through the Interior of Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
|From the Journals and Letters of William John Wills, edited by his father, William Wills.|
London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street.
- King's Narrative
- Mr Burke and King go in search of the Natives, as a last resource
- Death of Mr Burke
- King returns and finds Mr Wills dead in the Gunyah
- He falls in with the Natives and wanders about with them until delivered by Mr Howitt's party
- Extract from Mr Howitt's Diary
- Extract from Mr McKinlay's Diary
- My Son's last letter to me, dated June 27th 1861
- Strong attachment between Mr Burke and my Son
- King delivers the Letter and Watch intrusted to him
- With some difficulty I recover the Pistol
- King's Reception in Melbourne
- Sir H Barkly's Letter to Sir Roderick Murchison
- Summary of Events and their Causes
The latter portion of my poor son's journal was transcribed by Mr Archer, Registrar-General of Victoria. We may believe that after writing the last paragraph to which he subscribed his name, he did not survive for many hours. The sequel, as far as any of its details can ever be made known to us, is best told in the unaffected language of John King's narrative, as delivered to the Royal Commission.
John King's narrative, as delivered to the Royal Commission.
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, Ap. 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, and wished to go down 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 that 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 remainder. 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 out into earthy plains. We had understood that the creek along Gregory's track 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 they had gone up or down the creek, 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 the 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 to 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 travelled three days, and struck a watercourse coming south from Cooper's Creek; we traced this as it branched out and re-formed in the plains, until we at last lost it in flat country; sandhills were in front of us, for which we made, and travelled 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 travelled 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 travelled, 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 he obtained a supply sufficient for three days, and finding a pounding stone at the gunyahs, Mr Burke and I 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, 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 abouta 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 dropt 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 heads, 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 off. 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 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 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 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: 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 up 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 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 the news took me over the creek, where I shortly saw the party coming down.
Brahe having quitted Cooper's Creek, as we have
seen, on the 21st of April, retraced his steps, towards the
Darling. On the 28th or 29th (there is a doubt about the exact
date), he fell in with Wright's party at Bulloo, and placed
himself under his orders. On the 29th, Dr Becker died. On the
1st of May they left Bulloo, on their return to Menindie. On the
3rd, Wright makes the following entry in his diary:
Friday, Koorliatto.--As I was anxious to ascertain, before finally leaving the country, whether Mr. Burke had visited the old Depot at Cooper's Creek, between the present date and that on which he left on his advance northward, or whether the stores cached there had been disturbed by the natives, I started with Mr Brahe and three horses for Cooper's Creek and reached the head waters of that creek on Sunday, the 5th May, in about seventy miles, steeringabout west-north-west. I did not find any water throughout the distance, but crossed several fine large gum creeks, and saw an immense number of native dogs.
Thursday, May 9th.--This morning I reached Cooper's Creek Depot, and found no sign of Mr Burke having visited the creek, or of the natives having disturbed the stores. I therefore retraced my steps to the Depot that remained at Koorliatto.
On the examination of Wright and Brahe before the
Royal Commission, it came out that they did not remain more than
a quarter of an hour at Cooper's Creek Depot, casting only a
hurried glance around; and believing that no one had been there,
never thought of opening the cache to identify the fact. Had they
done so, they would have found the papers and letters deposited
by Mr Burke, and all would yet have been well. It is much to be
regretted, and may excite some surprise, that Burke and my son,
after opening and closing up the cache, affixed no EXTERNAL token
of their having been there. But the apathy, stupidity, and
carelessness of Wright and Brahe are really beyond comprehension.
The effect of their miserably evasive and contradictory evidence,
when under examination, can never be forgotten by those who were
present. They, too, left no indications of their useless visit.
It will be remembered that twenty-two days after, on the 30th of
May, my son returned to Cooper's Creek for the last time, and
deposited his journals and letters in the cache.
The following extracts from Mr Howitt's diary relate the discovery of King, with the finding and interment of the remains of Mr Burke and my son.
September 14th, 1861.--Latitude, 27 degrees 4
minutes; longitude 140 degrees 4 minutes.--Camped on a large
waterhole, about a quarter of a mile below Mr Burke's first
camp, after leaving the Depot at Cooper's Creek. We could see
where the camels had been tied up, but found no marked tree.
