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The Expedition of Burke and Wills
Australia was long unexplored and considered a vast wasteland. The Aborigines had lived and survived on this land for tens of thousands of years, but the need for expansion was imminent with more and more people moving to Australia in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. At this time immigrants were flocking to Australia for the goldfields. Consequently, more and more land was needed for expansion.
The South Australian government offered a reward of 2000 AUD to encourage any explorer to find a route between southern Australia and the north coast.
On one such expedition, the two leaders would be Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills. Burke, born in Ireland in 1821, emigrated to Australia in 1852. However, he was a headstrong man working as a policeman rising through the ranks but growing restless and desiring adventure. Unfortunately, history shows he was hardly qualified as an explorer.
William John Wills was an Englishman born in 1834 and who arrived in Australia in 1855. He was working as a surgeon's assistant and director of the observatory in Melbourne. He was a mild-mannered man, much more interested in plants and culture than exploration.
The fact that neither man was qualified as an explorer would prove to be disastrous.
The Start of the Expedition
Amid a crowd of 15,000, the expedition departed Royal Park, Australia with the goal of reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria some 2000 miles north. The caravan, consisting of 20 tons of equipment, 6 wagons, 23 horses, 6 camels, and 19 men, set off into the unknown. The going was slow with so much equipment to move. They were first heading to Menindee some 450 miles away, but it took them two months to reach their destination.
So far, things appeared to be going well, but Burke was in a race with another explorer trying to be the first to reach the gulf. So he decided to split the group at Coopers Creek, leaving them to wait for more supplies. He left William Brahe in charge with instructions to wait three months for his return. If he didn't return, he instructed Brahe to return to Melbourne. A tree at Coopers Creek campsite was referred to as The Dig, and it would be significant to the expedition. It is hard to believe, but out of the 19 explorers, only Wills and Brahe knew how to read a compass.
Burke Heads to the Gulf
Burke had heard of another explorer, John McDouall Stuart, also trying to reach the gulf, and wanted to beat him there. Unfortunately, in his haste, Burke took only 6 camels, 1 horse, and 3 months' supply of provisions. This was a tragic mistake by an inexperienced explorer.
Burke set off for the gulf with Wills and Gray soon crossing the vast arid conditions of the country. He was dealing with salt marshes, making it challenging to reach the gulf. They could see it, but it was impossible to get through the mangroves. Growing weaker and weaker, and with little food or water, they began their return trip on February 8, 1861. Gray was the weakest and was the first to die. Somehow Burke and Wills made it back to Coopers Creek in April and found it abandoned. As per instructions, Brahe had left to return to Melbourne, even staying at the campsite an extra month.
By now, they too were low on supplies and weak, but he buried about a month's worth of food for Burke when he returned. So he carved into the tree:
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Dig 3 feet NW, April 21, 1861. Barely 9 hours later, Burke and Wills were at the campsite finding the note and supplies.
Burke and Wills at Coopers Creek
With the supplies left by Brahe dwindling, Burke and Wills decided to reach Mt. Hopeless on April 22, 1861, but could not even carry water to make the trip. At this time, they were foraging for the nardoo plant that the Aborigines ate for their survival.
Unfortunately, this plant had to be prepared correctly for consumption to avoid the danger of thiamine poisoning, causing a vitamin deficiency of vitamin B1. Burke and Wells instead were eating the plant raw. Vitamin deficiency appeared to be a contributing factor in their deaths. The nardoo plant had to be soaked in water to remove toxins.
All this time, Wills was at odds with Burke regarding the Aborigines. Burke distrusted them; he continually fired over their heads, scaring them. Wills wrote in his journal on June 26, 1861, that "we're going to look for the blacks; it is our only chance for survival."
If only they had paid more attention to how the Aborigines prepared the nardoo, but unfortunately, Burke disliked them and refused to request any assistance, which showed his bull-headedness. So much more could have been attained if his superiority was not so prevalent.
The only survivor was John King, who was taken in by the Aborigines until his rescue by the search party led by Alfred Howeth and Edwin Welch, who found King on October 15, 1861. He arrived in Melbourne hailed as a hero, receiving a gold watch and enough pension to buy a small house and marry. But sadly, he died in 1872 of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-three.
It seems the tragedy of the expedition was due to incompetence, and they sealed their fate with the reluctance to accept the Aborigines' help or change their attitude towards them. Still, Burke and Wills were able with their maps, and the findings written in their journals allowed for expansion in Australia.
Burial of Burke and Wills
The rescue party later returned to Coopers Creek for the bones of Burke and Wills. They brought them to Melbourne for proper burial. A state funeral and procession were held on January 21, 1863, with 100,000 watching the procession. They were buried in Melbourne General Cemetery.
An anniversary silver coin was issued marking the 150-year anniversary of the expedition.
Sources and Further Reading
- Burke & Wills Web
Digital research archive of records from the Burke and Wills Expedition (1860-1861).
- Robert O'Hara Burke and William Wills | The Australian Museum
- Burke and Wills | National Museum of Australia
Timeline and explanation of the Burke and Wills Expedition.
- Burke and Wills Expedition | Wikipedia
- Unique Australian History: The Burke and Wills Expedition | Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust
What better way to celebrate our unique Australian history during history week than with two of our most famous and tragic explorers – Burke and Wills.
- Burke and Wills expedition | The Dig Tree
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.