Saturday, 24 January 1891.
The Burke and Wills Expedition -
An Interesting Reminiscence
by Alfred W Howitt
To the Editor of The Queenslander.
A lecture was delivered on the 15th April by Mr AW Howitt, FGS, Secretary for Mines, Melbourne, at the Queen's College, who rescued John King, the sole survivor of the expedition led by Burke and Wills to cross the continent to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
While according to the members - Burke, Wills, King, and Gray - all the credit due to their indomitable pluck and perseverance in so far accomplishing their purpose as to prove conclusively that there were no insuperable difficulties in the way, and that they demonstrated that with exceptional patches the bulk of the country traversed by them and since occupied by pastoralists with their flocks and herds was all good grazing country, I must confess with Mr Howitt that it was at its inception an ill organised and for the purpose ill-equipped expedition. When I say ill-organised I do not wish it inferred that I impute any incapacity to the responsible members of the party, but it has always appeared to me that in the equipment and organisation of an exploring party left to the ideas of professors and purely scientific men in Melbourne to fit out, a bungle is sure to be made of it, as a huge bungle they certainly made in their equipment of the Burke and Wills expedition.
I remember it from start to finish. In the year 1860 I was managing the Canally station on the Murrumbidgee, on which the town of Balranald was situated. I assisted, with some of my station hands and blacks, the expedition to cross the river, and we were not to say amused, but amazed, at the enormous quantity of utterly useless lumber they had with them; and I believe I, in a quiet talk with Burke and Wills, persuaded them to leave much of it behind at Balranald, which was afterwards sold by auction to the highest bidder on account of the Victorian Government. This useless lumber consisted of a large bullock waggon fitted up with materials for a complete blacksmith's forge, a large quantity of iron, several new surplus canvas tents 10ft x 8ft. (lined with green baize), camp bedsteads, and other articles too numerous to particularise, but I must not omit two or three large kegs of horseshoes and a boat; this, too, I think, was left at Balranald. I bought one of the tents and had it for years.
The expedition had more the appearance of an army on the march than a party of bushmen going out exploring. There was not, strictly speaking, a bushman among the leaders. Burke had been in the Cape Mounted Rifles, and then joined the Victorian Police Force as superintendent, and was stationed at Castlemaine. Wills I knew when he was overseer on the Deniliquin station, then owned by the Royal Bank, and called the Sandhills. This was the whole of his bush experience, but withal he was smart and well educated, and, from having been in the Melbourne Observatory, well qualified to be Burke's lieutenant, as he was styled.
I helped them with my men to pitch their camp on a plain just at the rear of Balranald, though I must say the camels proved a source of terror to our horses, and wonderment not only to the blacks, but likewise to the young whites of the township; so we sent our horses into the township till the camp was fixed. I invited Burke and Wills down to the station to spend the night, but they considered it would be an infringement of discipline to leave their camps. Well, perhaps their party at that time being rather large and the township so close they thought visitors might prove troublesome. Early next morning I started out and visited them, and the day was spent in a readjustment of the baggage, what to take and what to leave behind. Their trip thus far was sufficient to convince them that the less impedimenta they were encumbered with the better, so calling a council of war, to which several of the stockmen, whose curiosity had impelled them to visit the camp, were invited, it was decided to leave fully the half of the outfit with Messrs Sparkes and Cramsie, the storekeepers at Balranald, to await instructions from the Victorian Government. On the third morning after their arrival we came out to see them start and bid farewell, and truly to us benighted bushmen, unaccustomed to camels and the paraphernalia attending an exploring expedition, arranged under the auspices of the Geographical Society of Victoria, it had a most imposing effect, though the majority of us wondered what it was all for.
Watching them disappear through the belt of mallee scrub leading in the direction of Paika Lake, we returned to our usual occupations. But this was not the last I was destined to see of the party. Some days afterwards I was out with a blackboy in what was then known as Scott's back country, towards the Darling, looking for horses, and we came upon the tracks of them, following which for a few miles we came upon the party camped for dinner. So, accepting Burke's kind invitation, we took pot luck, although we had our rations with us, as we knew we might possibly be away some days. In the afternoon, having seen them start and taken a final leave, we went on our way, found the horses we were in quest of, and made for home. Poor fellows, we little thought their undertaking would have such a disastrous termination after having successfully crossed the continent.
