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Burke & Wills

Victorian Exploring Expedition

The Burke & Wills expedition was an Australian exploration expedition in 1860–61 led by Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills of 19 men with the objective of crossing Australia from Melbourne in the south, to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of around 3,250 kilometres (approximately 2,000 miles).[1] At that time most of the inland of Australia had not been explored by non-Indigenous people and was largely unknown to the European settlers.

The expedition left Melbourne in winter. Bad weather, poor roads and broken-down wagons meant they made slow progress at first. After dividing the party at Menindee on the Darling River Burke made good progress, reaching Cooper Creek at the beginning of summer. The expedition established a depot camp at the Cooper, and Burke, Wills and two other men pushed on to the north coast (although swampland stopped them from reaching the northern coastline).

The return journey was plagued by delays and monsoon rains, and when they reached the depot at Cooper Creek, they found it had been abandoned just hours earlier. Burke and Wills died on or about 30 June 1861. Several relief expeditions were sent out, all contributing new geographical findings. Altogether, seven men lost their lives, and only one man, the Irish soldier John King crossed the continent with the expedition and returned alive to Melbourne.








Burke and Wills Statue by Charles Summers

usually on the corner of Collins and Swanston Streets, Melbourne

(It is temporarily in storage while major road works are in progress for the new underground railway).



Departure from Melbourne








Monument in Royal Park Melbourne, where the expedition commenced

The expedition set off from Royal Park, Melbourne at about 4 pm on 20 August 1860 watched by around 15,000 spectators. The 19 men of the expedition included six Irishmen, five Englishmen, four Afghan camel drivers, three Germans and an American. They took 23 horses, 6 wagons and 26 camels.

The expedition took a large amount of equipment, including enough food to last two years, a cedar-topped oak camp table with two chairs, rockets, flags and a Chinese gong; the equipment all together weighed as much as 20 tonnes.[11] As committee member Captain Francis Cadell had opposed his appointment as leader of the expedition, Burke refused his offer to transport the supplies to Adelaide by ship and then up the Murray and Darling Rivers to be collected on the way; everything was instead loaded onto six wagons. One wagon broke down before it had even left Royal Park and by midnight of the first day the expedition had reached only Essendon on the edge of Melbourne. At Essendon two more wagons broke down. Heavy rains and bad roads made travelling through Victoria difficult and time-consuming. The party arrived at Lancefield on 23 August and set up their fourth camp. The first day off was taken on Sunday, 26 August at Camp VI in Mia Mia.

The expedition reached Swan Hill on 6 September and arrived in Balranald on 15 September. There, to lighten the load, they left behind their sugar, lime juice and some of their guns and ammunition. At Gambala on 24 September, Burke decided to load some of the provisions onto the camels for the first time, and to lessen the burden on the horses he ordered the men to walk. He also ordered that personal luggage be restricted to 30 lb (14 kg). At Bilbarka on the Darling, Burke and his second-in-command, Landells, argued after Burke decided to dump the 60 gallons (≈270 litres) of rum that Landells had brought to feed to the camels in the belief that it prevented scurvy. At Kinchega on the Darling, Landells resigned from the expedition, followed by the expedition's surgeon, Dr Hermann Beckler. Third-in-command Wills was promoted to second-in-command. They reached Menindee on 12 October having taken two months to travel 750 km (470 mi) from Melbourne—the regular mail coach did the journey in little more than a week. Two of the expedition's five officers had resigned, thirteen members of the expedition had been fired and eight new men had been hired.[8]

In July 1859 the South Australian government offered a reward of £2,000 (about A$289,000 in 2011 dollars) for the first successful south-north crossing of the continent west of the 143rd line of longitude. The experienced explorer John McDouall Stuart had taken up the challenge.[citation needed] Burke was concerned Stuart might beat him to the north coast and he soon grew impatient with their slow progress often averaging only 2 mi (3.2 km) an hour. Burke split the group, taking the strongest horses, seven of the fittest men and a small amount of equipment, with plans to push on quickly to Cooper Creek and then wait for the others to catch up. They left Menindee on 19 October, guided by William Wright who was appointed third-in-command. Travel was relatively easy because recent rain made water abundant, while in unusually mild weather temperatures exceeded 90 °F (32 °C) only twice before the party reached Cooper Creek. At Torowotto Swamp Wright was sent back to Menindee alone to bring up the remainder of the men and supplies and Burke continued on to Cooper Creek.

