Thursday, July 16, 2020

AUSTRALIA is one of our new continents. In 1860, its government sponsored a challenge to cross the country’s interior from south to north, a distance of about 2,500 miles. The prize for the first group to complete the journey was £2,000.

The governments of Victoria’s group, known as the Burke and Wills expedition, led by Galway-born Robert O’Hara Burke, also included five other Irishmen. Burke had served in the Austrian army from 1841 to 1848. He retired on health grounds, returned to Ireland and joined the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). He did his cadet training in the Phoenix Park depot. On completion, he was promoted to sub-inspector third class and stationed in Kildare, before being transferring at the end of 1850 to the mounted police in Dublin.

Still restless, Burke resigned and emigrated to Australia in 1853, landing in Hobart, Tasmania before moving to Melbourne. He joined the newly-formed Victoria Police Force on 1 April 1853, working as acting inspector before serving as a magistrate police inspector and eventually as inspector of the Ovens district.

Burke was elected leader of the Victoria Society’s expedition by ten votes to five at a meeting on 20 June 1860. Officers and members were quickly put together. The second-in-command would be William George Landells, but he resigned early and was replaced by John Wills, an English surveyor. He was born in Totnes, Devon on 28 June 1861. Dr Ludwig Phillip Heinrich, born in Offenbach, Germany on 5 September 1808, was the medical provider, along with another German, Dr Hermann Beckler. In all, there were six Irish, five British, four Afghan camel drivers, three Germans and an American.

William Wright was the final senior member of the expedition. He lived in Adelaide with his wife and children. The other members, some of whom were only a day or two with the group, were American Charles David Ferguson (born Ohio 1832); Irishman Owen Cowan (no further information available), who was the first name on Burke’s list but was dismissed on the day the expedition began; William Brahe, born in Paderborn, Germany on 16 January 1835; Henry Creeber (born Liverpool 1834); another Englishman, Robert Fletcher, was also dismissed on the day the operation began for being drunk, while Creber was another who was hired and then sacked on 19 August following the disagreement between Landells and Fletcher over the latter’s drinking. Thomas McDonough was another Galway man with the expedition. William Patten was a blacksmith from County Down. Patrick Langat was also Irish and would prove useful as a cook and butcher for the period he spent with the team. The final Irishman was John King from Moy, County Tyrone. He was born on 15 December 1838. A team of replacements was also selected, many of whom would be used during the expedition.

The journey began from the Royal Park Melbourne at 4pm on 20 August 1860 observed by a crowd of over 15,000. They brought with them 20 tons of supplies: 23 horses, six wagons and 26 camels, enough food to last two years, a cedar-topped oak camp table, two chairs, a Chinese gong, rockets and flags.

Burke’s troubles started even before the expedition began. He was at loggerheads with committee member Captain Francis Cadell, who had vehemently opposed his appointment due to Burke’s lack of experience. However, he did offer to transport the supplies by ship to Adelaide, then up the Murray and Darling rivers, where they could have been collected. Remember, this was not a contest to find who could carry the most supplies, but to geographically map the country from the southern tip to the northern end, which would then allow other explorers to chart the best route across the continent.

Burke refused the offer. Instead, he loaded everything onto the six wagons, one of which broke down before it left Royal Park. The convoy only reached Essendon, on the outskirts of Melbourne, at midnight, where two other wagons needed attention. Heavy rain and bad roads made travel through Victoria almost impossible, yet by 23 August they somehow managed to reach Lancefield, some 57 miles from Melbourne. They set up their fourth camp there (each night’s camp was given a number). They moved on to Mia Mia, just 17 miles further, arriving on 26 August, when they took their first day off.

They reached Balranald in New South Wales on 15 September. By now, disharmony was becoming an issue, caused mainly by the slow progress, and it was clear that Burke had to take action to speed things up. He left behind all their sugar and lime juice, along with some arms and ammunition at Bilbarka on the Darling river. He also decided to spread the load, using the camels to carry some of the supplies. He cut personal luggage to 30lbs a man and argued with Landells when the latter objected to the spilling of 60 gallons of rum that was brought to prevent the Camels from getting scurvy. Throughout the trip along the Darling, the discontent mounted. Eventually, Landells resigned at Kinchega National Park, closely followed by the medical officer, Dr Beckler. They reached Menindee, still in NSW, on 12 October, just 470 miles from Melbourne. Besides the two officers who had resigned, 13 others had also left. They were replaced by eight newcomers.

