Into the Ghastly Blank with Burke and Wills

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Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And we've gotten a lot of requests for some Australian history, specifically the Burke and Wills expedition. I got e-mails from Sean in Liverpool and also Matt in Western Australia and that might make a little more sense to you when you hear this quote from a writer named Sarah Murgatroyd, who wrote a book called The Dig Tree about the expedition. And she said, "the history of Australian exploration is littered with the corpses of men who underestimated the power, the size and the unpredictability of the outback." And the Victorian exploring expedition, which was the original name of the expedition, aimed to cross Australia from south to north and back again.

Sarah Dowdy: So no on really knew what was in the interior of the Australian continent. In the early 1800s people even thought that there might be an inland sea. They had explored the coastline, but they just didn't know what was in the middle. Two thirds of the continent was unexplored, and the big question everybody was asking was, what was in the ghastly blank?

Katie Lambert: So the Victorian exploring expedition left to much fanfare and cheering crowds, but only one man made the trip and survived. And he wasn't Burke or Wills. So with that note of doom struck, let us continue.

Sarah Dowdy: So exploring the ghastly blank seems like reason enough to go into the outback. But the Royal Society of Victoria had a few other good reasons for doing so.

Katie Lambert: Like discovering new grazing land, maybe finding more gold and some minerals, controlling a telegraph line that would link Australia to Asia, finding Ludwig Leichhardt, a different explorer who completely disappeared in 1848. And they also had the unstated goal of beating John McDouall Stuart of South Australia, who was trying to do the same thing.

Sarah Dowdy: The expedition was going to be big and it was going to cost a lot of money, so it took a while to raise the money necessary to launch it. And some of the funds came from private sources, as well as government sources. And a lot of the reason why it was so expensive is because they planned on importing 24 camels to make the trip with, because camels go in the outback, And I'm not sure about that.

ObviouslyKatie Lambert: So from the very beginning of this expedition, retrospectively you can see it's off to an odd start even in the planning stages. They're spending massive amounts of money for things like camels. We don't even know how camels will fare in the outback, because they've only really been there in exhibitions. So why are we fixated on this idea, I can't tell you.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, it just lines up with idea of what an explorer ought to be, It reminded us both kind of Laurence of Arabia and you're launching this mission that seems like it's got everything covered and everything is how it ought to be. But really they just don't know what they're getting into at all, and they're horribly unprepared.

Katie Lambert: But at the time, of course no one knows this and they're all just very excited about the whole thing. So on August 20 of 1860, the expedition left from Melbourne. 15,000 people showed up to watch them go, and almost immediately things go awry. A camel breaks loose and a wagon breaks, literally almost as they start, and then two more break down within the next couple of miles. So inauspicious beginnings -

Sarah Dowdy: Definitely.

Katie Lambert: - let's say.

Sarah Dowdy: So in charge of the party is Robert O'Hara Burke, who's a 33 year old Irish ex police officer, and he has no surveying, exploring or navigation experience. He's been voted to lead the expedition because of political infighting among the society. He's the acceptable candidate to everyone. George Landells is his second in command and he's the guy who brings all the camels from Kurachi, so there you go. William John Wills is a 25 year old English surveyor, and he's third in command. There are 19 people all together starting out.

Katie Lambert: And the Victorians have 20 tons of stuff, which is a lot of stuff for such a long journey over uncharted terrain. And some of it just looks very strange when yo u're looking through the list. Some makes sense, they've got 1000 pounds of meat biscuits, 1000 pounds of oatmeal for the camels, 18,000 pounds of hay, but they've also got listed 60 gallons of rum for the camels and 40 pounds of pepper also for the camels, and supposedly they thought the rum would keep the camels from getting scurvy, and the pepper would help wake them up if they got tired. This of course is based on absolutely no science whatsoever, but, you know, it just goes along with that whole bumbling expedition thing.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, and on a side note about scurvy, they actually get rid of all their lime juice pretty early on when things are going bad. Something that would be excellent at preventing scurvy!

Katie Lambert: So the camels are protected from scurvy with pretend remedies, while actual remedies for the human beings are left behind.

Sarah Dowdy: So we have -

Katie Lambert: This is typical.

Sarah Dowdy: - just this gross ignorance compounded by mismanagement.

Katie Lambert: Right. And they find out as they're going along, there are other things they didn't know, like it's not easy for camels to walk in mud and then conversely, it's not easy for wagons and horses to make it through sand and scrub, so they start shedding things like the lime juice and sugar and other things they actually need because they are going so incredibly slowly.

