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Burke, Robert O'Hara (1821–1861)

by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Robert O'Hara Burke (1821-1861), by unknown photographer, c1860

Robert O'Hara Burke (1821-1861), by unknown photographer, c1860

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23243098

Robert O'Hara Burke (1821-1861), explorer, was born at St Clerans, County Galway, Ireland, second of the three sons of James Hardiman Burke and his wife Anne, née O'Hara. The Burkes were Protestant gentry and landowners, and the father and all his sons were soldiers. Burke was educated at Woolwich Academy, entered the Austrian army and served as lieutenant in a cavalry regiment. Discharged at his own request in June 1848, he took up a command in the Irish Mounted Constabulary until he migrated to Australia in 1853. In April he entered the Victoria police as an acting inspector stationed at Carlsruhe. Next January he was appointed senior inspector at Beechworth; soon afterwards he took leave to go to Europe in the hope of serving in the Crimean war but was too late. He returned to Beechworth and in 1858 became superintendent of police in the Castlemaine district. In 1860 he was given leave to take command of the exploring expedition to cross the continent from south to north organized by the Royal Society of Victoria and supported by the government.

Burke was impulsive, quick-tempered, arbitrary, generous, tender-hearted and charming, and those who did not quarrel with him loved him. He was recklessly brave, a dare-devil with a thirst for distinction as yet unsatisfied. His career seemed likely to peter out in humdrum police duties in Castlemaine. Although 'a well-bred gentleman and quite at home among people of the best class', at 39 he was slipping downhill into slovenly, eccentric habits. There is a strong tradition that he was also infatuated with Julia Matthews, a young siren of the Melbourne light theatre, but she was unresponsive to the ardour of the untidy, middle-aged country policeman with 7s. 8d. in his bank account. Leadership of the expedition was probably Burke's last chance of achieving distinction in his own, the world's and the divine Julia's eyes. He was very anxious for the appointment and admitted that he had used 'every fair, honourable and straightforward means' to get it.

The Burke and Wills expedition, as it has since been called, is a puzzling affair because there seems to have been no sufficient reason for it beyond the desire of the colonists of Victoria, which gold had made mighty, to make it mightier yet by 'taking the lead' in exploration, in which it had not even taken the first step. The objectives of the expedition were hazy and its route, from Cooper's Creek to the Gulf of Carpentaria, was decided less than a month before it set out. Burke's instructions, which were sent after him because they were not ready in time, were incoherent. A curious mixture of scientific curiosity, commercial initiative and sporting excitement added to the drama but the real object appears to have been to snatch from the South Australian explorer, McDouall Stuart, already in the field and formidable, the honour of making the first south-north crossing of the continent. Governor (Sir) Henry Barkly later described the expedition as 'the glorious race across the continent between the expeditions fitted out in this and the adjacent colony of South Australia'. The choice of a totally inexperienced leader is inexplicable if exploration were the real object, but excellent if it were exploit. Burke was a death or glory man and he achieved both.

The Burke and Wills expedition was the most costly in the history of Australian exploration, a symbol of the nouveau riche colony that promoted it. When the last bill came in, for the monument to the dead explorers, it had cost well over £60,000 and seven lives. Burke was the first Australian explorer to be provided with camels, over two dozen of them, both riding and pack animals, imported complete with cameleers. There were horses and wagons, abundant food for two years and lavish equipment, including 6 tons of firewood, 57 buckets and 45 yards of green gossamer for veils. The party consisted of three officers: Burke, Landells the camel-master, and William John Wills surveyor and meteorologist; two German scientific officers, Ludwig Becker naturalist and Herman Beckler medical officer and botanist; a foreman and nine assistants and the camel-drivers. The expedition left Melbourne on 20 August 1860 and made a stately progress through the settled districts to Swan Hill and Balranald and reached Menindee on the Darling at the beginning of October.

Burke wrote in a private letter from Menindee that he was determined that the cursed impedimenta, the ruin of so many explorers, would not ruin him; he was in haste and determined to travel light. He had already left much of his equipment and some of his provisions at Balranald, including the lime-juice which might have saved four of his men from death by scurvy, and at Menindee he dumped more provisions and transport. After quarrelling with Burke, Landells resigned at Menindee and Burke promoted Wills to second-in-command, replacing him as third officer by a local man, William Wright, who was barely literate and proved incompetent and unreliable. Burke's instructions were perfectly clear on one point: his base camp was to be at Cooper's Creek. Instead he divided his party, transport and provisions, dashing on to Cooper's Creek with the advance party and ordering Wright to follow him with as little delay as possible. Wright was in no hurry. He hung about Menindee for three months, and when he at last set out lost his way, half his men and still more time. Burke had had time to go to the Gulf of Carpentaria and back before Wright, with the vital reserve transport and provisions, managed to travel the four hundred miles (644 km) to Cooper's Creek.

