State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 6 October 1970


A Contemporary's View of Robert O'Hara Burke

In the last issue of this journal, we printed W. H. Manwaring's account of Morgan, the bushranger. The following is an excerpt from ‘Notes from his Diaries compiled by William Henry Manwaring’, which is also held in the La Trobe collection. Manwaring served as a subordinate of Burke in the Police at Castlemaine.
As far as is known, no student of the Burke and Wills expedition has made use of this document. The manuscript has been lightly punctuated.
In the winter of 1859 … Robert O'Hara Burke, an Irish gentleman, came to us from Beechworth. As he afterwards became celebrated as the leader of the expedition that first crossed the continent of Australia, I desire to present him as I saw him having the advantage of a valet to depict one who is now embalmed as a hero. When he came to Castlemaine he was about 40 years of age, 5 feet nine high, of muscular build, slow in movement, and had a vague air like a man who has no occupation and no interest in the busy world that hummed around him. His nose aquiline and well shaped, his complexion was florid, his hair blue black, and his eyes large and almost marine blue. These tints proved him to be a pure Celt as they belong exclusively to that branch of the human family. He belonged to the Burkes of Galway, one of the most ancient of Irish families and who I suppose retain the characteristics of their ancestors down to our times and have never joined on to the march of the gods of modern progress; and our hero seemed to regard himself the great industrial work of Colonial life much as Rob Roy Macgregor despised the Baillie Nicol Jarvie's wealth got by trade. He was eccentric and this was so noticeable that many believed him to be a trifle insane. He never wore uniform and wandered about alone a great deal. He maintained discipline but had only a small knowledge of Police business and was willing to be advised by his subordinates so long as he was not plagued by the vexation of adjusting petty details. Mr. Lyttelton usually appeared in court to prosecute important Police cases at which he was an expert, but his successor was quite out of place in that contentious arena of pettifoggers and would sometimes during an argument among them rise and leave the court altogether unknown to old Harrison the P.M. who looked round with dismay
ignorant of the evidence that was to be placed before him. Mr. Burke had a habit of listlessly wandering about alone on foot. He would buy fruit and take home and I have seen him carrying a water melon under his arm or he would give these purchases to a policeman to carry. He forbade the police to salute him or to notice him in public. Like all his rank at that time he was a magistrate but I only once knew him to exercise that office and that was on a memorable occasion when a trooper named St Leger had been unnecessarily officious at Election time at Newstead and brought in about £½ a dozen prisoners for trifling offences which are best passed over on such occasions. He posed in our Camp as a valiant and vigilant constable after delivering his mob of penitents to the watchhouse keeper who had no desire to keep such a large company till the next day as the court had then closed, so he went to Mr. Burke and informed him and suggested that he would come over and effect a gaol delivery. He came and soon learned that the prisoners had been more sinned against than sinful and set the whole lot free, including a Ticket of Leave holder whom St Leger had down as the worst offender but who had committed a technical offence only, by crossing the Loddon river the boundary of the Maryborough district to which he was allotted and was thus Illegally at Large. He was not accused of any fresh crime. Burke was generous and understood the folly of meddlesome constables using their office to vex simple people. He sat in judgement once at his office in a case where a plain bridle was the subject of a dispute between Trooper O'Mara and Detective Cameron, a stubborn opinionated Scotchman of a short and squabby figure speaking broad scotch which to an Irishman is unmusical. Burke listened patiently to the evidence which was in favour of O'Mara. Cameron was persistent in argument and almost refractory when the decision was given against him. The contending parties left the office and Burke felt relieved of their undesirable presence. When Cameron dissatisfied went back to the Office and taking a pinch of snuff and holding the box in his hand attempted to re-open the case and to impugn Burke's judgement, this insolence provoked Burke's temper which had been much strained in listening to the case and rising in his wrath he exclaimed aloud “God damn you”, then furiously seized Cameron, shook his snuff on the floor and ejected him violently down the steps of the office and loudly threatened him with severe punishment if he ventured back again.
He was of a retiring disposition and seemed to have no intimacy with the Naylors or any of the official or town or country families and as a bachelor he was excused from entertaining them. At Beechworth he found life so unbearable that for mere exercise he would employ himself in the forest chopping down trees or he would walk long distances visiting outlying stations. He was quite out of place in the colonies and was an unhappy exile from Erin. One night two policemen crossing the high land near the junction of Fryers creek and the Loddon saw fumes and smoke coming up from a disused mining shaft which they knew must come from the working of an illicit still. They had no power to interfere as to do so the authority of an Inspector of Distilleries is required, an office held by Burke as Chief of Police. Along the Loddon River about there the high banks or cliffs just above flood level were penetrated in every direction by tunnels mostly worked by Swiss Italians and affording excellent cover for clandestine distilling. The Constables reported to Burke on the next morning and he ordered them to secrecy and to meet him at

