Last scenes of Burke and Wills tragedy [chapter 33 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 33 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 10 February 1935.]

The story of Australia — XXXIII

Last scenes of Burke and Wills tragedy

Burke and Wills had not gone far towards Mount Hopeless, however, before one of the camels got bogged, and again valuable time was lost in the futile effort to save it. They managed to save a little of its flesh to add to their rapidly diminishing store of food. They followed the course of the Barcoo until it split up into several channels and lost itself in the desert. Then they fell in with some natives, who at first were friendly and shared their food with them, but these good Samaritans eventually disappeared as suddenly as they appeared.

Worn out with fatigue and hardship, they set their last camp near a creek. On May 27 Wills walked back to the depot to deposit the journals and to see if any relief had arrived. He reached the end of his journey on May 30, and in his diary he wrote: “No traces of anyone, except blacks have been since we left.” He was wrong in his surmise. The depot had been visited by Brake and Wright, who finding the concealed provisions apparently untouched, had returned to Menindie.

The note which Wills left read as follows:— “May 30, 1861. We have been unable to leave the creek. Both camels are dead. Burke and King are down on the lower part of the creek. I am about to return to them, when we shall probably all come up here. We are trying to live the best way we can, like the blacks, but we find it hard work. Our clothes are going fast to pieces; send provisions and clothes as soon as possible. The depot party having left contrary to instructions have put us into a fix. I have deposited some of my journals here for fear of accidents.”

It was with heavy heart that Wills retraced his footsteps from the depot to join his companions in distress. In his weakened state he could not have completed the journey, but, fortunately, he met with some friendly blacks, who provided him with some food. For a few days he remained with them to regain a little strength, and then set out to rejoin his friends. He found them worn out with fatigue and hardship, and completely destitute.

Search for Blacks

Realising that only a miracle could save their lives, the brave band determined to make a final effort to find the blacks who had befriended Wills. They struggled on, but on account of their extreme weakness, very little progress was made. The only food they could find was nardoo, the seed used by the natives to make bread. This allayed the pangs of hunger to some extent, but it contained scanty nourishment. “We have little chance of anything but starvation, unless we can get hold of some of the blacks,” Wills wrote on June 24.

The camp was at last reached, and to their dismay it was deserted. Wills was failing fast, and he was too weak to walk any farther. At this critical stage Burke and King, although unable to walk more than two miles a day, decided to seek out the blacks and obtain some food. On June 26 they set out for this purpose. Wills was sinking fast, and it was their last chance of saving him. They made a rude shelter for him, and placed within his reach sufficient nardoo to last him eight days. “I may live four or five days,” he had written the previous day. Heroic to the last, without one regret or grumble, he met his death bravely two or three days afterwards.

His two companions did not travel far. On the second day after the sad parting with Wills, Burke fell down from exhaustion. The dying man begged King not to leave him until he passed away. Throughout the night King watched by his side, and it was in his arms that the brave leader died next morning.

King was now alone in the wilderness with his dead leaders. Having performed his final duties to the departed he set out in search of the natives. At an abandoned camp he found a bag of nardoo, and with this supply he returned to the spot where he had left Wills, and found that his troubles, too, were over. He dug a shallow grave for the body, covered it with sand, and then resumed his search of the natives. This time he was successful, and, moved by his pitiful condition, they supported him until the search party under Howitt reached him.

Meanwhile there had been great anxiety in Melbourne regarding the fate of Burke and Wills, and this led to a relief party being sent to Cooper’s Creek, of which Mr. Howitt was the leader. Near Swan Hill he met Brake returning with the news that Burke had not returned to the depot. Howitt’s party was reinforced and sent forward. On September 13 he arrived at the depot on Cooper’s Creek. The buried food was found, and for the first time it was known that the explorers had been there since returning from the Gulf of Carpentaria. Search was made in all directions, and on September 16 a party found King, the survivor.

Howitt’s story

The finding of King is thus described by Howitt: “I immediately went across to the blacks’ wurleys, where I found King sitting in a hut which the natives had made for him. He presented a melancholy appearance, wasted to a shadow, and hardly to be distinguished as a civilised being but by the remnants of clothes upon him. He seemed extremely weak, and I found it occasionally difficult to follow him. The natives were all gathered around, seated on the ground.”

The story as given by King is soon told. From the time he saw his companions dead to the day that he was discovered by Howitt’s party he had been about two months and 10 days in the wilderness. He remained by himself some days before going to the blacks. Though desiring to be quit of him at first they afterwards became reconciled to his company. On the whole he had been well treated.

As soon as King had sufficiently regained his strength he conducted the party to view the remains of Burke and Wills. Both bodies were buried decently, and then the party returned to Melbourne by easy stages. Soon after his arrival Howitt was instructed to return to Cooper’s Creek, and bring the bodies of Burke and Wills to Melbourne. This was safely accomplished, and their remains were accorded a public funeral amid the general mourning of the whole colony.

The Government granted John King a pension of £180 per annum. He died of consumption on January 15, 1872.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 10 February 1935, p. 31

Editor’s notes:
nardoo = Australian clover fern (Marsilea drummondii)

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