When the British sailed into Sydney Cove, Australia in 1788, change drifted ashore, too. Sixty-three years later, gold was discovered in Victoria. In no time at all, the region was flooded with migrants. Large numbers of Englanders, Irish, and Germans rushed to the area. In ten years, the population increased by more than 110,000. The majority, nearly 100,000 lived in Sydney. As a result, over the next four decades, known as “marvelous Melbourne”, the colony experienced great change. Melbourne, located on the southern coast of Australia, became the second largest city in the British Empire.
Along with the population explosion came cultural impacts, The number of churches increased. Schools, including the University of Melbourne, were built. Libraries, such as the State Library of Victoria, and art galleries were constructed. Men formed learned societies such as the Philosophical Institute of Victoria which became the Royal Society of Victoria.
It was the Philosophical Institute that, in 1857, formed a committee for the purpose of studying the feasibility of “fitting out” an expedition to the interior of the continent. The Royal Society was unable to generate widespread interest in the project, especially when it came to fund raising. Still, they pushed on, calling for those interested in leading an expedition to step forward. Committee members Ferdinand von Mueller and Wilhelm Blandowski both had significant experience in exploration and were interested in leading the expedition. However, the committee was so divided that whenever a vote was taken, both men were rejected.
Finally, the committee elected by ballot, Robert O’Hara Burke to head the expedition. He was born in Ireland and was a former officer of the Australian Army. Despite his years of service in the military, Burke lacked any experience in bush craft. At the conclusion of his military career, he had become the Superintendent of Police. From the “git-go”, Burke did not appear to be the right man for the job.
The committee chose George James Landels as second in command. William John Wills, who had a bit more experience at living in the wilderness, was named third in command. It was Landals who was given the task of purchasing pack animals for the expedition. As much of the Australian interior region to be explored was desert-like part of the year, Landels purchased twenty-four camels from India. Six more camels were added to the expedition, purchased from George Coppin’s Cremorne Gardens. It was decided that two male and two female camels, along with their calves, would be left at Royal Park instead of being taken on the journey.
In 1859, the government offered a reward of Ɫ2000 ($230,000) for the first successful south-north crossing west of the 143rd parallel. A year later the reward was offered by the government. After three years of planning, the Exploration Committee sent out its party from Royal Park in Melbourne. Their mission was to explore from the southern coast of Australia to the northern coast at the Gulf of Carpentaria, a distance of approximately 2,000 miles. They were to explore a land that, to this point, had only been explored by indigenous people.
Their exploration party consisted of only 19 men, five of which were English, six Irish, four Indian Sepoy, three Germans, and one American. They took with them twenty-three horses, twenty-six camels, and six wagons loaded with supplies and equipment. They feared not being able to find enough water. They took with them no cattle for meat. Instead, the chose to experiment with dried meat. The food provisions they took were supposed to be enough to last two years. Also, included in the equipment carried was a table and a pair of chairs made of oak. They took rockets and flags. Perhaps the most unusual item to many was a Chinese gong. It has been estimated that the equipment alone weighed over 40 thousand pounds!
Even before the expedition began, decisions were made that later proved to be unwise. Captain Francis Cadell, a member of the exploratory committee offered to take supplies by ship to Adelaide and from there transport them up the Murray and Darling Rivers. This would have allowed the exploration party to have supplies waiting along the way and would have lightened the burden of the pack animals. However, Burke refused Captain Cadell’s offer. Cadell had opposed Burke as the leader, and Burke wanted no assistance from him.
At 4:00 p.m., on August 20, 1860, a crowd of about 15,000 gathered to watch the historic moment as the expedition began their journey. All the supplies were loaded onto the six wagons. It didn’t take long to see that this was perhaps not the best laid plan. Before even leaving Royal Park, one of the wagons broke down. Travel progressed slowly. After only eight hours, the party had only managed to reach the outskirts of Melbourne at Essendon. The old wives tale that bad news come in threes must have seemed reality to the sojourners as two more wagons broke down at Essendon. Only eight hours of travel, just a few miles, and already their number of wagons was reduced in half.