To-day I noticed in two or three places old camel-droppings and
tracks, where Mr Brahe informed me he was certain their camels
had never been, as they were watched every day near the Depot
and tied up at night. Mr Burke's camels were led on the way
down. It looked very much as if stray camels had been about
during the last four months. The tracks seemed to me to be
going up the creek, but the ground was too strong to be able to
The field-books, a note-book belonging to Mr Burke, various
small articles lying about, of no value in themselves, but now
invested with a deep interest, from the circumstances connected
with them, and some of the nardoo seed on which they had
subsisted, with the small wooden trough in which it had been
cleaned, I have now in my possession.
September 23rd.--Went down the creek to-day in
search of the natives. I could not think of leaving without
showing them that we could appreciate and reward the kindness
they had shown to Burke's party and particularly to King. .
.Passed the first feeder of Strleczki's Creek, going to the
southward, and at a large reach of water below, found the
natives camped. They made a great commotion when we rode up,
but seemed very friendly. I unpacked my blanket, and took out
specimens of the things I intended giving them,--a tomahawk, a
knife, beads, a looking-glass, comb, and flour and sugar. The
tomahawk was the great object of attraction, after that the
knife, but I think the looking-glass surprised them most. On
seeing their faces reflected, some seemed dazzled, others
opened their eyes like saucers, and made a rattling noise with
their tongues expressive of wonder. We had quite a friendly
palaver, and my watch amused them immensely. I made them
understand that they were to bring the whole tribe up next
morning to our camp to receive their presents, and we parted
the best of friends.
The South Australian Register, of the 26th of November, 1861, published at Adelaide, contained the following statement, which excited universal attention:
The Government have just received from Mr McKinlay, leader of the expedition sent from this colony in search of Burke, a diary of his proceedings up to the 26th of October last. This document contains a most singular narrative, being nothing less than an account of McKinlay's discovery of what he believes to be the remains of Burke's party, who he considers were some time since not only murdered, but partly eaten by the natives in the neighbourhood of Cooper's Creek. He, of course, had heard nothing of the result of Mr Howitt's expedition, or of Mr King having been found alive by that expedition. When, therefore, he came to a spot where there were graves containing the bones of white men, and where there were indications of a conflict having taken place with the natives, some of whom spoke of those white men having been killed and partly eaten, he came to the conclusion that he had ascertained all that was possible of Mr Burke and his companions. He accordingly buried a letter, containing a statement to this effect, at a place near where the remains were found, and then after forwarding to Adelaide the despatch which has now reached us, proceeded westward upon some other business intrusted to him by the Government.
It seems fated that every chapter of the unfortunate Burke exploration shall be marked with unusual interest. The failures at the beginning of the enterprise, the tragedy of the explorers' deaths, and the remarkable rescue of the survivor King, are now followed by a subject of interest altogether new and mysterious. Certain as it is that McKinlay cannot have discovered the remains of Burke's party, as he so firmly believed he had, it is equally clear that some other white men must have met their deaths at the spot reached by him, and that those deaths were, to all appearance, the result of foul play. That the remains found by McKinlay cannot have been those of Burke and Wills, disinterred, removed, and mangled after death, may be inferred from a number of circumstances detailed by him in the extracts which we have given from his diary. It will be seen that marks of violence were found on the remains, that there were indications of white men having camped in the neighbourhood (which was far distant from any camp of Burke's), that one of the natives bore marks of having been engaged in a conflict where pistols were used, and that, lastly, the natives themselves said the bones were those of white men who had been murdered and eaten. All this would probably appear conclusive to Mr McKinlay that he had ascertained the fate of the explorers whom he had been in search of. He was prepared for such a result, and there were many circumstances favourable to its probability. He saw even, as he believed, positive indications of camels having been at the place where he found the graves; and yet, it will be seen, he speaks of appearances indicating that the remains were buried a long time ago, and states that some of the human hair discovered was in a state of decay. This certainly would not accord with the supposition of the remains being those of Burke. But it is useless to seek an explanation of this strange matter from the facts at present before us. It is a mystery which will have further to be inquired into, and which Mr. McKinlay himself will perhaps be able to throw some light upon when he reviews all the particulars of the discovery, with the knowledge before him that Burke and his companions were not killed by the natives, but died from starvation, and were buried at places far distant from the spot where these new remains were discovered.
