Burke, Wills & Aboriginal guides

Indigenous guides played an important role in Burke and Wills' 1860 expedition to explore the Gulf of Carpentaria. An Aboriginal man, Dick, saved two expedition members from starvation by leaving them in the care of local Aborigines, then walked for eight days – after running his horse into the ground – in order to return to camp.

Yet Burke and Wills didn't take an Indigenous guide when they set off on their ill-fated journey from Coopers Creek.

It isn't known when Dick joined the expedition. He first appears in the records in September 1860 a month after the expedition set off from Melbourne. He also appears in the records in January 1861 as a member of the Menindie to Coopers Creek ‘supply party'.

Although the journey from Melbourne to Carpentaria was relatively straightforward, supplies for the expedition were very low on the journey back, forcing the party to reluctantly rely on the generosity of the local Yantruwanta people:

Mr Burke suffers greatly from the cold & is getting extremely weak he & King start to-morrow up the creek to look for the blacks. It is the only chance we have of being saved from starvation [...]

– William John Wills, journal entry 26 June 1861

National Library of Australia, 2002, The Diary of William John Wills, viewed April 2011, <http://nla.gov.au/nla.ms-ms30-7>.

John Wills' journal has been digitised and is available online at the National Library's website. Organisations like Project Gutenberg are also making text copies of primary sources available for free online.

Burke struggled with the idea of being dependent on ‘inferiors', and jeopardised the party's relationship with the Yantruwanta by rudely refusing gifts of food. Nevertheless, Burke and his team tried to copy the Aborigines, who prepared nardoo cakes from the seeds of a local fern.

Their attempts proved fatal, however, as they didn't realise that nardoo seed is toxic to humans if it isn't soaked in water. This crucial information could have been learnt from the local Aborigines, but instead the team slowly died from starvation and chronic loss of vitamin B1, caused by the untreated nardoo seed.

After Burke and Wills both died, the expedition's only survivor, John King, searched for the Yantruwanta, who treated him as 'one of their own' for months before Alfred Howitt's rescue party arrived in September 1861.

Despite Burke's opinion that Aborigines - like Dick - were ‘inferior' to Europeans, there is no doubt that Indigenous people played a very important role in helping Victorian explorers survive the perils of many 19th century expeditions.

Painting of Dick, the Aboriginal guide who saved the lives of two members of the Burke and Wills expedition.
Painting of Watpipa, an Aboriginal guide who accompanied the Burke and Wills expedition for a day.
Nardoo grinding stones used by Burke, Wills and King at Cooper's Creek, 1861.
Nardoo sample brought back from Cooper Creek by John King.