A rough summary of Burke & Wills

Tuesday, Jun 30, 2015 at 10:00

Member - Tony&Jac

Burke was an explorer in the early days of Australia.

He tried to cross the continent from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpenteria, and back again in 1860. He died on the return journey.


At this time, a lot of the states had not yet been formed and there was a land grab going on.

In those days people lived along the coast and no-one had a clear idea of what was in the middle of the continent.

There was talk about creating a telegraph line from the top of Australia to the bottom. Someone in South Australia decided to offer a significant financial reward to the first person to cross the country (Rather than do the research to figure out the best path themselves).

Burke and Stuart lead separate expeditions at around the same time. Stuart was from SA, whilst Burke was from VIC. They were in competition with each other to win the fame, glory and money of being the first person to make the crossing.

Burkes primary motivation for leading this expedition appear to be to win the love of a famous actress he was besotted with, and winning the approval of her mother.

He apparently had no knowledge or experience in running expeditions or on surviving in the outback. From all accounts he couldn't even find his way home from the pub after a few drinks.

At that time Victoria had not existed for long. It had just gone through the gold rush and was one of the wealthiest places in the British empire. It now wanted to prove itself as an important state capable of great achievements. Men of wealth and status used to meet at the Royal Society to discus these issues. Unfortunately there were 2 factions in this society. Both put forward highly eligible candidates to lead the expedition. However, neither faction was willing to back the others candidate. Consequently they tried to find a neutral candidate, but none of the applicants fitted the criteria. Burke was a charismatic man with a history in leadership, and was chosen as the best of a bad bunch.

The Expedition

Burkes ignorance of expeditions is highlighted in his insistence of taking a bath and a wooden table and chairs with him. Then when it became clear his party was overloaded, he got rid of the lemon juice (which was there to prevent scurvy.) and told all the men they had to reduce their luggage to 15 kg, but kept his bath, tables and chairs.

Burke became frustrated by the fact the wagons of gear could not keep up with the riders at the front. This lead to him leaving most of the expeditions men and supplies at Menindee, whilst taking the most capable men and animals in a forward party.

Unfortunate he didn't leave enough animals for the the rear party to continue moving. Neither did he leave any clear instructions on how they were to proceed or who their new leader was.

Wills was 22 when he joined the expedition as the surveyor. He was able to keep track of where they were by measuring the longitude and latitude. He also kept detailed records of their progress, something Burke failed to do. Burke found him so useful he promoted him to 2nd in command.

When the forward party reached the cooper creek in central Australia it was early summer. Everyone expected him to wait for 3 months until the desert heat had subsided. However Burke didn't want to risk Stuart beating him.

The return journey from central Australia to the northern coast should have taken about 6 months. However Burke decided to do a mad rush with only 3 other men (in their late teens and early 20's) and 3 months supplies. Telling the others to leave if he was not back after 3 months.

On the journey north, they regularly walked 30 miles a day without any rest days in the searing summer heat. This pace took it's toll on both the men and the animals. By the time they reached the North coast some of the animals were starting to collapse. Instead of giving them time to recuperate or regarding the camels as food for the journey back, Burke initially let some of them go.

On the return journey the men were exhausted, and only eating half rations as they were running out of food. They were in such bad condition one of the men, Gray, died. When they were at the point of starvation they started eating the remaining camels.

They got back to the Cooper creek 4 months and 1 week after leaving.

Unfortunately the party that had been waiting for them were suffering from scurvy and happened to leave that very morning.Well after the 3 months Burke specified. When Burke and Wills got back to camp the fires were still warm.

Burke, Wills and King were too exhausted to try and catch up with the party that had recently left, so they stayed at the Cooper creek camp for a couple of days to recuperate. Eating the limited supplies left for them under the dig tree.

Wills and King wanted to head back towards Melbourne in the hope of catching up with the rest of the group or being rescued. Burke insisted on going South to a homestead hundreds of kilometres away.

They followed the Cooper creek South, but their meagre supplies didn't last long. They met an Aboriginal tribe and after being given a lot of fish they ended up trading their fishing gear with them for more fish.

Despite watching the tribe gather and prepare bush tucker for weeks, they did not learn how to do this for themselves. Burke & Wills died from starvation near the river bank after the tribe had moved on.

When the Aboriginal tribe found out what had happened they took King under their wing.


About 6 of the 20 or so people on Burkes expedition died.

Around 4 search parties went out to retrieve the bodies of Burke and Wills. Most were farmers from Queensland, who understood the land.

None of these parties lost a single man. Their reports lead to other farmers settling in the outback.

This lead to an unofficial expansion of Queensland's boarders, which later became official. Much to the dismay of VIC and SA. That's why the QLD western boarder does not follow the straight line up from VIC & NSW.

King returned to Melbourne with a rescue party, a broken man. Leaving behind his pregnant Aboriginal partner.

Jacqui Fussell

Also see the exploroz Explorers article http://www.exploroz.com/Australiana/Explorers.aspx
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