The following extract from McKinlay's diary details the incidents here spoken of more minutely.
October 21st.--Up in good time. Before starting for the grave went round the lake, taking Mr Hodgkinson with me, to see if natives were really on the lake, as I did not intend saddling the camels to-day if there were no natives here, intending to leave our camp unprotected--rather unwise, but being so short of hands could not help it, the grave being much out of sight. Found no natives round the lake, nor any very recent traces, saving that some of the trees were still burning that they (when here last) had lighted. We started at once for the grave, taking a canteen of water with us and all the arms. On arrival removed the ground carefully, and close to the top of the earth found the body of a European enveloped in a flannel shirt with short sleeves--a piece of the breast of which I have taken--the flesh, I may say, completely cleared from the bones, and very little hair but what must have been decomposed; what little there was, I have taken. Description of body: Skull marked with slight sabre cuts, apparently two in number--one immediately over the left eye, the other on the right temple, inclining over right ear, more deep than the left; decayed teeth existed in both sides of lower jaw and right of upper; the other teeth were entire and sound. In the lower jaw were two teeth--one on each side (four between in front) rather projecting, as is sometimes called in the upper jaw "back teeth." I have measured the bones of the thigh and leg as well as the arm with a cord, not having any other method of doing it; gathered all the bones together and buried them again, cutting a lot of boughs and other wood and putting over top of the earth. Body lies head south, feet north, lying on face, head severed from body. On a small tree immediately south we marked
Immediately this was over we questioned the native further on the subject of his death. He says he was killed by a stroke from what the natives call a sword (an instrument of semicircular form, five to eight feet long, and very formidable). He showed us where the whites had been attacked when encamped. We saw lots of fish-bones, but no evidence there on the trees to suppose whites had been there. They had certainly chosen a very bad camp, in the centre of a box scrub, with native huts within 150 to 200 yards of them. On further examination we found the dung of camels and horse or horses evidently tied up a long time ago. Between that and the grave we found another grave, evidently dug with a spade or shovel, and a lot of human hair of two colours, that had become decomposed in the skin of the skull and fallen off in flakes, some of which I have also taken. I fancy they must all have been murdered here. Dug out the new-found grave with a stick, the only instrument we had, but found no remains of bodies, save one little bone. The black accounted for this in this manner--he says they had eaten them. Found in an old fireplace immediately adjoining what appeared to be bones very well burnt, but not in any quantity. In and about the last grave named, a piece of light blue tweed and fragments of paper, and small pieces of a Nautical Almanac were found, and an exploded Eley's cartridge; no appearance on any of the trees of bullet marks as if a struggle had taken place. On a further examination of the blacks' camp where the pint pot was found, there was also found a tin canteen similar to what is used for keeping naphtha in, or some such stuff, both of which we keep. The natives say that any memos the whites had are back on the last camp we were at on the lake with the natives, as well as the iron-work of saddles, etc., which on our return we mean to endeavour to recover, if the blacks can be found. It may be rash, but there is necessity for it. Intend before returning to have a further search.
The next day they dug up a quantity of baked horsehair, which had apparently been used for saddle stuffing. The hostility displayed by the blacks compelled Mr McKinlay and his party to fire upon them. The mystery attached to the remains here spoken of has yet to be cleared up. The idea at first entertained that they were those of Gray is not tenable. A glance at the map will show that Gray died and was buried far away to the north-east of McKinlay's track.
On the day of King's arrival in Melbourne, my
son's watch, a gold chronometer, which he had used to calculate
the longitudes by, was duly delivered to me in presence of the
Governor; also his last letter, distinctly traced in a firm hand
on a ruled page torn from some book. It was not sealed, but
neatly wrapped in a loose cover. The relic is invaluable.
Mr Wills' last letter to his father, brought down by King.
Cooper's Creek, 27 June, 1861.
My dear Father,
These are probably the last lines you will ever get from me. We are on the point of starvation, not so much from absolute want of food, but from the want of nutriment in what we can get. Our position, although more provoking, is probably not near so disagreeable as that of poor Harry* and his companions. [Footnote: Harry, his cousin, Lieutenant Le Vescompte, who perished with Sir John Franklin.]
