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Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014

The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills: Forgotten Narratives edited by Ian D Clark and Fred Cahir, 314 pp, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, 2013, ISBN 9780643108080 (hbk), $59.95.

2011 marked the sesquicentenary of the Victorian Exploration Expedition (VEE), more frequently referred to as the ‘Burke and Wills’ expedition after the leaders Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. Academics, creative and performance artists and scientists have been looking back on this expedition, assessing its legacy and attempting to re-adjust forgotten or underplayed aspects of the persisting narratives. The expedition, sponsored by the Royal Society of Victoria in 1861 has been mythologised over the last 150 years in a variety of ways: an embarrassing failure; a tragic tale of ego over sensibility; or a tale of warning against the deadly effects of Australia’s harsh and intractable environment.

Burke and Wills led an expedition of 19 men with the goal of crossing Australia from south to north. They arrived in the Gulf of Carpentaria, but both leaders died on the return journey. By the end of the expedition, seven men had lost their lives and only one man, John King, crossed the continent with the expedition and survived.

The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills: Forgotten Narratives is an edited collection which stems from a conference held at the University of Ballarat in 2011. The title of the book promises to reveal forgotten Aboriginal narratives of the VEE and adds to other academic interest in viewing the legacy of the expedition in new ways. It could also be viewed as a companion text to Burke and Wills: The Scientific Legacy of the Victorian Exploring Expedition (eds) EB Joyce and DA McCann (CSIRO, 2011), which turned on its head the long-held myth that the VEE was not a scientific expedition, highlighting the expedition’s scientific achievements rather than its ‘tragedy and failure’ narrative. The Aboriginal Story also comes after creative responses to the complicated events of the expedition. A mock coronial inquest in the Legislative Assembly of Victoria was performed in July 2011 to investigate the factors which may have contributed to the deaths of Burke, Wills and Gray. The coroner found that Burke’s appointment was a ‘fundamental mistake’ which related to the deaths of Wills and Gray and that all three men died from beriberi, starvation, dehydration and thyamine deficiency. The coroner also argued ‘One of the most fundamental errors made by the expedition was the decision not to utilise Aboriginal guides (either from the very start of the expedition or during the expedition) in any systematic way.’ However, as this volume reveals in detail, Aboriginal guides, stewards and messengers were heavily utilised in the expedition and relief parties. Chapters by Cahir and Jeffries in particular, highlight the Aboriginal experiences of guiding, hosting and meeting with members of the VEE. The failure to profit from Aboriginal expertise remains the expedition’s moral tale which the contributions in this book help to cement.

This volume begins with a contemporary Yandruwandha perspective, given by Aaron Paterson, straight away emphasising the book’s attention to Aboriginal stories, past and present. Paterson gives a Yandruwandha perspective of the legacy of the VEE, quite different to the non-Indigenous legacies. Paterson offers a family history describing how the lone survivor of the expedition, John King, had sexual relations with a Yandruwandha woman, and Paterson goes through the subsequent King-Yandruwandha genealogy. He examines historical sources, interpreting from his specific cultural perspective, a compelling method and a good way to begin this volume which claims to tell the Aboriginal story of Burke and Wills.

Following Paterson’s personal story another contemporary perspective, given by Richie Howitt, a descendent of A. W. Howitt who commanded one of the relief parties, is included. Richie’s story reminds us of the way in which Aboriginal narratives have been forgotten and, therefore, is equally important to this volume, revealing how his childhood view of the VEE saga was completely devoid of Aboriginal people or history: ‘There were glimpses, to be sure, of unknown others in the background.’ He also observes that ‘Yandruwandha hospitality to King has echoed in the everyday histories and geographies of Yandruwandha people’ as Paterson’s personal story attests. These individual perspectives from both sides differ from the other contributions that make up the rest of the volume, and introduce the book in a captivating way.

In the editors’ introduction, Clark and Cahir borrow W. E. H. Stanner’s phrase to describe how the exclusion of Aboriginal perspectives on the VEE has been a ‘structural matter’. Their expulsion from the legacy of the expedition has been synonymous with the description of the landscape in Central Australia, as a ‘ghastly blank’, being located within a landscape which was conceived as being ‘empty and primordial’, where, ‘European exploration brought the land into existence and formed a starting point for Australian history’. While Clark and Cahir explain how Aboriginal stories have been ‘hidden’ from western historical narratives more generally, it might have been useful to map the way Aboriginal experiences of European exploration have missed out on the revisionary scholarship led by Henry Reynolds in the 1980s who framed explorers’ Aboriginal aides as ‘Black pioneers’. The response from other historians has been slow.

Indigenous presence in expedition narratives of the VEE have not always been hidden. Between 1861-1901 they were part of historical accounts, following the pattern of Australian historiography more generally, they only became forgotten in the early 20th century. When Aboriginal people have been included in histories of the VEE they have been framed as treacherous, hostile and savage, untrustworthy — aligning with the belief that they did not help Burke and Wills.

