Robert O’Hara Burke was born in 1821 to a wealthy family in the west of Ireland. He left the family home of St Cleran’s, Co. Galway for a career in the military. Schooled in Belgium and signed up to the Austrian service, O’Hara Burke would only spend a few years in Ireland where he worked in the Irish Constabulary. It was in Australia that he found both his fame and his demise.
O’Hara Burke made the journey to Australia in 1853. His experience in the Austrian army and the Irish Constabulary helped him to land a job as a high ranking official in the Melbourne police force. During the 1850’s, there was a desire to learn more about the centre of the vast country of Australia. In order to discover what the heart of Australia had to offer, an expedition was commissioned by the Royal Society of Victoria to traverse the country from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria on the northern coast and back again. O’Hara Burke, along with William John Wills, was the leader of a troop of 19 men, 27 camels, and 23 horses who left Melbourne on the 20th of August, 1860. This would become known as the Burke-Wills Expedition.
The expedition left to great fanfare, with roughly 15,000 onlookers gathering to give the men an uplifting send off. However, things would not remain so bright and cheery for the ill-fated explorers. One of the first issues arose as a result of an overburdening of the wagons. The men brought an excessive amount of supplies, with enough food to last them two years. They also brought large amounts of furniture. It wasn’t long before they began to run into logistical issues as the wagons, struggling to carry their loads, broke down one by one. Learning from this mistake, O’Hara Burke ordered the men to lighten their personal luggage significantly. They also left large amounts of supplies at their first few stopping points, and started to travel by foot so as to lessen the burden on the horses. Realising that the wagons were not suited to the poor roads and weather conditions, O’Hara Burke began to utilise the camels to carry their provisions. The expedition was plagued by bad luck and bickering. Many of the men resigned in the early stages of the journey due to arguments with their leaders. Within the first two months of the mission, several members had resigned or been fired with only a fraction of them being replaced. The expedition was moving at an extremely slow pace, taking significantly longer that even the mail coach to cover relatively short distances. In July 1859, the government announced that it would pay a reward of £2,000 to whomever could successfully reach the north coast first. This prompted a race for the coast as O’Hara Burke feared that another explorer, a man named John MacDouall Stuart might get there before him. At last O’Hara Burke was picking up the pace. In his haste, he split the remaining men into two groups, taking the fastest horses and fittest men ahead to Cooper Creek where they would wait for the rest of the team. This was the furthest outpost of European exploration in the Australian outback. They set up camp here and it was believed that the team would wait out the hot summer months before continuing on the journey. However, O’Hara Burke’s impatience was clouding his judgement. He split the group again to make a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria in the blistering summer heat. Taking three men with him, O’Hara Burke ordered the rest of the team to wait for three months for their return. He was grossly underestimating both the extreme weather that they would have to endure and the desert landscape that they would have to traverse in such a short period of time.
On the 9th of February 1861, O’Hara Burke and his greatly diminished team reached a mangrove swamp on the Flinders river. The tried and failed to cross it on foot, so although they reached the northern coast, they never managed to lay eyes on the open ocean. It was on the return journey that they would run into serious trouble. The men now found themselves travelling in the rainy season. This presented its own set of problems, but matters were worsened by an increasing shortage of food. The men were starving and were forced to shoot and eat their camels and their only horse. Supplementing their diets with wild plants and bushmeat, the team wound up suffering from dysentery. One of the men, Charles Gray would die of the disease, a loss which wound up costing more than just one life. The men stopped for a day to bury Gray. This delay meant that when they finally made their way back to Cooper Creek on the 21st of April 1861, they were too late. Believing the men to be dead, the rest of the team had just left, mere hours earlier, taking the supplies with them. They had waited for 18 weeks and were at risk of running out of food if they stayed any longer.
O’Hara Burke and his two remaining colleagues spent the next two months making small journeys from their base at Cooper Creek. They were desperately searching for outposts of western settlement. The Aboriginal people fed the men, but their diet was not one to which the western men were accustomed and they began to slowly starve to death. O’Hara Burke died of starvation on the 1st of July 1861. Wills also died, leaving only one member of the team alive. This man, John King, was aided by the Aboriginal people for whom he shot birds in return. He was eventually found by a rescue expedition on the 14th of September 1861. The rescue team buried O’Hara Burke and Wills where they lay. Two years later their remains were exhumed and reburied in Melbourne where they were given a State funeral.
The Burke-Wills Expedition was plagued by bad luck and poor judgement from day one. Perhaps with a little more foresight and less in-fighting, the men may have safely made their way home to Melbourne, arriving back to a hero’s welcome. Sadly it was not to be.
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Robert O'Hara Burke 1821
This Insight has been produced with support received from the Heritage Council.