We have had very good luck, and made a most successful trip to Carpentaria, and back to where we had every right to consider ourselves safe, having left a Depot here consisting of four men, twelve horses, and six camels. They had provisions enough to have lasted them twelve months with proper economy, and we had also every right to expect that we should have been immediately followed up from Menindie by another party with additional provisions and every necessary for forming a permanent Depot at Cooper's Creek. The party we left here had special instructions not to leave until our return, UNLESS FROM ABSOLUTE NECESSITY. We left the creek with nominally three months' supply, but they were reckoned at little over the rate of half rations. We calculated on having to eat some of the camels. By the greatest good luck, at every turn, we crossed to the gulf, through a good deal of fine country, almost in a straight line from here. On the other side the camels suffered considerably from wet; we had to kill and jerk one soon after starting back. We had now been out a little more than two months, and found it necessary to reduce the rations considerably; and this began to tell on all hands, but I felt it by far less than any of the others. The great scarcity and shyness of game, and our forced marches, prevented our supplying the deficiency from external sources to any great extent; but we never could have held out but for the crows and hawks, and the portulac. The latter is an excellent vegetable, and I believe secured our return to this place. We got back here in four months and four days, and found the party had left the Creek the same day, and we were not in a fit state to follow them. I find I must close this, that it may be planted; but I will write some more, although it has not so good a chance of reaching you as this. You have great claims on the committee for their neglect. I leave you in sole charge of what is coming to me. The whole of my money I desire to leave to my sisters; other matters I pass over for the present. Adieu, my dear Father. Love to Tom.
[Footnote: Tom, his brother in Melbourne.]
W J Wills.
The remark that I had great claims on the committee was inserted in the letter, as King informed me, in consequence of Mr Burke observing, 'Wills, be sure to say something to that effect.'
The letter was read to Burke and King by my son, as soon as he had concluded it. On King's examination, he was questioned as follows, on this point:
Question 1068. Do you see that letter--[pointing to the letter written by Mr Wills to his father]?--That is the letter Mr. Wills read.
1069. Did he read it out for the purpose of being corrected if there was any statement in it that was not quite correct?--I believe the reason was, in case the letter should be found, that he should not say anything to our disadvantage, mine or Mr. Burke's; he thought that we would see it was the truth and nothing but the truth.--[Watch produced]--That is the watch Mr. Wills desired the survivor to give to his father, which I have done.
1070. There was a pocket-book, was there not?--Yes, which Mr. Burke gave me on the evening before his death, requesting me to deliver it to Sir William Stawell, but under any circumstances I was not to deliver it to any other gentleman of the committee. I delivered it to Sir William Stawell this morning.
1071. Did you know anything of the nature of the contents of it? --No, except what Mr Burke read to me affecting myself, and which Sir William Stawell has read to me this morning. The same book I showed to Mr Howitt, telling him that it was Mr Burke's desire that I should deliver it to Sir William Stawell himself. Mr Burke also gave me his watch, and told me it was the property of the committee; the same I delivered to Mr Howitt.
1072. You kept possession of the book?--Yes, and gave it over to Sir William Stawell this morning.
1073. How did you preserve all those things while with the blacks? --I had a small canvas pouch, which I always carried about with me on my person.
1074. Did they ever covet anything?--Yes, they used often to make me show them the contents of it.
The letter and watch being handed to Mr Burke, my son then lent
him his pistol, the only defence he could have retained against
hostile attack, and lying on the bare ground, resigned to his
fate, urgently requested them to leave him. Imagination, with all
the aid of poetical fancy, can conceive no position to exceed
this in utter desolation. It has been said, and many may think,
they ought not to have separated. No consideration, or argument,
should have induced his two companions to abandon him. It was
indeed a trying alternative, but falling in with the blacks
appeared to be the only chance of rescue for the whole party; and
had this fortunately happened before the sudden and total
prostration of Burke, there can be no doubt they would have
hastened immediately to bring the same succour to my son. King
informed me that Mr Burke was dreadfully distressed, and that he
had great difficulty in persuading him to go on. At times he
would stop and exclaim, 'How can I leave him, that dear, good
fellow?' He was usually in the habit of addressing him as 'My
dear boy,' for although twenty-seven, and wearing a beard, he had
such a youthful appearance that few would have taken him for more
than twenty when he left Melbourne.
