Sick Transit – Frank McNally on the doomed Irishmen who were the first Europeans to cross Australia

An Irishman’s Diary

When Tuesday's Health Supplement suggested that Queensland was "about the size of Ireland", I presume that was a reference to population rather than territory. With just over five million people, it is indeed similar. But as John Doherty (Letters, April 21st) has pointed out, it is vastly larger in area: something that was learned painfully by an Irishman born 200 years ago next month.

Robert O'Hara Burke entered this world on May 6th, 1821, growing up in the pleasant surroundings of St Cleran's, a Georgian house near Craughwell, Co Galway, which in later times would be home to film director John Huston. The now famous Fields of Athenry were only a few miles north. Unlike the man in the song, however, Burke left the area happily in search of adventures, first as a soldier on the continent and then for a time back in Ireland, as a police officer in Dublin and Kildare.

Even when he emigrated to Australia in 1853, he soon left it again, for the Crimean War. But he got there too late – peace had just been declared. So he returned to Melbourne, where the greatest challenge available was to be the first European to cross the country's vast interior – the "ghastly blank" still unknown to most coast-bound colonists.

When the Philosophical Institute of Victoria sponsored a formal expedition in 1860, O'Hara Burke was chosen to lead it, with Englishman William Wills as his surveyor. Burke then interviewed 300 applicants to join them before finally choosing people he already knew and trusted.


A late exclusion was one Owen Cowen who, during the farewell ceremonies on August 20th, was sacked for becoming "a little too hilarious through excess of beer". After that, the party of six Irishmen, five English, one American, three Germans, and four Indians (the Indians were required to handle the camels being used for transport) left Melbourne, cheered by a crowd of 15,000.

Bad weather dogged the early part of the 2,000-mile trek north. It took two months to reach Menindee, New South Wales, considered the last outpost of civilisation. Farther on, a “plague of rats” forced them to move camp. But by late November they were in Queensland, celebrating Christmas at an oasis in the “Dusty Diamentina” of a later ballad.

Burke had twice split the original party, sending one group back south and leaving a second at a camp called Cooper Creek, where they were to wait three months for his return. From there on, only four men continued towards the north coast: Burke, Wills, a Scotsman named Gray, and a young soldier from Tyrone, John King.

It was difficult terrain now. Burke’s diaries describe the camels “sweating profusely from fear” at one point. Still, by February, the group had done what no Europeans had before, reaching the salt waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria. After all that, thanks to mangrove swamps, they never got to see the sea before having to turn back.

Provisions were dangerously low now and the rainy season made travel slow and treacherous. When Gray, who had been suffering from dysentery, was caught stealing flour, Burke “thrashed” him. This may have contributed to the Scotsman’s death on April 16th. But when it took his weakened comrades a day to bury to bury him, it helped seal their fates too.

The party at Cooper Creek had waited four months, not three. They finally gave up on April 20th, leaving with provisions, a day before Burke, Wills, and King made it back.

Doomed now, the trio slowly succumbed to starvation. They had already eaten some of their camels and shot the last one in May, followed by Burke’s horse. Wills and Burke died in quick succession, the latter after writing a final note to the expedition committee, commending King who “has behaved nobly and I hope will be properly cared for”.

The Tyrone man survived only because of the local Yandruwandha people, which adopted him for a time.  Months later, a relief expedition spotted a group of them near Cooper Creek. The aborigines scattered in fear but, according to the expedition surveyor, Edwin Welsh, left "a man behind, covered in scarecrow rags and a part of a hat".

Welsh was unsure if “it” was human. “As I passed it, it tottered, threw up its hands in an attitude of prayer, and fell in the sand”. Being sole survivor of the trek to Carpentaria, King returned to Melbourne a reluctant celebrity.

He endured rather than enjoyed the attention it brought. But he didn’t have to endure it long. His health never fully recovered from the ordeal either and he died aged in 1872, aged only 34.