Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Scientific Legacy of Burke & Wills

The camp site at Menindee

The camp site at Menindee where a base party remained behind for several months while an advance party continued north under Burke’s leadership.

By Bernie Joyce and Doug McCann

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the deaths of Burke and Wills. The expedition was originally considered a failure, but more recent analysis has changed that view.

When the “thrilling news” (as it was called in the press) of the demise of Burke and Wills reached Melbourne late in the afternoon on 2 November 1861, it initiated a period of profound public grieving. The news arrived in the week of the first Melbourne Cup at Flemington, which was won by Archer before a subdued crowd of about 4000. The city went into mourning. How could an enterprise that began with so such promise end so badly?

When the Victorian Exploring Expedition led by Robert O'Hara Burke left Royal Park in Melbourne on 20 August 1860, expectations for success were high. Although there were misgivings in some quarters concerning Burke's appointment, he had been a popular police superintendent at the goldfields towns of Beechworth and Castlemaine and was an officer and a gentleman. According to Sir Henry Barkly, who was the Governor of Victoria and also President of the Royal Society of Victoria (1860–1863), Burke's main attribute was his “firm determination to succeed in crossing the desert despite all obstacles”. Barky added that “no better selection could have been made”.

In his parting farewell speech, Burke declared: “No expedition has ever started under such favourable circumstances as this”. With its 26 camels, 23 horses, 19 men, six wagons and an estimated 21 tons of supplies, the expedition was abundantly provisioned. It was hailed as the most generously supported expedition yet to venture into the uncharted wilderness of outback Australia.

The expedition had been organised by the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, which in late 1859 received royal assent to become the Royal Society of Victoria. Among the discussed aims of the expedition were the possibility of engaging in “geographical research”, discovering of new grazing lands, opening up a practicable route to the northern shores, paving the way for the construction of a cross-continental telegraph line, adding to the corpus of scientific knowledge, and even finding Leichhardt or his traces.

The Scientific Imperative
An emphasis on scientific aspects of the expedition was foremost in the minds of the members of the Philosophical Institute as expressed by Henry Barkly in his Presidential Address in 1860, namely that “a clearer insight into the nature and extent of the central desert cannot fail to elucidate phenomena now not easily explicable, and to complete our stores of information as to the Meteorology and Mineralogy, the Fauna and the Flora, of this most exceptional and extraordinary portion of the globe”.

One of the main instigators of the expedition was the botanist Ferdinand von Mueller, who had already carried out his own expeditions and had recently been a member of Augustus Gregory's North Australian Expedition of 1855–1856, from which he returned with some 800 new plant species – a truly outstanding achievement. von Mueller was not alone in his enthusiasm for exploration. Other experienced explorers, scientists and naturalists who were members of the Philosophical Institute included William Blandowski, Frederick Sinnett, William Lockhart Morton and geologist Alfred Selwyn. They viewed the expedition mainly as a chance for making new scientific discoveries, examining, describing and mapping the landscape and generally extending geographical knowledge.

Three scientists were chosen for the expedition: William Wills as surveyor and astronomer, Hermann Beckler as medical officer and botanist, and Ludwig Becker as artist and naturalist. In addition, George Neumayer accompanied the expedition from Swan Hill to the Darling River and carried out magnetic and meteorological measurements.

Ludwig Becker's position as naturalist encompassed both zoology and geology. However, as pointed out by the younger Beckler, who derided Becker's skills, he was not a specialist in geology. Beckler pointedly suggested that Becker was perhaps more artist than scientist.

There is no doubt, however, that Becker was not only a talented artist and scientific illustrator but also a superb naturalist. He had published a number of scientific papers on a range of subjects, including several on geology.

Conflicting Priorities
Once on the road, politics and personal ambition were rapidly given priority over science. Burke had a fixation with rapidly reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria. All of the scientists were allotted various routine tasks by Burke that prevented them from doing scientific work except in snatches, and often at night after all other work was completed. Once the expedition progressed into southern New South Wales, Burke bluntly told both Becker and Beckler they were to cease scientific work and only carry out tasks facili­tating the rapid progress of the expedi­tion. Despite the fact that specific scientific instructions were issued to the scientists there was a proviso that Burke, if he wished to, could override those instructions. This is exactly what Burke chose to do.

Aftermath to a Tragedy
When news hit Melbourne of the fate of Burke and Wills and the deaths of other members of the expedition, the public clamoured for details about the victims and the survivors, about what had happened and what went wrong. Who was responsible? Was it faulty planning, bad logistics, poor leadership or just plain bad luck?

In general, though, the initial reaction of the public, the press and the organisers was that the expedition had been a success. But a success in what sense?