Cooper Creek


​​In 1860 Cooper Creek was the outer limit of the land that had been explored by Europeans, the river having been visited by Captain Charles Sturt in 1845 and Augustus Charles Gregory in 1858. Burke arrived at the Cooper on 11 November and they formed a depot at Camp LXIII (Camp 63) while they conducted reconnaissance to the north. A plague of rats forced the men to move camp and they formed a second depot further downstream at Bullah Bullah Waterhole. This was Camp LXV (Camp 65) and they erected a stockade and named the place Fort Wills.

It was thought that Burke would wait at Cooper Creek until autumn (March the next year) so that they would avoid having to travel during the hot Australian summer. However, Burke waited only until Sunday, 16 December before deciding to make a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria. He split the group again, leaving William Brahe in charge of the depot, with Dost Mahomet, William Patton and Thomas McDonough. Burke, Wills, John King and Charles Gray set off for the Gulf with six camels, one horse and enough food for just three months. By now it was mid-summer and the daily temperature often reached 122 °F (50 °C) in the shade, and in the Strzelecki and Sturt Stony Deserts there was very little shade to be found. Brahe was ordered by Burke to wait for three months; however, the more conservative Wills had the maps and a more realistic view of the task ahead, and secretly instructed Brahe to wait for four months.



Gulf of Carpentaria

Edward Jukes Greig,

Arrival of Burke & Wills at Flinders River, oil on canvas, 1862

Except for the heat, travel was easy.  As a result of recent rains water was still easy to find and the Aborigines, contrary to expectations, were peaceful. On 9 February 1861 they reached the Little Bynoe River, an arm of the Flinders River delta, where they found they could not reach the ocean because of the mangrove swamps in their way. Burke and Wills left the camels behind with King and Gray at Camp CXIX (Camp 119), and set off through the swamps, although after 24 km (15 mi) they decided to turn back. By this stage, they were desperately short of supplies. They had food left for 27 days, but it had already taken them 59 days to travel from Cooper Creek.


The return journey

On their way north, the weather had been hot and dry, but on the way back the wet season broke and the tropical monsoonal rains began. A camel named Golah Sing was abandoned on 4 March when it was unable to continue. Three other camels were shot and eaten along the way and they shot their only horse, Billy, on 10 April on the Diamantina River, south of what is today the town of Birdsville. Equipment was abandoned at a number of locations as the number of pack animals was reduced. One of these locations, Return Camp 32, was relocated in 1994 and The Burke & Wills Historical Society mounted an expedition to verify the discovery of camel bones in 2005.

To extend their food supply, they ate portulaca. Gray also caught an 11 lb (5.0 kg) Python (probably Aspidites melanocephalus, a black-headed python), which they ate. Both Burke and Gray immediately came down with dysentery. Gray was ill, but Burke thought he was "gammoning" (pretending). On 25 March on the Burke River (just south of what is now the town of Boulia), Gray was caught stealing skilligolee (a type of watery porridge) and Burke beat him. By 8 April Gray could not walk; he died on 17 April of dysentery at a place they called Polygonum Swamp. The location of Gray's death is unknown, although it is generally believed to be Lake Massacre in South Australia. While the possibility that Burke killed Gray has been discounted, the severity of the beating Burke gave has been widely debated. The three surviving men stopped for a day to bury Gray, and to recover their strength—they were by this stage very weak from hunger and exhaustion. They finally reached Cooper Creek on 21 April, only to find that the camp had been abandoned several hours earlier.

Return to Cooper Creek

John Longstaff
Arrival of Burke, Wills & King at the deserted camp at Cooper's Creek

Sunday evening, 21 April 1861, oil on canvas, 1907

Burke had asked Brahe and the depot party to remain at the camp on the Cooper for 13 weeks. The party had actually waited for 18 weeks and was running low on supplies and starting to feel the effects of scurvy; they had come to believe that Burke would never return from the gulf. After one of his men had injured his leg, Brahe decided to return to Menindee, but before leaving buried some provisions in case Burke did return, and blazed (cut or carved) a message on a tree to mark the spot.

Brahe left the depot on Cooper Creek on the morning of Sunday, 21 April 1861. Burke, Wills and King returned that evening. Finding the camp deserted, they dug up the cache of supplies, and a letter explaining that the party had given up waiting and had left. Burke's team had missed them by only nine hours. The three men and two remaining camels were exhausted; they had no hope of catching up to the main party.


They decided to rest and recuperate, living off the supplies left in the cache. Wills and King wanted to follow their outward track back to Menindee, but Burke overruled them and decided to attempt to reach the furthest outpost of pastoral settlement in South Australia, a cattle station near Mount Hopeless. This would mean travelling southwest through the desert for 240 kilometres (150 mi). They wrote a letter explaining their intentions and reburied it in the cache under the marked tree in case a rescue party visited the area. Unfortunately, they did not change the mark on the tree or alter the date. On 23 April they set off, following the Cooper downstream and then heading out into the Strzelecki Desert towards Mount Hopeless.

