Episode 20 - Everything Here is Trying to Kill Us (Australia Week)

Updated: Apr 19

Sam's Episode Notes: The Burke and Wills expedition. A balls-up from start to finish


The Burke and Wills expedition of1860-1861 was an attempt to cross Australia from the South to the North via a 2,000 mile inland route from Melbourne to Carpentaria. At time time, the inland areas of Australia were almost totally unknown and unexplored by Europeans – which is pretty astonishing to consider in one way, and in another, pretty bloody obvious because there's very little there. Including water – at most times of the year. But the world was shrinking and the Southern Australian states were desperate to connect themselves to the newly arrived telegraph system via Java, connecting the land down under to the rest of the empire, Europe and beyond. And so a prize of £2,000 was set up by the South Australian Government to plan a route for an overland cable from North to South. In 1857 the Philosophical Institute formed an Exploration Committee to set up the expedition. The two leaders of this committee were incredibly experienced bushmen with knowledge of inland Australia and how to survive. Unfortunately they also hated each other and constantly vetoed one another, so Robert O'Hara Burke was chosen to lead the expedition. He was an Irishman, a former soldier in the Austrian army since he'd failed the British entrance exam, and Irish, then Australian police officer. He had no experience of the outdoors whatsoever, and turned out to be a pretty dreadful leader. William John Wills was appointed the chief navigator and surveyor. He had more experience than Burke, but since he wasn't in charge it didn't mean much. So the preparations started well. The group realised that camels would be a great way to cross a desert, so they imported 24 from India – now Australia is absolutely full of camels and they are considered a bit of a pest, but at this time there were only 7 in the country. Because if there's one thing the white settler in Australia knows how to do Tom, it's maintain the delicate ecosystem of the country by being very very careful with what you import. They also bought six of the seven camels already in Australia from a zoo in Melbourne. I'm not sure if I feel sympathy for the camels or not... But anyway, sensible idea. Unfortunately, that's as sensible as it got. I'd like to take a moment now Tom to go through some of the stupidity presented when it came to packing. Given that the expedition was 19 men, how many carts do you think they filled, in addition to loading all those camels up? Six heavy wagons, 26 laden camels, and 23 horses. Three of those wagons were loaded with nothing but two years worth of beef jerky, because they decided to kill the cows in advance rather than let them walk alongside. And then there were the home comforts. An oak stationary cabinet. An oak dining table and chairs. A selection of flags and fireworks. A giant Chinese gong. And a huge quantity of rum, 270 litres, bought by their handler George James Landells and designed to keep the camels drunk enough not to be arseholes and prevent scurvy. And so on August 20th 1860 they set off from Royal Park in Melbourne, with 15,000 spectators waving them on. One of the wagons broke down before leaving the park, and by the end of the day, they'd only made it 7 miles. Two more wagons broke down. The poor roads and wet winter weather made progress so slow that they were only covering around 20 miles a day for the first week, and by 12th October, 2 months after setting off, they'd only gotten as far as the town of Menindee, around 470 miles away. For context, it took the regular coach service a week.

So the preparations started well. The group realised that camels would be a great way to cross a desert, so they imported 24 from India – now Australia is absolutely full of camels and they are considered a bit of a pest, but at this time there were only 7 in the country. Because if there's one thing the white settler in Australia knows how to do Tom, it's maintain the delicate ecosystem of the country by being very very careful with what you import. They also bought six of the seven camels already in Australia from a zoo in Melbourne. I'm not sure if I feel sympathy for the camels or not... But anyway, sensible idea. Unfortunately, that's as sensible as it got. I'd like to take a moment now Tom to go through some of the stupidity presented when it came to packing. Given that the expedition was 19 men, how many carts do you think they filled, in addition to loading all those camels up? Six heavy wagons, 26 laden camels, and 23 horses. Three of those wagons were loaded with nothing but two years worth of beef jerky, because they decided to kill the cows in advance rather than let them walk alongside. And then there were the home comforts. An oak stationary cabinet. An oak dining table and chairs. A selection of flags and fireworks. A giant Chinese gong. And a huge quantity of rum, 270 litres, bought by their handler George James Landells and designed to keep the camels drunk enough not to be arseholes and prevent scurvy. And so on August 20th 1860 they set off from Royal Park in Melbourne, with 15,000 spectators waving them on. One of the wagons broke down before leaving the park, and by the end of the day, they'd only made it 7 miles. Two more wagons broke down. The poor roads and wet winter weather made progress so slow that they were only covering around 20 miles a day for the first week, and by 12th October, 2 months after setting off, they'd only gotten as far as the town of Menindee, around 470 miles away. For context, it took the regular coach service a week.


Things got bad really quickly. Monsoon rains made the going slower on the way back, and the group were forced to shoot and eat their pack animals one by one, abandoning supplies. Then they were forced to eat wildflowers and a giant python they caught, which made Burke and one of the other explorers ill. Burke thought the other guy was faking it, obviously, and beat him up. Gray died of dyssentry on April 17th. They stopped for a day to bury him, arriving back at cooper creek just four days later, to discover it had been abandoned a few hours before they arrived with some food and an apologetic note saying they'd waited five weeks longer than asked, and had started to run out of food, so they'd buried what they had left under a mark on a tree and gone south. So what did Burke do? He set off on a different route, hoping to reach a remote farm settlement at the very aptly named Mount Hopeless – 240 miles through the desert. He left a note outlining the plan in case a rescue party turned up, but like a twat had buried it back in the supplies box and hadn't re-marked the tree to let anyone know – so unless someone went and re-dug the supplies box up, no one would know the plan. In fact, a rescue mission of two men had turned up a couple of weeks later, but seeing the box was buried and the tree wasn't re-marked, had assumed Burke and Wills had never turned up. In fact they were just 30 miles away, along with the only other survivor, John King, getting into more trouble. Their two remaining camels had gotten so sick they'd had to shoot them, which meant they couldn't carry nearly enough water for the journey through the desert. As a result, they'd been plodding along cooper creek for two weeks at around five miles a day. The local Aboriginals had been helping them out, giving them fish and bread in exchange for sugar. They eventually returned to their camp at the end of May 1861, again missing the rescue expedition by a week or so. At this point, whilst Wills wasn't looking, Burke decided to shoot at the Aboriginals, who ran away and stopped feeding them. Within a month, both Burke and Wills died, on or around June 28th. Wills first, Burke shortly afterwards. King stayed with his body for two days before setting off to another nearby Aboriginal camp, who took him in and fed him for two months until a rescue expedition sent out from Melbourne found him and took him home – the only survivor of the expedition who'd made it to the North. There were actually six rescue expeditions sent out via land and sea in 1861, after a media furore at the fact the explorers hadn't been heard from in six months. A couple of these expeditions actually managed to make the crossing, one from South to North which got stuck in the swamps again and had to head East for the north queensland coast, and another party who sailed to the gulf of carpentia then went from North to South, winning the £2000 prize. And the Yandruwandha tribe, who had helped Burke, Wills and King in their last few weeks and had sheltered King, were given special breastplates from the Victorian government for their services and humanity in helping others. Burke and Wills were buried with ceremonial honours in January 1862, and 40,000 people lined the procession route. The expedition hadn't been a complete waste, it had started to map the inner Australian territories and established there was no great lakes or inland sea, and ironically the rescue operations had between them mapped huge swathes of territory. But overall it was a massive failure, run by an arsehole.



Tom's notes: The wreck of the Sydney Cove in 1796 and the subsequent adventures of a group of its crew


· I know, I always like to talk about shipwrecks, revelling in the discomfort and agony of the few crew members who manage to survive

o That’s because I’m a big boy

o Right now I’m wearing a spiderman outfit, cowboy hat and pirate cutlass

NARRATIVE OF THE SHIPWRECK OF CAPTAIN HAMILTON AND THE CREW OF THE SYDNEY COVE. 1797-8. Asiatic Mirror; Calcutta.

The Sydney Cove set sail from Calcutta to Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) in November

· The boat and its cargo were owned by a private trading company hoping to make a profit on the goods in Sydney (mostly alcohol).

· December; the boat experiences severe gales and heavy winds

· The weather was generally very bad until mid-January

o By this point, a leak in the boat had developed and was leaking between 6-8 inches per hour

o Captain Hamilton decides to fother with a thrummed sail

§ Fothering was the act of wrapping a sail around the underside of a boat, wear leak was present, to stop the leak

§ Thrummed; sew rope into the sail to make it thick like a matt

o The leak reduces to 4-6 inches per hour

· In late January the ship hits yet more gales

o The masts are damaged

o The leak worsens

o The crew by this point are not in fine fettle

§ Lascars; Bengali men

§ They were so cold that they could not operate the pumps on deck

§ Instead, they set to work bailing water the old fashioned way under the deck where they were sheltered

· The work was so hard that 3 men actually died from exhaustion!

o There is a small improvement in the weather so another sail is thrummed and fothered

§ This reduced the leak from 11-12 to 8 inches per hour

· Early February they hit another storm and there is another leak

o This time too serious to continue sailing

o The ship turns and aims for land, taking on water at a horrible rate

o Much of the cargo is thrown overboard

o With water up to the low deck hatches, they spot land but it looks rocky with sheer cliffs

o They decide to battle on until morning with the ship become increasingly difficult to manoeuvre

o In the morning they find a better landing spot, the ship is driven onto a sandbank and the longboat (a life raft) is used to get everyone to safety

· They are on Preservation Island which is an Island in the Furneaux Group between Tasmania and South East Australia

o They dig a well, find some adequate water and then begin to equip the longboat for a journey to the nearest settlement – Sydney

§ Captain Hamilton remains with the crew and Hugh Thompson and William Clarke are sent off with 15 of the strongest men (mostly lascars)

o The men who remained had very little food; 1 tea cup of rice per day

o They made tents out of sails but the island is very exposed and the strong winds soon blew these down.

o From the end of February to the start of June (3 months!) these men lived a miserable existence

· In June they spot a longboat looking for them

o They are very excited and then it disappears!

o The men light a fire and do everything they can to attract attention

o The next day a schooner comes into view and send a jolly-boat shore to fetch the men

o This ship gathers most of the men and lots of cargo. A few men are left behind to man the remaining cargo that couldn’t fit on the boat

o 15 days later, the men arrive in Port Jackson

Meanwhile…

· The longboat sent for help is wrecked within days (start of March)

· Imagination cannot picture a situation more melancholy than that to which the unfortunate crew was reduced—wrecked a second time on the inhospitable shore of New South Wales; cut off from all hopes of rejoining their companions; without provisions, without arms, or any probable means either of subsistence or defence, they seemed doomed to all the horrors of a lingering death, with all their misfortunes unknown and unpitied. In this trying situation they did not abandon themselves to despair; they determined to proceed to the northward in the hopes of reaching Port Jackson, although the distance of the settlement, the unfrequented deserts they were to traverse, and the barbarous hordes among whom they had to gain their way, presented difficulties that required no ordinary share of fortitude to encounter and perseverance to overcome; but danger and difficulty lessen as they approach—the mind, as if its ultimate strength were reserved for arduous occasions, reconciles itself with calm resignation to sufferings from which, on a more distant view, it would recoil with horror.

We have Mr Clark’s journal!

They find themselves washed up on Ninety Mile Beach on the Australia mainland

· 18th March, they encounter 14 aboriginal Australians who are completely starkers

o These aboriginals clearly did not understand clothing because they were captivated by what the men were wearing; thinking it part of their bodies

o The natives on this part of the coast appear strong and muscular, with heads rather large in proportion to their bodies. The flat nose, the broad thick lips which distinguish the African, also prevail amongst the people on this coast. Their hair is long and straight, but they are wholly inattentive to it, either as to cleanliness or in any other respect. It serves them in lieu of a towel to wipe their hands as often as they are daubed with blubber or shark oil, which is their principal article of food. This frequent application of rancid grease to their heads and bodies renders their approach exceedingly offensive. Their ornaments consist chiefly of fish-bones or kangaroo-teeth, fastened with gum or glue to the hair of the temples and on the forehead. A piece of reed or bone is also wore through the septum, or cartilage, of the nose, which is pierced for the admission of this ornament. Upon the whole, they present the most hideous and disgusting figures that savage life can possibly afford.

· 21st March

o See some more Aboriginals from a distance

§ No females yet

· Lots of river crossings with rafts

· 29th March

o Across a river, encounter more natives who they placate with strips of cloth

o They see their wives and children

§ The men did not think proper to admit of our coming sufficiently near to have a full or perfect view of their ladies, but we were near enough to discern that they were the most wretched objects we had ever seen—equally filthy as the men, coarse and ill-featured, and so devoid of delicacy or any appearance of it that they seem to have nothing even human about them but the form

· 30th March

o Some of the natives follow them and help them over a river

· 2nd April

o They bump into some more of the Aborigines from before and they sit down and have a nice meal of shellfish

· 5th April

o Catch a shark; 4ft long!

· 8th April

o Encounter 50 armed men

§ Placated them again with cloth

o Next day, the men become aggressive but the men targeted the older men, assuming them to be chiefs, and gave them gifts which seemed to calm them down

§ They also get a kangaroo tale that they make into a soup

o The travellers managed to avoid a fight even though they had guns, pistols, swords and clubs

· 11th April

o Encounter more Aboriginies and are invited to their home for a meal of mussels

o These were apparently at war with their neighbours

· 13th April

o More aboriginals help them across a river on some really difficult to handle bark boats

· 16th April

o 9 men left behind – too tired to carry on

· 20th April

o Helped by a guide

· 21st April

o Given fish by the tribesmen of the guide

· 26th April

o Encounter more aggressive natives and some of the travellers are wounded

· Mid May

o They are spotted by a fishing boat and rescued. Only 3 men survived (Clarke, Bennet and a lascar). Evidence of others being murdered by the natives

o Travelled 740kms

Interestingly, a whaleboat attempted to get to the wreck of the ship to pinch some provisions a few months later. The crew on this boat encountered a group of escaped convicts who had hoped to refloat the boat to escape! But they became marooned on an island.

There is a museum in Launceston with the world’s oldest bottle of beer from the ship

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