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William Brahe

Interview with William Brahe, 1904.
27 August 1910.
27 August 1910

The only survivor of the Burke and Wills expedition - which in achieving a record was yet a monument of failure - is Mr William Brahe, now living near the Elsternwick beach. For a man of 75 Mr Brahe carries his years and his life's work lightly. He looks fit, active, alert, the kind of man who 50 years ago would have been an ideal Light Horseman - one of the wiry sort, who stand wear and tear far better than men of greater physical strength. As one of the few who know, he is entitled to a word on some incidents of the expedition for which he is held to blame, though it was mainly a failure of leadership. Burke's errors of judgement are recognised. He gambled almost recklessly against luck, and resentful luck was persistently set against him. After 50 years the irony of fate is still sadly deplored.

The singular ill-luck of that expedition has sometimes been called by harder names. A case in point is the cache on Cooper's Creek. When the two camel-boxes containing provisions were buried there, Mr Brahe purposely chose a spot for the cache where horses had been constantly tethered to a tree at night. The ground was covered with horse litter. This was spread over the cache, so that the alert blacks, who knew the camp well, should not, finding no broken ground, suspect a plant. Now, when Wills opened that cache on the return from Carpentaria, he remarked on the cunningness of the plant, and on closing it again took the greatest pains to restore it to its original condition - so when Wright and Brahe returned from Menindie they found everything just as they had left it, and never suspected for a moment that the plant had been opened. Brahe had cut the letters DIG and the date on a tree, but neither Burke nor Wills made any marks on the tree to show that they had found the "plant." True, there were the remains of three burnt out fires in the vicinity, and Wright, with his station experience on the Darling, should have been able to discriminate, as most bushmen can, between the small and invariably dirty fires of the aboriginals and the more methodical way of the white man. But there were three fires where they would naturally have expected to find one if it were a white camping party, so they jumped almost naturally to the conclusion, that the blacks had camped there. The explanation of the three fires was simply this. When Burke and his party returned from Carpentaria they were ragged, ill-clad, and had thrown away everything that impeded their hurried march. Even in that locality the April nights were cold, so each man built his own fire and slept close to it. Then all tracks had been obliterated, even the fire scattered by the swarms of migratory bush rats that infested the locality and over-ran everything. When Wills took all that trouble to disguise the fact that the plant had been opened, he unconsciously cut away the last hope for himself and his leader. Even when he returned to the cache a second time to hide, his journals, he found things as he had left them - the bush rats had again wiped out every trace of the fact that Brahe and Wright had been there. It was a singular record of ill-luck. One little definite mark - a bullet-hole in the bark of the tree, where, the word "Dig" leaked its red-gum tears would have made all the difference. Wills's eyes must have been alert for a sign on that second visit, but the bush rats had done their work completely.

"One thing I have never quite been able to understand,” said Mr Brahe “is the extreme destitution to which the leaders of the expedition were reduced to their return from Carpentaria. While we were at Cooper's Creek depot the country swarmed with the marsupial migratory rats. They seemed to have concentrated there, just as the blacks came from all sides in the dry season. By digging small pits I once caught several in a night. We had no occasion to use them for food, but once, down at the Menindie depot, when I came in from a long ride one night, Dr Becker invited me to have some pie, which I found very good, indeed rather rich. He told me afterwards that it was rat pie. It was just the presence of these rats that prevented us finding any marks on my return to the Cooper's Creek depot with Wright to indicate that the leaders had returned from Carpentaria and opened the cache. The rats were so many that they obliterated tracks of camels or horses in a single night. The blacks sometimes gave the lost explorers fish, and we had no difficulty in getting a supply. When I camped with Howitt on Cooper's Creek afterwards, at a spot quite close to Burke's grave, though we were then unaware of it, some of the men went fishing one night, and brought back 90 lb of what were variously called perch or bream. We had so many that I was able to cure some in the sun, which we afterwards ate without cooking. These were, I dare say, barramundi. Again, the crested pigeon - which from the peculiar whistling sound of its wings, we called the whistling pigeon - was abundant and easily shot because they clustered in little groups, close together on the limb of a tree. I had shot a great many of them when out with Burke on Cooper's Creek, so he knew they were plentiful. They were a long time even in finding nardoo, and King told me afterwards they were under the impression that it fell from the trees."

Did Burke and Wills really die of starvation? It seems an absurd question to ask, after 50 years have established the fact, but it is curious that so many men of that expedition died in exactly the same way, when not under stress of starvation. Gray, Patton, Dr Becker, all went down mysteriously; Patton on the return from Cooper's Creek to Menindie. "He was very weak, "said Mr Brahe ”I had to hold him on his horse all one day. That night I left him in his tent. Early in the morning word came to me, 'Patton is dead.' We buried him about 150 miles north of Menindie and there his bones lie still." He had been a blacksmith at Castlemaine, and was splendidly built, very strong. "I will be carrying you on my back yet," he said laughingly to Mr Brahe, but the prophecy was reversed. When on that southern march Brahe junctioned with Wright, it was only to hear of another death. And the meeting was, indeed, pure chance, for Wright was two days out on a slow march towards Cooper's Creek. One night, Mr Brahe's horses disappeared, an unusual circumstance. He followed up the trail which led him to Wright's camp. The horses had scented the proximity of their kind when, to man, there was no sign of it, and had wandered off in the night. The first news that Brahe got was that Dr Becker had died that morning. The name must not be confused with that of Ludwig Beckler [sic], artist, whose fine collection of sketches are still preserved in the Melbourne Public Library.

