the failure of the Burke and Wills expedition


The story of Burke and Wills has become an integral part of the Australian consciousness. The subject of a multi-million dollar movie and a large number of books, visually depicted as two starving heroes in any number of primary and secondary school textbooks, Burke and Wills and their fate seem to encapsulate and justify the fear that many urban Australians have of the vast, lonely, dry wilderness which occupies over two-thirds of the continent. Their deaths by starvation and thirst are myth and fear turned into reality.

Of course the truth about the ignominious demise of Burke and wills is more pedestrian. what went wrong with their expedition can best be summed up by those well-known human failings - incompetence, arrogance, inflexibility and racial bigotry. In fact, in the case of the Burke and wills expedition, it is not so much a case of what went wrong, as a case of what did not go wrong. the expedition was ill-conceived from the outset. It is now generally agreed that the raison d'etre of the whole undertaking was overwhelming pride. this pride was a result of the newly found wealth of Melbourne (a direct result of the gold rushes) and the newly created colonial independence of Victoria.

The Melbourne nouveau riche, eager to show off their wealth and independence, enthusiastically supported the Australian Exploration Fund committee. The Committee was formed by the Philosophical Institute of Victoria in September 1858 and, although its stated intent was to 'enquire into and report upon the exploration of the Australian interior', there is no evidence that any of the committee members had expertise in the complex business of mounting an expedition. In fact the incompetence with which they created their expedition shows how little knowledge they actually had.

Public enthusiasm for the expedition was high. Public subscriptions exceeded 3000 pounds and the government contributed 6000 pounds. Under ordinary circumstances this would have been adequate funding but over half of the funds were spent on purchasing and importing twenty-four camels from Afghanistan. The committee then advertised for a man to lead the expedition. They had thirteen applicants out of whom they chose Irish-born police inspector Robert O'Hara Burke. Burke had no experience and no apparent knowledge of the Australian bush. why he was chosen to lead an expedition which was going to travel across thousands of miles of rugged and unknown terrain remains a mystery. If the committee had investigated his credentials they would surely have rejected him. He was mercurial, pig-headed and incompetent. The committee then proceeded to appoint an expeditionary team of eighteen which included William Willis (navigator and astronomer), Dr Herman Beckler (expedition doctor), Ludwig Becker (naturalist), Charles Ferguson (foreman), three Indian soldiers, John King (in charge of stores) and George James Landells (second-in-command).

The expedition, even before it started, had become a statement of Victoria's new found self-confidence and pride. When it left Melbourne on 20 August the streets were lined with cheering crowds. It was not so much an expedition as a public display. The camels and packhorses were carrying twenty-one tons of equipment including 120 mirrors as presents for Aborigines, sixty gallons of rum, four gallons of brandy, supplies of rockets, arms and vast qualities of dried food.

By 6 September when the expedition reached Swan Hill on the Murray River, Burke's ineptitude as a leader, an organiser and a bushman was becoming apparent. Over the next six weeks he made a series of errors of judgment which would play a part in the ultimate failure of the expedition. In Swan Hill he sold off a large quantity of stores and hired two new men - Charley Gray and William Hodgkinson. In Balranald the foreman, Ferguson, quit; Burke dismissed Creber, Cowen, Fletcher, the cook Drakeford, and Langan; and some stores including the expedition's entire supply of lime juice were sold. (The lack of lime juice would subsequently lead to the death of the blacksmith, Patton). At the Darling River Burke insisted that all items weighting over thirty pounds be abandoned. this decision meant that neither Dr Beckler nor the naturalist Ludwig Becker could carry their instruments. Becker left the expedition at Menindee. Prior to Becker's departure the second-in-command, Landells, realised that he would never be able to work with Burke and resigned. 

At Meninde news arrived from Melbourne that another continental crossing was about to commence. All pretence about the desire to 'enquire into the report upon the exploration of the Australian interior' was abandoned. Burke could not tolerate the thought that he might be beaten. The expedition was now a race. while still at Memindee Burke made two crucial decisions. He appointed a local man, William Wright, as third-in-command and he appointed wills second-in-command. Wills wrote of the decision:

Mr. Landells, the second in command, had resigned over a difference of opinion concerning the camels. I was appointed in his place because, said Mr. Burke, not only was I a surveyor, I also had a little medical training; an advantage since our medical officer had also resigned and was now awaiting his replacement from Melbourne. 

