Burke & Wills Web
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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 XI

Extracts from Wills' diary

Leaving King, for the present, to recruit his health and regain strength under the fostering care of Howitt and his men, we must now turn to the field-books planted by Wills on his solitary journey to the Depot, and to the still later ones, recovered by King when he returned to the gunyah in which his late companion lay dead.

The first series takes up the story at the time of Burke's decision to endeavor to force their way to Mount Hopeless - his last and fatal error of judgment. All their lives might, and almost certainly would have been saved, had he acceded to the wishes of Wills and King and returned by way of the Bulloo; for in that case they must have met with Wright and Brahe who went back to take a last look at the Depot, as already related. But it was not to be, and the consideration adds but another poignant regret to the many which preceded it.

Corroborating King's statement, as he does in all essential particulars, Wills adds there to much descriptive detail of the country passed through, and the difficulties they encountered by the way, the repetition of which is avoided as being neither necessary nor additionally interesting. After their second repulse in attempting to make for Mount Hopeless, and when it was decided to plant all additional field-books at the Depot, with an account of their dangerous situation, being practically without food and bereft of all means of leaving the creek, he started alone on the 27th May to put this in execution. On the first day he was overtaken by a large party of blacks who insisted upon his going with them to their camp where he was treated most kindly, and remained for the night sharing the gunyah of one of the old men of the tribe. On the second day after leaving his friends, and while camping for his frugal breakfast, he saw a lot of crows quarrelling over something near the water and found it to be a large fish, of which they had eaten a considerable portion. He, goes on to say:

Finding it quite fresh and good, I decided the quarrel by taking it with me, and it proved a most, valuable addition to my otherwise scanty supper of nardoo porridge.

On the 30th he reached the Depot, which bore "no traces of any one except blacks having been here since we left," Deposited his books and a letter for the Committee from Burke, and started back to rejoin his comrades.

The next day he dined on portulac, but on Sunday, 2nd June, he found himself "very much fagged" and made for the black's camp at which he had been so hospitably entertained. The camp, however, was deserted, but he rested awhile, found and ate some fish bones they had left, and went on again though suffering greatly from weakness. Then - "a certain amount of good luck, however, still stuck to me, for on going along by a large waterhole, I was so fortunate as to find a large fish, about a pound and a half in weight, which was just being choked by another which it had tried to swallow, but which had stuck in its throat. I soon had a fire lit, and both of them cooked and eaten. The large one was in good condition." The following day he struck the black's camp, and was royally treated with cooked fish and nardoo cake, - "until I was so full I was unable to eat any more, but being allowed a. short time in which to recover myself, I was supplied with a large bowl of the raw nardoo flour, mixed to a thin paste - a most insinuating article, and one that they appear to esteem a great delicacy."

He was also invited to remain there for the night, but declined and went on his way to his own camp, which he reached on 6th June, having been absent nine days, and found that Burke and King had been well supplied with fish by the blacks during that time. On the following day the blacks vanished and they never saw them again. This is doubtless accounted for by the fixing over them, as related by King, and from this time to the end, the record is one of failing strength, weakness and suffering from starvation - and death. As witness the following entries;

June 8th - With the greatest fati¬gue and difficulty we reached the nardoo camp. No blacks, greatly to our disappointment. Took possession of their best mia-mia, and rested for the remainder of the day.

June 9th - King and I went out to collect nardoo, leaving Mr Burke at home.

June 10th - Mr Burke and King collecting nardoo: self in camp, too weak to go out. Was fortunate enough to shoot a crow.

June 11th - King out for nardoo. Mr Burke up the creek to look for the blacks.

June 12th - King out collecting nardoo. Mr Burke and I at home, pounding and cleaning. I still feel myself, if anything, weaker in the legs.

June 13th - Mr Burke and King out for nardoo. Self weaker than ever, scarcely able to go to the waterhole for water.

June 14th - King out for nardoo, brought in a good supply.
Mr Burke and I at home, pounding and cleaning seed. I feel weaker than ever, and both Mr Burke and King are beginning to feel very unsteady in the legs,

June 15th - King out for nardoo, brought in a fine supply. Mr Burke and I pounding and cleaning. He finds himself getting very weak, and I am not a bit stronger, I have determined on beginning to chew tobacco and eat less nardoo, in hopes that it may induce some change in the system.