Burke selected Wills, John King and Gray to accompany him to the gulf and left four men, under the command of William Brahe, one of the assistants, at Camp LXV at Cooper's Creek. He took provisions for twelve weeks and six camels and a horse, which he used only as pack animals. Other explorers trudged when they had to, but Burke, with the best transport in the history of Australian exploration at his command, is the only one who chose to explore on foot. The march to the gulf was made in extraordinarily favourable conditions, after a season of heavy rain. Charles Sturt's Stony Desert was like a garden, full of lily ponds, and Burke's expedition, in this also unique, was never short of water and was able to travel in an almost straight line to its objective, without losing time searching for water. Even so it took four months to do the 1500 miles (2414 km). They walked from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. with only a single day of rest in the whole period, and were half-starving in the fourth month. Gray could not stand the pace and died before they reached Camp LXV. Burke wrote, 'I am satisfied that the frame of man never was more severely taxed'. It was magnificent, but it was not exploration. Burke kept no journal; there was no time for scientific observation, and nothing useful was discovered as Burke's route was only practicable in unusual weather. Burke won the race to the north but McDouall Stuart found the all-weather route.

When the explorers reached Camp LXV on 21 April 1861, spent, starving and in rags, they found it deserted. Brahe's party had left that very day for Menindee, with six camels, twelve horses, all the clothes and most of the food. Wills and King were for following Brahe but Burke decided that since they had only two worn-out camels left and were in bad shape themselves they had no hope of catching up and would not survive the four-hundred-mile (644 km) journey unaided. Their best chance, he thought, was to make for the police station at Mount Hopeless, one hundred and fifty miles (241 km) away, and they set off in that direction, leaving a message of their intentions at Camp LXV on the off-chance.

Meanwhile Brahe had met Wright, who had at last arrived from Menindee, and, feeling uneasy about having left his post, decided to return to Camp LXV, which he reached fifteen days after he had left it. But he did not observe the signs of his leader's return that Burke had left and did not find his message, and departed, this time for good, for Menindee. Burke, Wills and King were too weak to get far on their journey to Mount Hopeless; they remained by Cooper's Creek, hoping to be rescued before they starved, but only King lived long enough to be found by Alfred Howitt's search party from Melbourne, which arrived in September 1861. Burke and Wills might also have survived if they had lived with the Aboriginals and shared their food as King did after their deaths. But Burke could not change the habits of a lifetime. He had been born and bred a member of the ruling race in a conquered country and could not bring himself to associate with natives. When they arrived in his camp, bearing gifts of fish, he behaved like an officer of the Irish constabulary plagued by the peasantry, and fired at them.

A royal commission appointed to inquire into the deaths of Burke and Wills censured Burke for having divided his party at Menindee and for entrusting Wright with an important command without sufficient knowledge of his character, and added that he had shown more zeal than prudence in leaving Cooper's Creek before the arrival of Wright and undertaking the journey to the gulf with inadequate provisions. Yet Burke had fulfilled the real object of the expedition. Indirectly, discovery was promoted because, although Burke's own journey was worthless as exploration, solid gains in geographical knowledge were made by the explorers Howitt, John McKinlay and William Landsborough, who led parties in search of him. Burke's ultimate contribution to the history of Victoria was oblique but significant. It had been a success story of needy Scotch crofters turned shepherd kings and of the glitter of treasure trove; the disaster of Burke and Wills added a dimension of tragedy.

A monument depicting Burke and Wills, by Charles Summers, stands outside Parliament House, Melbourne, and a portrait of Burke in oils by William Strutt is in the Melbourne Club.

Select Bibliography

  • A. M. Moorehead, Cooper's Creek (Lond, 1963)
  • I. F. McLaren, ‘The Victorian Exploring Expedition and Relieving Expeditions, 1860-61: The Burke and Wills Tragedy’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 29, no 4, Nov 1959, pp 212-53
  • K. Fitzpatrick, ‘The Burke and Wills Expedition and the Royal Society of Victoria’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 10, no 40, May 1963, pp 470-78.

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Citation details

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, 'Burke, Robert O'Hara (1821–1861)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burke-robert-ohara-3116/text4633, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Robert O'Hara Burke (1821-1861), by unknown photographer, c1860

Robert O'Hara Burke (1821-1861), by unknown photographer, c1860

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23243098