As they made their way through the bad roads of Victoria, travel was made even slower by torrential rains. It took the party three days to reach Lancefield. On August 26, they took a day off to rest at Camp Mia Mia before continuing on to Swan Hill and then to Balranald. They made the decision to lighten their load and made the tough choice to leave some provisions behind: sugar, lime juice, and some guns and ammunition. On September 24, at Gambala, the expedition’s leader decided to use the camels to carry part of the load. This may have lighted the load on the horses, but the men were commanded to walk. Personal luggage was restricted to only 30 lbs. As problems grew, so did distention. An argument ensued between Burke and his second in command, Landals. Burke ordered Landels to dump 60 gallons of rum from the expedition’s supplies. At first thought, one may assume that the rum was for human consumption. However, Landals, like many others at the time, believed that if fed to camels, rum would prevent scurvy. A few days later Landels resigned. His departure gave way to the resignation of Dr. Herman Beckler.
Wills suddenly found himself in the position of second in command. William Wright was moved up to third in command. At the end of two months of travel, it was very clear that the expedition was in trouble. They had traveled only 750 miles, about two miles per hour. Not only had two officers resigned, nine of the crew had been fired. Along the way, eight new men had to be hired.
With the dream of collecting the prize money offered by the government, others besides Burke, had the same motivation. One man in particular worried Burke, John McDouall Stuart. Burke knew Stuart had organized an expedition and feared he might collect the reward. This fear drove Burke to make some choices that he hoped would speed the progress of the mission.
Burke divided the party and selected seven men, the fittest of the expedition, to travel ahead of the others to Cooper Creek. He took only a small amount of equipment and the strongest of the horses. Finally, the group caught a break as they set out under the guidance of Wright. Fresh water from rains was readily available. They even caught a break from the blistering heat. After reaching Torowotto Swamp, Wright was sent back to Menindee alone where the other half of the exploratory party awaited. His mission was to guide the awaiting men to join Burke ahead. Burke and the rest of the men pushed northward toward Cooper Creek, the planned rendezvous point which was also the edge of the European-explored land in the region.
Burke’s weary travelers broke camp on Cooper Creek on November 11, 1860. They had been traveling for eighty-three days. No doubt, they looked forward to a time of rest, especially during the sweltering Australian summer heat. The hope of rest was dashed when the camp became infested with rats.
The plague of rodents was so severe, Burke moved the camp downstream to a waterhole called Bullah Bullah where they built a stockade they named Fort Wills. The men looked forward to staying at the Fort through the summer. However, Burke’s fear of Stuart snatching glory from him was behind his decision to push northward without waiting for summer’s 120 degree F temperatures to subside. Burke again, divided the group and placed William Brahe in charge of the stockade. He gave Brahe instructions to wait three months for his return. Wills must have feared this was not adequate enough time. Behind Burke’s back, he gave Brahe orders to wait a month longer. Left behind with Brahe were Dost Mohomet, William Patten, and Thomas McDonough. Burke took Wills, John King, and Charles Gray with him. He set out on December 16, headed for the Gulf of Carpentaria. They carried with them six camels, a horse, and rations for three months.
Though the traveling party had to cross the Strzelecki and Sturts Stony Deserts, their burden was lessened by uncommon rains which made finding water easier. Their anticipated fear of the Aborigines turned out to be an unnecessary worry. Finally, the small party reached swampy land. Determined to push on through the swamps, the two leaders left King and Gray behind along with the camels. They hacked their way through, fighting the elements of the swamps for fifteen miles. Since departing from Cooper Creek, Burke and Wills had traveled 59 days. Their decision to turn back was driven not only by the difficulty traveling through the swamps but also by the fact that they had only 27 days of rations remaining for the return trip to Cooper Creek.
While many might believe that turning back would have been easier travel as they retraced their path, the torrential monsoon season moved in making travel even more difficult. After abandoning one camel too weak to continue, the men slaughtered the other three remaining camels for meat. By April 10, they had put down their horse.
With only two camels left, they abandoned their equipment piece by piece along the way. They sustained themselves on a diet supplemented with portulaca and resorted to eating a black-headed python. The situation became so dire that Gray was reduced to stealing skilligolee, a watery porridge. For his crime, he was severely beaten by Burke until he was rendered unable to walk. Nine days later Gray died of dysentery. Burke, Wills, and King buried Gray. After resting for a day, the trio pushed on anxious to get back to the camp at Cooper Creek. They arrived in camp on April 21 only to find it abandoned.
Brahe, who had been left behind at Cooper Creek, had waited five weeks longer than Burk had instructed him. Brahe’s remnant was suffering from scurvy and a shortage of supplies. They were running out of everything, including almost all hope that Burke would ever return. After Patton, one of the men left with Brahe broke his leg, the men decided to pack it up and head back. Brahe still held out an ounce of hope that Burke would return. He buried a few provisions and a letter to Burke beneath a coolibah tree and carved a message on the trunk of the tree in case Burke made it back to camp. On April 21, 1861, Brahe departed only nine hours before Burke, Wills, and King with two camels, made their way back into the abandoned camp.
