The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills from CSIRO

Ian D. Clark & Fred Cahir (editors), The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills: Forgotten Narratives (CSIRO Publishing 2013)

0643108084History, as Winston Churchill famously said, is written by the victors. As someone else has surely said, it’s also passed on by word of mouth among the conquered, and – if we’re lucky – revised by the descendants of both. Although only one of the essays in this collection is written by an Aboriginal author, the book is a happy example of that kind of revisionism.

Every schoolchild of my generation and earlier knew the Burke and Wills story: the successful crossing of Australia from south to north, the terrible coincidence of arriving at the Cooper’s Creek depot hours after their supply party had given up waiting for them, the Beckettishly symbolic ‘Dig Tree’, the wretched death of most of the party in the ‘wilderness’, the survival of King among an Aboriginal community, the retrieval of the bodies. As one of the essays in this book comments, the story is a key example of ‘the mythology of victimhood that, ironically, secures a settler claim to cultural legitimacy by marginalising the actual victims of colonisation – namely, Aboriginal people’ (Leigh Boucher, ‘Alfred Howitt and the Erasure of Aboriginal History’, p 255).

The myth-making impulse was so strong that no official account of the Victorian Exploring Expedition of 1860–61, to give it its full title, was attempted at the time, and it wasn’t until 2011, when CSIRO published Burke and Wills: The Scientific Legacy of the Victorian Exploring Expedition, that the expedition’s scientific achievements were explored in any systematic way.

The Aboriginal Story, edited by two Bathurst University academics, explores the other major area that has been largely neglected by the scores of journalists, novelists, filmmakers, painters, poets, sculptors and yarners who have dealt with the expedition, namely ‘the interaction between Indigenous people and the expeditioners and their potential and actual contribution to the expedition’ (p. v).

Not everything here is news. As a postgraduate student 40 years ago, I read the selections from Wills’s diary and letters published by his father, and was left in no doubt that Burke’s arrogant dismissal of Aboriginal hospitality and ABoriginal knowledge played a major part in his disastrous end. My abiding memory from that reading is the image of the bearded Irish policeman, close to death from starvation, knocking to the ground an armful of freshly caught fish being offered to him by a group of Aboriginal men.

That perception and that image occur in a number of the essays here, but there is much more. The book opens with an introduction by Aaron Paterson, a Yandruwandha man, descendant of the community in whose land Burke and Wills died, the people who cared for John King, the expedition’s only survivor. His lyrical description of his country demolishes in a couple of pages the whole edifice underpinning the tragic explorer myth: Burke and Wills weren’t crossing an implacable wilderness, but stumbling ineptly through other people’s home.

And it goes on from there. This is a collection of scholarly essays, each meant to stand alone if need be, with the result that there is a lot of repetition: the reader is introduced to characters such as the expedition artist Ludwig Becker many times over, and there is no single account of the expedition. I skipped a little, but only a little: most of it is fascinating reading – we learn about the languages of the people encountered by the expedition; there are Becker’s wonderful drawings of landscape and people, including the images on the cover; encounters with Aboriginal people quoted from the journals of members of the expedition and the follow-up expeditions; portraits of a number of the minor figures in the expeditions, including the Aboriginal men who worked as guides at various times; some scuttlebuck about Burke’s death and the daughter King may have fathered with an Aboriginal woman; an essay on Aboriginal people as messengers on the Australian frontier (a role which, unlike their role as trackers and as ‘native police’, has generally faded from the collective memory).

For me the most surprising essay was Peta Jeffries’ ‘The influence of Aboriginal country on artist and naturalist Ludwig Becker of the Victorian Exploring Expedition: Mootwingee, 1860–61’ (and yes, the essay titles generally aren’t too snappy), in which she explores one of Becker’s paintings, arguing that it prefigured an understanding of Aboriginal connection to country, that in it ‘the narrative of colonial occupation has subsided’. The most telling essay was the one by Leigh Boucher that I quoted from above, which demonstrates that Howitt’s early writing acknowledged the important role Aboriginal people played in the success of his expedition, but as time passed they disappeared from the story, their knowledge and help being replaced by Howitt’s own bushcraft. Genocide comes in many forms, and one of them is forgetting.

The ‘narrative of colonial occupation’ has dominated accounts of the Burke and Wills expedition and much else from Australian history until now. This book is a mostly very readable corrective. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t present a single ‘Aboriginal story’, as its title suggests, but many stories: there was a wide range of Aboriginal responses to the original expedition and to the follow-up expeditions, from active participation in a number of capacities, through benign oversight to outright hostility. As I read it, I could feel unexamined assumptions being dragged out from under rocks in my head, and the over-arching narrative of my early education being delivered another blow of the wrecker’s hammer.

3 responses to “The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills from CSIRO

  1. Sounds like a fascinating read!

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  2. sounds great. I trust Bathurst Library will have it, and the TAFE library here too. I will suggest it if they don’t already have it.
    this is just the kind of thing that Pyne and Abbott and co want to stamp out – research, publication, access for students, that will question the myth of the Benevolent White Explorer ‘discovering’ new land and helping any ‘savages’ they find roaming aimlessly about the ‘unsettled’ land.

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  3. Anthony: it is fascinating – I barely touched the surface here.
    greenspace01: Yes, but so much more interesting than a triumphalist account of the spread of ‘Western civilisation’. In terms of the politicisation of our history, though, these essays identify and undermine a different black armband from the one John Howard had in mind. There’s a whole essay to be written about that.

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