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Aborigines

The accounts of the expedition show, among other supplies, 2 pounds worth of glass beads and four dozen pocket mirrors 'for natives'. We know little more of the preparations, if any, for dealing with the Aboriginal men and women through whose territory the expedition would be travelling. There were serious grounds for concern - other recent explorers, like Stuart, had been fiercely opposed by Aborigines in their path. The tender-hearted Ludwig Becker hoped that the expedition's camels would have such a stunning effect on any hostile Aborigines that gunpowder would not be necessary. (The Aborigines in fact got used to the camels very quickly).

Aboriginal guides

Along the way, the explorers had the benefit of Aboriginal guides like Watpipa who were accustomed to Europeans. Most celebrated was Dick, who accompanied Trooper Lyons and Alexander MacPherson when they set out from Menindie to convey despatches to Burke. When they became lost and desperately short of provisions and water, Dick conveyed them to the care of local Aborigines. He then returned to camp, walking for eight days after having run his horse into the ground. Becker commemorated this heroism with a superb portrait of 'Dick, the brave and gallant native guide'.

Providing food for the explorers

Further north, the depot party at Cooper's Creek was busy building a stockade, a fortification against attack from the local Yandruwandha who had so far displayed no hostility. Once Burke, Wills and King returned to Cooper's Creek, their struggle to survive meant they could no longer simply ignore the local Aborigines. For the most part, they received generous hospitality - the Yandruwandha gave them fish and cakes of nardoo seed, and the explorers responded with whatever small gifts they could spare. Burke, however, seems to have tired of the obligation to provide something in exchange. On one occasion he refused to part with a piece of cloth and fired his revolver over the head of the man who had asked for it. Later, he refused gifts of fish in a brusque and offensive manner.

Despite this bad behaviour, the explorers were not shunned by the Aborigines. Wills was later given food at one of their camps and King, after he had buried Burke and Wills, turned to the Aborigines as his only hope. He was able to make himself welcome by shooting birds, but his hosts eventually showed a desire for him to be on his way. As he later wrote, 'at last I made them understand that if they went up I should go up the creek and if they went down I should also go down, and from this time they seemed to look upon me as one of themselves and supplied me with fish and nardoo regularly'.

Gifts for the Yandruwandha

According to King, the Yandruwandha were very curious to know where Burke's remains lay, and when he led them to the spot, 'the whole party wept bitterly, and covered [the remains] with bushes'. Alfred William Howitt, who came to rescue King, distributed gifts of sugar, mirrors and Union Jack handkerchiefs to those who had sheltered and fed him. The Royal Society also commissioned three metal 'king' plates, engraved with a message of recognition of the 'humanity' shown by the Yandruwandha to Burke, Wills and King.  One of these plates was recently discovered in open bushland, and another has emerged from a private collection.  (For more information, see the Guide to Resources.)

The South Australian Government took the unusual step of setting aside land at Cooper's Creek, nominally for the exclusive use of the Yandruwandha, but it was soon handed to a Lutheran community who made a short-lived attempt to establish a mission station there.