Burke and Wills – Terra Incognita
State Library of Victoria, Australia
University of Sydney
This site presents manuscripts and objects relating to the ill-fated expedition led by Robert O’Hara Burke (1821–61) that attempted to cross the Australian continent from south to north in 1860–61.
The Burke and Wills expedition was lavishly funded but it proved unwieldy and was plagued by internal dispute and bad judgment. Burke and William Wills, his second-in-command, both perished of starvation on the return journey, along with several other members of the expedition. A key mistake, as one of the newspaper reports included in the site points out, was their failure to take sufficient advantage of the expertise of Indigenous Australians. Burke and Wills were buried in an elaborate ceremony that marked Australia’s first state funeral.
Supplementary material is easy to follow and fairly extensive. Given the wide audience for which the site is intended, it is popular rather than scholarly in tone, although it is based on sound research. Information is included on the background to the expedition, its historical context, biographies of those involved, the preparation for and events of the expedition, and its aftermath.
The Burke and Wills expedition speaks to many themes pertinent to the study of European exploration in a global context. The scientific interest in landscape, flora, and fauna are evident in the journals and sketches. Other documents bear witness to the search for imperial glory that was of greater importance to members such as Burke himself. The letters of application from those wishing to join the expedition (both successful and unsuccessful) illuminate the qualifications thought necessary for such endeavors, in particular the question of colonial masculinity and scientific endeavor. One unsuccessful applicant promoted his expertise as a flower painter. Another described his skills thus: “I consider myself a bushman . . . I can climb a gum tree á la aborigine and drag or cut out an opossum.”
The site provides a bibliography of eight published sources (both primary and secondary) that provide excellent guidance for teachers seeking further scholarly discussion of this topic. Particularly recommended is Burke and Wills: from Melbourne to Myth,1 which places the expedition in its social and cultural context as well as providing a detailed discussion of the place of the expedition in Australian culture into the 1990s.
1 Tim Bonyhady, Burke and Wills: from Melbourne to Myth (Balmain: David Ell Press, 1991).