Burke & Wills Web
The online digital research archive of expedition records
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by the Royal Society of Victoria and the Royal Geographical Society of London

From Matt Joseph Fox, The history of Queensland, its people and industries: an historical and commercial review, descriptive and biographical facts figures and illustrations, an epitome of progress.
Volume 2, Chapter 8, pp. 140-1.
Brisbane: States Publishing Co., 1919-1923. 3 volumes.


Of the many demonstrations of public sentiment regarding the fate of Burke and Wills, the most typical and illuminating was provided at the Ordinary Meeting of the Royal Society of Victoria, held on the 18 August 1862. This was numerously attended, and the Governor, Sir Henry Barkly, who was President, occupied the chair. The following account is taken from the Argus, 19 August 1862, p. 5.

The first business was the presentation to John King, the survivor, of the gold watch awarded him by the Royal Geographical Society. The secretary, at the request of the president, read the following extract from a private letter from Sir Roderick Murchison, the President of the Royal Geographical Society, May 1862.

I told you in my last report that I thought it probable that we should grant one of our gold medals to the family of Burke, and I am happy to announce to you that at the last meeting of the Council the award was made as I anticipated, on my own proposition, strengthened as it was by your favourable opinion.

We also give to the good and intrepid King a gold watch, with an inscription. The Duke of Newcastle has promised to attend and receive these donations on the 26th. The watch sent to King cost much more than the gold medal, and I hope the good soldier will like it.

The secretary then next read the despatch from His Grace, the Duke of Newcastle to Governor Sir Henry Barkly.

Downing Street,
May 26 1862.

Sir, I have to acquaint you that this morning I attended the annual meeting of the Royal Geographical Society and that at the request of the president (Lord Ashburton) I undertook to forward to you the accompanying gold watch which the President and Council had determined to present to John King, in testimony of his meritious conduct during the late Victorian Exploration Expedition, in which Messrs Burke and Wills unfortunately lost their lives. I have, therefore, to request that you will accordingly, on behalf of the President and Council, place this watch in the hands of John King and that you will at the same time express to him the satisfaction it has been to me to be the channel of making known to him that his conduct has been appreciated as it deserves.

I have the honour to be, etc

His excellency, addressing John King, spoke as follows;

I feel, Mr King, that it would be almost superfluous on my part to add much to the encomiums passed upon you by such high authorities and to one so modest as I know you are I dare say it would be even painful if I were to enter into any length upon a recital of the claims which I consider you possess upon the gratitude and admiration of your fellow colonists. (Hear, hear.)

Gratifying as it must be to you to the liberal honours and awards which the legislature and people of Victoria have bestowed upon you to receive this crowning mark of recognition of your services from your fellow countrymen at home, I can quite conceive that it would be more congenial to your own feelings if I had delivered it to you in my own private rooms. Still, I felt it to be a matter of duty on an occasion of this kind, to make the ceremony as public as possible, not only in justice to yourself, but for the sake and example which your conduct has afforded to all who may be placed in similar trying circumstances. I feel sure that, even if you entertained any idea of surviving nothing was further from your thoughts than your considerations, of glory or honour when you knelt by the side of the dying Burke to receive his last injunctions, or when you turned back to perform the last sad offices, for your departed comrade Wills. You did your duty, I am sure, simply because you felt it was your duty. A christian, you knew it was a privilege to minister to suffering humanity; a soldier you never dreamt of swerving from the unturnable fidelity which you knew you owed your leader. (Applause)

In such a trying position as that in which you were placed, with the bands of discipline relaxed, the instincts of self preservation have often led men to act selfishly. Others in your position might have thought that, being stronger than the rest of the party - perhaps to pursue the game, catch fish, or pound nardoo it would have been consistent with duty to escape to the nearest settlement, perhaps with the vague idea of sending back assistance to your comrades. I feel satisfied that any thought of deserting never crossed your mind; that you abandoned all desire to serve yourself alone, and that you were determined to share the fate of your companions. The result has proved that you acted rightly and properly. Your example may serve to teach us that "the path of duty" generally under providence, is "the path of safety." And what is about to take place tonight will also teach us another lesson, "that duty did never yet want its meed." (Applause)

I may just refer to the fortunate circumstances that our meeting should be graced by the presence of a gentleman who, partly from motives of humanity and partly with a view to share in the glory of the enterprise, volunteered to lead one of the subsidiary expeditions sent in search of the missing expedition of which you formed a member. Those subsidiary expeditions, it is well known, have led to a great increase in our geographical knowledge of the interior of the continent, and, I believe, among the most brilliant exploits which grace the history of Australian exploration. There is not one more brilliant to be found than the passage made by the party that our friend, Mr Landsborough, from the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Darling River (Applause)

I hope Mr Landsborough will be kind enough tonight to give us some information as to his route on that occasion. We all know, without waiting for that explanation, that his journey has conferred the most substantial benefit on all these colonies. It has there can be no doubt, very much accelerated the formation of a great settlement in north Australia, which may be expected to become some day a separate and independent colony. In fact, it has formed a fitting addition to the noble efforts which nave been made by this colony in the course of Australian exploration. Those efforts, as we all know, are not about to terminate.

Instructions have seen despatched to Mr Howitt to return as speedily as possible, and when he brings back the remains of the lamented explorers, Burke and Wills, we shall approach the closing scene of the great drama - or tragedy, as I believe I may call it. I trust on that occasion the public funeral promised to those brave men will be carried out with the enthusiasm which was manifested a year ago, and that active exertions will be used by all concerned to raise an appropriate monument to their memory. (Hear, hear.)

I have now great pleasure in handing King, on the part of the Royal Geographical Society of London this watch which bears within, as he will find, inscription setting forth, that it was "presented by the President and Council of the Royal Geographical Society of London to John King, for his meritorious conduct in the expedition under the lamented Burke and Wills." (Great applause)

John King, who seemed overpowered with emotion, replied in the following terms.

May it please your excellency, it affords me much grateful satisfaction to receive this watch which the Royal Geographical Society of London has been pleased to present to me in recognition of my services during the late Victorian Exploration Expedition, and particularly to the late lamented Mr Burke in his last moments. In these particulars, your excellency, I consider that I simply did my duty; a duty that I would perform over again if I were similarly placed. (Applause)

Still, it is a source of grateful satisfaction to me to know that our achievements have been properly appreciated by the British Government and the great scientific bodies, and also that my humble services have been appreciated by the Royal Geographical Society, and by His Grace the Duke of Newcastle. I beg, through your excellency, to respectfully thank his Grace and the Royal Geographical Society for their recognition of my services. Such recognitions will always convince me that no man under this or any Government will do his duty without meeting his rewards. (Great applause)

His excellency then introduced Mr Landsborough to the meeting and intimated that that gentleman would give a narrative of his expedition. His Excellency also introduced two Aborigines who had accompanied Mr Landsborough from Carpentaria.

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