Sarah Dowdy: And Burke is being very fickle. He's hiring people and firing them, and he especially doesn't like the two German scientists who are on the trip and tells them that they need to put down their instruments and their notebooks and stop doing their experiments and become camel hands, because they really need help reigning in these rather out of control camels. And Burke is difficult to deal with and his second in command and one of the scientists quickly resign.

Katie Lambert: Which Sarah said she also would have done had she been on this expedition.

Sarah Dowdy: I would have been somebody out who was - even before Menindie.

Katie Lambert: But there's a guy who offers to take their stuff up the Darling for a fee. So think about that. They could be carrying all this tons of stuff up the river and instead just making it across basically on foot with some camels and some horses. But because this guy had opposed Burke leading the expedition in the first place, Burke won't do it.

Sarah Dowdy: In that contentious election.

Katie Lambert: Oh no, we're not going to swallow our pride. Instead we're just going to keep hiring expensive wagons and carrying this tuff over this ridiculous terrain for months and months.

Sarah Dowdy: And it's taking way too long, and Burke is even getting frightened at this point that Stuart will beat him to the north, at which point this is a useless expedition.

Katie Lambert: So he splits his party at Menindie, which is basically the edge of civilization.

Sarah Dowdy: That's where I'd cut out.

Katie Lambert: Yes, Sarah's gone at this point. And this is against his orders. He was supposed to take the entire part up with him at least to Cooper's Creek. But he heads north with the fittest men and for their guide they have a local guy named William Wright. And when they reach Torowotto Swamp, Burke sends Wright back to Menindie, and Wright's mission is to go back there and then come back and meet him at Cooper's Creek with the rest of the men and the supplies.

Sarah Dowdy: So everyone's going to be united at the end at Cooper's Creek, or so Burke hopes. So meanwhile Burke is pressing on towards Cooper's Creek from the swamp and he gets tired of waiting for Wright. You know, he waits there and waits there and waits there for Wright to catch up with the rest of the men and some of the supplies, and finally decides that he's going to go, break his party yet again and take a smaller group composed of himself, Wills, John King and Charles Grey. And they put William Brahe in charge of the group they're leaving behind at Cooper's Creek, and tell them to wait for them f or three months for their return.

Katie Lambert: So Burke's group, after two months, hits the mangrove swamps near the Gulf of Carpenteria on February 11th, 1861, which makes them the first white men to cross the continent. But it must have been disappointing not even being able to get to the Gulf. The mangrove swamps were too hard to get to, so they didn't even get, you know, that view of the sea and thinking, oh; we've made it all across. And there are other things that aren't going well, like they've used two thirds of their rations and the wet season is upon them, which means flooding and mosquitoes.

Sarah Dowdy: Despite not quite reading the water though, it counts, it's good enough. They've met their goal and they begin their trip back south. They're met with rain, rain and more rain, and it's turning the ground into a giant bog. It's the summer so it's incredibly hot and, as we mentioned before, their supplies are running low. And they start trying to eat of the land in watching the Aborigines. So they eat mussels, which doesn't sound bad. But they also kill an eight foot long snake and eat that, which doesn't sit well with them. Burke gets dysentery. And moving on to more domestic face, apparently deciding the snake doesn't make for a very good diner, they kill and eat some of their camels and a horse. And their stuff is too heavy so they bury their equipment and instruments. I don't know why they thought they would be coming back to this spot eventually, but who knows.

Katie Lambert: It seemed like the thing to do. On this trip back, Wills catches Grey stealing flour from the rations, which of course isn't something they can spare. Grey says that he's sick and he's weak, but Burke thinks he's just shamming and beats him. And there is some historical debate over what kind of a beating this was. If it was just, say a smack, or if it was something more serious, but it appeared that Grey wasn't shamming about feeling weak, because he dies within a few days. And the other men aren't feeling so great either.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, they finally make it to Cooper's Creek though, on April 21st 1861. This is just Burke, Wills and King at this point. And the base party is not there. They'd waited for the three months that Burke asked them to. They'd even waited longer than that, nearly five months. And they had just left that morning, which is so sad and frustrating.

Katie Lambert: So close.

Sarah Dowdy: Even all this time after. But they've left supplies and they've buried them and they've noted them with blazes. So there is a little help on the way it seems.

Katie Lambert: And Burke knows that they're close, but the men are simply too weak to try to follow the party that night. So in the meantime, let's go back to our group at Cooper's Creek.

Sarah Dowdy: So things haven't been that great for the guys who have been left behind at Cooper's Creek. The aborigines have been stealing some of their supplies. The people who were supposed to come up from Menindie with Wright though, the backup supplies, never showed up. And the men are sick. One has scurvy and a leg injury. Two are diseased and they've given up on Burke. You know, they must just think at this point that the part of four is out there somewhere dead. Maybe they made it, maybe they didn't, but they're not coming back to Cooper's Creek.

