Robert Ohara Burke (1820-1861), Australian explorer, was born at St Cleram, Co. Galway, Ireland, in 1820. Descended from a branch of the family of Clanricarde, he was educated in Belgium, and at twenty years of age entered the Austrian army, in which he attained the rank of captain. In 1848 he left the Austrian service, and became a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Five years later he emigrated to Tasmania, and shortly afterwards crossed to Melbourne, where he became an inspector of police. When the Crimean War broke out he went to England in the hope of securing a commission in the army, but peace had meanwhile been signed, and he returned to Victoria and resumed his police duties. At the end of 1857 the Philosophical Institute of Victoria took up the question of the exploration of the interior of the Australian continent, and appointed a committee to inquire into and report upon the subject. In September 1858, when it became known that John McDouall Stuart had succeeded in penetrating as far as the centre of Australia, the sum of £1000 was anonymously offered for the promotion of an expedition to cross the continent from south to north, on condition that a further sum of £2000 should be subscribed within a twelvemonth.
The amount having been raised within the time specified, the Victorian parliament supplemented it by a vote of £6000, and an expedition was organized under the leadership of Burke, with W.J. Wills as surveyor and astronomical observer. The story of this expedition, which left Melbourne on the 21st of August 1860, furnishes perhaps the most painful episode in Australian annals. Ten Europeans and three Sepoys accompanied the expedition, which was soon torn by internal dissensions. Near Menindie on the Darling, Landells, Burke's second in command, became insubordinate and resigned, his example being followed by the doctor - a German. On the 11th of November Burke, with Wills and five assistants, fifteen horses and sixteen camels, reached Cooper's Creek in Queensland, where a depot was formed near good grass and abundance of water. Here Burke proposed waiting the arrival of his third officer, Wright, whom he had sent back from Torowoto to Menindie to fetch some camels and supplies. Wright, however, delayed his departure until the 26th of January 1861. Meantime, weary of waiting, Burke, with Wills, King and Gray as companions, determined on the 16th of December to push on across the continent, leaving an assistant named Brahe to take care of the depot until Wright's arrival.
On the 4th of February 1861 Burke and his party, worn down by famine, reached the estuary of the Flinders river, not far from the present site of Normantown on the Gulf of Carpentaria. On the 26th of February began their return journey. The party suffered greatly from famine and exposure, and but for the rainy season, thirst would have speedily ended their miseries. In vain they looked for the relief which Wright was to bring them. On the 16th of April Gray died, and the emaciated survivors halted a day to bury his body. That day's delay, as it turned out, cost Burke and Wills their lives; they arrived at Cooper's Creek to find the depot deserted. But a few hours before Brahe, unrelieved by Wright, and thinking that Burke had died or changed his plans, had taken his departure for the Darling. With such assistance as they could get from the natives, Burke, and his two companions struggled on, until death overtook Burke and Wills at the end of June. King sought the natives, who cared for him until his relief by a search party in September. No one can deny the heroism of the men whose lives were sacrificed in this ill-starred expedition. But it is admitted that the leaders were not bushmen and had had no experience in exploration.
Disunion and disobedience to orders, from the highest to the lowest, brought about the worst results, and all that now remains to tell the story of the failure of this vast undertaking is a monument to the memory of the foolhardy heroes, from the chisel of Charles Summers, erected on a prominent site in Melbourne.