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Robert O'Hara Burke

Robert O'Hara Burke

Robert O'Hara Burke (1820-1861) was a British policeman and explorer who led the first expedition to cross the Australian continent.

Robert O'Hara Burke was born in County Galway, Ireland, the son of a British army officer. After attending Woolwich Military Academy, Burke served in an Austrian cavalry regiment until 1848, when he joined the mounted Irish constabulary. Migrating to Australia in 1853, he became a police inspector in the Victorian goldfields. After the outbreak of the Crimean War, he returned to Europe, hoping to distinguish himself as a soldier. Disappointed, he returned to Victoria in 1858 as superintendent of police at Castlemaine.

The South Australian government offered a prize in 1859 to the first explorer to cross the continent. John McDouall Stuart reached Mount Attack in 1860 before returning to Adelaide. Spurred by intercolonial rivalry, the rich colony of Victoria financed its own scientific expedition, and the flamboyant Burke, who wanted desperately to improve his fortunes, was chosen to lead it despite his inexperience.

Equipped with camels, horses, and supplies for 2 years, 15 men left Melbourne on Aug. 20, 1860. The party reached Menindee along the Darling River in October without mishap. Burke, with seven men, then pushed rapidly ahead to Cooper's Creek, 400 miles north. The remainder of the expedition, conveying heavy stores, made such slow progress that the impetuous Burke decided to make a dash for the coast with three companions. Because of exceptional rains they encountered no water shortage and in February 1861 sighted the Gulf of Carpentaria beyond impenetrable mangrove swamps. Marching 12 hours a day, the party covered the return journey of 1500 miles in 4 months. One man, Gray, died.

The rest regained Cooper's Creek April 21, 1861, only hours after the depot party had headed south. Instead of pursuing them, Burke mistakenly decided to head for a police station 150 miles away at Mount Hopeless. Exhausted, Burke and Wills died in Cooper's Creek. King, the only survivor, lived with aborigines until rescued in September.

This most costly expedition in Australian history accomplished little. Burke allowed no time for scientific work and kept no journal, but fortunately William John Wills kept a record. Four relief expeditions contributed considerably more knowledge about the north-central zone, particularly about its grazing potential, and in 1862 Stuart pioneered the principal all-weather route to the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless the tragedy of Burke and Wills became an Australian legend.

Further Reading

An interesting contemporary apologia for Burke with extensive excerpts from Wills's diary and the Royal Commission of 1861-1862 is Andrew Jackson, Robert O'Hara Burke and the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860 (1862). Alan Moorehead's attractively written Cooper's Creek (1963) is a well-balanced popular account. Ernest Favenc, The History of Australian Exploration from 1788 to 1888 (1967), is a general study well worth consulting. Ian Mudie in The Heroic Journey of John McDouall Stuart (1968) discusses Burke. See also Charles George Douglas Roberts, Discoveries and Explorations in the Century (1903).

Additional Sources

Colwell, Max, The journey of Burke and Wills, Brookvale, NSW, Australia: Child & Associates, 1987, 1971. □

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"Robert O'Hara Burke." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Robert O'Hara Burke." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/robert-ohara-burke

"Robert O'Hara Burke." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/robert-ohara-burke

Burke, Robert O'Hara

Robert O'Hara Burke, 1820–61, Irish explorer of Australia. After service in the Belgian and Austrian armies he went (1853) as inspector of police to Melbourne. In 1860, with W. J. Wills and eight other whites, he left Menindee, on the Darling River, to cross the continent. Dissensions broke up the party, but the leaders reached the estuary of the Flinders River, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. On the return journey both Burke and Wills died from famine and exposure. Although the geographical achievements of the expedition itself were few, rescue parties seeking it added much to the knowledge of central Australia.

See C. G. D. Roberts, Discoveries and Explorations in the Century (1906); M. Colwell, The Journey of Burke and Wills (1971).

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"Burke, Robert O'Hara." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Burke, Robert O'Hara." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burke-robert-ohara

"Burke, Robert O'Hara." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burke-robert-ohara

Burke, Robert OHara

Burke, Robert O'Hara (1820–61) Irish explorer. In 1860, he led the first expedition to cross Australia from s to n. At the Barcoo River, Burke left most of the party and continued with three companions. They reached n Australia in 1861. Only one of the group survived the return journey.

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"Burke, Robert OHara." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burke-robert-ohara