Robert Ollara Burke, an Australian explorer, born in county Gal way, Ireland, in 1821, died in Australia in June, 1861. He received a collegiate education in Belgium, served in the Austrian army, was for several years a member of the mounted police after his return to Great Britain in 1848, and subsequently went to Australia. He served there for seven years as inspector of police, and during that time went to England to take part in the Crimean war, but arrived too late. He left Melbourne Aug. 20,1860, at the head of a finely organized government expedition to cross the continent from south to north. Some of the men soon abandoned the enterprise, while others were left in charge of a relief camp at Cooper's creek. Burke, accompanied by the astronomer Wills, and by King and Grey, started from that point Dec. 16, and travelled about 300 m. in a 1ST. W. direction with only six camels and one horse, after which they turned eastward, keeping nearly due N. on the meridian of 140°, and reaching on Feb. 11, 1861, one of the numerous streams falling into the gulf of Carpentaria about lat. 17° 30' S. and Ion. 140° E., which Wills identified as the Cloncurry, but which had long been supposed to be the Flinders river.
They crossed swamps and found a channel through which the sea water entered, but do not seem to have actually set foot on the shores of the gulf. Their home journey, commenced Feb. 19, 1861, was attended by even more grievous hardships than they had previously endured; and they reached the relief camp at Cooper's creek on April 21, only to find that it had been deserted on the previous day by the party in charge of it, who had given up all hope of seeing them again. Burke and his companions perished from starvation and exposure, excepting the sailor King, who was reduced almost to a skeleton when a searching expedition under Howitt's command found him on Sept. 15 with a party of aborigines who had given him shelter. Several expeditions were set on foot, and after a protracted search the remains of Burke and Wills were found in the neighborhood of Cooper's creek. Among the travellers who followed the tracks of Burke, Landsborongh, leader of an expedition started by the authorities of Victoria and Queensland, succeeded in 1862 in likewise crossing the continent from south to north; and McKinlay, at the head of another expedition under the auspices of the Southern Australian authorities, performed the same feat, though taking a somewhat different route.
Burke's name has been given to an extensive district S. of the gulf of Carpentaria, and to several localities in that region, in commemoration of his services and fate.