Robert O’Hara Burke, Irish soldier and police officer who achieves fame as an Australian explorer, is born in St. Clerens, County Galway on May 6, 1821. He is the leader of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition which is the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north.
Burke is the second of three sons of James Hardiman Burke, an officer in the British army 7th Royal Fusiliers, and Anne Louisa Burke (nee O’Hara).
Burke enters the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in May 1835. In December 1836 he fails his probationary exam and goes to Belgium to further his education. In 1841, he enters the Austrian army and spends most of his time posted to northern Italy. Towards the end of 1847 he suffers health problems and ultimately resigns from the Austrian army in June 1848.
After returning to Ireland in 1848, he joins the Irish Constabulary (later the Royal Irish Constabulary). He does his cadet training at Phoenix Park Depot in Dublin between November 1849 and January 1850. At the end of 1850 he transfers to the Mounted Police in Dublin.
After the South Australian explorer John McDouall Stuart reaches the centre of Australia, the South Australian parliament offers a reward of £2,000 for the promotion of an expedition to cross the continent from south to north, generally following Stuart’s route. In June 1860, Burke is appointed to lead the Victorian Exploring Expedition with William John Wills, his third-in-command, as surveyor and astronomical observer.
The expedition leaves Melbourne on August 20, 1860 with a total of 19 men, 27 camels and 23 horses. They reach Menindee on September 23, 1860 where several people resign.
Cooper Creek, 400 miles further on, is reached on November 11, 1860 by the advance group, the remainder being intended to catch up. After a break, Burke decides to make a dash to the Gulf of Carpentaria, leaving on December 16, 1860. William Brahe is left in charge of the remaining party. The small team of Burke, William Wills, John King and Charley Gray reach the mangroves on the estuary of the Flinders River, near where the town of Normanton now stands, on February 9, 1861. They never see open ocean due to flooding rains and swamps.
Already weakened by starvation and exposure, progress on the return journey is slow and hampered by the tropical monsoon downpours of the wet season. Gray dies four days before they reach the rendezvous at Cooper Creek. The other three rest for a day when they bury him. They eventually reach the rendezvous point on April 21, 1861, nine hours after the rest of the party had given up waiting and left, leaving a note and some food, as they have not been relieved by the party supposed to be returning from Menindee.
Burke’s party attempts to reach Mount Hopeless, the furthest outpost of pastoral settlement in South Australia, which is closer than Menindee, but fail and return to Cooper Creek. While waiting for rescue Wills dies of exhaustion and starvation. Soon after, Burke also dies, at a place now called Burke’s Waterhole on Cooper Creek in South Australia. The exact date of Burke’s death is uncertain, but has generally been accepted to be June 28, 1861.
King survives with the help of Aborigines until he is rescued in September by Alfred William Howitt. Howitt buries Burke and Wills before returning to Melbourne. In 1862 Howitt returns to Cooper Creek and disinters Burke and Wills, taking them first to Adelaide and then by steamer to Melbourne where they are laid in state for two weeks. On January 23, 1863 Burke and Wills receive a State Funeral and are buried in Melbourne General Cemetery. Ironically, on that same day John McDouall Stuart and his companions, having successfully completed the south-north crossing, are received back at a large ceremony in Adelaide.