"More like a picnic party": Burke and Wills: an analysis of the Victorian exploring expedition of 1860-1861

Phoenix, David Gary (2017) "More like a picnic party": Burke and Wills: an analysis of the Victorian exploring expedition of 1860-1861. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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The Burke and Wills Expedition is one of the icons of Australian history, but surprisingly it has attracted little academic attention, with most of the vast body of literature about the Expedition being written by amateur historians for popular audiences. Few writers have thoroughly investigated and analysed the primary sources available. In addition, many of these sources are more difficult to interpret than the records of other Australian exploring expeditions because a number of important records went missing soon after the Expedition. The Expedition leader, Burke, did not keep a journal, almost uniquely for such an expedition, and this means that there is not even a clear understanding of the actual route taken. While some authors have travelled through the country traversed by Burke and Wills, none have tried to find and follow the exact route. The lack of solid information means that some aspects of the Expedition have become shrouded in myth. This thesis aims to investigate the Expedition from its inception to its end, placing it in the context of Australian colonial exploration. It corrects many of the myths and misconceptions that have crept into the Burke and Wills story, provides a reasonably accurate route and detailed chronology for the Expedition, explains some of the puzzles about the actions of the participants, and re-evaluates the Expedition's importance for Australian history. This was done by finding and analysing all the records left by and about the Expedition, using navigation and surveying techniques to evaluate Wills' performance as expedition navigator, and walking the route of the Expedition, initially in short stages, and then in 2008 following the entire route at the same time of the year as the Expedition took place. By analysing the Expedition records, including art by Expedition scientists, and the landscape and its relation to the Expedition – a methodology called 'historical human ecology' – the author was able to trace the actual route more closely than anyone to date, and thereby found why Burke and Wills did not reach the open sea at the Gulf, and why on their return they failed to reach their goal of Mount Hopeless, resulting soon after in their deaths. The study looks at the first use of camels in inland exploration, their procurement and utilisation and how camels allowed Burke to attempt a rapid journey form Cooper Creek to the Gulf. The study also explains the Expedition's relations with Aboriginal people, and shows that contrary to myth, the Expedition did use Aboriginal guides and even preferred Aboriginal placenames. Burke's decision not to rely on Aboriginal guides in northern Australia was a consequence of his use of camels, which freed him from the need to use guides to find water, rather than to racism. It further explains the circumstances of the Expedition leaders' deaths and shows that they were not 'poisoned' by nardoo, and that their relations with the Yandruwandha people of Cooper Creek can be explained by normal cultural beliefs and standards on both sides rather than inexplicable hostility by Burke as myth has it. The study also briefly considers how Eurocentric ideas of the arid interior of Australia changed as a result of the Expedition.

Item ID: 50833
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Date Deposited: 05 Feb 2018 04:17
FoR Codes: 21 HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY > 2103 Historical Studies > 210303 Australian History (excl Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History) @ 100%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9505 Understanding Past Societies > 950503 Understanding Australias Past @ 100%
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