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defends Butke's actions

January 1862.

King spent a week in Castlemaine at the end of January 1861 with his friend, the Reverend James Bickford (1816-1895). He was honoured at a civic banquet.

King gave an interview to the Castlemaine Advertiser defending Burke's actions in response to William Lockhart Morton's articles printed in the Yeoman and Australasian Acclimatiser (read the articles HERE).


(Reprinted in The Age: 14 February 1862: 7).


The scandalous statement which have from time to time appeared in the Yeoman, are to be explained by the circumstance that the editor was an unsuccessful competitor for the position of leader of the expedition, and now with the meanest malignity he strives to blacken the memory of the unfortunate gentleman who was preferred to himself:

From his (Mr King's) lips the following statements with reference to the representations of the Yeoman are taken, and although now and then honest indignation overcame his naturally calm manner, the bulk of these explanations and denials were given with the composed truthfulness so eminently characteristic of the man, but whether spoken in 'sorrow or in anger' every thing said by John King bears upon it the impress of high truthfulness and integrity, and this not a blind truthfulness arising from an implicit belief in the elevated character of his dead leader, but the truthfulness upheld by the teachings of a judgment chastened and strengthened by trials and experiences of so terrible a nature, that to think or act a lie on such a subject would be a degradation too deep for man to sink to.

Naturally enough the first statement taken notice of by King was the that one made by the Yeoman - naturally, because in it King is in reality charged with foregoing all that he has expressed and thought in connection with Mr Burke and his conduct. The passage in question is to this effect [Read the full article HERE]:

He (Gray) since his illness, seems to have been treated with no kindness or proper feeling ... he had helped himself to a little flour, was found taking it, called up and punished. This was on the 25th March, and on the 17th of April he was found dead in his rug. To strike a weak sick man, in any way, and under any circumstance, must ever be regarded, to use the mildest term, as an un-manly action; but what should we say if we knew that he had been knocked down, kicked, and so ill-used, that King would have shot the leader if he had had a pistol: and that poor Gray was never afterwards allowed to have his meals with the others ? Yet this is just, as we learn from a reliable source, what King stated to some of Howitt's party at Cooper's Creek.

Upon reading this statement, King was for a time over-powered; as soon as his emotion allowed him to speak, he said 'the whole of that is a WICKED AND VILE UNTRUTH' and proceeded to say:

Never from the day of my being placed under the command of Mr Burke had I reason to complain of his conduct to myself or others; on the contrary, his bearing towards the whole of the party was of such a character as made him a universal favorite. On the occasion in question, I was standing close to Mr Burke and Gray, and heard and saw all that passed. Mr Burke. after asking Gray why he had taken the flour (I having previously informed Mr Burke of the theft at Gray's request) and if he had ever been refused anything he required that was in the possession of the party.

Gray returned no answer; Mr Burke boxed his ears several times with both hands, and followed him up a few steps as he retreated. I had then in my belt, as I invariable had, my revolver, and the only feeling I experienced was surprise at the leniency of the punishment. I remember perfectly comparing it in my mind with what it would have been in the army, viz, very severe punishment certainly, and probably death.

Any authority, reliable or otherwise, conveying such information as is contained in the passage pointed out, simply utters an untruth, for which there is not the slightest foundation.

As to Gray's subsequent treatment, the Yeoman is equally false. On the day of the punishment, Mr Burke did not, us usual, call Gray to select his portion of the rations, but desired me to take it to him; but that was the only occasion on which any difference was made with respect to any one of the party; from the next day until the day of his death Gray selected his own portion of food, as had been usual before the theft. During his illness nothing could exceed the kindness and attention of Mr Burke towards him, and he met with all the care it was possible for the party to bestow upon any other or themselves. Any difference that may appear in my account of the punishment, and of Mr Wills's journal, arises from the fact that Mr Burke described the affair to Mr Wills, and the latter gentleman must have misunderstood the extent of the punishment, whilst I was looking on and took particular notice of the whole transaction.

On turning to the Yeoman of 11th January [HERE], where mention is made of a feeling of dissatisfaction having sprung up in the minds of the party in consequence of the conduct of the leader, King says:

Ferguson and Loughnan were discharged for bad conduct; the former had been repeatedly complained of by nearly the whole of the party. Mr Burke, on two occasions, when the information of dissatisfaction was conveyed to him by Mr Landells, called the men up, and offered to give a discharge to any of them who desired it. Not one of the party availed himself of the offer, and the whole number were most anxious to continue the journey with Mr Burke. At the Darling some unpleasantness took place in consequence of Mr Landells having opened a case of spirits at Phelps' station, contrary to Mr Burke's wish; but from the time Mr Landells left the party not one unpleasant word or disagreement took place among them. Every day endeared the leader more and more to those under them, and a happier fraternity never journeyed together than did the Burke Exploring Party.

From the time they left the Darling, everything connected with the journey prospered, and the faith of the men in the leader was unlimited. The statement that Mr Burke gave a blackfellow £5 to find some camels that were merely in a bend of the Darling, is also false The camels were, at that time, in charge of Mr Landells. They were lost, and Mr Landells had been in search of them unsuccessfully. He then ordered King and Belooch to look for them. They followed the track for three days, and succeeded in finding seven of them. Mr Burke, alarmed at their long absence, sent Gray and a blackfellow after them, and these two in their search found the remainder of the camels.

The blacks engaged as guides did not 'pilot the party to Cooper's Creek,' nor were they engaged for that purpose; they left the party at the Ranges, and as soon as the settled districts were passed, all difficulties of travelling in the right direction were at an end.

