Soldier and Australian Explorer
1838 to 1872
John King was born in Moy, Co Tyrone on 15th December 1838, the son of a soldier. He was educated at the Royal Hibernian School in Dublin before joining the 70th Regiment at the age of 14. Initially stationed at Chatham, in October 1853 he was posted to Cawnpore, India where he worked as a teacher. In 1857 he was in Peshewar in north-west India during the Indian Mutiny and was involved in some of the principal engagements.
While he was in India he met George James Landells who had come there to buy camels for an expedition, which planned to cross the centre of Australia. King resigned from the army and joined the Australian expedition. His job was to command the Indian men who looked after the camels.
At this time European settlers had not explored a large part of Australia. However, in 1860 a group of Australian businessmen organised an expedition to explore the interior of the continent under the leadership of Robert O’Hara Burke from Galway. Other members of the expedition were William Wills, William Brahe, George James Landells, John King and Charles Gray. None of the men had any experience previous experience of travelling safely through difficult and dangerous desert country.
expedition planned to travel from Melbourne in the south of Australia, to the Gulf of Carpenteria on the north coast. It reached Cooper’s Creek, the last European settlement on their journey northwards in early November. Burke planned to make a dash from Coopers’ Creek towards the north coast with five camels and a horse, a distance of 750 miles. He left Brahe behind to wait for further supplies that he expected would arrive from Melbourne soon. The four men travelled an average of 14 miles per day, over mountain ranges and across the central desert. They endured unbearable heat and sandstorms but were fortunate to reach the tidal waters of the River Flinders, near the Gulf of Carpentaria on 4th Feb 1861
Having crossed Australia, the explorers turned back without delay, hoping for a speedy return to Cooper’s Creek. Their return journey was much more difficult than they expected. They had very little food left, and they had to kill the horse and three camels for food. Charles Grey died on the journey.
When they arrived at Cooper’s Creek they found a letter from Brahe saying that the extra supplies had not arrived from Melbourne and that he had given up and left the camp on that very morning. He had waited for them for four months and thought that they were not going to return.
Burke, Wills and King set off with their already exhausted camels. The men and the animals were weak with hunger and disease. For two months they struggled on. Eventually Burke and Wills died of starvation. John King was left to finish the journey on his own. He was lucky to make friends with the local Aborigines who taught him to find food and water in the most unlikely places thus saving his life.
The explorers had been gone for such a long time that the organisers of the expedition sent out a search party to find them. They found King at an Aborigine encampment and brought him back to Melbourne. He received a hero’s welcome and was entertained by the Governor and the rich city merchants. The bodies of Burke and Wills were found and brought home. The funerals took place on the 21st January 1863 with a 40,000 strong crowd watching on as the procession made its way to Melbourne Cemetery. King was one of the pall bearers. Later a 34 ton monolith was erected to their memory and King was provided with a life pension, a capital amount and an engraved. King’s name became so popular that when new areas were discovered they named various places after him.
King could never forget his horrific experiences on the expedition and chose to live alone outside the city. He turned down generous offers of money for telling the story of the unfortunate expedition.
He died on 18th January 1872 aged 33 and is buried in the Quaker section of Melbourne Cemetery.
Report: King Exhibition, Moy, on 21 August 2010
King’s narrative: http://www.burkeandwills.net.au/Journals/King/kings%20narrative.htm
Location of plaque: Library, the Square, Moy, Co Tyrone
Acknowledgement: Joseph Downey and Wills and Burke Web