Home Melbourne Stories Tragic story of Burke and Wills expedition

Tragic story of Burke and Wills expedition

Burke and Wills


Burke and Wills expedition was organised by Royal Society of Victoria in 1860 with the objective of crossing Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of more than 3000km. It was one of the most equipped and financially backed explorations of that time but resulted in greatest loss of life of any expedition to the Australian interior.

The members of the expedition


Robert O’ Hara Burke, George J Landells, William John Wills, Dr Ludwig Becker, Dr Hermann Beckler, William Wright


Charles Ferguson, Jean Prolongeau, Robert Bowman, Charley Grey, Henry Creber, Robert Fletcher, Thomas McDonough, William Patten, Patrick Langan, John Drakeford, John Smith, Charles Stone, Thomas Elliot, John King, James McIlwaine, James Lane, Owen Cowen, William Brahe, Brooks, William Purcell

Camel Sepoys

Samla, Dost Mahomet, Essau Khan, Belooch Khan

Many left the expedition half way through and some were dismissed by Burke. Among those continued the journey till the Gulf, John King was the only person survived the return journey as he was assisted by the natives and was found by rescue party led by A.W. Howitt. King led the relief party back to the bodies of Wills and Burke. They were given a public funeral in Melbourne on 1 January 1863 and buried in Melbourne General Cemetery on 21 January.

The tragic story of Burke and Wills expedition

Burke and Wills Expedition leaving Royal Park
Burke and Wills Expedition leaving Royal Park

In 1858, George J Landells wrote a letter to the Victorian Government suggesting the advantages of introducing a troop of camels to aid the complete exploration of the interior of Australia. Landells had many years of experience working as a horse trader in India. The government’s Board of Science and Zoological Gardens Committee agreed and Landells was authorised to borrow money from the Indian Government to purchase the four-legged animals. Landells loaned 8000 rupees from the Indian Government and sourced the animals travelling through India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and returned to Melbourne in June 1860 bringing 24 camels along with 8 camel drivers to assist. Along with the four Cameleers Samla, Dost Mahomet, Esau Khan and Belooch; Landells recruited John Drakeford and John King, who helped him bring the animals as the expedition team crew.

The expedition Committee also purchased 6 Egyptian camels from George Coppins Cremorne Gardens.  A few months before that, the Expedition Committee had invited applications from competent persons willing to undertake the leadership of the expedition. They received more than 20 genuine applications, after strict scrutiny, it was reduced to 14. A sub Committee after further scrutiny, reduced it to six and referred it to the General Committee for a final choice. General Committee after a ballot, short listed two – Robert O’Hara Burke and Major Warburton.

In the eyes of the Committee Burke was a gentleman in the prime of life, a perfect centaur as to horsemanship, accustomed to command, has been for the last seven years a superintendent of police – first five years in the Ovens district, and the last two in the Castlemaine district. An Irish by birth, Burke served two years as commander of the Reserve Cavalry of the Irish Constabulary Force and above all he was a disciplinarian. Major Warburton had one main disadvantage – he was a South Australian and not a Victorian.

But the Committee conveniently ignored the most essential qualities for an explorer. Though was a good disciplinarian, Burke was a poor leader, impatient and had little knowledge of bushcraft and had absolutely no idea of how to live off the land.

Landells was appointed second in command of the expedition. He was also appointed officer in charge of the camels. There were many questions raised about Landells suitability for the post as he was neither a bushman nor had any knowledge of Australia’s interior.  Some were very vocal in expressing their objection,” He is totally ignorant of any of its rivers, mountains, or leading features. And doubted whether he can take the latitude and longitude; and if any accident happens to Mr. Burke, what confidence can the followers of the expedition have in him?”

Landells put a condition for him joining the expedition, and wrote a letter to the Committee which reads” if I lost my life during the time of service, two years’ salary should be paid to my wife E R Landells”

The Expedition begins

The expedition began its journey on 20th August 1860 from the Royal Park in Melbourne. On 21st August, The Age called it the most memorable day in the annals of Australian History.

