Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Burke, Wills and ... Rudd?



Getting the whole outfit together was no small task. The 500 yards long caravanserai comprised 19 men, 26 camels, 23 horses, and various wagons carrying 20 tons of supplies and equipment.

Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper's Creek, Sunday evening, 21 April 1861. Painting by John LongstaffAmong the 'equipment' were cedar-topped dining tables, 12 dandruff brushes, four enema kits and assorted items of sartorial finery belonging to the leader of the troop, including the top hat which he wore as, astride his charger, 'Billy', he led the Victorian Exploring Expedition out of Royal Park, on to Flemington Road and thence to Mount Alexander Road heading for Essendon and distant parts north.

During this month 150 years ago the Victorian Exploring Expedition was in the last stages of its preparations before assembling in Royal Park near the Sarah Sands Hotel, on Melbourne's then northern outskirts, for its planned departure on Monday 20 August 1860.

The flamboyant leader was, of course, Robert O'Hara Burke, and the grand venture — inspired by the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, later the Royal Society — has become known by its leader's name and that of his deputy, William John Wills. The colourful departure, some hours later than planned, marked by speeches and ceremonies and watched by 15,000 people, mirrored the apparent panache of the leader.

Burke, an Irishman, was a charismatic figure, a handsome, dashing, soldier-turned-policeman with a pleasing combination of blarney and devil-may-care abandon. Heavily bearded and with what was thought to be a duelling scar on one cheek — though Burke himself never confirmed this while allowing it to be assumed — he was a romantic figure in a time of stirring romantic deeds dominated by extraordinary characters.

By the time Burke and Wills stirred their cumbrous team into action, Richard Burton had made his famous journey to Mecca and then to the African Great Lakes while David Livingstone was well embarked on his Zambezi expedition during which he would have his legendary encounter with Henry 'Dr Livingstone I presume' Stanley. Closer to home, McDouall Stewart had already penetrated 'the great silence' north of Menindie.

To the gaze of the Philosophical Institute members, Burke looked like an exciting version of those and other intrepid adventurers, the man to bring the colony of Victoria to the attention of the questing world.


"To those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first assign the wrong tasks."


But Burke's apparent advantages, attractive to a committee governed by considerations of class and position rather than actual qualifications, belied his flaws. He had no experience at all of exploration and a poor sense of direction. Above all, he was capable of volcanic rages, often took massive offence at trivial slights, would rant and rave at underlings, was given to making decisions on impulse, took advice from unreliable and often inexperienced people and was a poor judge of character.

The latter weakness resulted in his appointment of George Landells as his second-in-command. Landells, mirroring Burke in ambition and volatility, clashed with his superior, left the expedition early and sought to destroy Burke's reputation thereafter.

Burke had already made the initial mistake, against advice, of setting out at a time that would bring him into the northern part of his journey in the wet season. His incandescent rages, abusive language, misjudgements and wrong decisions were exacerbated by the conditions they faced as a result.

When the expedition seemed to have disappeared, the 'mulga wire' all over the bush rang with stories about Burke and Wills, whom the exploration committee deemed intrepid but whom bushmen in the know called insane. Nosey Alf's observation in Joseph Furphy's wonderful novel Such is Life was typical:

Wills was a pore harmless weed, so he kin pass; but look 'ere — there ain't a drover nor yet a bullock driver, nor yet a stock-keeper, from 'ere to 'ell that couldn't 'a' bossed that expegition straight through to the Gulf, an' back agen [in the dry season], an' never turned a hair. Don't sicken a man with yer Burke. He burked that expegition, right enough.

A hundred and fifty years on, the hubristic, irascible Burke and the 'harmless' Wills have long since attained the kind of heroic status that Australians seem inclined to assign to catastrophic failure. But perhaps, in mid 2010 especially, we might see the expedition's story as being more about the strains, perils and transience of leadership than about fading hope and lonely death.

Burke was a talented man but without close friends or caring advisers. He was governed, when under stress, by exasperation, impulse and an intensity of anger which humiliated underlings and made enemies of his equals. The bush was not his milieu. A long, taxing trek requiring sometimes Job-like patience, sometimes swift and pinpoint decisions and, constantly, the suppression of self and ego in the interests of teamwork and the persuasive and convincing exercise of authority was not for him the right kind of challenge.

To those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first assign the wrong tasks.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life.  

Main image: Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper's Creek, Sunday evening, 21 April 1861. Painting by John Longstaff

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Burke, Wills, explorers, George Landells, Joseph Furphy, Such is Life



submit a comment

Existing comments

The article's OK,though a bit laboured. Despite the mention of Rudd in the headline there is no mention of Rudd in the article. Why so? Or, in the context, is it merely a cheap and unworthy slur? Not Eureka Street's style at all.

Martin | 14 July 2010  

The point about leadership is well made, the connection with the downfall of former PM Rudd very clear. Why this should be read as 'a cheap and unworthy slur' escapes me, especially in the light of what is now emerging as the generally held view about why Mr Rudd lost the top job, articulated, for example, in the Bob Hawke interview on ABC TV last evening.

Rick | 14 July 2010  

Two small corrections: the wooden table taken by the explorers was a light folding table for map reading, etc.; it was not a 'dining table'. There is no record of the 'assorted items of sartorial finery' supposedly supplied for Burke. He was in fact a notoriously careless and sloppy dresser. The story of his top hat, though diverting, is a complete fiction, invented by Joseph Furphy. Every known image of the hatted Burke, including photographs taken on the day of departure in Royal Park, show him wearing his characteristic high-crowned wide-brimmed 'sugarloaf' hat.

Gerard Hayes | 14 July 2010  

I found the article very interesting as far as Burke and Wills went, but I do not really believe Kevin Rudd's personality and leadership style is reflected in the character of Burke. In fact I think to liken it so does Rudd a grave injustice.

John Whitehead | 14 July 2010  

Billy McMahon, a man of culture and good manners, never known to blow a fuse. Gough Whitlam, prudence is his middle name. Malcolm Fraser, a polite gentleman from over Wannon way. Bob Hawke, the light-hearted lovable fellow, never got into a squabble. Paul Keating, the model of self-control and good manners, at all times. John Howard, a picture-perfect example of how to avoid conflict and make friends. Kevin Rudd, the most disagreeable, argumentative individual we know, a person with volcanic rages and no judge of character. Kevin Rudd, forever blowing it. Kevin Rudd, worse tempers than a Victorian explorer, unable to pick a wet season from climate change. Kevin Rudd, the most hubristic boss cocky ever to pull on an Akubra. Kevin Rudd, the very name echoes nastiness. Kevin Rudd, a man without vision or insight. Kevin Rudd, don't tell me about Kevin Rudd! Julia Gillard, lovely lady of impeccable manners, never one to start a fight, civil in all company.

Desiderius Erasmus | 14 July 2010  

In the interests of historical accuracy: the Royal Society of Victoria had already formed prior to the selection of Burke to lead the Victorian Exploring Expedition in 1860. It obtained its Royal Charter in 1859 and its hall was built and opened in the same year.

Helen | 14 September 2010  

Similar Articles

Charity tourists find god in India

  • Tim Kroenert
  • 15 July 2010

Sydney filmmaker Claire McCarthy spent two months working among Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. Like many Westerners with egalitarian pretensions, the characters in her film The Waiting City arrive in India bearing a tourist's naivety.


The thirty good priests

  • Brian Doyle
  • 13 July 2010

For every greedy evil rapacious liar priest .. there are thirty great and subtle men .. Who wake alone quite early and don their vocations .. Willingly like a thorny endlessly tumultuous prayer