Kin: Aaron Paterson, left, and Lord John Alderdice. Photo: Jason South
The ill-fated attempt by Burke and Wills to cross the continent is a story full of mysteries.
A new account of the famous expedition has only just emerged from the Yandruwandha people of south-east central Australia.
As well as its geographical insights and scientific observations, the expedition apparently left behind a child - fathered by the mission's sole survivor, John King, with an Aboriginal woman while he was in the care of her people.
Lost: Detail from Burial of Robert O'Hara Burke by William Strutt.
The story forms part of the oral history passed down by generations of indigenous people in that parched stretch of country, near Innamincka in South Australia. But white historians have been oblivious to the existence of the padlaka pirtipirti (red body), just as perhaps King himself was when he was ''rescued'' by Alfred Howitt's relief party in September 1861. According to Yandruwandha lore, the baby girl, known as Annie, was not born until after King returned to Melbourne.
''It's new for us non-indigenous people,'' says Fred Cahir, of the school of education and arts at the University of Ballarat, who has co-edited a new book on the expedition's interactions with indigenous people. ''But in their community, in that specific community, it wasn't news, it was what they knew.''
Aaron Paterson is a Yandruwandha man who has grown up to believe he is a descendent of Annie King. His family had kept the story to themselves but Paterson recently decided to share it after making an unlikely connection with another King descendent, John Alderdice. Lord Alderdice, a Liberal Democrat member of Britain's House of Lords, was invited to Australia this month to share his experiences in helping to broker peace in Northern Ireland at a series of forums on Aboriginal reconciliation. King was Alderdice's great, great grand-uncle.
Explorers Robert O'Hara Burke (left) and William John Wills. Photo: National Library of Australia
During his visit, he decided to investigate suggestions that his ancestor had fathered a daughter. The organisation sponsoring his visit, Creating a Safe Supportive Environment, was able to trace Paterson and connect the two men. They met in Melbourne two weeks ago and among Paterson's first words to his long-lost relative were: ''Bloody hell! You look like my brother's son.''
For Alderdice, the meeting was a chance to say thanks for the care Paterson's ancestors had shown King over 3½ months more than 150 years ago. ''Burke was very dismissive of the Aboriginal people, he wouldn't have a relationship with them,'' Alderdice says. ''John King was keen to have a relationship with the Aboriginal people, he respected them and he understood that they knew far more about survival there than he did. Because of that, he survived, and the others didn't.''
Paterson said that according to his people's oral history, they offered King food but expected he would move on when he was strong enough. When they realised his companions had perished, they ''got real sorry'', taking the Irishman into their community and even protecting him against a neighbouring tribe. ''They had bad experiences or something with whitefellas in the past and they thought that him being in our group was only going to bring us all trouble. But we said no, he's with us,'' he said. ''Our mob got real sad the day he went away, because he was pretty much part of us.''
The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills: Forgotten Narratives, edited by IanD. Clark and Fred Cahir, $59.95 (CSIRO Publishing)