“Yesterday will be a memorable day in the annals of Australian history. The twentieth of August, 1860, will long be remembered as the day upon which the largest and best appointed expedition yet organised in the Australian colonies started from Melbourne for the purpose of exploring the vast unknown interior of the Australian continent”

Below are the excerpts of The Age Report

“Around 15,000 people gathered at the Royal Park to watch the once in a lifetime opportunity. Artists, with sketchbook and pencil in hand, were anxiously looking around for some quiet and favourable spot from whence they might take an out- line of the scene, to be filled in afterwards at their leisure. The boots for the men and the greater part of the harness and saddlery for the horses and camels have all been manufactured at Pentridge Prison, under the strictest supervision.  The whole of the stores, with the exception of some ten tons of gram, which will be forwarded via the Murray, and which will be delivered to the party at the junction of the Murray and the Darling, the expedition take with them,  six American wagons, three the property of the party, and three hired ones. These wagons will proceed as far as Swan Hill, when the loading will be transferred to the backs of the camels.”

The pole of one of the wagons broke even before attempting to start and two of them broke down before reaching Essendon. Wagons were taken as Landells objected to placing too much weight on the camels as he felt it would be necessary to husband the strength of the animals as much as possible for the journey between Swan Hill and Coopers Creek.

The exploration team was supposed to leave Royal park by 1 ‘0’ clock, but after all arrangements were made it was nearly 4 ‘o’ clock when they made the move. The expedition carried 12 months’ stores, that is about 21 tons of provisions. One important item in the provisions was the “expedition biscuit.” It was made of meat dried thoroughly and pulverized and mixed with an equal quantity of wheat flour. One biscuit is considered quite sufficient for a man’s dinner. Then there were large number of leather water bags, and other means to guard against a scarcity of water.  The expedition also carried breech-loading rifles, revolvers, and ammunition. In a way they have over equipped the expedition making them a sort of armchair explorers.

Burke and Wills Track
Burke and Wills Track ( Courtesy: Wikipedia

 Then Mayor of Melbourne, Richard Eades mounted a Wagon and expressed his gratification for the large number of crowd assembled and wished the explorers, “In the name of all present, and in the name of the colony at large,” May God speed you.”

The expedition left Royal Park through the south gate, proceeded through Moonee Ponds, took the road to Essendon, where they camped for the night. 20 Camels and 22 horses were in the expedition team.

The expedition party was moving at a slow pace and the next day started at quarter past 2 and at 6pm camped in a paddock near Inverness Hotel in Bulla. The day after, one of the Indians named Samla, begged Landells to discharge him as he is not allowed to eat meat except mutton being a Hindu. He was allowed to go as he looked very ill having had to eat nothing but bread the last three days. The party proceeded through Bendigo. Dr Becker’s diary on expedition shares how the aborigines they met at Bendigo creek mistook the Camels for Bunyip. Bunyip is a large mythical creature from Australian Aboriginal mythology.

The expedition made progress through the settled districts of Victoria to Swan Hill. Reached Swan Hill on 6th September. From Swan hill a decision was taken to go to Menindee, via Balranald and reached Menindee on Darling River at the beginning of October.

The wagons were making slow progress, so against the wishes of Landells, Burke decided to transfer much of the cargo on Camels. Burke also decided not to carry the 60 Gallons of Rum any further after he found out that shearers at station owned by Mcpherson were drunk with Rum belonged to the expedition team.  Landells had insisted the Rum was necessary to stimulate tired or despondent camels. A furious fight broke out between the two and Landells tendered his resignation which he later took back. Landells argued that he had sole command over matters affecting the camels.

The armchair explorers were feeling the pinch of carrying too much supplies and equipment which resulted in Burke making a decision to make a depot of supplies somewhere on the Darling.   At Darling, 10 miles from Menindee, Burke left behind 3 horses and 9 camels with the stores in charge of Dr Beckler. Beckler had already tendered his resignation and Burke was waiting for the approval of the expedition Committee on his resignation. They formed the first depot 10 miles higher up the Darling, at the junction with the Tomarora Creek.  And in October Burke discharged Drakeford for drunkenness, from the team giving him 5 pounds in order for him to reach back.

At Menindee Landells had a fight with Burke again as Landells felt that Burke was trying to undermine his authority over the Camels by asking Wills to be present when the Camels cross the river at Kinchega. Once again Landells resigned from the expedition team.

Dr Hermann Beckler, disappointed by the new developments decided to resign from the expedition. But he agreed to stay on in charge of the depot that was to be made at Menindie. Dr Beckler in his resignation letter to the Committee mentioned that Landells is the only person competent enough to manage the camels and without him the expedition will be endangered. He pointed out the principal reason for his resignation as the way Landells was treated by Burke.

