Skip to main content
Select Source:

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. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Robert O'Hara Burke." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Feb. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Robert O'Hara Burke." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/robert-ohara-burke

"Robert O'Hara Burke." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved February 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/robert-ohara-burke

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

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).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burke, Robert O'Hara." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Feb. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Burke, Robert O'Hara." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burke-robert-ohara

"Burke, Robert O'Hara." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved February 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burke-robert-ohara

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

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.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burke, Robert OHara." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Feb. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Burke, Robert OHara." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burke-robert-ohara

"Burke, Robert OHara." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burke-robert-ohara

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.