Katie Lambert: So they decide to leave in April. But on their trip out they come across tracks from Wright and the people coming up from Menindie bringing them supplies. And Wright had had his own difficulties. He had run out of money, their meat had gone rancid, their water pools had dried up, he didn't have a surveyor, so he was just following Burke's three month old tracks,

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. They'

re also attacked all the time by ratesKatie Lambert: Which is so gross?

Sarah Dowdy: Long-haired rats, too, which makes it so much worse for some reason. And they're bothered by the Aborigines and you could get a sense of what state they were in by their camp names, Desolation Point, Mud Plane, Rat Point. So it's hot, they don't have good food, they don't have good water. Three of the men died, including Dr. Ludwig Becker. And they're not doing well.

Katie Lambert: But Wright and Brahe, despite being plagued by problems, have not met up. So we've got our two left behind parties who have not become one group.

Sarah Dowdy: Our Menindie guys and our Cooper's Creek guys.

Katie Lambert: Right. And they go back to the dig tree, which was that base camp on Cooper's Creek, on May 8th. But they don't see any signs of Burke. He hasn't changed the blaze or left them a note or anything. So they assume that no one's been there and they leave again. And on the way another man dies.

Sarah Dowdy: So back to Burke. They decide not to follow Brahe. Instead they head for Mount Hopeless, which -

Katie Lambert: Sounds like a terrible idea.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, it doesn't sound good at all. It is, however, a police outpost and an explorer A.C. Gregory, had made the trip just a few years before and said it only took him about a week. So maybe it's not such a bad idea after all. But unfortunately the party of three has a hard time navigating and can't seem to find Mount Hopeless.

Katie Lambert: And while they're along the creek, their two remaining camels die. So they east the meat but now they have no way tot carry water, and they're in a place where they don't know where there's any more water to be found anyways, so they're stuck here on Cooper's Creek. They do get some people from the Aborigines. Fish and nardoo cakes! Nardoo cakes are made from the nardoo plant, which is kind of like a four-leaf clover. And it's actually made from the spores, which are ground and cooked, which is important to note, and they made into a cake. Eventually the men get their own nardoo seeds and they think oh, we know how to make nardoo cakes too.

Sarah Dowdy: Aren't we smart!

Katie Lambert: And they just grind it up and fashion it into raw cakes, which is a problem.

Sarah Dowdy: This will be important later.

Katie Lambert: But in the mean time it's getting sold, they're in rags. Wills at some point goes back to the dig tree to leave his journals and a note. He's still writing letters at this point to his people back home and time to be sad, Brahe and Wright had of course been back to the dig tree. But since they haven't seen any signs of the men, they didn't leave any signs either, so Wills goes back and he doesn't know anyone's ever been. So the lesson of the story is always leave a note, for you arrested development fans.

Sarah Dowdy: So, speaking of blazes, we have one too many at camp. Burke accidentally sets fire to all of their stuff. Seriously, does this trip get any worse?

Katie Lambert: Oh, it does. It does. It apparently does.

Sarah Dowdy: The men are getting weaker and weaker. They're living exclusively off nardoo, but it just seems to make them feel worse. They're emaciated, they have very low pulses, so Burke and King decide to go off and try to find some aborigines for help, leaving Wills behind.

Katie Lambert: But Burke too weakens on this trip, and can't go any further. He and King sit down, eat more nardoo, shoot and eat a crow, and by the next morning Burke can't even get up. And he asks King to leave his pistol in his hand and not b other burying him. I guess hoping to conserve King's own energy.

Sarah Dowdy: King goes back to find Wills, but Wills is dead. He'd written a letter to his father that ended, "I think to live about four or five days. Spirits are excellent." Which just broke Sarah's and my heart? The Aborigines had taken some of his clothes from his dead body and they'd covered him with some boughs. So King buries Wills and then he goes looking for the Yandruwandha people who had helped them before.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, he realizes getting Aboriginal help is his only option now.

Sarah Dowdy: But back home, several relief parties have been put together and sent to different parts of Australia, because by this time they should have been back -

Katie Lambert: They're way overdue.

Sarah Dowdy: - they should have heard something from them. And on September 15th, 1861, a surveyor and one part at Cooper's Creek, sees Aborigines yelling and waving and making signs at him, so he goes to them and sees a figure in rags. And he wrote, "before I could pull up I passed it and as I passed it tottered, threw up its hands in an attitude of prayer and fell on th e sand. When I turned back, the figure had partly risen. Hastily dismounting, I was soon beside it, excitedly asking, "who, in the name of wonder, are you?"

Katie Lambert: And guess who it was? It was King.

