The Gulf Party left to right, Robert O’Hara Burke, William Wills, Charley Gray and John King
Images: Burke, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland neg. no. 76942, Wills by Henry Sadd, State Library of Victoria, Gray and King both State Library of Victoria


Robert O’Hara Burke


Robert O’Hara Burke, the high-spirited cavalry officer, dashing ex-hussar, volunteer rifleman and known on the goldfields as a party-goer who lost his head over a music hall singer, was hardly the man to lead an expedition into unknown country looking for new pastoral lands. However, the Royal Society chose this 40 year-old, Anglo-Irishman from County Galway, and Wills and King pledged their unwavering loyalty to him from the start.

Once he read at Menindee of John McDouall Stuart’s aim to cross Australia from south to north Burke shed men, excess equipment, animals and supplies and followed two Aboriginal guides, Mountain and Dick as far as Torowotto. Early mistakes showed very poor judgment: first was off-loading lime juice which would have prevented scurvy and second was not employing Aboriginal guides for the entire journey. Aaron Patterson’s Aboriginal ancestors remembered Burke as ‘hostile and arrogant’. Another notable error was in disregarding his instructions which were to explore the interior and report on the country ‘between Cooper Creek and Leichhardt’s track’ and specifically to avoid Sturt’s route and Gregory’s. As soon as he committed himself to racing to the Gulf of Carpentaria he had stepped outside his brief.

With six camels (totally unsuitable for the tropics) and his beautiful dapple-grey horse Billy, Burke led Wills, King and Gray into the floods, quicksand, heat and mosquitoes of a Queensland wet season until, at Camp 119, he and Wills could hear the ocean and taste the salt in the Bynoe River where the seawater rushed in. On the return journey they were forced to shoot and eat Burke’s beloved horse to stay alive.

It was clear from the start when Burke slept in local hotels instead of camping with his men that he was a poor leader. Landells, his camel expert who resigned, predicted Burke would be ‘the ruin of them all’.

Burke kept ‘scrappy records’ but in letters to the committee and to his uncle he was always positive, praising his team and insisting quite falsely his men and camels were all well. Burke, the chameleon, was soft towards his fellow Irishmen and uncharacteristically gave ‘his spare shirts to the blacks’. When Wills, King and Burke returned to Camp 65 half-dead, this deluded leader thought the provisions left by Brahe would ‘restore’ their strength. Temporarily they did, but these three doomed men were just skin and bone as Wills wrote in his diary. Apart from an unsuccessful attempt to walk to Mount Hopeless, they could not drag their exhausted bodies away from the Dig Tree area.

The Royal Commission’s report in 1862 expressed their ‘admiration’ for Burke’s ‘gallantry and daring’ but admitted he had shown ‘more zeal than prudence’. The ‘Order of the Funeral Procession’ on 21 January 1863 shows his old comrades of the Castlemaine Rifle Volunteers led the most ostentatious funeral Australia had ever seen. Sadly it was the tragedy of Burke and Wills that guaranteed their legendary place in history.

William Wills


The Royal Society’s Exploration Committee, still influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, felt the pull of unexplored Australia. They wanted ‘detailed records of distance travelled, general terrain, water courses, water quality (including samples), geological formations, …’ and seventeen other requirements by day, and meteorological observations, ‘astronomical observations including ‘the paths of meteors’ and ‘the patterns of twinkling stars’ by night. Who could do it?

Enter William John Wills, ‘thrilled’ to be chosen as the expedition’s ‘Surveyor and Astrological Observer’, whose whole life of 26 years had perfectly prepared him for such a post. His father, a surgeon in Devon with shares in the Melbourne Gold Mining Company, sent ahead his two sons William and Tom to Port Phillip in 1853. Over the next seven years William unaccountably enjoyed life in a rough shepherd’s hut, and then, rejecting his father’s practice of medicine as inexact, he apprenticed himself to the Government Surveyor. Once qualified, his talents were noticed by Professor Georg Neumayer who became his patron, employed him at the Flagstaff Magnetic Observatory and proposed Wills as perfect for the expedition in 1860.

On 20 August, when crowds were cheering Burke and his 19 men, 26 camels and 23 horses on their way, Wills, third in command, was in a tent carefully packing the instruments needed to fulfil his contract. Later, his disciplined practicability was evident when he wrote that he could read his barometer and write up his journal while riding a camel.

By October Burke fought furiously with Landells who bought large quantities of rum for the camels and then insisted they could not swim but should be ferried across the Darling. So Burke put Wills in charge of sacking Landells and swimming the camels across the river. Both went smoothly.

Wills had been promised an assistant but none came and when Landells left, Wills was made second in command. Whether his duties increased we don’t know, but ‘eight times a day he recorded the temperature, wind and cloud cover.’ His astronomical readings were made ‘every third or fourth night’.

When Burke dithered in appointing Brahe to stay in charge of the depot at Camp 65, Wills privately told Brahe he must do it and insisted he should wait not three months, as Burke had ordered, but four.

On the first day of their trek north they met some Aboriginal men whom Wills described as ‘fine looking’ and intelligent. As Burke, Wills, King and Gray went on through good country, the Stony Desert, hilly land and the occasional ‘delightful oasis’, Wills wrote of small kindnesses from the local people, sometimes just indicating an easier pathway or a good waterhole but mostly keeping out of sight. It may be that his attitude towards ‘the blacks’ began to change at this point as he worked alone at night calculating their longitude by ‘reading the movements of the heavenly bodies’. He was also cementing his personal atheistic views which his diary confirms.