Mr Howitt makes some very pertinent remarks about the error committed by the leaders in keeping the blacks away from their camp by firing over their heads. This certainly was an apparent mistake; although Burke and Wills might have been able from appearances to detect whether their intentions were hostile or friendly. My own experience of these large interior tribes has always been a favourable one; they are of a much milder disposition than the fierce Northern coast blacks, who probably have a large admixture of Malay blood. I have been upon many occasions quite alone camping at night, entirely at the mercy of a large tribe of wild blacks, but was never molested. In my young days I was once lost on the large plains between the Darling and Warrego rivers, about thirty miles out from the former. I camped for the night at a small waterhole; my horse broke his hobbles, and left me. I stayed there for five days without anything to eat. I thought it better to die with my skin full of water than to wander on foot over those parched and arid plains and perish mad from thirst, as most men do. Here I was found by some blacks who were out hunting. They made a camp and fed me up, and the same evening the station stockman and two black boys with him came to our camp, bringing my horse, who had gone home. They had been, for days looking for his tracks, but there were so many wild horses about that they could not find them, and it was by mere chance they found me in company with my black friends. But it does not always do to place too much reliance upon their good nature, although they nursed and tended King, who was found by Mr Howitt living with them. There are occasionally some devils among them who would spear you for the sake of your kidney fat, which is highly prized. I have had, perhaps, as much experience of the blacks throughout Australia in the old days as any man living, and have been in many scrimmages when they have attacked the stations I have been at; but on the whole I have invariably found that by kind and considerate treatment a man can get the blacks to do anything for him. They are as susceptible to kindness as any human being, and many atrocities committed by them have in the first instance been provoked by the whites themselves. Still it does not always do to trust too much to their better feelings. Cromwell's advice to his soldiers, 'Trust in God, but keep your powder dry' is a very safe rule to observe with these half or wholly uncivilised blacks. Burke and Wills do not appear to have sustained the slightest annoyance from the blacks. Yet Dr Leichhardt, in his expedition to Fort Essington, was occasionally threatened. In a letter I received some two years since from Mr John Roper, stock inspector at Merriwa, New South Wales, the only survivor of Leichhardt's party on his Port Essington expedition, he says: 'When we were camped on the Burdekin River, the bed of which was more than a quarter of a mile wide, about 200 armed blacks assembled on the bank opposite our camp at a time when Dr Leichhardt and our blackfellow Charlie were out reconnoitering, leaving six of us at camp. The blacks were all arrayed in their war paint, dancing their war dance. Four of them swam the river and approached our camp fully armed, and when, rifle in hand, I faced them and addressed them in language louder than their own, they hurried book to their companions.' This was a case where discretion was necessary; it showed the tribe that by presenting a fear less front and displaying firearms, of which, being near the coast, they evidently knew the effects, the small band of whites were prepared for fight. Dr Leichhardt has told me that the party always had to be on their guard against surprise among these coast tribes, but he always avoided an encounter with them by a little diplomacy.
Mr Howitt concluded his very interesting lecture with some amusing anecdotes of suggestions offered by Melbourne well-wishers of the expedition. ‘One well meaning gentleman suggested that they should take a balloon with them, because, as he said, by its use it would be possible to see over a large part of the country. Another suggested that they should carry large coils of vulcanised tube, one end of which should be placed in the Darling River, and as the party travelled along, the tubes could be unwound. So that in this way they would always be able to rely upon a continual supply of water.' I would like to see a party of savants from Melbourne start across even to the Darling with their own outfit. In place of the tubing I would suggest their taking bladders of oxygen and hydrogen gas, by mixing which in proper proportions they could manufacture water when required. This would be scientific at all events. But much of the outfit that Burke and Wills started from Melbourne with was for all practical purposes quite as useless. It was the opinion not only of myself, but of many others who saw them en route, that an educated and experienced leader with an outfit not costing more than £200 or £300, including horses, should start from the Darling, where with a little time at his disposal he could have got three or four young fellows and two or three blackboys with horses bred on that country and fresh, instead of being wearied by a long journey from Melbourne through country settled on all the way. The probability is they would have gone through to Carpentaria and returned in safety. These young Australian stockmen are something like the Arabs - they are at home anywhere in the bush.
I remember Mr Howitt going out on his relief expedition very well indeed; he stopped at the station I was managing for a night. With respect to camels, I consider they are most especially adapted to that hot dry country, and that in the near future they will be most extensively employed on most of the large stations in Central Australia.
I notice that only a week or two since a train of twenty-two camels started from Bourke to Cunnamulla on, the Warrego, with stores. One of my stock men and myself in 1861 found one of Burkes camels on some back blocks of the Murrumbidgee, since known as Manfred station. We had some difficulty in getting our horses near it, but after a little perseverance we drove it into a large paddock of Canally station, where it remained until Mr Howitt took it to Melbourne, and it was placed in the Royal Park, where it remained in comfortable retirement.
I have known personally, and some intimately, many of the old explorers - Captain Start, Sir Thomas Mitchell, Dr Leichhardt, Ernest Giles, Burke and Wills, and Kennedy. It seems to me a matter of regret that of all the talented lecturers who periodically visit the country districts not one has essayed the subject of Australian exploration, a subject which if dealt with in a skilful manner, particularly in occasional papers read or lectures given to the pupils attending State schools by men possessed of a practical know ledge of Australian settlement, would tend more to arouse a spirit of push and adventure which is so much needed among our young Australians, who have a heritage of many millions of what with irrigation and intelligent management would prove most fertile land, to reclaim and make homes for themselves, and form large centres of population. The day is close at hand when a more practical system of education is required to turn our lads into active and in time prosperous colonists, instead of training the majority to mercantile or learned professions, bank clerks, and railway employees, ignoring the more useful and practical methods, whereby they would, in assisting in developing the large and varied resources of the fertile land, which is their birthright, be creating substantial and permanent homes for themselves, and adding to the national wealth.
l am, sir, &c,