On arriving at Cooper's Creek the camels, save one, were in capital condition. The exception had broken down while under Mr Landells, and had broke down in consequence of being under-fed and over worked. The riding camels intended to do the journey from Cooper's Creek to the Gulf were not worked on the journey up, save on one occasion, when Wills and King made use of two of them to recover some saddles that had been left behind.

When Burke and party left Cooper's Creek, it was calculated that at the same rate of consumption as had before taken place, provisions for many months were left behind. The journey to the Gulf was pursued with judgment. King says, 'We constantly added to our provisions with roots and fish'.

On arriving at the Gulf, so far from the 'country being under fresh water,' the only fresh water attainable was from the rain deposited in the camel tracks, and this could only be collected with difficulty. The water in the river was as salt as the sea; nor was the water from any of the creeks drinkable. This was the cape, not only at the end of the journey northward, but the water obtainable at the 118th camp was saltish.

King's narrative of the back journey is of a most interesting character. He says:

We started for home, for in such a light we to a great extent looked upon the depot at Cooper's Creek, in the very best and happiest spirits. Day by day we checked off the time, and so sure were we of being all right when we reached the depot, that no exertion or sacrifice was considered too great to reflect that object. It was this feeling that caused us to disencumber ourselves of many things that would have been useful to us at Cooper's Creek, had we dreamed of the desertion that was to take place there.

Two camps before we expected to make the depot, Mr Burke expressed his intention of starting for Melbourne 5 days hence, and Mr Wills made arrangements for finishing his journal and maps so that Mr Burke should take them with him. About 11 o'clock, on the morning of the 21st April, we camped, and for dinner finished the last of our beef, not thinking it necessary to save any, as we would surely be at home for supper. As we approached the depot we were continually looking out for some of the party to meet us, and coo'ed till we were within sight. It was only on arriving at the depot itself and finding it deserted that the possibility of its being left occurred to us. Our first thought was that the party had moved up or down the creek to a better camping place, but when upon opening the cache the truth was revealed to us, a truth so far from all we had expected or hoped, we were for the time heart-broken and bewildered.

On, to some extent, recovering ourselves, the first impulse of Mr Wills and myself was to follow Brahe and his party, but here the wisdom and thoughtfulness of the leader made itself apparent; he pointed out their condition, as told in the note found in the cache, our own weak and debilitated condition, the improbability of our overtaking them, and then his information as to the outlying stations towards Mount Hopeless. In addition to this, he himself felt unable to make a forced march after Brahe and party, but told us if we thought ourselves capable, to take what provisions we would and follow, at the same time pointing out the dangers we would encounter. Upon considering these things we believed Burke had judged best, and concluded to follow his advice in this as in everything else, relying upon the judgment that had guided us so wisely and safely hitherto.

From the first, Burke was most anxious to join the blacks, and made repeated attempts to do so. The blacks, however, although they would occasionally supply us with food, would never allow us to remain with them. We were not at first acquainted with the nardoo, and Wills's growing weakness prevented our making all those efforts to procure food we otherwise might have done. Burke felt it impossible to leave him in the state he was, and a great portion of our privation arose from the chivalrous devotion of those men, one towards the other, and towards myself.

Mr Burke always trusted the blacks as far as was wise; they were continually trying to steal from us, and on several occasions surrounded me threateningly with their weapons; one day soon after they had so behaved, forty of them, approached, each two of them carrying a small piece of bark holding a little fish; fully two hundred others were behind and closing in on us in a semi-circle. Mr Burke thought, though it was well to keep them at a distance, it was a pity to lose the fish, he consequently made a sweep round the whole of them and thus secured the fish without the objectionable company.

Wills had tried to live with the natives, they, however, would not allow him to stay, and my great fear for some time before Mr Howitt found me was that they would move their camp and desert me.

On looking on the whole of our experiences from the start from Cooper's Creek till the death of the first and second in command, I cannot recall a single act or circumstance that fell out badly from the want of judgment, care and forethought on the part of the leader, and if the Yeoman is correct in saying little good was done, the deficiency certainly did not arise from any shortcomings of Mr Burke's. With the maneuverings or schemings of persons in or out of the committees I am not acquainted nor am I desirous of learning; enough for me that I know our leader was all his followers desired him to be, and I firmly believe however little may have been done by Mr Burke, any other man would have done still less.

Turning to a letter in the Yeoman, of December 28th [HERE], Mr King said:

If the writer of that letter was not acquainted with Mr Burke, he wrote like a man inspired. Whatever qualifications Mr Burke may or may not have possessed before the exploration, his character during it is accurately described there; he did indeed posses an intellectual ability, a mind not to be altered by time or place or circumstance, an aptitude for at once perceiving and understanding the physical geography of the unknown country spread out before him; undying resolution, wisely tempered by judicious caution and forethought; great command of temper in extreme difficulties; great observation and memory of localities; thorough bushmanship; a kindness of disposition that made him always act considerately and without selfishness towards his fellow travellers, and at the same time maintain strict discipline. All these qualifications Mr Burke possessed in an eminent degree, and in addition to these a higher one still; an unwavering dependence on a power greater than his own. This dependence was manifested in the everyday acts of his life, and in our greatest straits, next to his own prayers, Mr Burke found his greatest comfort in the fact that while he was perishing, good men were making supplication for the safety of himself and party.

In making these contradictions Mr King was particularly careful not to speak on any one of the passages in dispute without great consideration. Mr King is necessarily the only testimony that can be brought to bear upon very many of the statements, but let way whose judgment may have been warped by the Yeoman visit John King, and hear the tale as told by him, let them become acquainted with the man, and the unimpeachable truth of all he says will immediately become apparent.



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