Meanwhile, while returning to Menindee, Brahe had met with Wright trying to reach the Cooper with the supplies. The two men decided to go back to Cooper Creek to see if Burke had returned. When they arrived on Sunday, 8 May, Burke had already left for Mount Hopeless, and the camp was again deserted. Burke and Wills were 35 miles (56 km) away by this point. As the mark and date on the tree were unaltered, Brahe and Wright assumed that Burke had not returned, and did not think to check whether the supplies were still buried. They left to rejoin the main party.

The Dig Tree




The Dig Tree on Cooper Creek

The camp blaze, B LXV on the Dig Tree

The tree (27.623902°S 141.075784°E) at the depot camp that Brahe blazed to mark the location of the buried supplies on the banks of Bullah Bullah Waterhole on Cooper Creek is a coolibah (estimated to be around 250 years old. Initially the tree was known as "Brahe's Tree" or the "Depot Tree" and the tree under which Burke died attracted most attention and interest. As a result of the blaze on the tree and the subsequent popularity of the book Dig written in 1935 by Frank Clune, the tree became known as the "Dig Tree". There are three separate blazes on the tree; the camp number, a date blaze and the instruction to dig. Two of the blazes have grown closed and only the camp number blaze remains visible today.

The date blaze indicated the date of arrival and the date of departure "DEC-6-60" carved over "APR-21-61". The camp number blaze shows the initial "B" (for Burke) carved over the Roman numerals for (camp) 65; "B" over "LXV". The exact "DIG" inscription that Brahe carved is not known. It is variously recalled to be "DIG under" or "DIG 3 FT N.W." or "DIG 40 FT N.E." or "DIG 21 APR 61" or a combination of these.

In 1899 John Dick carved a likeness of Burke's face in a nearby tree along with his initials, his wife's initials and the date.



Burke, Wills & King alone at Cooper Creek

After leaving the Dig Tree they rarely travelled more than 5 mi (8.0 km) a day. One of the two remaining camels, Landa, became bogged in Minkie Waterhole and the other, Rajah was shot when he could travel no further. Without pack animals, Burke, Wills and King were unable to carry enough water to leave Cooper Creek and cross the Strzelecki Desert to Mount Hopeless, and so the three men were unable to leave the creek. Their supplies were running low and they were malnourished and exhausted. The Cooper Creek Aborigines, the Yandruwandha people, gave them fish, beans called padlu and a type of damper made from the ground sporocarps of the ngardu (nardoo) plant (Marsilea drummondii) in exchange for sugar.

At the end of May 1861, Wills returned to the Dig Tree to put his diary, notebook and journals in the cache for safekeeping. Burke bitterly criticised Brahe in his journal for not leaving behind any supplies or animals. While Wills was away from camp, Burke foolishly shot his pistol at one of the Aborigines, causing the whole group to flee. Within a month of the Aborigines' departure, Burke and Wills both perished.



Artur Loureiro, Death of Burke, oil on canvas, 1892

Towards the end of June 1861 as the three men were following the Cooper upstream to find the Yandruwandha campsite, Wills became too weak to continue. He was left behind at his own insistence at Breerily Waterhole with some food, water and shelter. Burke and King continued upstream for another two days until Burke became too weak to continue. The next morning Burke died. King stayed with his body for two days and then returned downstream to Breerily Waterhole, where he found that Wills had died as well.

The exact dates on which Burke & Wills died are unknown and different dates are given on various memorials in Victoria. The Exploration Committee fixed 28 June 1861 as the date both explorers died. King found a group of Yandruwandha willing to give him food and shelter and in return he shot birds to contribute to their supplies.



Rescue Expeditions

In all, six expeditions were sent to search for Burke &  Wills, two commissioned by the Exploration Committee, three by the and one by the Government of South Australia. Two went by sea in order to search the Gulf of Carpentaria for the missing expedition while the others began their search from different directions.

