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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

Chapter VI

The return to Cooper's Creek
The death of Gray

Gray, King and the camels, were picked up at the camp where they had been left and all together once more, they left for the depot, in the midst of heavy thunderous weather and incessant rain. The fieldbooks from thence on give but little information of interest, beyond comments on the weather and nature of country passed over, until March 2nd, when "Golah Singh" was recovered in a thin and miserable condition at the camp at which he had been left, but he began to feed as soon as he saw the other camels. On the following day they killed a huge snake when crossing a creek;

It was eight feet four inches long, and seven inches in girth round the belly, and nearly the same size from the heed to within twenty inches of the tail where it tapered rapidly. It weighed eleven pounds and a half, was black on top and yellow underneath, the sides and back being marked with irregular brown transverse bars on a yellowish brown ground. No poison fangs were visible, but there were two distinct rows of teeth in each jaw, and tem small claws or nails about three eights of an inch long, one on each side of the vent.

This minute description of the reptile is reproduced on account of the evil consequences which followed its capture. The next-day's camp is called in the field-book, "Feasting Camp", where they roasted and ate portions of the snake, after the manner of the blacks, but without their special knowledge of the delicacy as an article of diet. Whether they did this to relieve the strain on the rapidly depleting ration bags, or in response to Nature's demand for a change of food, or if only actuated by curiosity, is not told, but the results were disastrous. Burke was so ill on the following day that he was unable to travel for some hours, and Gray, was almost as bad until the effects gradually wore off, although in the case of the latter recovery was far from being permanent, and it is permissible to suppose, in the light of what afterwards transpired, that his constitution was greatly weakened by the attack.

On the 6th March "Golah Singh" knocked up completely and refused to stand up even when his pack and saddle were taken off. This necessitated leaving him to his fate, and dividing the load among the others.

Still forging slowly along southwards on the route by which they had advanced, they were hampered by torrential rains and impeded by their own and the camels' inability to make long stages. The next resolve was to lighten the loads, although there was actually not one ounce of superfluous material, or anything they could afford to be without. Still, the outlook was becoming serious, and on March 20th, they halted at a convenient camp, overhauled the packs and left about 60 lbs weight of that they could most conveniently spare hanging on a tree, and, slightly relieved by a fresh adjustment of what remained among the weary animals, went on again towards the anxiously wished for goal.

Infortune, however, continued to dog their footsteps. Heavy rains and thunderstorms, ill clad as they were, kept them drenched to the skin and made progress practically impossible until, on the 25th March the first act of the dramatic tragedy which was to seal their undeserved fate occurred in a most unexpected manner. In reference to this, Wills writes:- After breakfast I was about to go back to the last camp for some things that had been left, when I found Gray behind a tree, eating skilligolee. He explained that he was suffering from dysentery, and had taken the flour without leave. Sent him to report himself to Mr Burke, and went on. He, having got King to tell Mr Burke for him, was called up and received a good thrashing. Many things have been found to run unaccountably short, and there is no knowing to what extent he has been robbing us."

That there was no margin sufficient to admit of the peculation of rations or, indeed, anything but their most careful husbandry, is manifest from the entry in Burke's notebook, which reads:

Leaving Carpentaria:
Flour 83 lbs;
pork 3 lbs;
dried meat 35 lbs;
biscuits 12 lbs;
rice 12 lbs;
sugar 10 lbs.

Far from being an adequate supply for four men on a journey of close on to a thousand miles by the most direct route, and much more than that by their track, most of which had to be performed on foot. But in any case it is difficult, if not impossible to make excuses for Gray, even while admitting the condition of ill health which he pleaded in extenuation. Much excited controversy afterwards took place on the subject of the punishment inflicted on Gray, by Burke, and after Gray's death became known it raged with still greater violence,- owing to the misapprehension arising from the reference made to it by Wills, as quoted. This much is certain. Wills was not present as shown by his notes, and had, therefore, incomplete justification for describing it as "a good thrashing", though he doubtless believed that nothing short of that would meet the enormity of the offence. On the other hand, King was a personal witness and he most vehemently contradicted Wills's statement, asserting that Burke merely "boxed the ears" of the erring man, and gave him serious warning not to repeat the offence. As between the two versions public opinion hesitated somewhat, but when the final tragedy became distinctly traceable to the loss of time occasioned by the delay in tending the sick man, and burying him, the excitement was renewed. That, however, in its proper place in the story.

