Monday, October 20, 2014

The last note. “King has behaved nobly and I hope he will be properly cared for – R O’H Burke”

The Oxford Dictionary definition of a hero is: “A person, typically a man, who is admired or idealised for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities”.

Throughout history some heroes stand the test of time, others wax or wane to reflect society’s changing ideals and attitudes.
Beside the Yarra blog

At the corner of Swanston and Collins Street in the city of Melbourne is a grandiose and towering statue of two men, Burke and Wills, who are famous to all Australians as the leaders of the first expedition to cross the continent from south to north. They failed in the attempt and died from starvation.

The one man who survived has no statue.

This very comprehensive website tells the reader anything and everything they might wish to know about the famous expedition, and also a little of that only survivor, John King

So why isn’t King celebrated with a grand statue in Melbourne or elsewhere? 

It all goes back to the bigoted and class-ridden era in which the events took place when a “common” Irish soldier was considered unsuitable material for a hero or that he couldn’t possibly be found to be more competent than the “gentlemen” who commanded him. 

King, in fact, was far more practical and knew that the only way to survive the harshness of the Outback was to learn from the Aboriginal people. Burke, in his arrogance, refused to have anything to do with them and perished as a result. * 

In recent times, there have been attempts to restore John King to his rightful place in history, although it has been a slow process.

John King, copyright State of Library of Victoria
This book John King - Ireland's Forgotten Explorer - Australia's First Hero - by Irish author, Eric Villiers, is not readily available in bookshops or most public libraries in Australia, while the publishing arm of the Australian Government’s scientific body CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) also produced this work  - The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills, Forgotten Narratives - which is a more academic study of the Aboriginal cultural aspects, but it is unlikely to be the sort of book that will come to the notice of the general reading public.

King’s short life, on the other hand, has numerous ingredients for an historical novel. He lived through the Great Irish Famine, spent seven years at the Royal Hibernian military college in Dublin, joined the 70th Regiment of Foot and fought in the Indian Mutiny. He was also a teacher, linguist, musician, sharpshooter, as well as being a crack horseman and camel handler.

Burke's Soldier is a novel by Alan Attwood that was published in 2003, but with the recent revelation that John King had a child, later known as Yellow Alice, or Annie, with an Aboriginal woman Turinyi of thYandruwandha people who had looked after King, there is a new poignant angle to add to the saga.  And then there is a family connection to a British Lord, no less! 

Read about that momentous encounter in 2013 between two quite disparate men, Aaron Paterson and Lord John Alderdice, here and here.

Some of the history and background to Annie King's life can be read here.

Lord John's own blog entry about his ancestor in which he describes actually handling and reading the last ever note written by Burke:
“King has behaved nobly and I hope he will be properly cared for – R O’H Burke” 

Aaron Paterson at John King's grave, Melbourne General Cemetery
Copyright: Ecos Magazine

Yet even as recently as 2008, the myth that King couldn’t possibly have been a respectable sort of hero still hangs around as can be seen in this article.

I recall once reading a letter written by the African explorer, David Livingstone, in which he praised King as the only one of the party with any sense.