In 1860 an expedition led by Robert O’Hara Burke set out to cross Australia, from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria (from south to north, that is). No one had ever crossed the continent before. Earlier expeditions had either turned back or disappeared.
Burke’s expedition made it, sort of (the last three miles to the sea were blocked by impassable swamps), but only as a one-way trip. All but one man died trying to come back.
Alan Moorehead–a heckuva writer of popular histories–told the story of the expedition in 1963. His book, Cooper’s Creek, is a terrific read. If your local library doesn’t have it, or can’t get it, try amazon.com. There was also a movie made about the expedition in 1985, which critics panned for taking some liberties with the facts.
I’m reading Moorehead’s book now, and I can’t help being struck by eerie parallels between Burke’s expedition and Capt. Robert F. Scott’s one-way journey to the South Pole, in which the entire polar party perished.
Despite knowing its causes, and knowing how to prevent it, both expeditions managed to come down with scurvy. Both wound up relying on transport animals (camels, ponies) in terrain that couldn’t have been less suitable for the animals. Ponies aren’t great in ice wildernesses, and camels aren’t quite the ticket for mangrove swamps. To bring in another English debacle, the Franklin Expedition of the 1840s, after failing to sail the Northwest Passage, found a way to starve to death in inhabited country. The only thing Burke didn’t do wrong was to hire Eskimos to guide him through the Australian desert.
What hubris drove these expeditions to disasters that could have been avoided? The question is worth taking seriously: the same 19th-century upper-class culture that produced these doomed explorers culminated its morbid thirst for self-destruction in the trenches in World War I. The Norwegian Amundsen, who beat Scott to the Pole without losing a man–in fact, his men ate well enough to gain weight during their polar push–thought the British Empire had a penchant for dying. But it wasn’t just the British.
Get yourself a copy of Cooper’s Creek and see what you think of it.