Burke & Wills Web
The online digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020

by Edwin James Welch

Edwin James Welch, The Tragedy of Cooper's Creek
ML:MSS 314/225 filed at A1928 (ML CY1115) n.d, c. 190-?, Angus & Robertson Collection.
State Library of New South Wales


Appendix A: Nardoo.
The word "Nardoo" only became known to the general public when the story of the Burke and Wills disaster formed the staple subject of conversation, although it was well known to the Western men long before that, as an article of food largely used by the blacks of the interior. Nardoo, or to give it its botanical name: Marsilea quadeifolia, grows luxuriantly in swampy country, and dies out in the hot weather of summer, having previously scattered its spore cases broadcast. These spore cases appear as small brown oval seeds, about the size of small melon seeds, but much rougher. They are swept up in the hands in large quantities by the blacks, who pound them between two stones into a coarse whitey-brown looking flour which is then mixed with water into cakes, or balls, and baked in the ashes.

It contains but little nutritive matter and is very indigestible, which accounts for the estimate formed of it by Wills, though, doubtless, in connection with such other foods as the blacks used, this objection would be less noticeable. The bottom stone, which is usually of fine-grained hard sandstone about 20 by 15 inches is to be found in nearly all their main camps, but the smaller one, or "wollong", as they call it on the Creek, which is used in the hand, is carried about by the women, who become accustomed to one favorite stone and treasure it accordingly. The noise made by this pounding operation; which is often kept up late into the night, according to the quantity of seed gathered, is monotonous and often a great nuisance to a tired man who has been in the saddle all day, if his camp happens to be near it; but like most other noises, the ear gradually becomes accustomed to it.

The paste made of raw nardoo flour, which Wills describes in his journal as being: "a most insinuating article, and one that they appear to esteem a great delicacy," is prepared by sprinkling water in small quantities on the flour during the grinding process. It then runs out by a groove cut in the stone into a coolamon, and is passed from hand to hand until there is none left.

Bailey, the well-known botanist of Queensland, fell into the strange error of supposing that the seeds of the Sesbania aculeata was "the true nardoo of Cooper's Creek," which, he says, "the unfortunate Explorers might easily have mistaken for the spore cases of a Marsilea." Such, however, was not the case, although the blacks on the shores of the Gulf are known to use Sesbania seeds in a very similar manner, as they probably do in other localities. But the nardoo found in such quantities on Cooper's Creek was as described, and not to be mistaken for any other plant. Writing on this subject, some time back, in the Daily Telegraph, a well-known and experienced bushman thus expressed himself:- "For, myself, I never believed nardoo disagreed with King, as the country he was in at the time abounded in fish, game, snakes, grubs, lizards, &c., on which fare no bushman would starve." He was right in every particular, but, as shown in the narrative, King was unable to obtain any of them, chiefly owing to weakness, but mainly because he was not a bushman, and was entirely wanting in the experience which enables one man to keep alive where another, under precisely similar conditions; rival up the ineffectual struggle.

Appendix B: Pituri
As in the case of Nardoo, the word "Pituri" became familiar as one of those so frequently repeated in connection with this Expedition. Afterwards it attracted considerable attention from scientific men, particularly those belonging to the medical profession. The substance was analysed, reported upon, and made the subject of many papers published in scientific journals; experiments on different animals were made, and the general result could be summed up in the one word "poison." It was shown to contain an alkaloid, similar to nicotine, but distinct from it and this was called "piturine" or "pituria." Pituri, otherwise called by the late Baron Mueller, Duboisia Hopwoodii, is the product of a plant which grows in patches in many places in central and Western Australia. It is much prized by the natives, who, when it is not to be found in their own district, travel long distances to obtain it from their more fortunate neighborans, and it has, therefore, come to be looked upon as a recognised object of trade amongst them.

It is the product of a bush, the tips and small leaves of which are dried and very neatly enclosed in small bags, fashioned of net work and seldom containing more than a couple of ounces, and frequently not as much. The blacks chew it as a stimulant, and the partially masticated ball is handed from one to another until its virtue becomes exhausted. But until that happens it is taken great care of, being plastered behind or in the ear, in readiness for the next demand.

King had learnt the pituri habit when living with the blacks, and declared that he had derived much comfort from it, especially when memories of the past, added to present misery aroused the desire for it. At first, and until he became habituated to its use, it caused headache and violent spasms of sickness, followed by stupor which was replaced by something akin to the intoxicating effect of repeated doses of strong spirits, but as the effect gradually wore off, and left no ill consequences, he persisted in using it. The women were not allowed to touch or even look at it, under threats of penalties compared to which death would have been preferable, but they seem to have made up for this enforced abstinence by weaving the most romantic and ridiculous stories about the mysteries surrounding its preparation, which could only be carried out at full moon, and in a cave which contained numberless horrors, and much more to the same purpose.

A member of Howitt's party who sampled it, on one occasion only, tersely described his experience when he recovered the power of speech as:- "Abominable to the taste, racking to the head, convulsive to the whole system, destructive to memory, and intensely soothing in the final stage." But he could never be prevailed upon to give it another trial !

www.burkeandwills.net.au Burke & Wills Web The digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020, Dave Phoenix