The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Burke, Robert O'Hara

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Burke, Robert O'Hara, the famous and ill-fated explorer, belonged to a younger branch of the Burkes or de Burghs, and was the second son of John Hardiman Burke of St. Clerans, co. Galway, Ireland, by Anne his wife, daughter of Robert O'Hara of Raheen, co. Galway, and was born at St. Clerans in 1821. He was educated in Belgium. He entered the Austrian army in 1840, and rose to the rank of Captain. In 1848 he joined the Royal Irish Constabulary, and in 1853 emigrated to Tasmania, whence he soon went on to Victoria, where he became an Inspector of Police. In 1854 (in which year his father died) he obtained leave to go to England to settle his family affairs, and seek a Commission in the Crimean War; but the war being over before arrangements were concluded, he returned to Victoria, and resumed his police duties. In 1860 he was appointed to the command of an exploring expedition, organised under the auspices of a Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria, and despatched for the purpose of crossing the Australian continent from sea to sea, north and south. Great enthusiasm was aroused by the project, and Mr. Ambrose Kyte, a Melbourne resident, subscribed £1000 towards the expenses, this amount being handsomely supplemented by private and Government contributions. A novel feature was the employment of camels specially exported from India for the purpose at a cost of £5500, and from which great results were expected. The expedition, consisting of thirteen persons besides the leader, started from Melbourne on August 20th, 1860, amidst the cheers of thousands of spectators. Dissensions soon arose, and several members of the party, including Landells, the second in command, returned. Burke reached Cooper's Creek, which was to be the starting point of the expedition, on Nov. 11th; and after waiting long, with six companions, for the arrival of the rest of the party who had been left behind at Menindie on the Darling, made a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria on Dec. 16th, leaving the bulk of his stores in charge of an assistant named Brahe and three men, 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 earned the distinction of being the first white men to traverse the Australian continent. On their return to Cooper's Creek, however, on April 21st, 1861, exhausted with hardships, and after one of their number, Gray, had succumbed to fatigue and starvation, King found that Brahe, interpreting his instructions too literally, had abandoned his post that very day, leaving only a small stock of provisions behind him. Contrary to the advice of Wills, who urged the advisability of following in Brahe's tracks, Burke determined to strike for some of the South Australian stations, which he imagined were much nearer than was actually the case. He was stopped on his course by want of water, and was obliged to return with his two companions to Cooper's Creek. They were too enfeebled to renew the attempt to go southwards, and were obliged to remain on the lower part of Cooper's Creek, some distance from the depot, subsisting mainly on casual supplies obtained from friendly natives. In the meantime Brahe, with the lagging rearguard, had returned to the depot, but not finding Burke and his party, went south once more. The end came on June 28th, 1861, when Burke died of starvation, Wills, whom Burke and King had left to go in search of the blacks, dying about the same time. King, their only surviving comrade, managed to subsist amongst the natives until rescued on Sept. 21st by a relief party, under the command of Mr. Alfred W. Howitt, which had been sent out from Melbourne when Brahe returned with the news of Burke and Wills' non-return to the depot. Mr. Howitt buried the ill-fated explorers, Burke having particularly requested King not to bury him, but to let him lie above ground with a pistol in his hand. Public feeling, however, demanded the rescue of their remains, and they were recovered by a second expedition sent out under Mr. Howitt, and brought back to Melbourne on Dec. 28th, 1862. A public funeral was accorded to these two brave but luckless explorers, on Jan. 21st, 1863, after they had lain in state twenty days, and a monument to their memory, the work of the Australian sculptor, Charles Summers, now occupies a prominent position opposite the Parliament House, Melbourne. The cost of the original expedition, and of the subsequent searches, was estimated at £57,000.