by Edwin James Welch
Edwin James Welch, The Tragedy of Cooper's Creek
Starvation in the midst of plenty
There is an ancient adage to the effect that - 'It is easy to be wise after the event", and it was perhaps never more profusely illustrated than during the weeks which followed the events herein described. Everybody seemed to consider it a special duty to publish his views on the errors of omission and commission which had led up to the final disaster, and it was evident that the majority of those who contributed so largely to the columns of the press - not only in Victoria, but in the neighbouring colonies, were neither experienced bushmen, nor were they, in many instances, apparently, possessed of more than an average amount of intelligence. Apart from the initial mistake made by the Exploration Committee in choosing Burke for the leadership, it was impossible to avoid crediting that unfortunate victim to his own impetuosity and rashness, with others which could never have occurred under different conditions. For three of these, at least, his best friends were reluctantly compelled to admit his sole responsibility, and they were:
For manly courage, and fortitude under sufferings and difficulties of the worst description, however, Burke will always maintain his place in history as a shining example.
Very many of the criticisms which appeared were directed to what seemed on the face of it, an absurdity, viz., that death by starvation could have been possible in such a region of plentiful food of many kinds, in the midst, of friendly blacks who showed every desire to succour them, and were themselves, well fed and strong. These criticisms were founded on an entire misapprehension of the relative positions of the two races, or in forgetfulness of the fact that when the three white men arrived at the deserted Depot on the Creek, after their arduous return journey from the Gulf, they were already in a condition of semi-starvation, prostrated by weakness and sorrow for the recent death of their companion, clad in rags, and bewildered by the altogether unexpected position in which they were placed through Brahe having left. It is quite true that birds were plentiful, ducks of several varieties, pigmy geese, and pelicans, were on all the water-holes, the crested pigeon was in all the trees, and the sand hills at no great distance were honey-combed by bush rats. True also that an immense quantity of fish was to be obtained in the creek, as shown by the fact that fish and nardoo formed the staple diet of the natives. And the starving men had a gun, a limited quantity of ammunition and some fishing gear. Why then could they not have supported life until help reached them? That was the puzzle to the uninitiated, but the solution of it was simple. They were too far gone to undertake the necessary toil, and none of this food was obtainable without much physical exertion. The wild fowl was shy to a degree, as the sporting members of Howitt's party discovered to their chagrin when they tried to get some of them. The water holes were large and wide, and afforded little in the way of shelter from a man with a gun, and Wills, in his journal, quotes with accuracy a remark long before made by Sturt from his own experience, "that he believed the excessive shyness of the birds arose from their seeing so little of animal life, either human or otherwise." An occasional chance shot at a pigeon was only got for the same reason, and they were unequal to the task of following them from tree to tree. Bush rats were altogether out of the question, plentiful as they were, for they were obtainable only in a peculiar fashion by the blacks themselves.
To illustrate which - the following incident. When the Search Party first arrived on the Creek, Howitt and Welch were riding together some little distance in advance of the main body, and on rising the crest of a sandhill saw a solitary black fellow about half way down the slope, seated with his back towards them, motionless, except for an occasional lifting of the right am, and on a nearer approach they could hear him singing in low, weird and dirge-like tones. The footsteps of the horses in the yielding sand had not attracted his attention, and he was in no expectation of visitors. Suddenly one of the horses whinnied, the black gave one glance behind him, jumped to his feet and fled towards the creek uttering a succession of wild shrieks as he bounded on. The spot where he had been sitting was marked by a few rat-holes and the bodies of several rats. Afterwards King explained how they were obtained. It appeared that the ability to secure this edible was a natural gift possessed by very few of the blacks and was confined to three members of the tribe with which he lived; a young man in addition to the one seen, and a girl who was rarely allowed to use it; never, in fact, except in case of dire need. These three were held in high estimation by the tribe, and were always supplied with the choicest morsels of whatever happened to be included in the menu. Their work, though possibly a trifle monotonous, was certainly neither difficult nor dangerous. They merely seated themselves close to the burrows, armed with a waddy, or light club, sang the dirge which the rats could not withstand, and as they came from their holes they were promptly knocked over and cast aside until a sufficiency had been obtained. The three starving men could scarcely have been expected to obtain food in the same fashion. The rats themselves were fine, fat, healthy specimens of their kind, smaller and in many respects unlike the ordinary bush rat, and peculiar in this respect; many of them were marsupials, whilst an equal number were not. That they were good to eat was learnt by practical experience; some members of the Search Party were always ready to try a new dish as a change from the inevitable horse flesh, the only meat at their disposal, and Howitt himself would sample anything in the interests of science! Wills, in his journal, referring to one of his visits to a blacks' Camp says - "they supplied me with plenty of fish and nardoo, as well as a couple of nice fat rats. The latter I found most delicious. They were baked in their skins."
So much for the rats. Now with regard to the plentiful supply of fish. These were caught by the blacks with a dragnet in the shallower holes, or trapped in the larger ones by a weir of stones at one end, into which they were sometimes driven by disturbing the water, or enticed by bait. It should also be remembered that the blacks were at all times generous in supplying the hungry men with a share of their fish thus caught, until near the end, when Burke, mistrusting their intentions, probably on account of the large body of them visit¬ing his camp, ordered King to fire, which he did, when they all ran away and never came back again. And King goes on to say:- "We collected five small nets of fish after they ran away, and lived on fish for several days." This effectually disposes of the blame which has been attributed to them on the score of failing to catch fish. Prior to this unfortunate misunderstanding they were never many days without it, and all their time and energies were absorbed in gathering, cleaning, and pounding sufficient nardoo to supply their daily needs. After it, and when the lives of two of them were rapidly drawing to a close, they were all compelled to depend on what King could collect alone, he being the only one with sufficient strength left to attempt it.
With these few comments, founded on the direct personal knowledge of the writer, the story of the Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition is concluded. No attempt has been made to color, or in any way exaggerate the numerous mistakes that were made in connection with it, as may be seen by referring to official documents published at the time. The leaders were in no sense responsible for all of them, and it is hoped that the recital of their lonely wanderings and in¬tense suffering on Cooper's Creek, until Death came to their relief, will enable the reader, in the sense of Matthew Prior's advice; to: