Plains Folk

Burke and Wills


The title of Stephen Ambrose’s biography of Meriwether Lewis, commander of the Corps of Discovery, is Undaunted Courage. Although it is clear that Lewis had some issues-his judgment was faulty in some instances, and his mental state deteriorated over time-nevertheless, the tone of our remembrance of Lewis & Clark is heroic.

The Lewis & Clark bicentennial was a joyous celebration, both for the financial benefits it brought western states through heritage tourism and for the positive storyline the expedition provided. Even Lewis’s slobbery Newfoundland dog, Seaman, loomed heroic, the subject of bronze statues and flowery tributes. I have a fluffy little Seaman dog in my office, and during the bicentennial years, I ate a few Lewis & Clark candy bars.

Driving through Queensland, Australia, a couple of years ago, we spied a signpost for the Burke & Wills Motel. Recognizing the names of Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills as Australian explorers comparable in fame to Lewis & Clark in America, we checked out the motel. It appeared quite comfortable.

Which is ironic, given the history of Burke & Wills and their place in Australian memory. The Burke & Wills expedition of 1860-61 was a disaster that led to the deaths of the two leaders and five others. Its story is one of bad luck, to be sure, but also considerable mismanagement.

Burke & Wills were chosen by the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, in Melbourne, on the southeastern coast, to lead an exploring expedition across the continent to the Gulf of Carpentaria, in the north. The route lay through rocky gibber plains and formidable sandhills. Burke, in particular, the leader, was not really up to the task.

There are two good books on Burke and Wills: an older one, Cooper’s Creek, by Alan Moorehead, and a newer account, The Dig Tree, by Sarah Murgatroyd. Moorehead intimates that Burke’s leadership was unsound because he was Irish. Burke was a drinker, and he did have some rather eccentric personal habits. Murgatroyd’s interpretation of the disaster is different. She provides fascinating analysis of how malnutrition and B vitamin deficiencies likely sapped the judgment of the explorers.

The interesting thing, in retrospect, is that Burke & Wills starved in the middle of a country where countless other people throve. All around them were aboriginal tribespeople, most of them friendly and helpful, willing to show the whitefellas how to harvest and eat bush tucker. Yet Burke & Wills languished and perished.

The textbooks, the portraits, the monuments, the stories told in Australia make Burke & Wills into an object lesson. Ours is a hard and hostile land, the stories say. We must be strong, and wise, in order to live here. And we must not expect too much, but accept failure as a fact of life.

Neither the story of Burke & Wills, nor the moral lessons attributed to it, are things that Americans would embrace. Australians and Americans are cordial friends, we get on well together, but we are not the same.

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