Burke and Wills expedition crossing the desert
Artists view of Burke and Wills expedition crossing the desert

In October, the committee approved the resignations of Landells and Beckler from the expedition. Wills had been selected by Burke to replace Landells as second in command. Born in Totnes in Devonshire England, Wills joined the expedition as an astronomical and meteorological observer after quitting his job at Melbourne observatory.

On 12th October, expedition arrived at Menindee.

The expedition left Menindee on 19th October, Burke along with Wills, Beake, Patten, M’ Donagh, King, Gray, Dost Mohammed, Charlie, Wright, 15 horses and 16 camels headed towards Cooper’s Creek. They were travelling at the rate of 20 miles per day, the land being fine sheep grazing country and water plenty on the way due to the number of creeks or swamps and the weather was most favourable. At Torowotto Swamp Wright was sent back to Menindee alone to bring up the remainder of the men and supplies and Burke continued on to Cooper Creek. Three weeks later, on 11th November 1860, they arrived at Cooper’s Creek, formed a depot at Camp LXIII (63). A plague of rats forced the men to move camp and they formed a second depot further downstream at Bullah Bullah Waterhole. This camp was the 65th of their journey. Roman numerals ‘LXV’ cut into a tree with an axe. It was named Fort Wills Camp 65. From Cooper’s Creek onwards, the journey was on unexplored land.

On 16th December, Burke decided to head for Gulf Carpentaria. He split the group once again. William Brahe was made in- charge of the depot, with Dost Mahomet, William Patton and Thomas McDonough.

Burke set out with Wills, John King and Charles Gray taking along six camels, one horse and enough food to last 3 months. The summer temperatures during this period reached upto 50 and as per previous plan Burke was supposed to wait till autumn at Cooper’s Creek allowing enough time for Wright to reach with men and supplies from Menindee. Burke ordered Brahe to wait at Cooper’s Creek for 3 months or as long as his supplies last after that, would be free to return to Melbourne. But Wills making a more accurate assumption secretly asked him to wait for 4 months.

The weather was good and water supply was abundant enroute to Carpentaria and the natives were not hostile as expected. By 9th February 1861, the expedition reached Bynoe River, an arm of the Flinders River delta and from the saltiness of the water and the presence of strong tidal rise and fall they assumed it to be near the sea. But due to the presence of mangrove swamps on their way it was difficult to move the camels and supplies. Burke and Wills took along with them three days supply leaving the camels and rest of the supplies with Gray and King and set out to the coast. Covering another 15miles from that point. Both were terribly exhausted and were desperately short of supplies, so decided to turn back. By now they have travelled for nearly 59 days from Cooper’s Creek but they have only 27 days supply left for a return. On their way to Carpentaria the weather was good but now the rainy season has begun.

The option they had was to shoot their pack animals and make a meal of it. Three camels were shot and eaten on the way and on 10th April Burke shot his horse Billy. The men were all showing symptoms of severe vitamin deficiency. To extend their food supply, they ate portulaca.

Gray also caught a Python which they ate and immediately after Burke and Gray came down with dysentery. Gray was seriously ill, but Burke thought he was just pretending. On 25th March Gray was severely beaten by Burke for stealing Skilligolee, a type of porridge. By 8th April Gray’s health deteriorated and he died on 17th April of dysentery. It is believed Gray died somewhere near Lake Massacre in South Australia. Burke, Wills and King, the three surviving men camped there for a day to bury Gray and regain their strength for the onward journey. On 21st April, they reached Cooper’s Creek only to find that the camp had been abandoned 7 hours earlier. Brahe, waited for 18weeks instead of the 13 weeks, directed by Burke, and began his return journey on the same day Burke and team reached there. Brahe decided to return to Menindee believing that Burke would never return from Gulf. Moreover, they were suffering from the effects of Scurvy and the supplies were running low too. To add to the trouble, of his men, the blacksmith Patton, had injured his leg after being thrown from his horse.  Six weeks later Patton died of complications from the injury.

Burke and Wills

A message was left for Burke cut into the tree, “DIG 3FT NW APR 21 1861” by Bahre. At the specified area they found a cache of supplies, which they consumed and stayed there until 23rd to recuperate. The tree later became known as the Dig tree. Wills and King wanted to follow the track to Menindee. Burke had other plans.  Instead of trying to catch up with Brahe, Burke decided to slowly make their way west along the Creek and then strike out overland towards the nearest settled areas in Mount Hopeless, South Australia, which was around 240km away. They wrote a letter indicating their plans and buried it in the cache under the tree but forgot to change the mark on the tree or alter the date. On 23rd April they set off towards Mount Hopeless.