Sarah Dowdy: He survived, thanks to the Yandruwandha, who had taken care of him. He had managed to find them and they kept him alive. And so now the party united. They go to recovery the bodies of Wills an Burke, and they find Wills. Most of his skull is missing, but he's buried and a Bible verse is read. Burke has missing hands and feet, which is -

Katie Lambert: But his gun is still there, which was in his hand.

Sarah Dowdy: - [inaudible]. He's buried in a Union Jack and people are obsessed with the story. John King is so harassed by women on his way back to Melbourne that they actually have to lock him in his bedroom. It becomes a sensational story.

Katie Lambert: Right. The more the details leak to the media, and then filter out to the press, the more interested people get. The bodies of Burke and Wills they actually insisted on bringing back to Melbourne for a state funeral. Statues of them were built and they were heroes. 100,000 people came to see their remains at the Royal society Headquarters. And, you know, if you were just important enough, they might let you even touch the bones.

Sarah Dowdy: And it's interesting that the perspective at that time was that these men were heroes and it was a story of daring. But it changed over time, and it became more what it really was, which was just a disastrous trip? And Burke and the rest of the part just didn't understand the outback or the Aborigines or how to survive there.

Katie Lambert: Right. The blame game has never quite ended with that. Some people blame Burke because of his arrogance and just his complete lack of knowledge about anything he was doing. The Royal Commission blamed people like Wright, who they said was just sitting around with his feet up, not doing anything.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, why did it take him so long to leave Menindie?

Katie Lambert: Right. And the writer we mentioned earlier, Sarah Murgatroyd, says we should actually blame the Royal Society who had an evil sort of plot to take over a large piece of what is now Queensland.

Sarah Dowdy: But we have a little mystery tied up in this story, and that is how did they die? And people thought for a long time that it was starvation and exhaustion, but it seems that it was actually beriberi, or the lack of vitamin B.

Katie Lambert: And the main culprit here would be that nardoo that we kept mentioning, that looks, you know, like a four leaf clover. It looks so sweet. But it's full of thiaminase, which breaks down vitamin B in your body. It's a toxin. And when you cook it, it gets rid of the toxin -

Sarah Dowdy: The Aborigines know.

Katie Lambert: Right. But if you eat it raw, like Burke and Wills decided they were so much smarter than the Aborigines, the toxin is still there and it robs your body of that desperately needed thiamine. The flour that Grey stole actually has lots of vitamin B in it, so perhaps his body was telling him what he needed. And they actually may have been suffering from beriberi long before they even started eating the nardoo, because of those freshwater mussels, which can also have the same toxin in them.

Sarah Dowdy: So we're left with a question with this disastrous mission. Did anything good come out of it? And a little bit did. The German scientist Ludwig Becker and Herman Beckler actually did some pretty awesome research on the trip. Even though Burke wouldn't let them do much and would rather them work as camel hands, Beckler gathered hundreds of specimens of plants and birds and Becker made lots of drawings and paintings. Even when he was dying, he drew the long-haired rat that was eating his feet.

Katie Lambert: I cannot get over this [inaudible] I probably never will.

Sarah Dowdy: It's too horrible.

Katie Lambert: But the relief parties that were sent out actually expl ored a lot of new area in Australia, much more than the actual expedition. And because of what they learned, it opened up huge pieces of land for grazing. And they also brought back a lot of aboriginal stuff.

Sarah Dowdy: This kind of reminded me of the podcast we did on Franklin and the Northwest Passage trip, because you have the first rounds of explorers being lost and then it's the follow-up guys, the search parties, who actually end up charting a lot of territory and learning a lot.

Katie Lambert: And it's funny, because if Burke and Wills had survived, they probably would have gotten some of the blame for things going horribly wrong. But since they died, they got that romanticized sort of gloss and became these legendary figures that people are just fascinated with. At a November 2005 auction, Burke's leather water bottle went for $286,750.00. For a water bottle. That's completely insane.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, they were immortalized by this failed mission.

Katie Lambert: And before we sign off we have one more little mystery for you. During one of the relief party excursions, a guy named John McKinley found a white man's grave at a placed called Lake Massacre. He thought it was Grey, but it wasn't. And no one to this day knows whose body it is or where Grey's is buried. But that, you know, bring us to one of our favourite themes, which of course is exhumation.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, we had to mention that one. So the consequences of this are the opening of the outback. We talked about the death of a few explorers here, but we also have to consider the untold side of it which is the story of the Aborigines. But by opening up all this vast unexplored area of Australia, it's the beginning of the exploitation of the Aborigines.

Katie Lambert: So if you want to hear more about the Aborigine side of the story go to our home page and search for stolen generation at

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