It was widely accepted that Burke had achieved the goal of being the first to cross the continent from south to north, and had beaten rivals such as John McDouall Stuart from South Australia. Certainly it had ended in calamity and seven members of the expedition died, but that was almost par for the course for explorers. A number of early explorers had lost their lives, including all of Ludwig Leichhardt's party, and 10 of the 13 members of Edmund Kennedy's expedition to Cape York. To most 19th century colonists, Burke and Wills were courageous, resolute but ill-fated heroes.

Over time that general opinion has changed. Contemporary opinion is that the Burke and Wills expedition was an ill-organised, over-engineered, costly, ironic, tragic episode in early Australian exploration – a debacle in which little, if anything, was achieved.

In his 1862 Presidential Address, Henry Barkly solemnly declared: “The Continent has been crossed – the mystery solved – the victory, dearly purchased though it be, is ours”. But he defensively acknowledged that “...owing chiefly to the hurried movements of these parties, and their light outfit, the collections made in the various branches of natural history have not been very extensive. No new genera of plants have, I fear, gladdened Dr Mueller's eyes; nor has Professor McCoy many novel zoological specimens from this source”. Barkly also apologised to the Victorian public as a whole that virtually no science had been done. Barkly's view became the standard view for all historians from the 1860s to the present day.

This opinion was strongly reinforced by various other explorers, including Augustus Gregory, Ernest Favenc and Ernest Giles. These highly successful and respected, even revered, explorers all accused Wills of being about 100 miles out in his navigation, particularly in his calculations of longitude. It is commonly stated in the literature that when Burke and Wills finally reached the Gulf of Carpentaria, they had assumed they were on the Albert River when in fact they were on a tributary of the Flinders River 100 km to the east.

Rewriting History
It was somewhat of a surprise then, when following the centennial commemoration of the Burke and Wills Expedition in 1960, the Royal Society of Victoria published a paper in its Proceedings by Jim Willis on the botany of the Victorian Exploring Expedition and the relief contingents. Willis, who at that time was assistant government botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, pointed out that during the main Burke and Wills expedition as well as the two relief parties under Alfred Howitt's leadership, “some 708 separate collections of vascular plants were made. At least 393 species are included in this total, including type specimens of 37 new species and three varieties.” So there were specimens collected — and a not insignificant number! Unfortunately this paper was not widely read or appreciated by historians.

It was an even greater surprise when University of Melbourne academic and surveyor Frank Leahy made a close examination of Wills' field notebooks, diaries and maps, and of his astronomical observations and calculations, and found that Wills was, for his time, remarkably accurate in his surveying and knew precisely where he was along the track and when he reached the Gulf. Leahy has since located a number of the original campsites, including the so-called “plant camp” where Wills was forced to stash his surveying equipment on the return journey to Cooper Creek.

Leahy's research is still a work in progress. As new techniques and data have become available, Leahy has progressively refined his estimations of the route of the exploration party. These more accurate route maps are allowing researchers to correlate geological, geomorphological and hydrological features to references in the reports and sketch maps of the original explorers.

Further inquiries have revealed many other documents, maps, specimens and artefacts, scientific sketches and artwork brought back by the survivors of the expedition and also of the relief expeditions, especially those of the geologist Howitt. These records include extensive meteorological observations, as well as descriptions of the landscape, soils, hydrology, and flora and fauna. Although sparse and patchy in places, taken as a whole they constitute a valuable archive.

From a geological perspective there are descriptions of the surface geology and geomorphology in the various reports by Wills, Becker and Beckler. These records include descriptions of rock types, landforms, soil types, and some mention of mineral species.

In addition, all these observers produced sketch maps of the route that delineate features of the landscape such as dunefields, stony plains, claypans, uplands, braided streams, floodplains, waterholes, and so on. These records are supported by the diaries, field notebooks and maps of the relief expeditions of Alfred Howitt, William Landsborough, John McKinlay and Frederick Walker, all of whom give some descriptions of the landscape and geology.

Although it is recorded that a small number of rocks, minerals and fossils were returned from the expeditions, they have not been located, but this is compensated for by the richness of the survey reports, field notebooks, maps and illustrations – most of them containing numerous original observations.

Bernie Joyce works is an Honorary Principal Fellow in the School of Earth Sciences at The University of Melbourne. Doug McCann is a science historian and Fellow of the School of Earth Sciences at The University of Melbourne. This article was originally published in The Australian Geologist. As part of the 150th Anniversary Commemoration of the Burke and Wills Expedition, the Royal Society of Victoria has engaged a team of authors including surveyor Frank Leahy to produce a book on the scientific legacy of the Burke and Wills Expedition and the supporting relief expeditions. For further information see