Wills had a very mid-nineteenth century British sense of honour and duty. If Burke was the leader then he, wills, was duty bound to follow. He remained unquestioningly faithful to Burke until his death. Only his letters to his father revealed the true depth of his disapproval and scepticism.

On 19 October Burke, wills, Brabe, King, Gray, McDonough, Patton and an Indian soldier Dost Mohammed left Menindee. Wright was left behind with instructions to bring stores and provisions and to follow the main party in a week. The main party reached Cooper Creek (then called Cooper's Creek) on 11 November and on 27 November the famous Camp 65 was established under a coolibah tree on the banks of the river. Initially Camp 65 seemed an ideal location for a depot. But like most decisions on the expedition it was poorly thought through. The proximity to water virtually guaranteed problems with flies and mosquitoes and a plague of rats meant that all the food had to be hung from the trees. By now Burke was totally obsessed. He wanted to push on to the Gulf regardless of the cost. On 16 December 1860 with six camels, one pony, and Wills, Gray and King, Burke began the final push north. The group endured fierce heat and inhospitable deserts before moving into the tropical swamplands of the Gulf where, as Wills wrote, 'The dampness of the atmosphere prevented any evaporation, and the oppressive heat gave one a helpless feeling of lassitude I have never before experienced.

Disaster now followed disaster. The camels, which could not travel through the swamps, were left on dry land with Gray and King. burke and Wills pushed north with the pony but were forced to leave the pony which also could not handle the wet, muddy conditions. Burke guessed h was a little over a day from the coast. It took a week to cut through the mangroves. Even then it was only the seagulls and the tidal marks on the mangroves that indicated they had reached the sea. No golden sands and rolling breakers greeted them. Wills could see the problems they had created for themselves. 'It had taken two months,' he wrote, 'to reach here from Cooper's Creek, but only a month's supplies remained for our return. It was not a pleasant prospect that now lay ahead of us.'

The return trip was no better than the journey northward had been. they had been caught by the wet season. It rained for ten days continuously. the humidity was debilitating. Their shoes were ruined. Their clothes were in tatters. Camels had to be killed for meat. Charley Gray started stealing food thus seriously depleting the already very limited stocks. Morale was low. Strong leadership was lacking. By 15 April all four men were seriously ill. Charley Gray was no longer capable of walking. Wills wrote simply, 'All getting symptoms Charley complained of before, that is, aching limbs and headaches.' On 17 April Gray died. Four days later Burke, wills and King reached the Cooper Creek depot. They were exhausted and in desperate need of fresh supplies. to their horror and despair the depot had been abandoned only hours earlier. On a tree William Brahe, the depot foreman, had carved

3 FT N.W.
APR, 21. 1861

when all three men dug all they found were a few stores and a bottle in which was the note:

Coopers Creek
April 21st 1861

The Depot party of V.E.E. leaves the Camp today to return to the Darling. I intend to go South East from Camp 60, to get into our old track near Bulloo. Two of my companions and myself are quite well. The third - Patten - had been unable to walk for the last 18 days, as his leg has been severely hurt when thrown by one of the horses. No person has been up here from the Darling. We have six camels and twelve horses in good working condition.

William Brahe.

Anyone, however resolute, would have been broken by such a message. Only seven hours before, the three men's lifeline had been severed. The depot and its supplies and its healthy animals could have saved them. Their will now was completely broken, their health destroyed, their animals lame, their supplies low. Confronted with an empty depot, a small cache of supplies, and the prospect of starvation, burke had to decide whether he was going to follow Brahe back to Menindee or attempt a 320 kilometre walk across the desert to a cattle station at Mount Hopeless. Once again Burke made the wrong decision. He decided to head for Mount Hopeless. It is perhaps the most telling comment about the character of Burke he ignored his only chance saving himself, Wills and King. It is almost certain that the local Aborigines could have saved the trio. but Burke saw himself as the conqueror, as a member of a superior civilisation. The idea that he could be saved from death by a group of 'savages' was unthinkable.

