Burke & Wills Web
The online digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020

& the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860

Andrew Jackson
London: Smith, Elder & Co.
(Ferguson 10857)

Chapter 2

  • Mr Burke's Family.

James Hardiman Burke, Esq representative of one of the old families in the county of Galway, in Ireland, was engaged, like his sons after him, in the service of is country, having been present with the 7th Royal Fusiliers at the capture of the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. After having served several years in the army, he retired to the family estates at St. Clerans, and died in January 1854.

His eldest, and now only surviving son, John Hardiman Burke, served seventeen years in the 88th Foot, with whom he was employed in the Mediterranean, West Indies, Nova Scotia, and other foreign stations. He accompanied his regiment to Turkey on the outbreak of the Crimean war, and was present at the battles of Alma, Inkermann, and Balaklava. He served on the staff of Lieutenant-General Sir John Burgoyne during the siege of Sebastopol, was promoted for his services to a majority, and afterwards joined the 3rd Buffs, with which regiment he is at present serving in the Mediterranean. The second son, James Thomas Burke, also entered the army at an early age. A clever mathematician and skilful engineer, a high-spirited and daring soldier, brave even to a fault, he lost his life at the battle of Giurgevo, on the Danube, on the 7th of July, 1854. Having, as a lieutenant of Engineers, accompanied Sir John Burgoyne to the seat of war, previous to the embarkation of the British expedition for the East, he assisted Omar Pasha in making arrangements for the defence of Silistria (*Footnote; Nolan's History of the Russian War), and being like his countryman Butler, a volunteer in the service of the Sultan, entered that place among the gallant bands by whom it was afterwards so bravely defended. When the siege was raised, he joined Hussein Pasha at the fortress of Rustchuk, and strongly remonstrated with that general on his projected attack on the posts near Giurgevo, on the grounds that for certain obvious strategical reasons, the Russians must speedily evacuate the town without causing any expenditure of life or labour. The hot-headed Hussein, however, who directed the operations from behind the walls of Rustchuk, decided on making the assault, and the brave Burke, like a gallant soldier, having first performed his duty in pointing out the rashness of the measure, immediately threw his whole soul into the work. The following account of his heroic death is taken from Russell's History of the Crimean War:

When he first leaped on shore from the boat, six soldiers charged him. Two he shot with his revolver, one he cut down with his sword, the rest turned and fled. While he was encouraging the Turks who were in the stream to row quietly to the land, and forming them in line as they disembarked, conspicuous as he was in full uniform and by his white cap cover, a number of riflemen advanced from behind a ditch and took deliberate aim at him. He charged them with headlong gallantry, and, as he got near, was struck by a ball, which broke his jawbone; but he rushed on, shot three men dead at close quarters, and cleft two others, through helmet and all, into the brain, with his sword. He was then surrounded, and while engaged in cutting his way with heroic courage through the ranks of the enemy, a sabre-cut from behind nearly severed his head from his body, and he fell dead, covered with wounds, of which thirty-three, consisting of sabre gashes, lance and bayonet thrusts, blows from the butts of muskets, and bullet-holes, were afterwards found on his body.

He was the first British officer killed in the Russian war. Two Sappers, who were with him, stood by him to the last, but were afterwards swept away, with hundreds of others, before the walls of Sebastopol. One of these, Anderson, a most distinguished soldier, recovered the dead body of his officer on the morning after the battle, at the imminent peril of his own life, and was rewarded by Omar Pasha with the Order of the Medjidie for his heroic conduct.

The third son, Robert O'Hara Burke was born in 1821, and commenced his career as a cadet of the Woolwich Academy, but left it to enter upon a higher course of studies in Belgium. He afterwards entered the Austrian service as cadet in the Seventh Reuss Regiment of Hungarian Hussars, and at an early period obtained his lieutenancy. Quitting this service, he procured an appointment in the Irish Constabulary in 1848, and was almost adored by the men of that force, several of whom sent in their resignations when he left, and proceeded to Australia, that they might have an opportunity of continuing to serve under him. As another instance of the remarkable attachment he was accustomed to inspire in those connected with him, it may be mentioned that a woman named Ellen Doherty, of the age of sixty-five years, who had been his nurse, and whose heart yearned with a longing to see her 'dear Master Robert,' as she still continued to call him, left her comfortable home near the family seat of St Clerans, in the county of Galway, where she had been well cared for as an old retainer of the family, and, unknown to any one, making use of the savings accumulated to sustain her in her old age, travelled, unprotected, alone, with the best feelings of her heart clinging close round him, to try and see her darling once more before she died. Alas! that meeting was never to take place in this world. She reached Melbourne after he had set out on the expedition from which he never returned alive.

It is pleasant to know that her case excited the greatest sympathy in Australia, and that provision was afterwards made for her comfortable support by the Government of the colony.

Mr Burke emigrated in 1853, and was soon appointed acting inspector of police in Melbourne, whence he was transferred to a command at Carlsruhe, being soon after advanced to the Beechworth district, to relieve Mr Price, the police magistrate, with promotion to the post of district inspector. On the news of the Crimean war he hastened home, on leave of absence, in the hope of getting a commission; but finding himself too late to share in the glories of the campaign, he returned to resume his Australian duties, in the discharge of which he rendered himself most popular. In 1858 he was removed to Castlemaine, and was comfortably stationed there, when he applied for and obtained the appointment of Leader of the Victorian Exploring Expedition.

From the moment it became probable that he would be selected to fill this responsible post, Mr Burke is said to have diligently prepared himself for it, by devoting himself, with his habitual energy, to qualifying for it in every possible way. He at once commenced an active examination of the records of previous explorers, so as to become thoroughly acquainted with whatever had befallen them, as well as to acquire such knowledge of the interior, and remote coasts, as had already been placed on record. He had been at all times an accomplished and daring horseman, and now entered upon a course of severe pedestrian exercise, accustoming himself to fatigue and privation of every possible kind that an attempt to traverse the vast untrodden wilds of Central Australia was likely to bring to his experience.

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