The news that the experienced John McDouall was back in the race (he had been further north than any other explorer) raised panic in Burke’s mind. At this stage, they were barely making two miles a day, so he decided to split the group, taking the seven fittest men, the fastest horses and only a small amount of equipment in an effort to reach Cooper Creek, as far north as any other group had been.

William Wright, who was now third in command, found the October going reasonably easy and the group made good time. Only two other expeditions had been this far – Charles Strut in 1845 and Augustus Gregory in 1858. When Burke reached Torowotto Swamp, he sent Wright back to Menindee to bring up the remainder of the group and the supplies, while he rode on to Cooper Creek.

It was 11 November 1860 when Burke reached his target and set up camp, while a reconnaissance patrol had discovered a plague of rats, which forced them downstream to a waterhole, which became Bullah Bullah. They built a stockade, which was named Fort Wills.

It was thought that to avoid the heat of high summer, Burke would not advance again until the autumn (March). But on Sunday 16 December, he again split the group in order to make a mad dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria, a narrow bay-like sea which, if you push to the right and up, the jut of land that divides the gulf from Cape York Peninsula, you will come to the northern boundary of Australia as it joins the Torres Strait. This, in turn, is part of the Arafura Sea, which divides Australia and Papua New Guinea. It is defined as a line from Slade Point in Queensland, which is the north-western tip of Cape York, across to Cape Arnhem in the Northern Territory, where Darwin is the closest city. This line would measure around 700 kilometres.

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 with six camels, one horse and food to last three months. With daytime temperatures reaching 122 degrees in the Strzelecki and Sturt Stony deserts, Burke instructed Brahe to hold camp for three months and then follow him. Wills added a month to Brahe’s time, knowing what lay ahead. The heat aside, the group found travel easy, due to rain-sodden ground, and reached the Little Bynoe River, a spur of Queensland’s longest river, the Flinders, on 9 February 1861. They were ahead of target. But they could not reach the ocean, which was defended by a series of continuous dangerous swamps with no firm access from any direction. The decision was taken to return to Cooper Creek.

Gray and Burke both got dysentery after eating a black-headed python they had killed. By now, all the camels had met the same fate, as they were the only source of food. Gray died on 17 April from dysentery the other three reached Cooper Creek on 21 April, only to find the camp was gone. In fact, Brahe had only left that morning, having delayed more than five weeks longer than Burke had instructed.

Burke’s group dug up the buried supplies and rested. Wills and King wanted to return to Menindee, but Burke reckoned that a 150-mile trip across the desert to Mount Hopeless, South Australia was a better option. This is where the group headed on 23 April 1861, leaving a note but no date at Cooper Creek for anyone who was searching for them.

Meanwhile, Brahe had met Wright on his way to Creek Camp with supplies. He decided to return with Wright, but when they reached Cooper Creek there was no indication that Burke had been there, so they rejoined the main group and headed for Menindee. Patton injured his leg when he fell from his horse. He subsequently died from complications a few weeks later.

Wright was harassed by natives called Murrie and ran out of supplies. Three of the men, Purcell, Stone and Dr Becker, died from malnutrition. This left Wright lucky to meet up with Brahe.

Because Burke no longer had any pack animals to carry food or water, he could not leave Cooper Creek and soon the group were being looked after by local Aborigines. But when Burke lost his temper and fired his pistol at one of the locals, they all fled.

In June, while following the Cooper upstream, Wills became so weak he could not go on and told Burke and King to continue. The following day, Burke died. King returned to where Wills had been left and found him dead also.

Although Brahe was part of the expedition, he was not classed as a survivor as he had not completed the full journey. He died on 16 September 1912 at the age of 76. Meanwhile, King was the only survivor of the four who completed the mission. But he died 11 years later, aged 34, in 1872 from illnesses picked up on the expedition.

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