During the whole journey, and through all their trials, King said that not an approach to altercation, or a word of difference, ever took place between my poor boy and his leader. When I claimed the pistol above alluded to, it was considered of too much consequence to be surrendered without minute investigation. To my first application I received the following diplomatic reply:
Exploration Committee, Royal Society of
Victoria, Victoria Street, Melbourne,
Sir - I have the honour to inform you that, at a committee meeting held 27th instant, the Honourable Dr Wilkie in the chair, the subject of delivering the 'Burke' pistol to you, which you claim as your late son's property, was discussed.
The report of the Assistant-Secretary was to the effect that, as the tradesmen who supplied the fire-arms did not register the numbers, the identity of this particular pistol could not be traced as one supplied to the expedition; but that as there were several 'Colt's' revolvers furnished, there is room for doubt as to whether this may not be one of them.
As the committee merely wishes to be fully satisfied of the validity of your claim before parting with such a melancholy and interesting relic, instructions have been given to apply to Mr King for any information he may be able to supply, to guide the committee to a right decision.
I have the honour to be, Sir, Your most obedient servant,
Finally, and with much trouble, after I know not
how many meetings, and what amount of discussion, the pistol was
handed over to me, and is now in my possession. So much for my
claims on the Committee, who are the only parties acquainted with
the merits of my poor son from whom I have received anything like
coldness or offence. On the day of King's arrival, as the mail
was leaving for England, I was anxious to obtain at once the
letter which I knew was in his possession. My earnestness
interrupted an arrangement they had made for receiving him, and
my unseasonable importunity, as it was considered, drew on me
something bearing a close resemblance to a vote of censure.
King, who although only a common soldier, has a heart and feelings which would do no dishonour to a gentleman of education, would have preferred coming into Melbourne, after the loss of his officers, at least unostentatiously, if not in sackcloth and ashes. But he was greeted with a howling and shouting more suitable to the reception of some notorious bush-ranger recently captured. Many, in common with myself, considered the ovation out of place and character; while others, and apparently the more numerous party, were of a different opinion. Perhaps it was well meant, and chacun a son gout. Public enthusiasm is not always gaugeable by the standard of reason or good taste. The following account was printed:
From about five o'clock, groups of persons anxious to welcome back the first who had crossed and re-crossed the Australian continent began to pour into the station, and its vicinity was so crowded with cars and spectators that it was impossible to reach the entrance. The arrival of the train was hailed with vociferous cheering. The carriage in which King was a passenger was at once recognized by its being decorated with flags. Such was the "rush" to see King that it was some time before the porters could reach he carriage door, and when they had reached it they experienced considerable difficulty in getting the door opened. Dr Gilbee, who was accompanied by Dr Macadam, was in attendance with his private carriage to convey King as quietly as possible to the Royal Institute, where the Exploration Committee and a numerous assemblage of ladies and gentlemen were in waiting to see him. Those gentlemen, however, were unable to reach the carriage; and Dr Wills, who was fortunately opposite the door, seeing that it was impossible for the arrangements to be carried out, immediately conveyed King to an open car and drove off. Dr Gilbee and Dr Macadam, with King's sister, immediately followed. The cars were then rushed; and cars, buggies, horses, and pedestrians raced along Collins Street to William Street, and thence to Government House. A great many were, of course, disappointed by this alteration, as it was generally expected that King would be received by His Excellency and the Committee at the Royal Institute, and therefore drove along the streets that were likely to facilitate their reaching the institution before King's arrival. On reaching Government House, King was assisted up stairs, for though he looked very healthy and robust; he was scarcely able to stand. He was taken into the room adjoining the Chief Secretary's office, where he was shortly afterwards joined by his sister. Their meeting was, of course, strictly private. In a few minutes the approaches to Government House, the lobbies, stairs, and landing were impassably crowded, so that it was necessary for the police to clear a passage for His Excellency from his own office to that of the Chief Secretary. His Excellency, accompanied by Captain Timins, entered the Chief Secretary's office, and after a short conversation with Welch, who accompanied King to town, went into the anteroom; accompanied by Captain Timins, and followed by Dr Wills, Welch, and Brahe. When His Excellency entered the room, King and his sister respectfully stood up, but His Excellency requested them to be seated, as King was evidently unable to stand on his feet. The excitement was almost too much for the poor fellow, and it was thought advisable to get him away as speedily and as privately as possible to St. Kilda, where his sister resides.
