17 Apr 2012

Burke and Wills

In 1860, the proceeds from the great Australian Gold Rush paid for a lavishly equipped expedition to cross Australia from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north. The leader was an Irishman called Robert O'Hara Burke, and together with his companion, an ex-medical student and surveyor, William John Wills, and their team, the men crossed the continent for the first time. On the way back, both Burke and Wills (and a number of others) died from starvation and exhaustion, although the local aborigines from Coopers Creek were willing to help them. Only one of the men that completed the crossing survived.

The Burke and Wills story, although tragic, is a great one for talking about the bias of history. Who was responsible for the deaths of these brave men? How much of what we know is myth? What do we mean by truth anyway? Does it differ according to who wrote the account? Can we ever know exactly what happened?

Our Australian history spine, The Story of Australia for Boys and Girls, written by Joseph Bryant as early as 1920 places the blame squarely on Wright's shoulders:
The expedition reached a place called Menindie, on the Darling River; and there Burke left more than half his men, with some of the camels and horses, to form a camp. A man named Wright was placed in charge of the camp, with instructions to follow Burke and Wills, who went on ahead with an advance party. Wright was very negligent, wasting a great deal of time before he made a start. To this careless delay the troubles that came afterwards may be traced.
Books can be produced, however, that implicate practically everybody, and as time went on, more and more people seemed to blame Burke for the failure. In 1937, Frank Clune published the first account of the expedition as a narrative story. In his book, Dig, Clune portrayed Landells, Wright and Brahé as the bad guys, representing Burke himself in as positive a way as possible. It sort of worked too, and Dig went on to be an immensely popular book.

In 1971 Clune published an illustrated children's version of Dig as The Incredible Outback Adventures of Burke and Wills with powerful illustrations by Wolfgang Graesse. Now generally I don't like abridged books very much. Mostly they strip away all that makes a book alive leaving only the bare skeleton of a plot and a few handing threads, most of which don't link together very well.

Frank Clune's abridgement is a bit like that, but he does manage to leave enough of the covering to allow the story to live. Through its pages we recognise the huge achievement of these brave men. We realise their humanity. We hear enough of their early lives to understand them as people and to see what drove them to make this, in hindsight, extremely foolish journey. It contains excitement and tragedy, faithfulness and treachery, mateship and selfishness. Despite its abridgement it remains a really inspiring story.

This past term Jemimah and I took a week to read through The Incredible Outback Adventures and to discuss the bias of history. We looked at who was responsible. Was it Wright, as our History book suggested, or was it Brahé? Should Burke have pressed on from Coopers Creek without waiting for the stores and the rest of the party to arrive? Should the Exploration Committee have selected a relative newcomer to the colonies as the leader of the party in the first place? What responsibilities did the party members have to the expedition once they had accepted the position? How responsible were Landells and Beckler for the failure when they pulled out half way through? Did Brahé leave too early or take too much food or fail to send a search party?

Ultimately, with the wisdom of hindsight, blame can be placed on everybody. Let's face it, the expedition was an unmitigated disaster. The story, however, shows how flawed a study of history can be if you don't recognise the bias.

Jemimah and I thoroughly enjoyed our look at the expedition through the pages of The Incredible Outback Adventure of Burke and Wills. We loved the sublime illustrations, and the incredible depictions of our Australian Outback. The discussions we had were excellent, and will enhance our study of history into the future. We will read more knowledgeably and with more care.

It is important for our kids to know that the history we read will always be the perspective of the writer. This is a great book for bringing this point home.

We read it in AO5. We'll probably read Dig too, when we reach this time period again. Perhaps we'll come up with a new batch of villains by then as well.

Have you read about Burke and Wills with your kids? What book did you use? Who did you think were the bad guys? Do tell. I find this story fascinating. Such a twisted plot!


  1. If you really want to know why Burke and Wills died, watch out for the results of a 'mock' Coronial Enquiry held last year, and which will be revealed at a meeting of the Royal Society of Victoria this coming Thursday. See http://burkeandwills150.info/index.php/event-calendar/melbourne-events.
    PS Wills wasn't a doctor. And 'only one man survived' is a bit misleading. Only one of those who reached the Gulf survived, but most other members survived including Landells, Wright and Brahe.

  2. We just read a bit about the Australian Gold Rush yesterday in Abe Lincoln's World. Tiny Girl was impressed with how Australia's population exploded, thanks to the rush. It's interesting you note the bias of history. We're running into that with TCOO regarding the American Civil War; Marshall has a distinctly pro-Federal tone. Since I read that title aloud, I temper it a bit. A small example, admittedly, but it's been on my mind.

  3. Good post.
    Thank you for that info Helen Vorrath, that will be interesting to follow.

  4. Thanks for that info, Helen. I will be interested to follow up a bit more on the story now, having read a bit about it.

    Frank Clune mentions that Wills was a medical student before coming to Australia and that he worked in his father's rooms in Australia. Obviously, I am aware that many people survived from the expedition.

    1. Which book "Dig" or "The Incredible Outback Adventure of Burke & Wills" would you recommend for a 13 year old boy, who is a good reader (advanced perhaps), but has recently rather given up on reading for computer. (Probably his favourite book: "Holes")
      Seems I should read some more of your posts (suggestions?)

  5. Looks great...my son would like this a lot!


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