[Editor: This article, critical of Robert O’Hara Burke’s leadership during the Burke and Wills expedition, was published in the “Out of the Library” section of The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 25 April 1937.]
Who was to blame
for the tragedy of Burke and Wills?
There drifted into a one-horse Queensland town a week or so ago an aboriginal who, with a few shillings in his pocket, made for the nearest — in fact the only — hotel. He drank for a while until his money was gone, and then he commenced gabbering inside facts concerning the deaths of several “long walk white man” who had been helped by his father’s father many moons ago.
The corpuscles of journalism flowed in the publican’s veins, and he scented some new and valuable light on the tragedy surrounding the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition of 70-odd years ago.
He rang up the town’s editor cum journalist, cum printer, and together they tried to take the aboriginal’s mind back through the thick haze the liquor had hung around it to the story his father’s father had handed down to him and his children. It cost the publican a few shillings in drink before he finished. But not another ray of light was thrown on what is, perhaps, the major tragedy in the history of Australian land exploration.
It was a pity; for it is certain that if the blacks in the vicinity of Cooper’s Creek would speak, many of the unwritten sentences in the chapter of Burke and Wills’ tragedy would be finished.
Cooper’s Creek is surrounded by an immense tract of almost waterless country. The story of Burke and Wills is the story of that lagoon which, ever since the day it was discovered by Captain Sturt, in 1845, has acted as a magnet to adventurous men. Burke and Wills were adventurous men.
Sturt himself almost perished while trying to reach it; and it is possible that Leichhardt’s bones bleached not far from its banks. McIntyre and Howitt also helped to place the lagoon on the map. But it was Burke and Wills who weaved real romance, history and tragedy around its name.
Theirs was the best equipped expedition of any that ever set out to discover unknown Australia. The veriest school-child learns that among his first lessons on Australian history; what ha does not learn is what caused the failure of such an elaborately equipped expedition. He is taught a dozen possible reasons; but the real one lies sealed in the watery lips of Cooper’s Creek or the illiterate lips of the natives. No one, now, will ever know.
Meet Robert O’Hara Burke, gentleman, bushman, adventurous, courageous Irishman; he led the expedition. He seemed to have every quality a man could wish for — except the one that would have led his expedition back to civilisation; the quality of leadership.
It has been said that ill fortune dogged his footsteps; it undoubtedly did. It has been said that negligence of his subordinates brought disaster upon the party; it probably helped. But somehow we feel that Sturt, Stuart, Eyre or Wentworth would have returned to Melbourne with their party. They were born leaders; Burke was not. What was more he never claimed to be a bushman. His friends claimed, after the tragedy, that there was not a bushman in the party; but if that be so, again the fault was Burke’s: he had the final say in choosing the men.
The expedition started out late, after the best season had passed, and early there were squabbles among the men. Burke divided the expedition into three parties. On November 11, 1860, the expedition reached Cooper’s Creek and there camped to await the arrival of several men who had left the main band to approach from the direction of Menindie. This party, under the leadership of a man named Wright, did not arrive on time, and impatiently Burke, Wills, King and Gray set out for the Gulf of Carpentaria, 500 miles distant. They stood watching the sea lap the shores of the Gulf in February, 1861.
Meanwhile the second party waited the return of the four men. They were under instructions from Burke that if, at the end of three months he and his three comrades had not returned, they were to be given up as lost and the second party was to hasten back to civilisation.
For four and a half months they waited, then, with summer cracking the parched earth, they set out for the south. Burke’s return journey was baulked with disaster from the outset. Burke discovered Gray mixing some flour behind a bush. The leader accused his comrade of stealing portions of the rations and gave him a trouncing from which the unfortunate Gray never recovered. He died 10 days later, and the three remaining men spent a day burying him. They reached Cooper’s Creek exactly 24 hours after the other half of the expedition had set out on the return journey. Instead of hurrying after them Burke again showed his bad leadership by digging for the rations the party had left behind and sitting down to a good meal — the first for weeks.
But then the leader made his final and fatal error. Wills and King wanted to hurry after the retreating party; but with all the independence that was typical of him, Burke decided on striking south-west toward Mount Hopeless, across country of which neither he nor his comrades knew the slightest thing. Why Wills and King fell in with his wishes nobody will ever understand.
On the three unfortunate men blundered, leaving absolutely no conspicuous marks, such as a blazed tree by which their tracks might be followed. Meanwhile the second half of the party returned to Cooper’s Creek, but seeing no sign of the three men, turned south again. The tragedy of the whole thing was that, when they reached Mount Hopeless, Wills undertook to return alone to Cooper’s Creek just in case the remainder of the party had returned. In four days he made it; but failed to find a trace of the party’s recent visit. What a chapter of tragedies the inexperience of the whole of the expedition caused. Had either Burke, or the members of the supporting party left the mark of an axe, the lives of the three men might have been saved.
For a few days the natives helped the three men; when they made for the bush, leaving Burke, Wills and King without one chance in a thousand of ever reaching civilisation. Wills was the first to go under. Hungry, thirsty and footsore, he knew that he had walked his last step when he asked his comrades to build a bough shed for him and leave him enough nardoo seed to last eight days. When they left him all three men knew that it was for the last time.
Two days later Burke collapsed. King waited a day with him, then the leader made another valiant effort. It was short-lived, however, and Burke begged King to give him a revolver and leave him where he lay. All that night King waited by the dying Burke, and the next morning he reclaimed the revolver. Nature had saved Robert Burke the necessity for using it.
