Gilbert’s unusually lengthy thoughts on Aboriginal culture were very uncanny, but perhaps the noticeable activity of the Aborigines over the last couple of days had brought them to the forefront of Gilbert’s mind. It is thought that Charlie and Brown had been trying to molest some of the Aboriginal women (as Gilbert had thought possible), or in some other way annoy the Aboriginal men, because on the evening of 28th June 1845 Aborigines attacked the expedition’s camp.
Gilbert had probably finished his diary entry for that day, because he had been learning to plait palm leaves to make a hat and had retired, with John Murphy, to their tent for the night (Leichhardt 1847: 308). The others all settled down for the night too. Leichhardt’s account continued: “… I was suddenly roused by a loud noise, and a call for help from Calvert and Roper. Natives had suddenly attacked us. They had doubtless watched our movements during the afternoon, and marked the position of the different tents; and, as soon as it was dark, sneaked upon us, and threw a shower of spears at the tents of Calvert, Roper, and Gilbert, and a few at that of Phillips, and also one or two towards the fire. Charley and Brown called for caps, which I hastened to find, and … they discharged their guns into the crowd of the natives, who instantly fled, leaving Roper and Calvert pierced with several spears, and severely beaten by their waddies … John Murphy had succeeded in getting out of the tent, and concealing himself behind a tree, whence he fired at the natives, and severely wounded one of them, before Brown had discharged his gun. Not seeing Mr. Gilbert, I asked for him, when Charley told me that our unfortunate companion was no more! He had come out of his tent with his gun, shot, and powder, and handed them to him, when he instantly dropped down dead. Upon receiving this afflicting intelligence, I hastened to the spot, and found Charley’s account too true. He was lying on the ground at a little distance from our fire, and, upon examining him, I soon found, to my sorrow, that every sign of life had disappeared. The body was, however, still warm, and I opened the veins of both arms, as well as the temporal artery, but in vain; the stream of life had stopped, and he was numbered with the dead … the spear that terminated poor Gilbert’s existence, had entered the chest, between the clavicle and the neck; but made so small a wound, that, for some time, I was unable to detect it. From the direction of the wound, he had probably received the spear when stooping to leave his tent”.
William Phillips also recorded the attack (Sprod 2006: 73): “Mr Gilbert (who accompanied the party as a naturalist) on hearing the alarm sprang out of this tent with his gun in his hand and received a spear in the breast, which must have entered some vital part, as he fell immediately, saying to one of the black fellows who was near him “Here, Charley, is my gun, I am done for” and immediately expired”.
In 1846 John Roper wrote to John Gould, explaining his version of the events of the evening of 28th June 1845. This letter was read by Gould on 22nd September 1846 to a meeting of the Zoological Society of London, where Gilbert had been employed for many years before he left for Australia. The letter was later published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1846: 79-80) and runs as follows: “Sydney, May 12, 1846. Dear Sir, - As I was one of the party that journeyed from Sydney to Port Essington, and not knowing whether you had been made acquainted with the full particulars of poor Gilbert’s death by Dr. Leichhardt, or any other of the party, thinking the details of his melancholy fate would be read with interest, I shall offer no apology for addressing this to you. As Mr Gilbert’s log, which has been sent home to you, fully narrates all particulars up to the eventful 28th of June, I shall offer no remarks of my own … about fifty miles from the coast we encamped for the night at a small shallow lagoon surrounded by low tea-trees, the country around beautifully open. Haven partaken of our usual meal of dried meat about 3 p.m.., Gilbert, taking his gun, sallied forth in search of something new – he procured a Climacteris and a Finch, which he skinned before dinner; our scanty meal was soon despatched; poor Gilbert was busily employed plaiting the cabbage-tree, intending to make a new hat, which, alas! he never lived to finish. The shades of the evening closed around, and after chatting for a