A well known story?
Every Australian knows the story of Burke & Wills - or so they think. The reality is that Australians generally remember snippets of Grade 7 history which was often taught in a lacklustre way from poorly researched secondary sources that perpetuated myths and misinformation. Di Morris writes of her recollection of Burke & Wills in history class:
I became one of those children emerging from the duress of primary school Social Studies with a lasting apathy towards the dreary lists of names and dates that seemed to comprise Australian history.
'Myths & Mythinformation' : The perpetuation of inaccuracies
There are many sources of myth and misinformation regarding the expedition. Good quality historical research is not an easy task and therefore inaccuracies abound, particularly on 'cut and paste' websites and poorly researched school material. Using Google to search for information on the expedition will point to a host of poorly presented, single page summaries of the Expedition, all of which contain inaccuracies. Here are a few examples of the worst 'cut and paste research' which would qualify for entry into the 'History Hall of Shame.'
• Wilkin's Tourist Maps, Tasmania
Promoting Australia with misinformation.
• School teacher Roma Reilly, Benowa, New South Wales
Teaching misinformation to school kids.
• Enchanted Learning, Washington
This organisation even charge money to read their misinformation.
Another example of poor research is the book, 'The Great Trek' from UK based educational publishers Nelson Thornes. It is said that you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover, and this is a prime example. Although the 2004 book is about the Burke and Wills Expedition and does not mention other Australian explorers, Gordon Lawson's hilarious cover illustration has absolutely nothing to do with the expedition whatsoever. It depicts four men (all looking considerably older than John King's 21 years) with two heavily laden miniature donkeys and not a camel or horse in sight. They are walking past Kata Tjuta/The Olgas, which are 870 kilometers (540 miles) to the west of Burke's track. That this book is labelled 'non-fiction' and is used as an educational tool in the UK's school curriculum is laughable.
Such is life by Joseph Furphy
The fiction work, Such is Life by Joseph Furphy (who used the pseudonym Tom Collins) is one of the reasons why Burke is reported to have taken top-hats, bedsteads and carpets with him on the expedition. The novel, published in 1903 is a fictional account of the life of rural dwellers in southern New South Wales and Victoria during the 1880s. The book comprises a series of loosely interwoven stories of the various people encountered by the narrator as he travels about the countryside. At times the prose is difficult to understand because of the use of Australian vernacular and the author's attempt to convey the accents of Scottish and Chinese personalities.
"Now, Mosey," said Willoughby, courteously but tenaciously, "will you permit me to enumerate a few gentlemen - gentlemen, remember - who have exhibited in a marked degree the qualities of the pioneer. Let us begin with those men of whom you Victorians are so justly proud, Burke and Wills. Then you have....."
"Hold on, hold on," interrupted Mosey. "Don't go no furder, for Gossake. Yer knockin' yerself bad, an' you don't know it. 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, an' never turned a hair - with sich a season as Burke had. Don't sicken a man with yer Burke. He burked that expegition, right enough. I tell you, that (explorer) died for want of his sherry an' biscakes.
Well, the ole man, here, seen him camped, with his carpet, an' his bedsteed, an' (sheol) knows what paravinalia; an' a man nothin' to do but wait on him; an' - look here! - a cubbard made to fit one o' the camels, with compartments for his swell toggery, an' - as true as I'm a livin' sinner! - one o' the compartments made distinctly o' purpose to hold his belltopper!"
"Quite so," replied Willoughby approvingly. "We must bear in mind that Burke had a position to uphold in the party; and that, to maintain subordination, a commander must differentiate himself by" -
"It's Gord's truth, anyhow," remarked Price, rousing his mind from a retrospect of its extensive past. And, no doubt, the old man was right; for a relic, answering to Mosey's description, was sold by auction in Melbourne, with other assets of the expedition, upon Brahe's return.
Extract from Such is life: being certain extracts from the diary of Tom Collins by Joseph Furphy. Sydney: Bulletin Newspaper Co., 1903.
Very few Australians know anything about Burke and Wills...
...says John Sexton, co-producer of the 1985 movie 'Burke and Wills.' He learnt more about the expedition while researching the film script. He summed up the situation very succinctly;
Very few Australians know anything about Burke and Wills - people think they do, but really they've been taught in a most boring way in school which encourages them to think of these people as losers.
When you find out what was really involved in what they were doing...it is a fascinating yarn of human achievement, of courage, greed and treachery; of romance and malice...it's a rich human yarn and I think it is inspiring.
Using hindsight to pass value judgements
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It allows us to take current knowledge and 21st century values and retrospectively apply them to historical events. It then becomes easy to criticise 19th century Victorian values without ever fully understanding the sufferings and hardships endured. Burke and his team were men of the Victorian age. They were pioneers who's value system was a product of the era in which they lived. The expedition itself was ultimately a shambles, but it departed with the best intentions. Today it would be unthinkable to attempt to explore under the conditions endured by these men 150 years ago. Global acculturation, changing humanitarian attitudes towards hardship and individualistic approaches to personal sacrifice mean the achievements seen in 1860 could never be repeated today.
Historians and sturdy boots....a challenge
Historian Richard Henry Tawney once commented that the practical historian should be equipped with a stout pair of boots! It is too easy for travelers in outback Australia, (sitting in air-conditioned Toyota motor-cars, listening to the ipod and drinking cold cans from the Waeco), to criticise the past without having any real understanding of the hardships endured by these pioneers.
Please take the time to read the incredible story of our past. Empathize with the sufferings and hardships endured, marvel at the courage and determination displayed. Jump in your Toyota LandCruiser, visit Cooper's Creek and take the time to enjoy the beauty and feel the solitude and isolation.
Read.....Travel.....Experience.....Understand.... then judge.
Then send me email, I would love to hear from you.
webmaster, historian, postgraduate researcher.