This volume does not just add Aboriginal people to the Burke and Wills story, it firmly places the expedition in the cultural and historical setting of Aboriginal country, reminding us that it has always been more than just a failed race between colonial rivals to get to the north. This is evident in the chapter by Luise Hercus on the linguistic creativity of the Aboriginal people of Cooper Creek, which helps to firmly place this story in Aboriginal country.

Harry Allen, who, like Hercus, has spent many years undertaking field work in this central region, focuses on Aborigines of the ‘corner country’, exploring the encounters between VEE members and Aboriginal people via a longitudinal study of earlier cross-cultural interactions, reminding us that in 1861 these encounters were not first contact scenarios for either the VEE or the Aboriginal people. This aspect is enhanced by Ian Clark’s chapter which also shows that rather than being unsuited to the task of this expedition, many members of the party had previous bush experience and first-hand experience of dealings with Aboriginal people. His chapter unpacks the persistent, old myths surrounding the expedition. Allen studies the legacy of the expedition in real ways too, presenting a history of missions in the Lake Eyre Basin from 1866-1915 that were established as a result of the humanity shown by the Yandruwandha to John King; and the increasing scientific interest in the Yandruwandha following Howitt’s ethnographic observations during his relief expedition.

David Dodd explores the Aboriginal contribution to the expedition through the texts of the four German expedition members — Becker, Beckler, Brahe and Neumayer — revising the widely held view that the VEE failed to utilise Aboriginal guides, emphasising the roles played by Dick and Peter in guiding Beckler’s party and saving trooper Lyons and McPherson. These spotlights remind us that the Burke and Wills expedition was about more than just two men. There were many people involved in both the expedition and the various relief parties, and a focus on other characters offers important perspectives. Dodd’s chapter frames the VEE and the experiences of the German members of the party in the context of nineteenth-century natural science and Humboltdian practice — meticulous observation and recording of the natural environment. Despite the lack of directives to observe and record information about Aboriginal people in the official Royal Society of Victoria instructions, the German naturalists did record a large amount of ethnographic information.

Chapters by Fred Cahir, Darryl Lewis and Peta Jeffries scrutinise Aboriginal testimony as a legitimate historical source to unearth Aboriginal perspectives of the expedition. Jeffries also undertakes a close reading of Becker’s artwork, arguing that unlike other colonial illustrators, he tried to find a connection to the country and its original inhabitants. Jeffries’ second chapter is in line with recent local and international scholarship on exploration and reveals that the presence of Aboriginal guides frequently created a co-production of knowledge, emphasising the collaborative, rather than lone work of exploration.

While this book incorporates Indigenous participation into the well-known expedition narrative, it does not draw out Indigenous agency. Some of the chapters are more concerned with documenting the removal of Aboriginal people from later narratives and the disappearance of them from representations in visual art, than putting their experiences back into the story, or re-framing the story with Aboriginal centrality. Tracing the ‘Australian silence’ though, is important, as Leigh Boucher points out: ‘to consider the political implications these different remembering’s’ and forgetting’s ‘might have for notions of territorial entitlement’. The presence of Aboriginal people ‘within, alongside, against and around the exploration parties might have made for uncertain mythological terrain’. Boucher’s exploration of Howitt’s texts are the most revealing of the transformative powers of exploration in this period. Howitt’s dawning sense of the complexity of Aboriginal geographies, cultures and histories is revealing of this. Boucher writes: ‘the European category of ‘blackfellow’, which was applied to Aboriginal people across the continent, ignored their nuanced systems of identity, language and spatial proprietorship. Howitt’s diaries revealed a party always struggling to figure out who belonged where.’

Several chapters describe the different types of Aboriginal engagement with or work for the VEE and relief parties, such as Aboriginal guides or message carriers. Aboriginal people were crucial in assisting the rescue expedition led by John McKinlay, which was despatched from Adelaide. Fred Cahir gives interesting insight into the function these news carriers performed, but also the mechanisms by which stories from the Aboriginal world were filtered and circulated by newspapers. However, his analysis is a little under-played. While his focus on messengers shifts the narrative away from ‘treacherous natives’ to the utility of Aboriginal people, and the veracity of information about the fate of the expedition that they brought to concerned rescuers, he only briefly suggests how stories were interpreted and manipulated by Aboriginal messengers for their own purposes — I would have liked to read more about those strategies.

More editorial work to curb repetitions in chapters may have made the book more readable, however, this is a very important inclusion to the history of the VEE and to the renewed focus on exploration history more generally. Creative responses to the expedition narrative, such as Paul Lambeth’s art work and poetry, and Peta Jeffries’ focus on art make this volume inter-disciplinary and therefore, this book offers an interesting variety of approaches and methods to interpreting this famous episode in Australian AND Aboriginal history.

Tiffany Shellam

Deakin University

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