A few days afterwards, at a meeting of the Exploration Committee, a series of questions, more or less pertinent to the circumstances under which he appeared before them, were personally put to him by members of the committee, and which he answered calmly, displaying considerable intelligence and precision of mind in his replies to the rather discursive examination he was subjected to. The Herald, in reference to the interview, had the following observations:
John King was an object of great and curious interest.
Having come out of such great tribulation--having fasted for so many days in the desert--having been wasted by privations till he became so near death that for Death to have overcome him would have been no triumph--he was regarded with feelings similar to those which made the people say of Dante, "There goes the man who has been in Hades."
Though only a subordinate, he is a man possessing, we should say--or, indeed, as we know--good leading qualities, the attributes of a hero; and though his intellectual powers have not been highly cultivated, he evidently possesses no small share of intelligence. A man who would mind his own business, and not given to ask very many questions, which as things have turned out is to be regretted; but with a memory capable of retaining everything that came within his knowledge. His coolness rather took aback those members of the committee, yesterday, who seemed to have come loaded to the muzzle with questions, which they proceeded to fire off indiscriminately. He seemed to know better than those inquisitors the way in which his examination should be conducted; that the inquiry had a more important object than gratifying sheer curiosity; and when he goes before the Royal Commission next Thursday they will find him a very good witness.
The deepest sympathy was expressed by the meeting, and it will be most sincerely felt by every soul to whom his extraordinary history will become known.
The Exploration Committee held a private meeting on the 29th, at which King was present. He there stated that the tide rose and fell six inches at the part of the river where he was left by Messrs. Burke and Wills when they proceeded on foot with the object of discovering the sea. The gallantry of King is amply testified to by some memoranda in the handwriting of poor Burke--the last he ever wrote. The documents were contained in a pocket-book which the dying explorer committed to the care of the survivor, charging him to deliver it into the hands of Sir William Stawell. This last desire of his unfortunate commander was most scrupulously observed by King. The manuscript ran as follows:
I hope that we shall be done justice to. We have fulfilled our task, but we have been abandoned. We have not been followed up as we expected, and the Depot party abandoned their post.
R O'Hara Burke.
Again, the next entry says:
King has behaved nobly. He has stayed with me to the last, and placed the pistol in my hand, leaving me lying on the surface as I wished.
R O'H Burke.
The following sketch of the journey across the continent of Australia, by Messrs. Burke and Wills, in a letter from the Governor of Victoria, Sir Henry Barclay, to Sir Roderick Murchison, was read before the Royal Geographical Society in London on the 15th of January, 1862, and was ordered to be printed in their proceedings. The letter also appeared in the Times of the 15th of January:
My dear Sir Roderick,
Knowing the interest you have ever taken in the exploration of the interior of Australia, and that you still occupy the post of Vice-President of the Royal Geographical Society, it was my intention to address you fully by the present mail-steamer respecting the Victorian expedition under Burke and Wills, which you will learn has achieved the honour of first crossing from sea to sea, by a route far distant and utterly distinct from that of McDouall Stuart, from whose great fame as an explorer I have not the least desire to detract.
I wished, indeed, as the expedition had cost the gallant leaders of it their lives, to narrate in a connected form its design and history from the very commencement, in order that it might serve the Geographical Society as a record, and prevent any misconception of the causes which have marred its triumphant result.
I find, however, that the pressure of other business will prevent my carrying out this design, and I must content myself therefore with forwarding the newspapers which contain the best report of what has recently come to light, together with the diaries of Burke and Wills, as published in a pamphlet form, and lastly with a map of Australia, on which our Surveyor-General has added to other recent explorations, a reduced tracing of the track of the expedition, from the Depot on Cooper's Creek to the Gulf of Carpentaria, where it struck, as would appear, the Flinders River, and not the Albert, as the explorers supposed.
I would refer you, at the same time, for precise details of the whole enterprise to my several despatches of 21st of August, 1860; 20th of July, and 20th of November, 1861; which I am confident the Duke of Newcastle will put at your disposal for the information of the Geographical Society, if applied to.
