Burke, Robert O'Hara (DNB00)

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BURKE, ROBERT O’HARA (1820–1861), Australian explorer, was born at St. Cleram, county Galway, in 1820, and was educated in Belgium. He entered the Austrian army in 1840, and rose to the rank of captain. In 1848 he joined the Irish constabulary, and in 1853 emigrated to Australia, and became an inspector of police in Victoria. In 1860 he was appointed to the command of an exploring expedition despatched for the purpose of crossing the Australian continent from south to north, which had originated in the contribution of a thousand pounds by Mr. Ambrose Kyte, and had been liberally supported by private subscriptions and government aid. One novel feature was the employment of camels, specially imported from India, from which great results were expected. The expedition quitted Melbourne on 20 Aug. 1860. Dissensions soon arose, and several members of the arty returned. Burke reached Cooper's Creek on 11 Nov., and after waiting long for reinforcements, which from mismanagement failed to arrive, made a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria on 16 Dec., leaving the bulk of his stores in charge of an assistant named Brahe, with directions to await his return for three or four months. The enterprise proved successful. Though not actually coming within sight of the sea, Burke and his associate Wills reached the tidal waters of the Flinders River, and won the fame of being the first white men to cross the Australian continent. But on their return to Cooper's Creek on 21 April, exhausted with hardships, they found that Brahe, interpreting his instructions too literally, and discouraged by disease among his companions, had abandoned his post that very day, leaving only a small stock of provisions behind him, Contrary to the advice of Wills, who urged following in Brahe's track, Burke unfortunately determined to strike for the South Australian stations, which he had been misled into believing much nearer to Cooper's Creek than was actually the case. He was driven back by want of water, and, too weak to make another attempt, was constrained to hang about Cooper's Creek, subsisting mainly on the food casually obtained from friendly natives, themselves scarcely able to subsist in the desert. Burke died of starvation on 28 June 1861; Wills [see Wills, William John] about the same time; King, their only surviving companion, managed to exist with the natives until rescued on 21 Sept. by a relief expedition, commanded by Mr. Alfred Howitt, despatched in quest of the explorers, whose failure to return had been reported by Brahe. Another expedition, also commanded by Mr. Howitt, was sent to bring back the remains of the unfortunate travellers; and, after making several important discoveries, returned with them to Melbourne on 28 Dec. 1862. The public funeral took place on 21 Jan. following, and memorial statues, the work of Charles Summers, were erected in the principal street of Melbourne. Burke was a brave man, endowed with many fine qualities, but seems to have been somewhat deficient in temper, and hardly to have possessed the attainments requisite in the head of a scientific exploring expedition.

[Burke and Wills's Exploring Expedition, Melbourne, 1861; Wills's Exploration, London, 1863; Heaton's Australian Dictionary, London, 1879.]

R. G.