Burke and Wills Relic Unearthed

. March 17, 2007

Today, 150 years later, the Burke and Wills legend still has the power to move people. The cheering crowd of 15,000 which farewelled the extraordinary caravan of 19 men and 26 camels could not imagine that imperial ambition was about to be humbled. Australia had seen nothing like it, and never would again.
Like Scott of the Antarctic, Burke and Wills achieved their aim, only to meet disaster. They crossed the continent, but were so weakened by the arduous trek they could only struggle back to desolate Coopers Creek on their return. They missed the relief party by a few hours. This party had waited four months, far longer than instructed, but had finally despaired of Burke and Wills, burying food for them near a marked tree. They were not to know that the exhausted explorers had no pack animals left and would never leave Coopers Creek.
But help was at hand. Fish and bush food existed in abundance, but only the aborigines knew how to exploit it. Burke, as the expedition diaries show, feared the aborigines and seemed unable to comprehend their good intentions. He scared them off at one point by firing his pistol in the air. Nonetheless, the aborigines fed and sheltered the explorers, teaching them how to make flour from Nardoo seeds. Sadly, it was too late for Burke and Wills. Their last mistake was to rely on Nardoo rather than diversify their diet. Nardoo assuages hunger but has little nutritional value.
After two months they died of starvation. The “natives” grieved deeply for the dead explorers. But they saved the life of John King, the sole survivor.
New research into primary sources has revealed that the Exploration Committee which organised the Burke and Wills expedition ordered three medals in the form of breastplates to be awarded to the aborigines who saved the life of John King and assisted Burke and Wills in their dying days. Alfred Howitt, a superb bushman, was sent by the Exploration Committee to rescue Burke and Wills. He found them dead, but John King was still alive. The local aborigines were invaluable to Howitt, who expressed fulsome gratitude in his diary. He rewarded them with food, tomahawks and the like. Howitt divided 20kg of sugar into equal portions and wrapped each in Union Jack handkerchiefs, giving them to the thirty or so Coopers Creek aborigines.
Howitt, later to become a distinguished anthropologist, wrote before quitting Coopers Creek: “I went..in search of the natives…I could not think of leaving without showing them that we could appreciate and reward the kindness they had shown Burke’s party, and particularly to King.” The aborigines, in turn, “made expressive signs of friendship.” Howitt singled out the “principal men” for thanks: Tchukulow, Mungallee, Toquunter, Pitchery, Borokow and Pruriekow, and “one old woman, Carrawaw, who had been particularly kind to King, was loaded with things.”
Howitt summed up the role of the aborigines by saying “…in case of emergency, anyone will receive the kindest treatment at their hands.”
The Exploration Committee was determined that the care and kindness of the aborigines be formally recognised. They specified that the breastplate inscriptions match the brass medal given to Dick, the “brave and gallant” aboriginal guide on the Burke and Wills expedition who had earlier saved the lives of two expeditioners. This breastplate was inscribed “Presented to Dick by the Exploration Expedition for Assisting Trooper Lyons and Saddler McPherson, December 1860.” The Committee recorded that “Dick, the Aborigine who brought down tidings of (Lyons and McPherson) was presented with a brass medal bearing the above inscription and 5 pounds for his bravery, by Sir Henry Barkly (Governor of Victoria)…”
The Exploration Committee minutes record that “Three medals similar to the one presented to the aboriginal ‘Dick’ were ordered to be prepared for transmission to Mr. Howitt, to be presented to the tribes that had succoured the lamented explorers Messrs. Burke and Wills and the survivor King.”. The actual inscription on the discovered breastplate reads:
“Presented to (blank) by the Exploration Committee of Victoriafor the Humanity shewn to the Explorers Burke, Wills and King. 1861.”
Howitt was immediately sent on a second expedition to recover the bodies of Burke and Wills. He was instructed to take the three medals to give to the most deserving aborigines. Dr. Wilkie, an Exploration Committee member, asked Howitt if “further rewards (should be given) to the natives who had succoured the explorers.” Howitt replied that in his opinion “further rewards would be injurious.” The Committee wisely “…agreed to leave the matter to Mr. Howitt’s discretion.”
The funeral of Burke and Wills was the biggest event in Australia’s history to that point. It was estimated that there were between 40,000 and 100,000 mourners. Melbourne’s population at the time was 120,000. The Shakespearean tragedy was reported worldwide. Perhaps for the first time, aborigines were regarded with gratitude and admiration by imperial Victorians everywhere. Consequently, this remarkable object lost in the desert sands has a rare symbolic power.
The owners are hopeful that their extraordinary find will go to a museum where the relic can be seen on display by the public.

Historic Australian Collectables
Bonhams & Goodman
6.00 pm Tuesday 24 April 2007, Melbourne
Enquiries: James Bruce
+61 (0) 8 82322860 or james.bruce@bonhams.com

Category: Auction News

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