Burke & Wills Web
The online digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020

& the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860

Andrew Jackson
London: Smith, Elder & Co.
(Ferguson 10857)

Chapter 13

  • Burke and King resolve on making a last Effort to find the Blacks.
  • Their Reluctance to leave Wills.
  • His last Entries in the Journal.
  • His Death.
  • Burke's last Journey.
  • His failing Strength.
  • He becomes utterly exhausted the Second Day.
  • His heroic Efforts.
  • His last Moments.
  • His Death.

Mr Wills being at last reduced to a state of such extreme weakness as to be unable to get on his feet, or to crawl out of the Mia Mia, or gunyah, the hopes of the poor sufferers were reduced to the lowest ebb. King still continued gathering and pounding the nardoo, and Mr Burke rendered what assistance he could; but became at last so weak, that he said he could be of little use in pounding. King was then obliged to gather and pound for all three of them, and he continued to do so for some time; at last his strength also failed, and he was obliged to lie up for three or four days, compelling the party to consume a small stock of food which they had laid up in case of emergency. Under these circumstances, Mr Burke proposed, as a last chance, that as much nardoo as possible should be collected and pounded in three days, and that he and King should make another effort to find the blacks, as the only means in their power of averting death from starvation.

Mr Wills, as will be seen from the following entries, joined in this view, and during the three or four days which elapsed before putting it in execution, Mr Burke repeatedly asked him whether he still wished it, as under no other circumstances would they leave him. To this he finally replied that he looked upon their doing so as the only chance that remained for the whole party, and causing the remainder of his field-books to be buried outside the gunyah, he gave Mr Burke a letter and his watch for his father, requesting that if King survived Mr Burke, he would attend to his last wishes in delivering them.

Wednesday, June 26, 1861.
Calm night; sky overcast with hazy cum. strat. clouds. An easterly breeze sprang up towards morning, making the air much colder. After sunrise there were indications of a clearing up of the sky, but it soon clouded in again, the upper current continuing to move in an easterly direction, whilst a breeze from the E and NE blew pretty regularly throughout the day. Mr Burke and King are preparing to go up the creek in search of the blacks. They will leave me some nardoo, wood, and water, with which I must do the best I can until they return. I think this is almost our only chance. I feel myself, if anything, rather better, but I cannot say stronger. The nardoo is beginning to agree better with me; but without some change I see little chance for any of us. They have both shown great hesitation and reluctance with regard to leaving me, and have repeatedly desired my candid opinion in the matter. I could only repeat, however, that I considered it our only chance, for I could not last long on the nardoo, even if a supply could be kept up.

Thursday, June 27.
Cloudy, calm, and comparatively warm night ; clouds almost stationary. In the morning a gentle breeze from east . Sky partially cleared up during the day, making it pleasantly warm and bright; it remained clear during the afternoon and evening, offering every prospect bf a clear, cold night.

Friday, June 28.
Clear, cold night; slight breeze from the E; day beautifully warm and pleasant. Mr Burke suffers greatly from the cold, and is getting extremely weak. He and King start to-morrow up the creek to look for the blacks; it is the only chance we have of being saved from starvation. I am weaker than ever, although I have a good appetite and relish the nardoo much; but it seems to give us no nutriment, and the birds here are so shy as not to be got at. Even if we got a good supply of fish, I doubt whether we could do much work on them and the nardoo alone. Nothing now but the greatest good luck can save any of us; and as for myself, I may live four or five days if the weather continues warm. My pulse is at forty-eight, and very weak, and my legs and arms are nearly skin and bone. I can only look out, like Mr Micawber, "for something to turn up." Starvation on nardoo is by no means very unpleasant, but for the weakness one feels, and the utter inability to move oneself; for as far as appetite is concerned, it gives me the greatest satisfaction. Certainly, fat and sugar would be more to one's taste; in fact, those seem to me to be the great stand-by for one in this extraordinary continent; not that I mean to depreciate the farinaceous food, but the want of sugar and fat in all substances obtainable here is so great that they become almost valueless to us as articles of food, without the addition of something else.
(Signed) W J Wills.