When Howitt arrived with a relief party months later, he found King still living with a tribe of blacks who had succored him, and with whom he was something of a chief. The news of the calamity which overtook the Burke and Wills expedition created a profound sensation.
It was also proven beyond doubt that Burke had assaulted Wills, striking him several blows and knocking him down, and this was one of the few facts on which King refused to talk. The story drifted down from different aboriginals who had witnessed the incident.
But these trivialities are forgotten now in the memory of the courage and tragedy that surrounded the men’s names. In Melbourne to-day stand statues erected at the public expense, after the two men had been given a public burial — sufficient if silent testimony to what Melbourne thought of the tragic expedition of 1860.
The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 25 April 1937, p. 11
Also published in:
The Gippsland Times (Sale, Vic.), 27 May 1937, p. 5
In this article the newspaper capitalized some selected phrases and utilized them as sub-headings, as well as putting some paragraphs in bold; however, here, all of the main body of text has been treated as standard text.
aboriginal = an alternative to “aborigine” (when referring to a person as “an aboriginal”; in modern times, this is usually expressed as “an aborigine”)
corpuscle = a living cell, especially a red or white blood cell (or a lymph or pus cell); an extremely small or minute particle which is suspended or freely floating in a fluid; a minute particle, such as an atom, electron, ion, molecule, or photon [in this article, it is being used as a metaphor]
cum = combined with; commonly used to associate two or more nouns, especially regarding the functions or roles of someone or something, with the nouns sometimes being hyphenated (e.g. a bodyguard cum chauffeur; an editor cum journalist cum printer; sunroom cum study; Albert Park-cum-North Melbourne)
Eyre = Edward John Eyre (1815-1901), an explorer and colonial administrator; he was born in Whipsnade (Bedfordshire, England) in 1815, migrated to Australia in 1833, moved to England in 1845, became a colonial administrator in New Zealand, then Jamaica, and died in Whitchurch (Devon, England) in 1901
See: 1) Geoffrey Dutton, “Eyre, Edward John (1815–1901)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography
2) “Edward John Eyre”, Wikipedia
gabbering = to “gabber”: to talk in an excited and fast manner; to talk a lot, to talk continuously (especially to talk a lot about things which are of little or no importance)
Howitt = Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908), explorer and natural scientist; the leader of a rescue party in search of the Burke and Wills expedition; he was born in 1830 in Nottingham (England) in 1830, and died in Bairnsdale (Vic.) in 1908
See: 1) W. E. H. Stanner, “Howitt, Alfred William (1830–1908)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography
2) “Alfred William Howitt”, Wikipedia
Leichhardt = Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt (1813-1848), an explorer; he was born in Prussia in 1813, and is believed to have died in 1848 whilst on an exploration expedition in southern Queensland
See: 1) Renee Erdos, “Leichhardt, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig (1813–1848)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography
2) “Ludwig Leichhardt”, Wikipedia
McIntyre = Duncan McIntyre (1831-1866), pastoralist and explorer; he was born in Argyll (Scotland) in 1831, migrated to Australia with his uncle’s family in 1839, and died in 1866 at a base camp on the Gilliat River (Queensland) whilst on an expedition
See: 1) H. J. Gibbney, “McIntyre, Duncan (1831–1866)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography
2) “Duncan McIntyre (explorer)”, Wikipedia
moons = months (e.g. “many moons ago” means “many months ago”); derived from the passing of Earth’s moon through its different phases approximately once per calendar month (although the phases of the moon do not always fit in exactly with the span of a month, with some months having two full moons)
nardoo = Australian clover fern (Marsilea drummondii)
odd = about, approximate, in the region of (when referring to an approximate number or quantity, especially when referring to a number composed of units of ten, e.g. 40 odd years of age, 70-odd years ago); similar to a “ballpark figure”
shilling = a coin equivalent to twelve pence (a shilling was colloquially known as a “bob”); a shilling was a unit of British-style currency used in Australia, until the decimalisation of the currency in 1966 (the decimal monetary equivalent of a shilling was ten cents)
Stuart = John McDouall Stuart (1815-1866), an Australian explorer; he was born in Scotland in 1815, migrated to Australia in 1839, went on several expeditions of exploration, subsequently became poor in health and virtually blind, and (after going to Britain to visit family in 1864) died in London (England) in 1866
See: 1) Deirdre Morris, “Stuart, John McDouall (1815–1866)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography
2) “John McDouall Stuart”, Wikipedia
Sturt = Charles Sturt (1795-1869), soldier, and explorer; he was born in Bengal (in British India), to British parents, was educated in England, joined the British Army, came to Australia in 1827 with a detachment of the 39th regiment, explored parts of Australia, moved to England in 1853, and died in Cheltenham (Gloucestershire, England) in 1869
See: 1) H. J. Gibbney, “Sturt, Charles (1795–1869)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography
2) “Charles Sturt”, Wikipedia
3) “Death of Captain Sturt, the explorer”, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 21 August 1869, p. 7
succored = (also spelt “succoured”) past tense of “succor”: assistance, help, or support, particularly in a time of distress or difficulty (also spelt “succour”)
veriest = (archaic) the highest amount of, the highest degree of, the most complete, uttermost; used as an intensifier of “very”, to amplify or emphasise an attribute or description (e.g. the veriest humbug, the veriest nonsense, the veriest rogue)
Wentworth = William Charles Wentworth (1790-1872), an Australian explorer, lawyer, poet, and politician
See: 1) Michael Persse, “Wentworth, William Charles (1790–1872)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography
2) “William Wentworth”, Wikipedia
[Editor: Changed “Their was the best” to “Theirs was the best”.]