Robert O'Hara Burke

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Burke, Robert O'Hara, Australian explorer, was born at St. Clerans, near Galway, in 1821. He commenced his career as a cadet at Woolwich, studied in Belgium, and entered the Austrian service. In 1848 he returned home, and received an appointment in the Irish Constabulary. In 1853 he emigrated to Australia, where he obtained the post of Inspector of the Melbourne Police. He visited Europe with the hope of taking part in the Russian war, but arrived too late. In 1858 he was appointed to command the expedition fitted out to explore the centre of the Australian continent, which started from Melbourne on 20th August 1860. It was completely equipped, and supplied with camels and everything that foresight could suggest. On 5th December the party reached Cooper's Creek (800 miles north), then far beyond the bounds of civilization. Here it had been arranged to form a depot. Although the main portion of the stores had not arrived, Burke decided on making the attempt to cross the continent without delay. With Mr. Wills, his second in command, two men, one horse, and six camels, he started on the 13th December, leaving a small party behind, with verbal instructions that they would be back in about three months. Mr. Burke's small party crossed the continent, and reached tide-water of the Gulf of Carpentaria, about 750 miles from Cooper's Creek, on 10th February 1861.

After three days delay they started to return; their provisions soon ran short, and they were rapidly overcome with the fatigue of travelling in the wet season: one of the party died of exhaustion. Completely worn out, they with great difficulty reached Cooper's Creek on the 21st April 1861. It was deserted. Examination showed that the depot party had left that very morning. For the next two months Burke, Wills, and their companion, King, wandered about in vain efforts to gather strength enough to reach a white settlement. A relief party reached Cooper's Creek during one of their temporary absences, but returned without being aware of their being in the neighbourhood. When provisions had entirely run out, they lived on the bounty of the natives, who supplied them with fish and the seeds of a plant called nardoo — diet sufficient for the aborigines, but inadequate to sustain life in Europeans. They bore up with fortitude, and met the sure approach of death with calmness — taking every possible precaution to preserve their journals. Wills died on 30th June, having kept up the entries in his diary until two days previously. Burke survived until next day, 1st July 1861. King, left alone, lived on among the natives, and was rescued by Mr. Howitt's exploring party on the 15th September. Mr. Howitt buried the remains of Burke and Wills where they perished, Lat. 28o 20' S., Long. 141o E. They were eventually brought down to Melbourne, and there interred, a monument being erected to their memory in one of the principal streets of the city. The report of the Royal Commission upon the failure of the expedition, was a virtual censure upon Mr. Burke's judgment in its conduct.

Sources

62. Burke, Robert O'Hara, and the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860: Andrew Jackson. London, 1862.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

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