Burke and the men dug up the supplies and read the note left by Burke. How disheartening it must have been to have come so close to reuniting with hope.
Too exhausted to attempt to catch Brahe’s group, the trio decided to rest. During their two-days they took off to recuperate, Wills and King tried to convince Burke that their best hope of survival was to backtrack their original path. Burke, however, had a different idea. He felt their best bet was to make their way to a cattle station that was the furtherest established one into the interior. The settlement was 150 miles away near Mount Hopeless in South Australia. Burke won out.
The men drafted a letter expressing their intentions. After burying the letter where the supplies had been left for them beneath the blazed tree, they set out following Cooper Creek downstream. While they had made many critical decisions along the way, this time they made a critical error – they did not change the mark on the blaze tree. If a rescue party ever returned, how would they know of the buried letter or even that the men had made it back to the camp?
On his exodus, Brahe met Wright’s party bringing more supplies. Wright’s return with supplies had been delayed, and although public opinion blamed him for the delay, guilt lay in a lack of funds and pack animals, as well as, hesitation to act by the Exploration Committee. Upon arrival back at camp, Brahe and Wright found the message on the tree unaltered and assumed that Burke had not returned. They made their way back to Menindee without digging to see if the supplies left by Brahe were gone. Burke had departed fifteen days before his fellow explorers returned, but sadly had only managed to travel a distance of 35 miles. Burke, Wills, and King seldom averaged more than five miles per day. When they reached Minkie Waterhole, they must have rejoiced. But joy turned into tragedy when one of their two remaining camels became mired in the mud and had to be left behind. A short time later, they had to shoot their one remaining camel which was too exhausted to continue the journey. Without any pack animals, the men had no way to transport enough water to make the trek across Strzelecki Desert. They stayed near the creek where the Yandruwandha Aborigines tried to help them. The men traded sugar for fish, baked rats, padlu (beans) and a damper made of ground sporocarps.
In May of 1861, Wills made his way back to the “dig” tree where he buried his diary, notebook, and journals. Before he was able to rejoin Burke and Gray, Burke made another unwise decision. He fired a pistol at one of the Aborigines. The tribe that had sustained them fled, taking hope for survival with them.
After Wills, return, the three men followed Cooper Creek upstream hoping to find the Yandruwandha tribe. Wills became too weak to continue and begged his friends to leave him behind. At Breerily Waterhole, they prepare a shelter for Wills and left him with a small amount of food and water. Two days after leaving Wills, Burke reached a point of exhaustion that brought his travel to a cease. The following morning, he died. All alone, King must have been filled with despair. He remained with the dead body of his leader for two days before returning to Breerily Waterhole, only to find the lifeless body of Wills. Because of descriptions of his friends suffering from leg and back pain, it is believed that both Burke and Wills suffered from Beriberi, a Thiamin deficiency. This lone survivor connected with a tribe of Yandruwandha. They provided him shelter and provided him nourishment. He and his gun proved a small asset to them as he shot birds for them to have as meat.
Public outcries led to six expeditions being sent out in search of Burke and Wills. Two were financed by the Exploration Committee that had originally sent them out. Three were financed by the Royal Society of Victoria. Even the Australian government sent a team to find them.
One of the search groups, headed by Alfred William Howitt, sent out by the Exploration Committee crossed paths with Brahe’s small band as they returned. Brahe had no knowledge of the fate of Burke, Wills, King, nor Gray. Howitt surmised that a larger search party would be needed to find the men. He returned to Melbourne and organized a larger search effort. Upon returning to the blazed tree, he discovered the items Wills had buried. Four days later, the party discovered King, alive, living with the Aborigines. With information from King, the search party discovered and buried the bodies of Burke and Wills. King survived the two-month journey back to Melbourne. He was the only man who traveled the entire expedition to survive.
Howitt was later dispatched to recover the buried bodies of Burke and Wills. They were returned to Melbourne and given a State Funeral. It was estimated that more than 40,000 people lined the streets of the funeral procession to honor the brave men. Other honors have been bestowed on them posthumously. In 1983 a postage stamp honored them. Two years later a film was made about their journey. On the 150th anniversary a one dollar bill was issued and a twenty cent coin was struck honoring the Burke and Wills Expedition.
While they did not succeed in their mission, their experiences and discoveries opened the doors for further south to north exploration in Australia.