[Editor: This article, written in response to some rumours about the Burke and Wills expedition, was published in The Ovens and Murray Advertiser (Beechworth, Vic.), 1 May 1875. The article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph (Sydney).]
The fate of O’Hara Burke.
Adverting to the recent report circulated in the Sydney Evening News with respect to Burke’s having been shot by a white man, the Daily Telegraph writes as follows:—
The story circulated about the death of O’Hara Burke invites attention to the authentic details of the fate of that leader and his comrade, the singleminded, faithful, and courageous Wills. A few words will suffice to recall the situation.
The party arrived at Cooper’s Creek on 25th April, 1861, thoroughly exhausted, having been out four months and seven days on the forced march to Carpentaria, and to their vexation and horror they found that the depot party had not been relieved, and that they had abandoned the position 24 hours before.
From that time until July, Burke, Wills, and King spent their time in useless and almost aimless wanderings. Burke conceived the unhappy project of reaching South Australia, and having speedily to abandon that attempt, nothing was left but to starve on Cooper’s Creek waiting for assistance to turn up.
They were reduced to live on a wild clover seed called nardoo, and on such fish as the blacks supplied them with, and the nardoo was not sufficiently nutritious to support life.
On the 20th June the end was evidently near; Wills wrote in his diary — “I cannot understand this nardoo at all. We are now reduced to it alone, and we manage to consume from four to five pounds per day between us. It appears to be quite indigestible, and cannot possibly sustain life by itself.”
Friday, 21st, Wills writes — “Unless relief comes within a fortnight I cannot possibly hold out.” At this time Burke is getting rapidly weaker, and King is reported as doing the two’s work.
On the 24th June the entry is — “A fearful night; a southerly gale, and the cold intense. King went for nardoo in spite of the weather, and came in with a good load, but he himself terribly cut up.”
On Wednesday, 27th June, Burke and King decided to leave Wills with nardoo, wood, and water for eight days to hand, and to go in search of the blacks, who might supply them with fish. They did this very reluctantly, but Wills writes, “I think it is my only chance… Nothing now but the greatest good luck could save any of us. Burke is getting extremely weak.”
Burke told Wills that unless with his wish he would not leave him, and the latter, says King, urged Burke to make the effort. Wills undoubtedly possessed the clearest head of the party, and it is easy to gather from these and other extracts that he saw the end exactly; that he was sure to die first; that Burke might linger a little longer, and that King would be the last to succumb, and might live to see the daily expected succour. The events happened exactly in this order.
Wills breathed his last in his solitary mia mia, with no one near him. One or two days afterwards Burke laid himself down — according to King — with the knowledge “he could not last many hours,” and gave directions to King to give his pocket-book to Sir W. Stawell, his uncle, to place their pistol in his right hand, and to leave him unburied. These injunctions were fulfilled.
Burke died quietly, and his pocket-book was found by Sir W. Stawell to contain the following entries:—
“I hope that we shall be done justice to. We fulfilled our task, but we have been aban——. We have not been followed up, and the depot party abandoned their post.”
“King has behaved nobly. I hope he will be properly cared for,” etc.
“King has behaved nobly. He has stayed with me to the end, and placed the pistol in my hand,” etc.
King had not the ability to forget these entries, nor had he the talent to invent the touching details that have made the Burke and Wills tragedy familiar as a household word.
And as to the blacks and their tales, with which we are now troubled, this very expedition shows how little they are to be relied upon. Before the end was known, the Adelaide police had reports from the Cooper’s Creek tribes that “three white men were living on a raft, naked and fighting the natives.” Nothing of the sort occurred. M’Kinlay was actually taken by the blacks to the site where they said the expedition had been surprised, killed, and eaten; and M’Kinlay, who knew as much of the natives as anybody, was induced to believe that, as he says, “the whole party have been murdered here.” These incidents will show the value of a black man’s story.
As to the tale of the gin, which has received so much publicity, a dozen reasons could be cited to show its inherent untruth. Murder on King’s part was motiveless. The crime could not be committed until after the separation from Wills, and then Burke was a dying man, to whom death would merely have been a happy release from suffering. The body, when found by Howitt, showed no trace or violence, and it is incredible that if he had perpetrated the outrage King would have left the corpse, as he did, unburied. He expected relief daily, and he would have been confronted with evidence of the crime.
Our object in writing will be attained if the Victorian press and the Victorian people at once agree to rate the Sydney calumny at its proper value, and to pay attention to no more marvels from the aborigines. King, as every student of the history expedition knows, has full right to the high position he occupies — that of a follower tried in terrible adversity, and proved faithful to the last.
The Ovens and Murray Advertiser (Beechworth, Vic.), 1 May 1875, p. 2
advert = to call, draw, or turn attention to something; to pay attention to something; to refer to something; to take notice of something (also, an abbreviation of “advertisement”)
calumny = an untrue and defamatory accusation, charge, or misrepresentation which would have the effect of damaging, discrediting, disparaging, or tarnishing someone’s reputation or standing; a falsification or malicious statement used to damage or injure the respect and admiration held by people for someone or something; defamation, slander
gin = an Aboriginal woman
nardoo = Australian clover fern (Marsilea drummondii)
succour = assistance, help, or support, particularly in a time of distress or difficulty (also spelt “succor”)
[Editor: Changed “ciruculated in the” to “circulated in the”; “near Wills wrote” to “near; Wills wrote”; “the aboriginies” to “the aborigines”.]
[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]