How an inexperienced Irishman led expedition from north to south Australia
Monument in Melbourne recalls Robert O’Hara Burke
Robert O’Hara Burke (left) and William John Willis, who were first to cross Australia from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north. They died on their way back as they struggled to reach a rescue party. Images: Getty
While strolling along the streets of Melbourne many years ago I found myself before a striking monument. On a plinth were two dark metal statues. One was an impressive figure of a bearded man standing upright, looking resolute and authoritative. Seated to one side of him was a man who seemed thoughtful and composed. This was the monument to Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Willis, who had been the first to cross Australia from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north. They had died on their way back as they struggled to reach a rescue party.
In a nearby bookshop I found several books describing one of the most grim but captivating episodes of Australian history and exploration.
Burke was born in Craughwell in Co Galway, in 1821, one of a family who resided in the Georgian mansion at St Clerans. The males of the family sought distinction serving in the higher ranks of the British army. However Burke found the prospects of military glory in the empire to be dim. He joined the Austrian army.
An excellent horseman, he served with the Hungarian Hussars for several years. He returned to Ireland in 1848, joined the Irish Constabulary.
He may have found his role dull and routine because in 1853 he emigrated to Australia where he entered the Victoria police. Five years later he was made a superintendent.
Australia was a new and developing country, its state governments anxious to explore and if possible develop the vast inland regions of the continent.
Burke, eager to achieve renown, put himself forward to lead an expedition to be the first to cross the hundreds of miles from south to north and to report on all that had been seen and experienced. It seems that the force of his dare-devil personality overcame the reality that he was totally inexperienced in any kind of exploration.
William Wills, a surveyor and astronomical observer, was a key figure among the 19 men who set off from Melbourne in August 1860, with 27 camels and 23 horses as riding and pack animals as well as wagons carrying supplies and equipment.
Burke was said to be charming and kind but he was also short-tempered. A month into the expedition there were several key resignations. Undeterred, Burke divided his party and pushed on to a riverside location 400 miles north called Cooper’s Creek. The trek was taking them over boundless stretches of terrain, the horizons clouded by red dust. It proved to be hard going and wearing for men and beast.
Cooper’s Creek was sacred to the aboriginal tribes in the area partly because of its water and the trees that shaded it from the boiling sun.
However, Burke looked down on the aboriginals as primitives. This attitude towards people who knew how to live off this harsh unforgiving land was a serious mistake.
The aboriginals knew which grasses, plants, stems and leaves could be used as food and for medicinal remedies. They knew where to find water holes in barren regions, even unearth grubs that were a source of protein.
Burke decided to make a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria on the north coast and chose Wills and two other men, John King and Charley Grey, to accompany him. They had some pack animals to carry provisions but they were seriously hampered by rains and swampy ground.
After seven weeks they reached the tangled mangrove forests on the estuary of the Flinders river, though they never saw the open sea.
Weakened by exposure and short rations they struggled back slowly towards the rendezous at Cooper’s Creek. However, within a few days Grey died. After burying him, Burke decided they should rest for a day. This proved to be unfortunate because when they reached Cooper’s Creek there was nobody there. Only nine hours before, the remaining party had given up waiting for them and departed, leaving a note and some food. Too sickly to catch up, the ragged men set out for the nearest settlement. While they were away some members of the remaining party returned to Cooper’s Creek. Unfortunately they didn’t find the message Burke had left and they departed for good. Burke and his two companions, unable to make progress, returned to Cooper’s Creek to await rescue.
Burke and Wills both died of starvation and exposure. The single survivor, King, was saved by aboriginals, who provided him with the sustenance that could also have saved Burke and Wills. Later the two were given a state funeral in Melbourne.
Unlike many of the mansions of the gentry, St Clerans has been well preserved. From 1954 to 1971 it was the home of the Hollywood director John Huston. Later it was a hotel and some years ago was sold as a family home. Robert O’Hara Burke is far better remembered in Australia than in the land of his birth.