June 16th - We finished up the remains of "Rajah" for dinner yesterday. King was fortunate enough to shoot a crow this morning.

June 17th - Boisterous weather. King out in the afternoon for nardoo.

June 18th - (Comments on weather only).

June 19th - A strong southerly wind, which enabled King to blow the dust out of our nardoo seeds, but made me too weak to render him any assistance.

June 20th - I am completely reduced by the effects of the cold and starvation. King out for nardoo. Mr Burke at home pounding 'seed, but getting very weak in the legs. I cannot understand this nardoo at all, it certainly will not agree with me in any form. We are now reduced to it alone, and we manage to get from four to five pounds per day between us.

June 21st - I feel much weaker than ever, and can scarcely crawl out of the mia-mia. Unless relief comes in some form or other I cannot possibly last more than a fortnight. It is a great consolation at least, in this position of ours, to know that we have done all we could, and that our deaths will rather be the result of the mismanagement of others, than of any rash acts of our own. Had we come to grief elsewhere, we could only have blamed ourselves: but here we are, returned to Cooper's Creek, where we had every reason to look for provisions and clothing, and yet we have to die of starvation, in spite of the explicit instructions given by Mr Burke, that the Depot party should await our return, and the strong recommendation to the Committee that we should be followed up by a party from Menindie.

June 22nd - Mr Burke and King out for nardoo. The former returned much fatigued. I am so weak to-day as to be unable to get on my feet.
June 23rd - I am so weak as to be unable to crawl out of the mia-mia. King holds out well, but Mr Burke finds himself weaker every day.

June 24th - A fearful night. Southerly gale. The cold was intense, and it seemed as if one would be shriveled. King went out for nardoo, in spite of the wind, and came in with a good load, but he himself terribly, cut up, He says that he can no longer keep up the work, and as he and Mr Burke are both getting rapidly weaker, we have but a slight chance of anything but starvation, unless we can get hold of some blacks.

June 25th - Mr Burke and King are both getting weaker every day. The cold plays the deuce with us, from the small amount of clothing we have. My wardrobe consists of a wide-awake, a merino shirt, a regatta shirt without sleeves, the remains of a pair of flannel trousers, two pairs of socks in rags, and a waistcoat, of which I have managed to keep the pockets together. The others are no better off. Besides these we have between us for bedding, two small camel-pads, some horsehair, two or three little 'bits of rag; and pieces of oil cloth saved from the fire.
June 26th - Mr Burke and King are preparing to go up the creek in search of the blacks. They will leave me some nardoo, wood and water, with which I must do the best I can until they return. They have both shown great hesitation and reluctance with regard to leaving me, and have repeatedly desired my candid opinion in the matter. I could only repeat, however, that I considered it our only chance, for I could not last long on nardoo, even if a supply could be kept up.

June 27th - (A few lines only about the weather).

June 28th - Mr Burke suffers greatly from the cold, and is getting extremely weak, he and King start to-morrow up the creek to look for the, blacks - it is the only chance we have of being saved from starvation. I am weaker than ever, although I have a good appetite and relish the nardoo much, but it seems to give us no nutriment, and the birds here are so shy as not to be got at. Even if we got a good supply of fish, I doubt whether we could do much work on them and the nardoo alone. Nothing but the greatest good luck can now save any of us; and as for myself I may live four or five days if the weather continues warm. My pulse is at forty-eight, and very weak, and my legs and arms are nearly skin and bone. I can only look out, like Mr Micawber, "for something to turn up"; but starvation on nardoo is by no means very unpleasant, but for the weakness one feels, and the utter inability to move oneself, for as far as appetite is concerned, it gives me the greatest satisfaction. Certainly, fat and sugar would be more to one's taste, in fact, those seem to me to be the great stand-by for one in this extraordinary continent. Not that I mean to depreciate the farinaceous food, but the want of sugar and fat in all substances obtainable here is so great that they become almost valueless to us as articles of food, without the addition of something else.

Those were the last words the dying man wrote and the sequel was only known by King when he returned from that fatal journey up the creek, as already related. The exact date of Wills's death is, therefore, a matter of surmise, and it can only be hoped that, in his helpless and unprotected condition, he was not molested by any of the numerous native dogs which swarmed on the creek, before death put an end to his.

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