A Sesquicentenary

Burke and Wills set out from Royal Park in Melbourne on August 20th, 1860, as leaders of an expedition aiming to be the first to cross the continent from south to north. It was an impressive start: 19 men, 23 horses, 26 camels, and six wagons.

Eight months later, on April 21st, 1861, Burke, Wills and one other member of the party, John King (aged 22), having achieved their ambition, staggered exhausted into the campsite on Cooper Creek. They had completed a round trip of some 2800 kms from Cooper Creek through uncharted territory to the Gulf of Carpentaria near present-day Normanton, and had done it in the summer. The rest of the party had been told to wait at Cooper Creek for thirteen weeks. They had waited eighteen weeks, and were running short of food. They surmised that Burke, Wills and King had probably perished. So they buried some supplies, carved the famous “DIG” message on a nearby tree, and left to return south, just nine hours earlier than Burke, Wills and King arrived. The three quickly realised they had no hope of catching the others.

Burke_and_wills_painting 2

Burke and Wills both died near Cooper Creek several weeks later. King lived on with local Aborigines, and was found by a search party in September of that year.

Burke and Wills’ remains were found in 1862 and returned to Melbourne in December of that year. On the afternoon of 21 January 1863, the City of Melbourne literally came to a standstill as its citizens watched the funeral procession of Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, as it wound its way through the city and finally up Elizabeth Street to the Melbourne General Cemetery. This was the first State Funeral held in Australia.

150 years on, the Burke and Wills Historical Society will conduct a commemorative wreath laying ceremony at the Burke and Wills Statue, City Square, Corner of Collins and Swanston Street, Melbourne, on Monday 21 January 2013 commencing at 1.30 pm. All those interested in this important commemoration of the saga of the Burke and Wills Expedition are invited to attend.


About dazzlerplus

Writing about the things that interest me helps me to discover what I think. One of my loves is the Australian Outback, and I travel out there often, and when possible take friends with me.
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6 Responses to A Sesquicentenary

  1. I’ve always considered that painting of Burke, Wills, and King to be one of the saddest images I’ve ever seen. It’s not just that they were going to die, it’s that you can see in their faces the sense of doom, which followed so close on their probably thinking they’d finally made it to safety. Really crushing. But what a crazy carnival that expedition was from the outset. It almost seems as though this was the only possible ending — but that doesn’t make it any less tragic.

    • dazzlerplus says:

      Yes, indeed. With the temperature as I write standing at 41 degrees C in Sydney, one does not readily contemplate travelling at this time of the year in an air-conditioned vehicle to the places where Burke and Wills went AT THIS TIME OF THE YEAR. As Mark Twain said,”Australian history is almost always picturesque ….. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies ….. It is full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities and contradictions.”

  2. Thank you for this piece, and for the quotation from Mark Twain, one who always approached the universe at a slight angle. When I was a child, my mother told me that Burke and Wills camped their first night at Moonee Ponds, a fact that fascinated me, as it is only five miles away from Royal Park and of course an easy tram ride away.


    • dazzlerplus says:

      Your mother was quite right! (Mothers usually are, aren’t they!) I guess it just fits in with the general style of the Burke & Wills expedition that they left Royal Park at 4pm!! I find myself wondering … what were they doing at 11am … at 1pm … at 3pm …??? There does seem to be a fair bit of muddling involved in many aspects of the expedition.

  3. Ros B says:

    I happened to be in Melbourne on Monday so I joined about 40 others at the Burke and Wills statue for this commemorative event along with some other interested and bemused passers by.

    Dr David Phoenix from The Burke and Wills Historical Society spoke succinctly about Burke and Wills “rock star” status before they set off on their epic journey and how the whole population of Melbourne was in complete shock after learning of their lonely and grisly deaths in the bush just 10 months later. Commemorative wreaths were laid by various dignitaries including Wills’ great great great great great nephew (5 greats!). I was interested to hear that wreaths would be laid in Burke and Wills’ birth towns too (somewhere in Ireland and Totnes, Devon respectively).

    I also chatted to the lady sitting next to me who had been the coroner at the ‘mock inquest’ held in July 2011. So many poor decisions had been made. I was amazed to learn that Burke had insisted on taking a bath tub with him – apparently it did not last long on the trip!

    Thanks for alerting us to this event Rob – it was enjoyable and informative.

    • dazzlerplus says:

      Ros, I’m delighted that you were able to attend this historic gathering! No doubt it gave you a better feel for what such a trip involved.

      I hadn’t heard the bath tub anecdote before! I wonder what the modern equivalent of that would be?

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