The three moved out into the desert, realised they could not continue, and turned back to Cooper Creek. they killed the last camel, occasionally shot a bird, and were given fish by the Aborigines. Over the next few weeks they all deteriorated. Burke and Wills died on about 30 June 1861. On 15 September a rescue party found John King. He had been saved because he had accepted the hospitality of the Aborigines. So what had gone wrong? In the myriad of troubles which beset the whole expedition two events were crucial. Wright, who was supposed to have followed the advance party, had not arrived at Camp 65 after a lapse of fourteen weeks. And Brahe's decision to leave the camp was clearly decisive. Yet the tantalising questions 'Why did he leave? Why did he leave only minimal supplies at the Depot? Why was his note falsely optimistic?' remain largely unanswered.

From 18 November to 31 January 1862 a Royal commission into the whole expedition sat in Melbourne. When Brahe was questioned he could not adequately explain why, with two men seriously ill and some of his camels scabby, he had written such an optimistic assessment as 'Two of my companions and myself are quite well' and 'We have six camels and twelve horses in good working condition'. These misleading assessments had ensured that Burke, wills and King made no attempt to follow the departing party. At the heart of Brahe's decision to leave lay a number of simple communication misunderstandings. He told the Royal Commission that Burke's instructions had been, 'If I am not back in three months' time you may consider me perished.' Yet the other Depot survivor, McDonough, claimed, 'The day after Mr. Brahe returned, Patton asked him how long we were to remain,. He said, "Mr. Burke instructed me to remain three months or as long as our provisions would last." but in going down the creek Mr. Wills asked him to remain four, and he made the same statement and repeated it in conversations more than once afterwards.'

Were they supposed to stay for three months, for four months or until the supplies ran out? Burke's message was unclear. Brahe, who was only twenty-five at that time, may not have been a reliable witness. but, for that matter, neither may McDonough have been a reliable reporter. The situation had been greatly complicated by Burke's seeming refusal to give an unambiguous commitment to return to Cooper Creek. When Brahe had asked him if he might move across to Queensland after reaching the Gulf, Burke had apparently agreed to that possibility. And Burke had left a clear impression in McDonough's mind that returning to Cooper Creek was but one of a number of options he was considering. Asked by the Royal Commission if he had lost hope of Mr. Burke's return, McDonough replied:

I thought it was more probable that he had gone to Queensland, though I did not know. I had a conversation at one time on the Darling with Mr. Burke with regard to clothing and that led me to suppose there would a meeting at Carpentaria. In the first place I heard Professor Neumayer state: 'I hope to meet you, Burke, in the vessel.' On another occasion when leaving the Darling, I was packing up Mr. Burke's clothing, and he was rather short of clothing, for he was very careless in that respect, whenever there was a blackfellow he would throw him a shirt or something, and I gave him two flannel shirts of my own. 'I do not care McDonough,' he said, 'if I get on board the vessel with only a shirt on me, if I get through.'

The Royal Commission presented its report in January 1862 and spread the blame evenly on Burke, Brahe, Wright and the Exploration Committee. Of Burke they wrote that he 'evinced a far greater amount of zeal and prudence' and that he 'was forced into the necessity of overtaxing the powers of his party, whose continuous and unremitting exertions resulted in the destruction of his animals, and the prostration of himself and his companions from fatigue and severe privations.' Of Wright's behaviour they were scathing. 'The conduct of Mr. Wright appears to have been reprehensible in the highest degree... Mr. Wright has failed to give any satisfactory explanation of the causes of his delay; and to that delay are mainly attributable the whole of the disasters of the expedition, with the exception of the death of Gray.' The Exploration committee was castigated for not ensuring that Wright and his party left promptly for Camp 65 and Brahe, while not directly criticised, was reprimanded. 'His decision was most unfortunate; but we believe he acted from a conscientious desire to discharge his duty ...' The Royal Commission summed up:

It does not appear that Mr. Burke kept any regular journal, or that he gave written instructions to his officers; had he performed these essential portions of the duties of a leader many of the calamities of the expedition might have been averted, and little or no room would have been left for doubt in judging the conduct of those subordinates who pleaded unsatisfactory and contradictory verbal orders and statements.

In short, the whole expedition from the triumphant start to its tragic conclusion had been a tangled web of incompetence and foolhardiness. Burke was clearly the wrong man for the job. A careful expedition had turned into a careless race. Wright and Brahe had made serious errors of judgement. Wills' blind allegiance to Burke had cost him his life. Burke's refusal to accept succour and shelter from the Aborigines had seen the victory of arrogance and racism over commonsense. Ultimately the deaths of Burke, Wills and Gray were the results of human weakness and vanity.

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