Burke and Wills: Botany’s untold success story

By Jessica Campion July 27, 2011
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Burke and Wills’ expedition is known more as a tragedy, but new light is being shed on its unknown success.

MORE THAN 150 YEARS ago, the Burke and Wills expedition, one of Australia’s most renowned colonial tragedies, made a name for itself as ill-fated, but there was also success before the tragedy.

On 20 August, 1860, 18 explorers with their 25 camels and 22 horses, set off from Melbourne as they marched forth into frontiers unknown on the Victorian Exploring Expedition (VEE). Originally organised by the Victorian government as a landmark scientific exploration effort into unchartered central Australia, the expedition, under the leadership of Robert O’Hara Burke, was pushed to achieve more.

Spurred on by the South Australian government’s offer of a prize to the first Europeans to cross the Australian continent from south to north, the expedition would complete its scientific duty, but it would also win that race to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

While the expedition was hardly a success – the party had to turn back just a few kilometres from the Gulf coast due to the impenetrable mangroves – the men’s scientific observations did make significant steps forward in the documentation of Australia.

In 1861, less than a year after they set off, the expedition was rendered a dramatic tragedy when half of the party, including its leaders, perished in the Queensland outback. 

Burke and Wills scientists recognised

Today, the tragic loss of those pioneers is the VEE’s dominant narrative, and it is still being revisited. Recently, a mock inquest was held at the Victorian state parliament to shed light on the deaths of Burke, Wills and fellow explorer Charley Gray, and rectify the absence of a coroner’s inquiry in 1861.

The expedition’s successes proved no match in the face of its final failure but, now, 150 years on, researchers and scientists are putting the VEE’s achievements on the record. The upcoming book Burke and Wills: The Scientific Legacy of the Victorian Exploring Expedition, commissioned by The Royal Society of Victoria, will tell another side to the story, detailing the expedition’s scientific achievements.

Five scientists were included in the expedition party across 11 areas of science, including meteorology, geology and botany. Dr Linden Gillbank, a historian of botany from the University of Melbourne and contributing author of the book, says the important scientific legacies of the Burke and Wills expedition were, and largely still are, shrouded by the immense tragedy of the race to cross the continent.

“The scientific successes are not well known and it’s very largely because, when the bodies of Burke and Wills were found, it was all about heroes and tragedy after that,” he says. Linden believes the expedition’s contribution to Australian botanical studies is one point of success that deserves wider recognition.

“The studies in botany were crucial, both because of the previously unexplored route of the expedition – they were collecting in areas no one had ever collected before – and because of timing; their collecting formed part of the early stages of documenting the flora in the whole of Australia, not just plants within colony boarders,” Linden says.

Hermann Beckler Australia’s greatest contributer to botanical studies

As well as being explorers – the VEE also had its scientific pioneers. Hermann Beckler, a Munich medical graduate who travelled to Australia to follow his passion for plants, headed the expedition’s plant-collecting effort and helped detail new frontiers in Australian botany. He collected hundreds of plant specimens for the National Herbarium of Victoria and helped establish 45 new plant species and varieties.

Hermann’s main role was as the expedition’s chief medical officer but he was just as interested in botany. At every opportunity in between his medical duties, Hermann collected plant specimens between Melbourne and southern Queensland. The collection may have extended even further if Hermann was allowed to travel with Burke beyond Menindee in central western NSW, the last settlement the lead party were posted to before braving the unknown inland desert country – but, then again, Linden says, maybe Hermann’s being left behind was a blessing.

“Burke was so keen to get across Australia as quickly as possible and wasn’t interested in the science, but we can be grateful to him for not taking Beckler with him to the Gulf [of Carpentaria] because Hermann, too, may not have survived,” Linden says. “Because [Hermann] was left behind, he continued to collect plants and that’s why we have this substantial collection that goes a fair way into central Australia.”

Hermann’s contribution to botanical studies was acknowledged at the time by the National Herbarium of Victoria’s founder, German scientist Ferdinand von Mueller, who named one of the collected plants after Hermann Beckler: the Acacia beckleri or Barren Range wattle, found in NSW and SA.

In the later stages of the expedition, with the party weakened by scurvy and malnutrition, Hermann was forced to give-away his plant collecting and become a full-time medic. He resigned from his position, which had also grown to include looking after camels, in October 1860.

“I think it is such a sad story. Beckler came to Australia because he didn’t want to be a doctor – he had a great passion to collect specimens on some great expedition, but the whole ethos of the disaster was stifling. The science wasn’t discussed, no one felt comfortable discussing it – it wasn’t something you could put on your CV – it was all about the tragedy,” Linden says.

After testifying at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the expedition in 1862, Hermann returned to Bavaria and spent the rest of his life as a village doctor.

Commemorating Hermann Beckler

Inspired by Hermann’s botanical studies and the 150th anniversary of the expedition, botanical artists from Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne and Bendigo Botanic Garden, aim to revive interest in Beckler’s plant collection.

Artists and botanists will visit the site of Hermann’s collection in Menindee NSW and gather, document and illustrate the same plant species recorded 150 years ago. For science, the contemporary collection will form an important comparative study for resource for scientists, land managers and historians and, for art, the botanic artists aim to have a gallery of illustrations ready for exhibition by 2013.

“It’s an expression of science through art combined with history so it’s a nice way of knocking down the fences between the disciplines and making history and science more available to more people,” Jan Rosenberg, one of the botanical artist taking part in the commemorative effort, says.