While Brahe was heading towards Menindee, William Wright was making his way toward Cooper’s Creek from Menindee as instructed by Burke before. Wright’s journey towards Cooper’s Creek was delayed for many reasons and later he had to take a fair share of the blame for the failed expedition. He could leave Menindee only on January 1861 and three of the men, Dr Ludwig Becker, Charles Stone and William Purcell, died from malnutrition on the trip.

On his way to Menindee, Brahe met with Wright near Bulloo River, trying to reach Cooper’s Creek with supplies and both decided to go back to Cooper’s Creek to see if Burke and team had returned. Brahe and Wright reached Cooper’s Creek on 8th May, but since the mark on the tree was not altered, they assumed that Burke hadn’t returned from Carpentaria.

Burke, Wills and King did not travel much from the camp at the Creek. By then they already lost both their pack animals. Two remaining camels, Landa became bogged in a water hole and Rajah was shot and eaten when he could travel no further. Without the pack of animals, they were unable to carry enough water to survive remaining length of travel. All three were exhausted and malnourished. They received fish, beans called padlu and a type of damper made from the ground sporocarps of the nardoo plant in exchange for sugar from the native aborigines. Even that source of food stopped when one day Burke shot at one of the aborigines with his pistol. In May, Wills returned to the dig tree to put his diary, notebook and journals in the cache for safe keeping.

Burke and Wills statue
Burke and Wills Statue at Melbourne CBD. An old photo. Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

By the end of June Burke, Wills and King were   following the Cooper upstream to find the Yandruwandha campsite. Wills too tired to walk was left at Breerily Waterhole with some provisions at his insistence. Burke and King continued for another two days.  Burke’s health was deteriorating. He then told King, ” I hope you will remain with me here till I am quite dead — it is a comfort to know that someone is by; but when I am dying, it is my wish that you should place the pistol in my right hand, and that you leave me unburied as I lie.” The next morning at around 8 ‘0’clock Burke was dead. King stayed there for two days but was fortunate to find some gunynhs, where the natives had deposited a bag of nardoo, sufficient for him to last a fortnight. King also shot a few crows and took it with him looking for Wills. King returned to Breerily water hole only to find Wills dead body. King realised that the natives had been there and took some of Will’s clothes.  King buried Will with sand and stayed there for a few days. He tracked the natives who had been to the camp by their footprints in the sand. The natives were very kind to him and offered him food to eat. They took the birds he shot and cooked for him. One day King took the natives to where Burke’s dead body lied. The whole party of the natives cried bitterly and covered the body with bushes. But since then the natives were very kind towards King.

The rescue Missions

After no information became available about Burke and Wills expedition, steps were taken to send search parties to find the missing men. The most successful among them was the one lead by Alfred William Howitt which left Melbourne on 26 June 1861. At the Loddon River Howitt met Brahe, who was returning from Cooper Creek. Howitt returned to Melbourne with Brahe to update the Exploration Committee, leaving three men at Loddon River.

Howitt returned with an expanded team, and on September the team reached Cooper’s Creek and on 15th September one of the team members, Edwin Welch spotted King living with the Yadruwandha tribe. With the help of King, Howitt found the remains of Burke and Wills and buried them.

Burke and Wills Memorial at Melbourne General Cemetery
Burke and Wills Memorial at Melbourne General Cemetery

With the task of returning the remains of Burke and Wills to Melbourne, a second expedition was organised under the guidance of Alfred Howitt. On 9th December 1861, Howitt left Melbourne for Cooper’s Creek. On 13th April 1862, Burke’s and Will’s remains were exhumed. For the next six months Howitt explored Australia’s interior and returned to Melbourne on 29th December 1862 with the remains of Burke and Wills.

In Melbourne the remains were kept the in the hall of Royal Society for two weeks in January 1863 for public viewing. Out of Melbourne’s population of 120,000, it is believed around 100,000 came to offer last respects.

The burial ceremony was held on 21st January 1863, was Australia’s first state funeral and drew the largest crowd ever assembled in Melbourne so far. They were buried in Melbourne General Cemetery.

Register /Login to Comment

Home Forums Burke and Wills expedition – Discussion Forum

Viewing 0 reply threads
  • Author
    • #5031

      Summary Burke and Wills expedition was organised by Royal Society of Victoria in 1860 with the objective of crossing Australia from Melbourne to the G
      [See the full post at: Burke and Wills expedition]

Viewing 0 reply threads
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.