Monday 28 January 2013

The Burke and Wills Expedition

In the previous post Mali mentioned that there was a link between our group of botanical artists and the Burke and Wills Expedition. (Actually, although this name has gone deep into Australian folk lore, it was officically called the ‘Victorian Exploring Expedition’.) To explain the link, firstly I need to explain the expedition.
The intention of the expedition was to find an inland route from the more settled southern areas of Australia to the northern coast, the Gulf of Carpentaria. It was organised by the Royal Society of Victoria in Melbourne, which, after much discussion, chose Robert O’Hara Burke as the leader of the expedition — a strange choice, as Burke had no experience with expeditions or the Australian interior.

Memorial in Royal Park, Melbourne

They set off on 20th August 1860, with 18 men, 25 camels, 22 horses and 6 wagons carrying 21 tonnes of equipment. This included a cedar camp table and chairs and a Chinese gong! They left Royal Park in Melbourne but only made a few miles before nightfall. The first stopping place was Essendon, in what is now Queens Park.
Camel sculpture in Queens Park, Essendon
They reached Menindee, via Swan Hill, on 12th October. It had taken two months to travel 750 km – the regular mail coach did the journey in little more than a week. There had been arguments and disputes for much of that journey. In Menindee James Landells, who was both second in  charge and the cameleer, resigned. William Wills was promoted to his position. Hermann Beckler, the surgeon, also resigned. (Remember Beckler, as he is the link to our botanic project.)
Plaque at the site
The camp site at Pamamaroo Creek

As the plaque says, at this point Burke decided to split the party, taking a smaller group ahead to Cooper Creek. The intention was that the others bring up the supplies from Menindee to Cooper Creek. Burke and his group arrived there on 11th November.

They thought they would stay there until the end of summer and avoid travelling in the heat. However Burke wanted to make a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria. Burke, Wills, John King and Charles Gray set off for the Gulf on 16th December, with six camels, one horse and enough food for just three months. The men left at Cooper Creek were instructed to wait for 4 months.
After 59 days they reached the Gulf — well almost. The mangroves were so thick that Burke and Wills turned back to rejoin Grey and King about 5 km away from the coast. They had food for 29 days and had to endure monsoonal rains on the return journey. They shot and ate the camels. On April 17th Grey died.
Meanwhile, back at Cooper Creek, the party had waited for Burke’s return. They were low on food and, thinking that Burke and the others must have perished, decided to return to Menindee. They buried provisions, marked the tree and left in the morning of Sunday 21 April. Burke, Wills and King staggered into the camp THAT EVENING, missing the others by 9 hours. They realised that they didn’t have the strength to follow to Menindee and Burke decided that they would head south-west, to South Australia. 

They left a letter at the same tree, telling of their intentions. However, they didn’t alter the date marked on the tree. That tree became famously known as the Dig Tree. 

The Dig Tree today (Photo copyright: Beverley Wood, Sept. 2012)

Two men from the main party did return. They found the camp deserted, the tree markings the same, and assumed that Burke had not been there. They left, with Burke and the other two men only about 30 miles away.
Over the next few months Wills, and later Burke, died. King survived with the help of a local Aboriginal tribe and was found by one of the rescue expeditions that was mounted.
So that is the broad bones of the story. If you are interested in finding out more, the Burke and Wills Historical Society has a page of links to other information. There are many interesting books written about the expedition, with some of them listed here.
As mentioned before, our link is with Hermann Beckler, who was still in Menindee. More of him next time.


  1. Thanks for your blog posts on the Burke and Willis expedition. Actually, here in Europe, almost nobody knows about Burke and Willis. The only thing, most people know about the discovery of Australia, are Cook and probably Tasman. We try to change this also with the help of our daily 'History of Science, Technology, and Arts' blog, where we dedicate some of the daily articles to adventurous men (and women) of discovery, such as e.g. also to Burke and Willis. If you are interested, you might like to read yesterday's article on the anniversary of their expedition here:

    Thanks again and Best regards,

  2. Harald, thanks for your comments -- and for the link to your blog. The story of the Expedition is a fascinating one. However, even in Australia people usually only know the tragic deaths of Burke and Wills. those of us involved in this botanic art project are delighted to be able to spread the word about the journey.


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