short time we retired to our separate tents – Gilbert and Murphy to theirs, Mr Calvert and myself to ours, and Phillips to his; the Doctor and our two black fellows slept round the fire … Not one, I think, could have closed his eyelids, when I was surprised by a noise, as if some persons were throwing sticks at our tent; thinking it must be some trick played on us by our companions, I sat up to look out; another volley of spears was thrown; a terrific yell, that will ring in my ears for ever, was raised, and pierced with spears, which I found it impossible to extricate, I sunk helpless on the ground; the whole body rushed upon us with their waddies, and how it is that our brains did not bespatter the ground is to me miraculous. These rascals had crept on us under cover of the tea-trees: the tent in which Calvert and I were being the first in their road, the whole body attacked us; poor Gilbert, hearing the noise, was rushing from his tent with his gun, when a spear thrown at him pierced his breast, and, penetrating to his lungs, caused internal haemorrhage; the only words he spoke were these, “Charlie, take my gun, they have killed me,” when pulling the spear out with his own hands, he immediately dropped upon the ground lifeless. Little Murphy, who was by his side at the time he was speared, fired at the black fellow who speared him; Brown fired at the mob beating Calvert and myself, and they immediately retreated, howling and lamenting … you may imagine our feelings when we heard Charlie exclaim, “Gilbert is dead!” – we could not, would not, believe it. Alas! the morning brought no better tidings – poor Gilbert was consigned to his last and narrow home, the prayers of the church of England were read over him, and a large fire made upon his grave for the purpose of misleading the balcks, who, we thought, would probably return and search the camp on our departure. It is impossible to describe the gloom and sorrow this fatal accident cast upon our party. As a companion, none was more cheerful or more agreeable; as a man, none more indefatigable or more persevering; but it is useless for me to eulogise one so well know by you – one who, you will have cause to regret, and who will ever be remembered by, Sir, Yours most truly, John Roper”.
On the following day and with difficulty they dug a grave, about 3 ½ foot deep, and buried Gilbert. Leichhardt read the funeral service of the English Church over the grave, and then they lit a large fire over it, to disguise its location from the Aborigines. According to Phillips (Sprod 2006: 74), Gilbert was buried at about four o’clock in the afternoon, and Gilbert’s name and age was carved on a large tree overhanging the grave. Despite the serious injuries to Roper and Calvert, the rest of the expedition party left Tea-tree Lagoon Camp on 1st July 1845.
As for Roper’s “Climacteris and a Finch”, which he wrote had been collected and skinned by Gilbert on 28th June, the “Climacteris” must be another [type] specimen of the Cape York subspecies of the Brown Treecreeper, the Black-backed Treecreeper Climacteris picumnus melanotus. This remark must have been the source of Gould’s confusion about where Gilbert had first collected this new bird (see footnote for 9th June 1845). The “Finch” could have been from a number of species, but quite possibly it was another type specimen of the white-eared or Queensland race of the Masked Finch Poephila personata leucotis, first collected by Gilbert on the River Lynd earlier in the month of June. No Gilbert specimens with a label bearing the date 28th June 1845 have so far been found.
In 1981 the site of Gilbert’s grave was searched for by Jim Bessell, a Burdekin River cane farmer and Professor Brian Dalton of James Cook University’s History Department. In 1982 and 1985 they returned with an expert on using caesium magnetometers to detect the remains of fires, Dr John Stanley of New England University, and successfully located Gilbert’s grave . This was marked by soldiers of the 2nd and 4th Battalion of the Royal Australian Army with a plaque reading “Leichardt’s camp and Gilbert’s grave 28 Jun 1845, Found by J. Bessel / B. Dalton SPT by J.C.U. / MOR P/L 2/4 R.A.R”. In 1999 a block of Chillagoe marble with a brass plaque was taken to the site by a party under the auspices of the Eacham Historical Society. Other visitors to pay their respects to John Gilbert in this remote spot on Dunbar Station have included The Route Group, led by Ian and Sue Flinders, in 2010.