Once Burke and Wills had heard ‘the crash of the ocean’ they knew they had reached Australia’s northern shore so they rejoined King and Gray to wade knee-deep in tropical floodwaters and suffer the mosquitoes, heat and humidity, then the Stony Desert on the way back to Camp 65. They had eaten two-thirds of their rations and were exhausted. When Gray died it took King a whole day to dig a grave for him. Wills, the rationalist, might have ‘left Gray where he lay’ and they would have reached Camp 65 before Brahe left, but he never questioned his leader. They had only a little water and arrived nine hours short of being rescued. Wills and King wanted to continue after Brahe, but Burke decided to try the route to Mount Hopeless. Again, if only they had overruled Burke they would have met Brahe and Wright when they came back for a last check.

His letters and diary show Wills was searching for truth in astronomy and mathematics, but in his last happy days he learned to accept the friendship as well as the food and companionship of the Aboriginals and began to record their language. The nardoo plant, which the Aboriginal people had taught them to prepare, was already their ‘staff of life’. In deciding to ‘live like the blacks’ Wills really meant to live with their help; however, Burke had angered them and when Wills came back from a ‘solo odyssey’ these potential life savers were gone. Over the last few days of June 1861 both Burke and Wills died.

Charley Gray

c. 1811-1861

Charley Gray was the one member of Burke’s expedition who left behind a mystery – to do with his death.

Gray, a fifty-year-old tattooed Scottish sailor, apparently jumped ship to dig for gold at Bendigo. Later he became an ostler at Swan Hill, a ‘stout and hearty’ worker valued for his proven bush skills as well as his way with horses. Burke hired him as a replacement for men he had sacked.

Charley, along with King, was chosen to accompany Burke and Wills on the push to Australia’s northern shore. On the return journey when rations were dangerously low, Charley rode over a huge python and killed it with his stirrup iron. They cooked it and feasted on it. Next day Burke suffered ‘wretchedly from dysentery’ but soon recovered, while Charley, already complaining of headaches, became very ill indeed. Nobody gave him any sympathy at first and when he was caught stealing rations King saw Burke box his ears. However, Burke told Wills he had given Charley ‘a good thrashing’. Three weeks later Charley was still ‘unfit to do anything’ and Burke and Wills tended him with care until eventually he died. They were so weak it took a day to bury him. Months later search parties found two possible graves for Charley and one skull showed signs of sabre cuts, so the enquiry briefly considered the possibility that Burke had murdered Charley.

John King


How amazed Edwin Welch was to be called ‘sir’ by an apparition, more like a skeleton than a man, living with the Aboriginal people near the Dig Tree where he and the rest of Howitt’s search party were looking for Burke and Wills. ‘Who, in the name of wonder are you?’ he asked, while the creature ‘threw up its hands in the attitude of prayer and fell on the ground.’

‘I am King, sir.’ Welch had not heard of King, but the apparition said ‘Yes, the last man of the Exploring Expedition.’

It certainly was a wonder that John King, the 22-year-old Irishman from the 70th British Regiment of Foot, discharged in a state of ill health and employed by Landells to supervise the camel drivers, should be the sole survivor of the party who reached the Gulf of Carpentaria.

His part in the expedition went almost unnoticed until early 1861 but he was by no means idle. All those tasks that an officer and a gentleman assumed would be done for him were done by King with a smile, because he accepted routine orders and was devoted to his leader, Burke. The Aboriginals observed that King did a ‘woman’s work’, packing and unpacking gear, loading and unloading camels, tending the fire, cooking the food and blazing trees to mark Burke’s route as requested by the Exploration Committee.

King was Burke’s shadow and there was never any doubt that he would be with him to the end. When Charley died on the return trek King was the only one strong enough to ‘scrape’ him a shallow grave. At the time of crisis when Burke, Wills and King found Camp 65 deserted and set off for Mount Hopeless, King was the one to leave clues like positioning a rake, and a bottle to show they had returned. King agreed with Burke’s anger towards Brahe and later told the Royal Commission that ‘Mr Burke said they should have remained at any risk’.

Over three days Howitt saw to it that King was nourished with foods that his recent diet had lacked and King improved enough to relate his story. For two-and-a-half months while the Aboriginal people fed and sheltered him he had hung a pouch around his neck containing ‘Burke and Wills’ pocket watches and their last letters home.’ Accompanied by his Aboriginal friends who wept with him, he showed Howitt the bodies of Burke and Wills. Burke’s pistol, still in his hand as he had instructed King, had not been fired, and the nardoo left with Wills had not been eaten. King made sure the buried instruments and journals were located and dug up.

The Finding of King by FA Sleap
Image: 1891 State Library of Victoria

King had loyally stayed with Burke until he drew his last breath, so he sobbed uncontrollably while two simple burials took place. Burke’s bones were wrapped in a Union Jack and the local tribesmen wept with King as he mourned. As a sign of appreciation for their care and compassion towards King, Howitt’s men distributed knives, tomahawks, leather, sugar and ribbons to the Aboriginals who began ‘an impromptu corroboree’ and the ‘white fellas’ joined in before leaving.

King’s story corroborated Wills’ priceless diary very closely, but it changed slightly when he testified to the Royal Commission. He was noticeably sensitive with regard to statements about his beloved leader. Burke’s last letter to the committee had commended King for acting ‘nobly’ and asked that he be well looked after.

Although he was awarded two hundred pounds King was very frail both physically and mentally, and his life, first with his sister then a wife, seemed to be sad and empty until his death eleven years later.


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