On one account I am not sorry to be obliged to postpone a detailed communication on the subject, for it would be difficult to tell the sad story of the sufferings and death of the brave men who returned to the spot where they expected to find friends and ample store of provisions and clothing, only to find the Depot abandoned, and to perish miserably in default of assistance, without at least implying blame in some quarter or other; and, as a good deal is still enveloped in mystery, and I have appointed a commission of inquiry to take evidence and report thereupon, it would obviously be improper in me to anticipate their conclusion.
The sole survivor of the party who crossed the continent, John
King, once, I believe, a soldier in India, is expected to reach
Melbourne to-night; and with the aid of his recollections of
the journey, the Surveyor-General hopes to be enabled to add to
the chart on a large scale, which he is constructing from Mr.
Wills's field books, fuller particulars as to the nature of the
country; as well as to supply some blanks which were evidently
left to be filled in afterwards, especially in regard to the
route back, which, from the determination at our observatory of
one of his earlier camps, from an observation of one of the
planets which is recorded, seems to have been considerably to
the eastward of the course pursued in going, though this is not
expressly so stated.
The country towards Carpentaria or Burke's Land--as I hope it will be called--seems so good that there can be little doubt of the formation, at no distant date, of a colony on the shores of that estuary;--a project which you have long, I know, had at heart; and before we recall the several parties sent out for the relief of the missing expedition, I trust we shall be able so far to complete the task as to connect the settled country, by Mr Howitt's aid, with Burke's Land by the best possible route; and, by means of the party sent by sea in the Victoria steamer, to add greatly to our knowledge of the Gulf, and of the embouchures of the different rivers falling into it.
Believe me ever,
Government Offices, Melbourne.
It has been remarked, with some disposition to
draw uncharitable conclusions there from, that no religious
expressions, or any specific references to that all-important
subject, are to be found in the field-books and journals that
have been given to the public. On this point, King said, in reply
to Question 1714, "I wish to state, with regard to there being no
particular tokens of religion recorded in any part of the
diaries, that we each had our Bible and Prayer-book, and
occasionally read them going and coming back; and also the
evening before the death of Mr Burke, I am happy to say, he
prayed to God for forgiveness for the past, and died happy, a
The curtain drops here on the history of the great Victorian Exploring Expedition, and little more remains to be told of its results or shortcomings. The continent was crossed, the Gulf reached, and the road indicated by the hardy pioneers, which their successors will find it comparatively easy to level and macadamize. Already the stimulant of the Burke and Wills catastrophe has called into active exercise the successive expeditions and discoveries of Howitt, Norman, Walker, Landsborough, and McKinlay. Others will rapidly follow, with the characteristic energy and perseverance of the Saxon race. Now that time has, to a certain extent, allayed the poignant grief of those who are most nearly and dearly interested in the fate of the original explorers; when first impulses have cooled down, and the excitement of personal feelings has given way before unquestionable evidence, we may safely ascribe, as far as human agencies are concerned, the comparative failure of the enterprise to the following specific causes:
1. The double mistake on the part of the leader, of dividing and subdividing his forces at Menindie and Cooper's Creek;
2. The utter unfitness of Wright for the position in which he was placed;
3. The abandonment by Brahe of the Depot at Cooper's Creek;
4. The resolve of the surviving explorers to attempt the route by Mount Hopeless, on their homeward journey;
And lastly, to the dilatory inefficiency of the Committee, in not hurrying forward reliefs without a moment's delay, as the state of circumstances became gradually known to them.
It is not so easy to estimate the relative quantity of blame which ought justly to attach to all who are implicated. Each will endeavour to convince himself that his own share is light, and that the weight of the burden should fall on the shoulders of some one else. Meanwhile, there remain for the heroic men who died in harness without a murmur in the unflinching exercise of their duty, an undying name, a public funeral, and a national monument; the unavailing sympathy and respect which rear an obelisk instead of bestowing a ribbon or a pension; recorded honours to the unconscious dead, in place of encouraging rewards to the triumphant living. A reverse of the picture, had it been permitted, might have been more agreeable; but the lesson intended to be conveyed, and the advantages to be derived from studying it, would have been far less salutary and profitable.