- Biography of Robert O'Hara Burke
Courtesy of the Australian Dictionary of Biography:
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.
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.
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.