Burke and Wills expedition

From Academic Kids

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The route Burke & Wills took north (red) and south (dark blue)
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Robert O'Hara Burke
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William John Wills
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Artist's depiction of Burke's death

In 1860-61, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills were sent on an expedition to cross Australia from south to north. At that time, most of the land of Australia was completely unknown. The east and south-east regions had been explored, and the coast had been mapped by boat. Due to bad luck and poor leadership, both explorers died on the return trip. Altogether, seven men lost their lives in the expedition.

Burke (1821-June 1861) was born into the Irish Protestant gentry, forming a career in the Austrian army cavalry regiment, then as a police officer in the Irish Mounted Constabulary. He emigrated to Australia in 1853, again becoming a police officer. He was posted to Beechworth and from there attended the "Buckland Valley" riots near Bright against the Chinese gold miners in 1857.

Wills (1834-1861) was born in Totnes in Devon and came to Victoria in 1853.

Neither Burke nor Wills was experienced in exploration, and it is strange that they were chosen to lead the mission. Burke was a police superintendent with virtually no skills in bushcraft. Wills was a surveyor and meteorologist. Wills was more adept than Burke at living in the wilderness, but it was Burke's leadership that was especially detrimental to the mission.

The expedition was extremely well equipped — they took 28 horses and wagons, 24 camels imported from India especially for the mission, 6 tonnes of firewood and enough food to last two years. It set off from Melbourne on August 21, 1860.

Burke soon grew impatient with their slow progress. A £2000 (about A$230,000 in 2003 dollars) reward had been offered by the Victorian government, for the first successful crossing. The experienced explorer John McDouall Stuart had also taken up the challenge, and Burke was afraid Stuart might beat him. When they reached Menindee in October, Burke split the group, taking eight men including himself and a smaller amount of equipment, with plans to push on quickly to Cooper's Creek and then wait for the others to catch up. On their arrival at Cooper's Creek, Burke's second-in-command William Wright was sent back to find the others. Wills was promoted to second-in-command.

Burke waited at Cooper's Creek until December 16, before giving up waiting. He decided to make a dash for the Gulf. He left behind William Brahe and more equipment and set off. He was accompanied by Wills, John King and Charles Gray.

On February 9, 1861 they reached the delta of the Flinders River. They didn't get all the way to the ocean because of the swamps in their way. They were by this stage desperately short of supplies. They had food for 5 weeks, but it would take 10 weeks to get back to Cooper's Creek. They turned back.

On their way up the weather had been hot and dry, but on the way back it started to rain. Gray fell ill, but the others thought he was pretending. He was caught stealing food and Burke beat him. He later died of dysentery. The others stopped for a day to bury him, and to recover their strength — they were by this stage very weak due to starvation and exhaustion. They finally reached Cooper's Creek on April 21, only to find the camp abandoned.

There was a message cut into a tree "DIG 3 FEET N.W.". They did so, and found some supplies, and a letter explaining that the party had given up waiting, and had left only that morning. Burke's team had missed them by only 9 hours. The three men and two remaining camels were exhausted; they had no hope of catching up to the main party. They decided to rest and recuperate, living off the supplies which had been left, before making an attempt to reach a cattle station 240km away.

Meanwhile, William Brahe decided to go back to Cooper's Creek and check to see if they had returned. When he arrived, the three men had already left for the cattle station and the camp was again deserted. He assumed that they had never been there, and he did not think to check to see if the supplies were still buried. He left to rejoin the main party.

Burke, Wills and King soon gave up their attempt to reach the cattle station. Their supplies were too short, and they were very unhealthy. They killed and ate the two remaining camels. Despite assistance from aborigines who gave them food and water, they were unable to complete their journey and they returned to Cooper's Creek. Burke bitterly criticised Brahe in his journal for not leaving behind any supplies or animals.

The three men again left the camp. Wills became too weak to continue, so they left him behind with some food. Burke died on June 20. King returned to Wills, but found that he was already dead. He found a tribe of aborigines willing to give him food and shelter, and there he stayed until he was found by a search party on September 18. King was rescued by Alfred William Howitt, who and been sent with a search party from Melbourne, where it had been guessed that Burke's expedition was in trouble. In pitiful condition, King survived the slow trip back to Melbourne. King died nine years later, aged 31.

The explorers were given a state funeral in Melbourne on 21 January 1863 and buried in a sarcophogus modelled on the design for the Duke of Wellington ten years earlier. There were reported to have been forty thousand spectators.

In some ways the tragic expedition was not a waste of time. It had completed the picture of inland Australia, and proved that there was no inland sea. More importantly, each of the rescue parties sent from different parts of the continent added in some way to the understanding of the land it crossed.

The "dig tree" still stands, and is now a popular tourist destination.

See also: History of Australia


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