And thus, fitly closing with his own great name, the diary of the brave man ended. Few will read this touching narrative without deep emotion at the struggles and sufferings it records, and feelings of admiration for the many virtues displayed by the heroic writer, who relinquished his duties only with his life. His patience, and devotion to his leader; his fidelity and cheerfulness in the discharge of every duty entrusted to him, are so conspicuous throughout every page of his affecting journal, that no further observations of nine are needful. The growing peace of mind, which seems in mercy to have been given to sustain his departing spirit, shines out more and more clearly towards the end; and the latest strength of the devoted martyr is exerted in carefully recording such information as he considered may hereafter be useful to the cause of science, or to those who may venture on a like perilous journey in the wilderness. The care with which he registers each little incident on this last day, and the almost pleasant tone in which he alludes to the chance of " something turning up," must strike every reader with admiration; while the accuracy of his prediction as to the length of time he would probably live, may serve once more to remind us that-

"There are more things in heaven and earth
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy!'

When King returned, four days afterwards, he found poor Wills lying dead in his gunyah, and he buried him lightly in the sand. We have no record of Mr Wills' feelings on entering the dark valley of the shadow of death, and no ostentatious display of religious feeling is made in the pages of the explorers' journal; but we know, from another source, (*Footnote; King's evidence before Royal Commission, Question 1714.), that the tribute due from the creature to the Creator was never forgotten by them in their wanderings: they remembered in whose hands they were, and it may be confidently hoped that when the last struggle came, the still small voice whispered, as of old, in the dying man's ear, Fear thou not, for I am with thee ; be not dismayed, for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness."

In the meantime, Mr Burke had set out with King to try and find the blacks, but had not travelled far before he felt that his little remaining strength was rapidly fading away. He complained of great pain in his legs and back, but with the indomitable perseverance which always distinguished him, and which had already led to the successful accomplishment of his exploring labours, he managed to make a tolerable day's journey. This was on the 29th June. The following morning he seemed better, and said he thought he was getting stronger; but, alas! it was only the last flickering of the lamp of life. After travelling about two miles, he was obliged to say he could go no further; but King, who had already witnessed the almost superhuman exertions Mr Burke had made on several occasions, encouraged him to make another effort, and by little and little, managed to get him along several times. It is piteous to read of the unfailing constancy with which poor Mr Burke answered these calls upon him, although he must have known he was then dying. But every step he took in advance was a chance for Mr Wills, and he never flinched from his duty while power was left him to raise a limb. “He walked till he dropped." (*Footnote; Royal Commission, Question 1066). At last he said he could not carry his swag, and threw all he had away. See how gradually

"Death came softly stealing on;
How silently !"

Again starting, he soon wished to halt for the night; but as the place was close to a large sheet of water, and exposed to the mind, King prevailed upon him to go a little farther to a more sheltered spot, where they at last made their camp. Having nothing to eat, they searched about, and found a few small patches of nardoo, which King collected and pounded; and shooting a crow besides, they made their last meal together. And now the hour had come. Mr Burke, who had gradually been getting worse, at length told King he felt convinced he could not last many hours longer, requesting him to give his watch and pocketbook to Sir William Stawell, and adding, "I hope you will remain with me here until 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 (*Footnote; He had received a pistol as a parting gift from the inhabitants of Beechworth, when he quitted that district; and being a man of warm feelings towards those to whom he was attached, probably wished to retain possession of it in his last moments, in remembrance of them. Knowing King's weak state, he doubtless wished to spare him the labour of digging a grave. It has already been seen how a delay for that purpose in poor Gray's case, led to Mr Burke's own untimely death), in my right hand, and that you leave me unburied as I lie"

Throughout that night he spoke but little and all was over at an early hour the following morning. In the solitude of the lonely forest he sank gently to his long rest: but underneath him were the Everlasting arms. His cares, his fears, his anxious doubts were over, and his work accomplished.

In his last moments a blessed calmness fell upon him, and with a firm hand he traced a few parting words to his sister. The struggles of his weary pilgrimage ended, his mind was at peace, and in that dread hour his heart was attuned to harmonize with none but pure and holy thoughts. He thought of the old home at St. Clerans, of his brother, of the nurse who, though he knew it not, had travelled thousands of miles in her old age to see her darling Robert; of all who had at any time been dear to him. With these and a thousand other sweet memories floating around him, and with the name of his dear sister breathing in low murmurs from his lips, the brave spirit passed into the presence of its Creator.

www.burkeandwills.net.au Burke & Wills Web The digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020, Dave Phoenix