The story of Burke and Wills is one of the greatest tales of triumph and tragedy in the history of European colonisation of Australia. More than anything, it contrasts the European’s inability to understand, survive in and adapt to an ever-changing and unforgiving environment with the skills and knowledge of the Aboriginal people who had learnt not only to adapt but to respect and protect the land. In this regard, it is easy to think that not much has changed since the 1860s.
The tale of the Burke and Wills expedition has been told a number of times and from a number of perspectives. It is still controversial and still raises unanswered questions. I had always thought that the best and most complete version of the story was Sarah Murgatroyd’s The Dig Tree, but Peter Fitzsimons and his team of very gifted researchers give it a new life and vibrancy. They do so with a level of detail and story-telling craft that, when you reach the end, you marvel that you have in fact been totally enthralled for over 600 pages.
Epic tale of tragedy
Although adhering to all the rigour and standards required of an historical work, Fitzsimons tells a story and it is this storytelling style that makes the history so appealing. Like many of his other books, the story is told in the present tense as it unfolds, using newspaper articles, letters, diaries and reports in chronological order. This gives the story a momentum and encourages the reader to keep going, to push forward like the expedition itself, to what you know will be the inevitable end – the demise of Burke and Wills. Everyone knows how it ends but you are continually thinking ‘if only’ and ‘why did they do that’.
As with every epic tale of tragedy, there are heroes and villains, although for the most part in this story, they are often the same people and their motives and actions are complex and puzzling. This is most apparent with Burke himself, a man whose character exhibited impulsiveness and authoritarianism while he could also be kind, considerate and understanding. In retrospect, many commentators thought he was the wrong man to lead the exploration, although some thought it even before the ridiculously overburdened expedition left Melbourne.
No doubt every reader will have their own opinions about who to blame – the Royal Society and the Expedition Committee, the mercurial George Landells, the camel master and originally second in command, or William Wright, the eventual third in command who waited far too long to take the relief party back to Coopers Creek? Was William Wills, intelligent and uncomplaining, the hero of the whole affair or should that honour go to John King, the only survivor of the group who actually reached the Gulf of Carpentaria? Would Alfred Howitt who lead the party to find Burke and Wills have made a better leader in the first place? Did the Royal Commission actually achieve much and was it too inconclusive? This book sets the scene for a new debate.
There is no doubt that when the remains of Burke and Wills were brought back to Melbourne in controversial and macabre circumstances, people regarded them both as heroes. Prior to what was to be the very first State Funeral held in Victoria, more than 100,000 people visited their coffins lying in state. On the day of the funeral, most of Melbourne lined the streets for the funeral procession and crowded the cemetery. Monuments were erected in many locations across Victoria and commemorations continued to be held annually. This was one of the biggest and most intriguing stories of the century.
Expedition’s multicultural nature
The book tells the story masterfully but it doesn’t provide any real analysis of its meaning or implications. A lot of that has been done before, particularly in the aftermath and the 50 years following the tragedy. It is surprising to read the acerbic and often insightful commentary from the Argus newspaper at the time and to speculate on how the media coverage would look in the realm of today’s press. One hundred and sixty years later the story needs a new perspective and a new understanding. Fitzsimons specialises in Australian history, stories and characters, and it was inevitable that he should have turned his attention to Burke and Wills. If you think you know all there is to know about Burke and Wills, then think again. The detail and depth of this book will give you much to think about.
One thing that stands out in this ill-fated venture is the multicultural nature of the expedition, a fact that should not be forgotten in today’s political climate. Irish, German, English, Indian, American, Afghan and Aboriginal – a rich and diverse mixture that has contributed to the development of Australian culture and identity. The Burke and Wills story is also part of that history and one that has probably faded somewhat from view and popular imagination. Peter Fitzsimons’ book may hopefully bring it back to life and rekindle some of the debate and some of the discussion about many of the lessons and issues it raises. If you’re looking for some entertainment and introspection during the holiday period, then here it is.
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