek was reached in due course, the season was a dry one, and it was a matter of no little difficulty to keep the horses rounded up and prevent their straying in search of feed. Two men were constantly employed at this work, and on one occasion they brought in with them running with the mob, one of a most unusual color, a compromise between a dark roan and a skewbald. He was desperately wild, and for some hours evaded every effort to catch him, a task made exceptionally difficult by having no yard; he was evidently an aged animal, hut carried no marks by which that might have been defined, and an entirely illegible brand that defied description. He had also a broken rib, or ribs, on the near side, which suggested that the blacks had been after him and thrown one of their heavy nulla-nullas or boomerangs; and much regret was expressed at his death, a few days after being captured, apparently from internal inflammation. The interest attached to this animal by the party depended solely on the belief that he was one of the horses left behind on Cooper's Creek by that prince among explorer's - Sturt - when he was driven back in his last attempt to cross what he called "the Stony Desert", in 1845. This view was afterwards incontestably shown to be correct, by the entry made by Sturt in his diary at that time, wherein he says: "The horses were so knocked up that 'Roan,' hardly able to crawl, was, in pity, left to wander at large along this fine watercourse," and confirmed at a later date in a letter written to his old leader in England by Mr J Harris-Browne, who had been with him on the trip. Under date 20th September, 1862, he says - "Howitt is soon expected here with the remains of Burke and Wills. He caught the roan horse you left behind at Cooper's Creek.
The horse must have been at least twenty-five years old, probably more, when he was found, and it is a thousand pities that his death prevented Howitt from carrying into effect his intention, even at the cost of considerable trouble, to bring him back as a memento of the struggles and hardships endured by Sturt in his gallant effort to cross.
The main object of the party having been successfully accomplished by the removal of the bodies of the two Explorers from the graves in which they had been laid to rest several months before, a start was made on the return journey via Angepina and Blanche Water to Adelaide, which was reached on the 11th December, 1862, and on the same day J McDouall Stuart, broken in health and undermined in constitution with the hardships he had undergone, reached the same place. An extraordinary coincidence, as noted at the time. Friendly rivals, as they had been in the desire to be first across the Continent, they reached the end of the journey together; Stuart successful and triumphant, although a cripple and almost blind; Burke, a mere remnant of mortality, who had already lain for over twelve months in his bush grave, and was now about to reap the reward of his labors in the last honor that could be shown to his remains. Arrived in Melbourne, the two heroes, Burke and Wills - for such they were universally admitted to have been - were interred in the Melbourne Cemetery in the presence of many thousands of sorrowing spectators. A huge granite monolith, said to weigh over thirty tons, was erected over them, and a bronze statue to perpetuate their memory was placed at the crossing of Collins and Russell Streets, but was afterwards shifted to Spring Street, to admit of tramway construction in the leading thoroughfare. Alfred Howitt was appointed Police Magistrate at Sale, in Gippsland, in recognition of his important services, but was some years after further promoted to a higher position in the Treasury, which he retained to the time of his death, a few years ago.
With reference to the simultaneous arrival at Adelaide of Stuart and the remains of Burke and Wills, it is worthy of note that other strange coincidences had attracted public attention in a marked manner. Notably the return of those unfortunate men to the Cooper's Creek Depot, a few hours only after Brahe had left it, he having remained there for five weeks in excess of the time specified by Burke. Those few hours formed but a narrow margin between them and bodily salvation; and it is palpably evident that nothing but the untimely death of Gray, and the consequent necessity for them to remain in camp and bury him, stood between them and life. Gray's death detained them for about ten hours, and less than half that time was all that was needed to land them in safety in the Depot camp before Brahe left it on, that fateful 21st April, 1861.
Yet another strange coincidence, but of a more private and personal nature; sufficiently far away in time, however, for publication to be permissible. When Burke left Melbourne he was deeply attached to a young lady of great personal attractions and social position, whom it was currently reported he was to marry, on his return. Her photograph was his most cherished possession to the last, and was taken care of by King in a note-book belonging to the dead man, in which he had scribbled a short but pathetic farewell to her the evening before he passed away; King having made a solemn promise to deliver it in person in the event of his surviving. That promise was duly kept, and although the lady was already aware of Burke's death, she was in ignorance of the exact date - King was able to give her the correct information, when she at once exclaime: