Robert Hare Burke and William Wills; the ill-fated explorers who travelled north from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1860/61.

FROM A POEM BY EDWARD BOOTH LOUGHRAN, 1894

As we know, both men died from exhaustion and starvation on the return journey. There is a link to the full story of the expedition at the bottom of this piece.

Robert Burke and William Wills
SOURCE – NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA

John King was the sole survivor of the expedition, and was with Burke at the end. Wills had died a little earlier

John King beside the dying Burke
JOHN KING AND THE DYING BURKE

In his official report of the journey, King stated that Burke’s final words were, ‘I hope you remain here with me until I am dead. I am dying, and it is my wish that you should place the pistol in my right hand and that you leave me unburied as I lie‘. The gun was loaded in four of its five chambers. It had actually belonged to Wills, as Burke’s own firearm had been destroyed with other belongings in a camp fire. Wills’ father later donated the pistol to the Melbourne Museum, but in August 1944 it was stolen from a display case.

The youth who removed the pistol sold it to a deserter from the RAAF, John McKie ..for a paltry four shillings! McKie had gone AWOL soon after enlisting in 1941.

When McKie was tracked down he claimed to have offloaded the pistol to an American serviceman on Melbourne’s Princes Bridge, for £3. His ‘excuse’ was that he was on the run from the RAAF, and needed the money because he was destitute. The US military tried to find the gun without success. This was because McKie had lied. He panicked when he realised how historically important the gun was.,,,, and what he had done to it!

Believing this [his story] to be untrue, detectives interviewed many people [associates of McKie], and in one house found a cutting from The Herald reporting the court case pinned on the wall This gave a valuable lead. Following receipt of further information the detectives went to a vacant lot yesterday and recovered the relic.’ (The Herald, Nov. 23 1944)

Sadly, it had been damaged beyond repair. McKie had sawn two inches off the barrel and drilled out two of the chambers in an effort to convert it to a weapon that would fire modern day ammunition. What a desecration.

The damaged revolver that was found in the hand of explorer Robert  Burke
THE CUT DOWN PISTOL

Many years later the detective in charge of the case provided more detail surrounding the discovery of the gun;

In 1945 (sic) I was Senior Detective in charge of the Criminal Investigation Branch at Carlton. As a result of anonymous information I went to a spot at the rear of a Church in Rathdowne Street where I found a pistol which had been stolen from the Melbourne Museum and which was found on inquiry to be the pistol presented to the explorer Burke. A man was arrested in connection with the theft and sentenced to a term of imprisonment….A newspaper report at the time, which I have unfortunately lost, had the caption, ‘Historic Pistol Recovered’. and quoted the words of the poem;

My weapon place in my right hand,

Leave me unburied on the sand.

D. E. Toner, J.P., Thornbury, Vic.

Source of above letter – The Journal ‘Walkabout’, Jan 1 1969

FOR THE FULL STORY OF THE BURKE AND WILLS EXPEDITION, CLICK HERE.

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