Exploration and Misfortune—The Tragic Tale of the Burke and Wills Expedition
Going out into the unknown comes with a cost. This was learned the hard way by the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860-1861, the first European expedition across Australia from Melbourne, Victoria in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north. The expedition made it to the Gulf of Carpentaria but perished on the return journey…all except for one man who was cared for by a community of Aboriginal Australians.
In 1851, gold was discovered in the British Australian province of Victoria. This led to an enormous surge in immigration because of gold fever. The population increased from about 29,000 people in 1851 to almost 140,000 people in 1861. Because of their newfound wealth, the Victorian colonists were interested in making a name for themselves. In this case, they had an opportunity to find fame in the area of exploration.
Monument to Burke and Wills in Melbourne by Charles Summers. Created 1862-1865, erected March 30, 1865, unveiled April 21, 1865. (Public Domain)
By 1860, an expedition was organized that was officially named the Victorian Exploring Expedition (VEE). It was supported by the Victorian government, interested private individuals, and the Royal Society of Victoria. The VEE would be the first of its kind to cross central Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria. This was in competition with other explorers who also desired to immortalize themselves in the same way.
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Members of the Victorian Exploring Expedition
Two of the men chosen to lead the expedition were Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. Burke was born in 1821 in Ireland and emigrated to Australia in 1853. When he arrived, he chose to work as a police officer and over the years rose through the ranks. Burke is also known for having participated in containing the Buckland River riots of 1857.
By 1860, the seasoned Melbourne police officer had grown restless and was looking for something else to do, something adventurous. When he heard of the expedition, he worked hard to ensure that he was appointed leader despite his inexperience in the areas of exploration and navigation.
William John Wills was an Englishman born in 1834 in the mother country. He arrived in Australia the same year as Burke. Wills was interested in astronomy and exploration. His first job in Australia was as a shepherd, but he was slowly able to work his way into being a surgeon’s assistant and finally director of the Observatory at Melbourne.
‘Arrival of Burke & Wills at Flinders River’ (1862) by Edward Jukes Greig. (Public Domain)
He was initially chosen as third in command for the expedition as well as the official astronomer and surveyor. After the second in command, George Landells, a horse and camel merchant, had a falling out with Burke, however, Wills was made Burke’s new second in command.
Other pre-eminent members of the expedition included John King, the only one who went the whole way and survived, Charles Gray, and Hermann Beckler, a doctor turned botanist who accompanied them until Menindee, NSW.
The Burke and Wills Expedition
The expedition set out from Melbourne on August 20, 1860. It was a very significant event and about 15,000 Victorians attended their departure to see them off on their trek into the unknown. The expedition was also very well resourced with plenty of camels, horses, rum, and firewood, among other supplies. It may even have been the most well-supplied expedition in Australian history.
‘Memorandum of the Start of the Exploring Expedition’ (1860) by Nicholas Chevalier. (Public Domain)
The expedition went smoothly until they reached Menindee in October 1860. Burke was in a race with another explorer who was also trying to reach the Gulf first. Burke, in a rush to win the race, he left for Cooper Creek, telling part of the group still waiting for supplies to meet up with the lead party there. He put a man named William Wright in charge of the camp at Menindee.
Burke stopped at Cooper Creek to wait for the others, but he eventually grew impatient and decided to leave Cooper Creek in December of 1860. He took Wills, King, and Gray and made what is remembered as a mad dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria. This rush may have led to their undoing. After several weeks of traveling, they came to saltmarshes which showed evidence of being influenced by ocean tides. They had reached the Gulf of Carpentaria. Unfortunately, because of the salt marshes, they were not able to make their way through to the coast. They would have to be content with knowing that they had gotten close enough.
The Fated Return Journey
On February 9, 1861, after reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria, what remained of the Burke and Wills expedition began their long journey south back to Victoria. This was the most unfortunate part of the journey. On their way back, the arid conditions of the Australian outback were just too much for four Europeans adapted to the temperate climate of the British Isles. Charles Gray was the first of the four men to die. Burke, Wills, and King made it back to Cooper Creek in April 1861, only to find it abandoned. The rest of the expedition had apparently given up on them.
‘Burke, Wills and King on the way back from the Gulf of Carpentaria’ by Nicholas Chevalier. (Public Domain)
Both Burke and Wills died in June 1861 trying to reach the appropriately named landmark, Mount Hopeless. King was able to survive but barely. He was found near death by the Yandruwandha people, indigenous Australians who had survived in the harsh deserts of Australia for thousands of years. They cared for him until he was finally rescued. King was the only member of this part of the expedition who lived to tell the tale.
‘Burke and Wills on the Way to Mount Hopeless’ (1907) by George Washington Lambert. (Public Domain)
It was not until 1862 that a rescue expedition discovered the bodies of Burke and Wills near Cooper Creek. They were given a proper burial in January 1863 in Melbourne. Memorials have now been erected in their honor in Melbourne and at places along the route of their original expedition. Furthermore, the Yandruwandha people have been given a plaque rewarding them for the kindness that they showed to John King.
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Although historians tend to focus on the tragic elements of the expedition, there was also scientific importance in it. Before Burke parted ways with Herman Beckler, the physician collected many plant samples and improved the European understanding of the flora of Australia. Furthermore, some areas which had been previously unknown to Westerners were mapped for the first time during the expedition itself as well as by rescue teams in search of the lost man.
‘Natives discovering the body of William John Wills, the explorer, at Coopers Creek, June 1861’ (1862) by Eugene Montagu Scott. (Public Domain)
The Burke and Wills expedition illustrates the high price of exploration. Exploration can expand our knowledge of the world and the universe and provide new opportunities that were unknown, but it also comes with risk - and this risk needs to be accepted if we are to continue to be explorers.
Top Image: ‘Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper's Creek, Sunday evening, 21st April 1861’ (1907) by John Longstaff. Source: Public Domain
By Caleb Strom
2018. Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills. Available at: https://australianmuseum.net.au/about/history/exhibitions/trailblazers/burke-and-wills/
Burke and Wills collection. Available at: http://www.nma.gov.au/explore/collection/highlights/burke-and-wills
Burke and Wills’ Courage and Folly Pt. 1: Marching Onwards to the Great Unknown
Campion, Jessica. 2011. Burke and Wills: Botany’s untold success story. Available at: https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/science-environment/2011/07/burke-and-wills-botanys-untold-success-story/