Burke and Wills: part myth, part farce

Picture: EDWINA PICKLESOn Wednesday morning a ceremony will be held at the remarkably ugly cairn in Royal Park erected in 1890 to mark the departure spot of the Burke and Wills expedition 30 years earlier. Wednesday’s ceremony, at which speeches will be made and the Governor-General will unveil a plaque, commemorates the 150th anniversary.It’s actually a little early: the original plans had it slotted for Saturday, but apparently there’s an election.The 20th – this Friday – was the actual departure date although, really, there’s not much to celebrate. On August 20, 1860, the overstocked expedition left late and groaned its way only as far as Essendon. And so, on Friday evening, under the auspices of the Royal Society of Victoria, there will be a gala screening of the 1985 movie Burke & Wills. Actor Jack Thompson, who played Burke, will be there. Not so Nigel Havers (Wills), which is a pity. In Chariots of Fire (1981), Havers played an Englishman who ran fast. It would have been nice to ask him how he’d felt about subsequently playing an Englishman who walked slowly.To some, it has been both unfortunate and frustrating that the 150th events have hit snags such as funding problems and an election campaign. But I think it’s wonderfully appropriate – because the expedition itself was a bit of a shambles, it would have been incongruous to have things run too smoothly 150 years later.Still, and with the greatest respect to those involved, I’m not sure the best bits of the story are being remembered.When we think of Burke and Wills we don’t think of them leaving town. The dramatic bits of the story are their return to the depot at Cooper’s Creek (April 1861) and the quintessential good news/bad news double: word that the continent had been crossed, but Burke and Wills were dead and their remains found (November 1861).They had actually died five months earlier, but this was a time before texts and Twitter. Still, the special newspaper posters announcing the death of the explorers caused a sensation. This was the Challenger space shuttle disaster of its time – intrepid souls had set forth and never returned.When I first became interested in the Burke and Wills story a decade ago, two things struck me. The first was how incredible it is.If you served up a script about explorers travelling for four months and then missing their rendezvous by a matter of hours it would be dismissed as far-fetched. The depot scene is like one of those French farces, with doors opening and closing and characters entering and exiting while not seeing one another. The second striking feature is how modern the story is.Burke and Wills, like Gallipoli and Ned Kelly, is one of the few topics that tend to stick from Australian history classes. We are taught to think of the mythic explorers being lost in time.But some key participants were still alive just over 100 years ago and there are sites around town still much as Burke would have known them – the Royal Society building, for example, and the Melbourne Club, where Burke went from being in disgrace (he owed money) to having his portrait hung in a prominent spot on a wall. A heroic death can do that for you.Mid-19th century newspapers, including The Age, reported the story, although there was no news to report for prolonged periods. As one poetic writer noted, it was as if the company of explorers had been “dissipated out of being, like dew-drops before the sun”.Photographs exist of most of the main players. But only a couple show the expedition itself: one was taken at Royal Park; another at the first camp at Essendon. Burke is recognisable by his conical hat. Both pictures have been damaged; the figures are blurred and indistinct, as if they are soon to fade away.The technology that will record the 150th events will be much more sophisticated. But what, exactly, is being celebrated? In part, it is a rehabilitation of reputations. After all, footy commentators still lambast indirect players for “covering more ground than Burke and Wills”.The Royal Society insists the commemorative events “will remind the nation not just of the tragic ending, but of the expedition’s achievements in exploration and scientific discovery”.Despite the stuff-ups, there were achievements. The massive monument at the Melbourne Cemetery describes Burke and Wills as “first to cross the continent”. Ah, but did they? Most likely, they were mired in the boggy swamp near the Gulf of Carpenteria.There was no planting of flags or gambolling in the ocean. Burke, never much of a note-taker, wrote: “It would be well to say that we reached the sea.” Hardly an affirmation of triumph. Still, much that followed, especially the pomp and ceremony of the state funeral in January 1863 (when, to be frank, there wasn’t a lot left to bury), is a case study in turning tragedy into triumph. Already there is talk of commemorating the 150th anniversary of that funeral.But first comes Wednesday’s commemoration of the departure. It’s scheduled to start at 10am. In the interest of historical accuracy, however, I hope it begins very late, the crowd is unruly, and some of the participants are affected by drink. Then it’s on to Essendon.Alan Attwood is editor of The Big Issue and the author of the novel Burke’s Soldier (2003). The Age is a Royal Society of Victoria partner for the 150th anniversary.
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