Robert O'Hara Burke

Vaughan in the evening. He then to his own satisfaction laid his plan stealthily, as he thought, for he ordered me and a trooper in plain clothes to be ready and mounted at dusk to meet him. But he took (excision in MS.) into his confidence and that wily official saw a chance and was accepted as one of the attacking party. It was in the forenoon and I suspect that during the afternoon he divulged the news to the guilty persons by a messenger or possibly by informing a secret partner in Castlemaine, for he knew all such offenders to his profit. We galloped down Campbell's creek, Burke riding like a madman, and in quick time reached the small township of Vaughan at the junction of the Loddon, where Burke led us into the Inn yard and told us to dismount and stable the horses. He then met the constables and after consulting them he informed me and the trooper the nature of the business which I at once considered was spoiled by the natural suspicion of the people thereabout, some of whom were probably interested in the still and especially the innkeeper; and the appearance of £½ a dozen military looking horsemen in that secluded village at night would alarm the guilty ones and cause them to take quick precautions. We passed half the night in the tunnels searching and came on several places where a still might have been but no apparatus nor men — everything had been removed and we rode back emptyhanded through bad management….
Burke lived by himself in the large 2 storey brick building on the camp, waited upon by his orderly. He kept a bottle of brandy opened on his table and was in the habit of pacing up and down in his dining room when talking to anybody on business, occasionally pouring some water into a glass and adding a dash of brandy and swallowing it. Miners and others often complained to him as they heard he was the poor man's friend, but on enquiry into such cases by his order they were generally found to belong to the Warden's department or to the Lands and seldom were connected with Police business.
The South Australians were then becoming celebrated by their efforts at exploration under Stuart who had discovered a lot of country and was an experienced bushman. He declared that on his next expedition he would cross the continent. The Victorians were then jubilant as by their revenue, trade and population they were the leading colony and presumed a great deal. The exploration mania affected them and at once became the leading question…. It was accepted as a duty that Victorians should first cross the land from sea to sea….
The exploration business was soon got into practical shape. Victoria to the front, sole and independent, requiring no outside assistance, astonished the other colonies as she had no practical explorers who by experience and genius were capable of leading such an expedition, but in their presumption they disregarded all warning, and declared that the whole company who were to undertake this perilous journey should belong to Victoria. There were men at that time in the northern colonies and elsewhere who had proved themselves to be successful explorers and had passed through and examined great tracts of unknown country. A Leader chosen from these men would probably have crossed the country without disaster, but Victoria would have none of them and organised a gigantic expedition with a needless abundance of men and stores and appointed Burke as Leader. Why he was selected I never learned, for he had none of the qualities of an explorer. A dauntless resolution he had that would impel him to rash
ventures and to go against the inevitable and still to keep on, but of bush craft that homely learning which the intelligent observer acquires by living in the wilderness away from all settlement he had none. There was associated with him afterwards as second in command a young gentleman named Wills belonging to the Lands department, a scientist of a mild character. The second officer in charge, Mr Landells, was selected for his especial knowledge of camel travelling, as a herd of these useful beasts had been brought from India to convey the expedition. He was a well qualified man but was obliged to resign at the Murrumbidgee; he could not endure Burke's insane arrogance and his ignorance of ordinary business…. While the preparations were going on the event was a three months wonder and occupied the attention of idle people as a public show. The rank and file about 50 strong were mostly taken from the Police, hundreds of whom volunteered. In August 1860 the grand cavalcade moved off in a triumphal march before crowds of admirers vociferating cheers in honour of the new false god. The Irishmen regarded Burke's appointment as a compliment and gave him sumptuous dinners, but nobody but those living outside the range of this enthusiasm ever considered the fitness of the man for such an undertaking or the necessity for such a cumbersome troop to perform a journey which a practical explorer could do with a few companions simply provided with needful things. The route of Burke's small army came within 15 miles of Bendigo and two of his men came in there where I was then stationed to buy something that had been forgotten, but all the sightseers went out to look at the procession. I do not believe that Burke knew what course he should take, whether east west north or south, he was commander and absolute and treated his scientists with severity as he would an unruly horse. One of these, a German Dr Becker, he had a dispute with after crossing the Murray and as an autocrat ordered the unfortunate man to walk on foot. I believe the Doctor died soon after. Landells he followed about with a revolver to shoot him for some fancied breach of discipline. Those in the expedition who were able to judge saw with dismay their peril from the irresponsible acts of this madman. At Swan Hill a bushman named Gray (I believe but I am not sure of his name) was hired and the expedition went on to Menindie about 1000 miles from Melbourne. Here the depot was formed and the bulk of the great concourse was left with the ship load of stores they had brought, and Burke Wills and Grey with another named King a discharged soldier just arrived from India pushed on with a light equipment to accomplish the great task. A bushman whose name was Wright, who I believe had been on smaller expeditions and had joined after the expedition left Melbourne, was left in charge with orders to remain till a certain date some months later and then to return. The Officer remained some days over the fixed date and then buried provisions under a tree upon which he carved the word “DIG” and with all his men and camels and horses started homeward. On the evening of his departure Burke and his party except Grey who had died returned famished and nearly dead. Here their incapacity is conspicuous, for they failed to look for the buried provisions that would have restored them, and too weak to overtake the retiring host(?) they wandered off in the direction of the out stations of S. Australia. Wills was for returning to Menindie but they were obliged to halt among some friendly blacks, and Burke and Wills died from starvation as they could not assimilate the blacks simple food. I have been told that in a creek near
where they died there was plenty of fish. King survived and was rescued. Thus ended in misery and death this vaunted expedition undertaken in presumption and ignorance and failing as a natural consequence.