From the date of this unfortunate occurrence the small party moved slowly on until, on March 30th, we have just a bare reference to the collapse of another camel, named "Boocha" followed by the information that the day was spent in cutting up, jerking and eating that animal. Then there is no entry of interest until April 4th, when the "Plant Camp" was named. No particulars are given of the locality or of the work done there, but it was afterwards elicited from King that the camp was so named in consequence of all the astronomical, meteorological, and other instruments used by Wills, being buried there, as it was impossible to continue carrying them with their now limited means of transport, and they were no longer likely to be of service. These instruments, which included a universal circle, two sextants, barometers, aneroids, watches and several others, were buried near the bank of a creek, in a camel trunk, during the night to escape the watchful eyes of the blacks who might have been in the vicinity unknown to them. The value of the plant, roughly estimated by Wills at £150, was not by any means excessive, and his intention was to return for it from Cooper's Creek as soon as circumstances would permit. Alas for the intention. The plant remains untouched to this day, and no one knows the spot in which it lies; and probably never will know, unless it happens to be unearthed at some time in the distant future when population shall have increased and some possible gardener of another nationality discovers it in an attempt to cultivate the soil.

From that date to April 8th the journal contains nothing of any importance, but it then refers in a casual sort of way to a compulsory "halt of fifteen minutes to send back for Gray, who gammoned he could not walk". The extent of his "gammoning" was soon to be shown. On April 10th their one horse, "Billy", was so knocked up that they decided to kill him, as their own food supply was running perilously short and it was considered advisable to secure his flesh at once. This was accordingly done and the meat was found to be:- "healthy and tender, but without the slightest trace of fat in any portion of the body".

On the 15th heavy rain again set in and "Linda", another camel, knocked up and had to be left behind, leaving, them with only two, both of which were in a most miserable condition and only just able to crawl slowly along with a few pounds of weight on their backs. "Tuesday, April 16th", is merely entered, but followed by no comments."Wednesday, April 17th", has four lines but they were of dire import:- "This morning, about sunrise, Gray died. He had not spoken a word distinctly since his first attack, which was just as we were about to start." Nothing more. Just the bare fact. The reason for which, as afterwards disclosed by King, being, that both Burke and Wills were sorely distressed by the unexpected and sudden nature of his seizure and Wills was totally unable at the time to write more. Burke, in a memo written after they had reached the Depot merely stated that:- "Gray died on the road, from hunger and fatigue". From King alone was it ultimately possible to obtain further information. He said that they buried the body of Gray as deeply as they were able to do and went sadly from the spot with their two remaining camels, after protecting the grave with logs carried for some distance and occupying considerable time. Time, which as events were to prove, meant the signing of the death warrants of the two leaders, and the rescue of King in a wretched condition, months afterwards, when living as a blackfellow among the natives.

Two days after the death and burial of Gray, three miserable scarecrows crawled up to the Cooper's Creek Depot, famished with hunger and clad only in a few tattered rags, to find it deserted! Vacated only a few hours before by Brahe and his party as already told. The ashes of their fire were still glowing, and the footprints of themselves and their horses still fresh in the moist earth! The word "dig" freshly cut in a tree at once attracted the attention of the starving wanderers who soon unearthed the provisions planted by Brahe that morning before he left. These consisted of 50 lbs of flour, 20 lbs of rice, 60 lbs of oatmeal, 60 lbs of sugar, 25 lbs of dried meat, 2 lbs ginger and 1 lb salt, with a note which read:

April 21. 1861.
The Depot Party of the V.E.E. leaves this camp to-day to return to the Darling. I intend to get on our old track near Bulloo…No person has been up here from the Darling. We have six camels and twelve horses in good condition.
William Brahe.

Regarding this so-called desertion of the Depot, Wills wrote in his diary on the same day:

Arrived at the Depot this evening, just in time to find it deserted, A note left by Brahe communicates the pleasing information that they have started today for the Darling, their camels and horses all well and in good condition. We and our camels being just, done up have very little chance of overtaking them. He has fortunately left us ample provisions to take us to the bounds of civilization. Our disappointment at finding the Depot deserted may easily be imagined – returning in an exhausted state after four months of the severest travelling and privation.

The above extracts, which include all comments made on that subject, certainly contain, nor do they convey any accusation against Brahe. Later on, however, when Wills visited the Depot to plant some of his notebooks, and by which time he had doubtless become impressed with the hopelessness of their position, he left a memo with the books, dated 30th May 1861 which concluded with the words:

The depot party having left, contrary to instructions, has put us, in this fix.

Burke in his last despatch to the Committee dated April 22nd merely announces the arrival of himself, Wills and King at the Depot, on the previous day, and adds that the Depot party had only started on the same day, but forbears further comment. Some weeks later, when lying at the point of death, alone upon the ground, with no one near him save the exhausted and emaciated King, Burke wrote among the last few pencil notes in his pocket book:

I hope we shall be done justice to. We have fulfilled our task, but we have, been aban___. We have not been followed up as we expected, and the Depot party abandoned their post.

The time has long passed since individual expressions of opinion on this vital point could command attention. The facts, as recorded must be left to speak for themselves.

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