Victorian Relief Expedition

After six months without receiving word from the Burke expedition, the media began questioning its whereabouts. Public pressure for answers increased and on 13 June 1861, the Exploration Committee agreed to send a search party to find the Burke and Wills expedition and, if necessary, offer them support. The Victorian Relief Expedition[16] left Melbourne on 26 June 1861 under the leadership of Alfred William Howitt. At the Loddon River Howitt met Brahe, who was returning from Cooper Creek. As Brahe did not have knowledge of Burke's whereabouts, Howitt decided a much larger expedition would be required to find the missing party. Leaving three of his men at the river, Howitt returned to Melbourne with Brahe to update the Exploration Committee. On 30 June the expanded expedition left to follow Burke’s trail. On 3 September the party reached Cooper Creek, on 11 September the Dig Tree, and four days later Edwin Welch found King[17] living with the Yandruwandha. Over the next nine days Howitt found the remains of Burke and Wills and buried them. In pitiful condition, King survived the two-month trip back to Melbourne, and died eleven years later, aged 33, never having recovered his health. He is buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery.

HMCSS Victoria

On 4 August 1861, the HMCSS Victoria under the Command of William Henry Norman sailed from Hobson's Bay in Victoria with orders to search the Gulf of Carpentaria. Arriving in Brisbane on 24 August, the Queensland Relief Expedition boarded. The Victoria arrived at the Albert River in the Gulf at the end of September 1861. After finding traces of the explorers, the Queensland Relief Expedition disembarked and the vessel returned to Melbourne.

Queensland Relief Expedition

After disembarking from the Victoria in November, the Queensland Relief Expedition under the leadership of William Landsborough searched the gulf coast for the missing expedition. Later it turned south and continued until it arrived in Melbourne in October 1862. Having crossed Australia from north to south, the expedition was awarded the £2000 prize for the first successful crossing of the continent.

Victorian Relief Expedition

Hodgkinson briefly joined the Burke and Wills expedition at Swan Hill, and was a member of two relief expeditions. Bulla depicts the Victorian Relief Expedition in armed conflict with Bulloo Aborigines.

Frederick Walker led the Victorian Relief Expedition. The party, consisting of twelve mounted men, seven of them ex-troopers from the Native Police Corps, started from Rockhampton on 7 September 1861 with the goal of reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria. They found traces of Burke and followed them to Burke’s northernmost Camp but lost the trail from there. On 4 December they came across a group of Aborigines, killing 12 in the fight that ensued. On 7 December, Walker met up with the HMVS Victoria in the Gulf. Walker’s party went on to explore much of the Gulf region.

South Australian Burke Relief Expedition

The South Australian House of Assembly chose John McKinlay to lead the South Australian relief expedition that left Adelaide on 16 August 1861.[18][19] On 20 October the grave of a European, thought to be Charles Gray, was found at Polygonum Swamp near Cooper Creek. Finding another grave nearby, McKinlay assumed that the Burke expedition had been killed there and named the site Massacre Lake. Learning that Howitt had found the remains of Burke and Wills, McKinlay decided to search in the direction of Central Mount Stuart but was driven back by heavy rains and floods. McKinlay then made for the Gulf of Carpentaria, hoping to find the HMVS Victoria still there. By 20 May 1862, McKinlay was around five miles (8 km) from the shore of the Gulf, but the intervening country was found to be impassable and he decided to turn east and make for Port Denison on the north Queensland coast. On 2 August 1862, McKinlay reached a station on the Bowen River near Port Denison and after resting a few days the expedition reached Port Denison. The party then returned by sea to Adelaide. McKinlay received a grant of £1000 from the government and a gold watch from the Royal Geographical Society of England.

Victorian Exploration Party

The Victorian Exploration Party was the second expedition under the guidance of Alfred Howitt and was tasked with returning Burke and Wills' remains to Melbourne. On 9 December 1861 Howitt left Melbourne for Cooper Creek. After a long stay in Menindee and again at Mount Murchison the party arrived at Cooper Creek on 25 February 1862, camping at Cullyamurra waterhole. From there Howitt undertook numerous exploratory trips into the surrounding area. On 13 April 1862, Burke's and Wills' remains were exhumed.

For the next six months Howitt explored the Australian interior before deciding in November to return to the settled areas. On 8 December the party arrived in Clare, South Australia. Howitt and the expedition's doctor continued on to Adelaide while the rest of the expedition members followed three days later by train. Burke's and Wills' remains were then taken to Melbourne, arriving on 29 December 1862.

Presentation to the Yandruwandha

Breastplates were issued to Aboriginal people between 1815 and 1946 for faithful service, for saving the lives of non-Indigenous people and to recognise stockmen and trackers. On this trip to exhume Burke and Wills' remains, Howitt presented three breastplates commissioned by the Victorian Exploration Committee to the Yandruwandha people in appreciation of the assistance they had given to Burke, Wills and King. One of these plates is in the collection of the National Museum of Australia. The inscription on the plate states that it was presented "for the Humanity shown to the Explorers Burke, Wills and King 1861".

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