"I might have made it more clear to Burke," said Mr Brahe, "that my own party were in a bad way. Patton, indeed, was dying. I suffered constantly from what I imagine was scorbutic bleeding at the nose. If it is not established that all the deaths on that expedition were due to scurvy, then there was some unknown sickness afflicting us."

What was your impression on leaving Cooper's Creek? "I had not given up Burke for lost, but had the best reasons in the world for knowing that he was a bad bushman. My impression was that if he found the route a bad one he would come back another way, making perhaps westward by Gregory's Track. My idea at the moment was that he was out somewhere near Eyre's Creek, in the interior. He had heard much before leaving Melbourne of the possibilities in that way, knew that, John McDouall Stuart was striking north there, and it was that belief in a western route that induced him against all advice to make that hopeless swerve away towards Mt Hopeless. My idea was to get back to Menindie to learn if any news had come from Melbourne or any other quarter, and act accordingly. I did not follow our back tracks, but cut across from Camp 60 to Camp 52. As soon as I met Wright and learned that he had no news, I suggested at once our going back to Cooper's Creek, and it was not easy. On one stage I had to take water 40 miles ahead on the camels, establish, a supply, and then come back for the party. Yet, singularly enough, we travelled only two miles further from that point when we found a zone of plenty of water and herbage in abundance. It looked as if a heavy rain belt had just struck that one area. There was a lot of chance in finding water, because on the open plains in dry weather the yellow pools were very like the yellow soil, unless the sun glistened on them. I remember one night going in advance of Mr Howitt's party for about 20 miles to look for water, at a point where I knew there was plenty of it. Yet, as my tracks afterwards showed, I absolutely ringed round the pool in the darkness without seeing it."

What led Burke to so alter the whole plan of the expedition, dropping some of his party at Menindie, another section at Cooper's Creek? "I can only surmise," Mr Brahe said, “I think he heard something at Menindie of Stuart making his big effort to cross the heart of the continent, and was afraid of being anticipated. From that point on there was only one thought in Burke's mind, to push on and make the record of being the first. The botanist, the geologist, the naturalist - men whose presence meant knowledge for the expedition - were all dropped, and we marched the long stages that meant exhaustion. Sometimes we went into camp as late as 11 o'clock at night, having passed good camping water late in the afternoon. Delay of any kind chafed Burke. The only angry word I ever had from him was in consequence of it. Some packs had shifted; the horses were delayed. He rode back, asking impatiently what was wrong. I explained, and said. 'It's all right.' 'It's not all right,' he exclaimed angrily ; 'It's all wrong!' and rode away. In two hours he was back, saying kindly, 'You must be very tired, Brahe. Ride my horse for a while.' He would blaze up into a temper very quickly, but soon got over it."

"I think some injustice is done to the memory of Gray," said Mr Brahe. “They blame him for stealing some flour when they were all in rather desperate straits. But you have to remember that Gray was cook for that little party, the provisions were in his charge, he knew that he was very seriously ill, and it was a great temptation. Wills was a tremendous worker. Often at night, when I was on guard, I came upon him lying out taking observations of the stars. He used to make his own horizon."

Mr Brahe tells also how he came to take charge of the depot at Cooper's Creek. He remembers the incident very vividly. Out with Burke one day, they came upon a fine water-pool, and Burke said, "Let's have a bathe." While they were in the water Burke suddenly remarked, "I want someone to stay here and take the party back to the Darling if we don't return. I will give you the command if you stop. It will be a distinction." Brahe answered, "I don't want the distinction; I want to go with you," and the leader simply said, "So be it!" The next day Wills said to him, "We are in a fix. Someone must take charge here. You do it. "I humm'd and haw'd over the suggestion," said Mr Brahe, "but just at that instant Burke came into the tent. Wills simply forced my hand. He said, 'Brahe has offered to stay. 'That's good,' Burke replied, patting me on the shoulder, and so they settled it."

"I was under the impression," said Mr Brahe, "until we found King that I had left Cooper's Creek on April 20th. The first question I asked King on meeting him was, 'When did you get back?' He said, 'On the 21st of April.' I was simply dazed, confounded, for a moment, and said, 'And I left on the 20th. ''No,” King replied, "it must have been the 21st, because your fire was burning when we got there in the evening."

Mr Brahe described the recovery of the bodies of Burke and Wills. They had simply mummified under that fierce northern sun. Burke's head was missing, and, both Wills's hands, taken away by the dingoes, which were very plentiful.

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