Saturday, 7 August 2010

Throwing it All Away

I am a hoarder. I blame my mother. Somewhere else in this blog I have already mentioned that she chucked out my complete set of Beatles signatures. As well as that, she threw away a large collection of Edwardian postcards that someone at primary school whose father was an antique dealer gave me. As a result of traumas like these, I find it almost impossible to ever get rid of anything.

Sometimes I try though. Just the other day, in fact, I persuaded myself to junk several bags of ancient library reminders, five or six packages of old letters and a couple of sacks of bus tickets whose digits added up to 21 (very lucky, in case you didn't know). I thought I'd really achieved something. I began to feel rather proud of myself. But then I saw the display about Burke and Wills at the State Library of Victoria and doubts about what I'd been up to started flooding into my mind. Looking at some of the exhibits, I wondered if, after all, I'd made a huge mistake.

It was the scraps of paper that did it. They are dog eared and tattered and the writing on them is smudged and in pencil. But they are the last messages ever written by Burke and by Wills. They are grubby enough to be got rid of, they are ephemera, just like my bus tickets, but, unlike them they leave an emotional impression. When you look at these desperate little handwritten notes - 'The camels cannot travel and we cannot walk,' says one, 'We are trying to live the best way we can like the Blacks but find it hard work. Our clothes are going to pieces fast. Send provisions and clothes as soon as possible', says the other - the tragedy in which the lives' of Burke and Wills ended seems very immediate. They touched these pages, which they hoped were going to save them. They were present; they held these documents in their hands; these things were a last bid for rescue. Standing before them, reading the words they wrote so hopefully, we know that it was already much too late.

Ironically, it was the hoarding instinct that at least in part dictated the failure of the expedition in the first place . If everyone involved hadn't been so set on taking everything they could think of with them, if there hadn't been such an absurd and unnecessary amount of stuff to drag along, things might not have ended where they did - with those scruffy, hastily scrawled, desperate appeals for help. But, as Hermann Beckler the expedition's doctor, noted, when describing the process of preparation, 'Ordering and buying is so easy and enjoyable and this activity is doubly seductive when someone else is paying for it.'

The Library's exhibition discreetly only shows the account book pages that detail sensible supplies like flour and sugar and hay for the camels. However, according to Sarah Murgatroyd, whose book on the expedition called Dig is brilliant, the party set off with 6 tonnes of firewood (in the Australian bush, where wood is incredibly plentiful); a bath-tub; an oak and cedar table and two oak stools; 270 litres of rum for camel medicine; 4 enema kits and 12 sets of dandruff brushes. She also notes that, despite the huge amount of stuff they deemed indispensable, the expedition carried with it only two sets of field glasses and - incredibly - a mere dozen water bottles.

Of course, it was poor judgment that led to there being such a lot of ill-chosen luggage. That poor judgment, it seems to me, resulted from Burke being appointed as expedition leader. A 'colourful' character (frequently described as 'impulsive' and, less charitably, 'mad' - indeed, George Landells, the deputy leader of the expedition, said he had 'grave doubts about his sanity,' noting that 'his temper was ungovernable'), Burke, who was born in Ireland, had no experience whatsoever of exploration. Having served as an officer in the Austrian Army (he failed the exams for his own country's military), until going AWOL ,(claiming constipation, but more probably running away from debts), he escaped the death sentence at his court martial and entered the Irish police force instead. Becoming quickly bored of that occupation, he headed to Australia with dreams of gold.

He ended up joining the police force in Victoria instead of prospecting and was stationed in the country where - again according to Sarah Murgatroyd - he was best known for spending hours in an outdoor bathtub, wearing a police helmet, reading and cursing the mosquitoes (she doesn't mention whether the bath tub was positioned in his front garden or out of public view around the back). He became a member of the Melbourne Club and, through contacts there, managed to pull strings to get appointed leader of the expedition (oddly, the club contributed to his erratic behaviour once embarked on the expedition by trying to pursue him for gambling debts, leading to his rushed departure from stops along the way).

The only photograph that I have seen of Burke makes me think of one of my country relatives' description of a prominent former politician: "If you saw those eyes on a kelpie, you'd shoot the bastard." I suspect he (Burke, that is) was the kind of man who, in the context of a safe social setting, is highly entertaining and wonderful company, but in any other situation is completely unreliable. On top of this, he seems to have had a cruel streak - accounts of his treatment of Grey, who was one of the four explorers to go all the way north but who died on the return journey, and of Ludwig Becker, who was supposed to be on the expedition as an artist and scientist but about whom Burke gave orders that the party should 'walk him until he gave in', are evidence of this possibility.

Although the expedition was originally intended to be a scientific endeavour, Burke saw it purely as a race - South Australia had offered a prize of 2000 pounds for the first person to get to the north of Australia, and as far as Burke was concerned he was representing Victoria in a competition with its neighbour South Australia. Amazingly, if the account of King, the only surviving member of the party of four that accompanied Burke to the north of Australia, is to be believed, Burke was so uninterested in discovering anything about the lands they passed through that he squandered his chance of survival by driving away friendly indigenous people who brought the explorers fish to eat. He explained to King that he did this because 'he was afraid of being too friendly lest they should be always at our camp.' This reminds me of my father's refusal ever to say good morning to any of the people he saw daily on the station platform when he was a commuter: 'Thin end of the wedge,' was his explanation. Burke was not at Basingstoke though. He was in a vast, unknown country, a lonely wilderness where a sense of wonder and astonishment would surely override the snobbery and diffidence of normal life. Compounding his small-mindedness with incompetent bungling, (again according to King), Burke followed up this act of folly by managing to set fire to everything the explorers still possessed. He was cooking fish at the time, but instead of providing supper he destroyed all that they had, except one revolver.

Wills seems to have been a very different kind of person. Born in Totnes, he came to Australia with his family during the gold rushes of the 1850s. He was fascinated by science and saw Australia as a hugely interesting place in which to study nature. Initially he was appointed as the expedition's Surveyor and Astronomical Observer and, as the only person in the party who seems to have had a proper knowledge of navigation, he was invaluable. The Library's exhibition includes his meticulously kept notebook, detailing his astronomical observations on the journey, and also some of the equipment he buried with touching care, in order to preserve it. These last have only recently been rediscovered.

Perhaps if Wills had been a little more experienced and a stronger, more assertive personality, things might have turned out differently. He was a steady, careful scholar; Burke was a wild opportunist. In some ways, it is possible to see their expedition as one of the first examples of a continuing phenomenon that runs through Australian life - the struggle between those who see themselves as practical, no-nonsense types who get on with things, and those who favour the intellectual approach to life. Sadly, as often in our history, the lack of a thoughtful, inquiring outlook may have been one more contributing factor to the disaster in which things ended.

For Burke and Wills did not perish because they lacked food or water. There was apparently no shortage of either at Cooper's Creek. What they lacked, in fact, was knowledge. Having observed the indigenous people harvesting a seed called nardoo, they copied them and were subsisting on a paste they made from the stuff. Unfortunately, presumably thanks to Burke's desire not to be too friendly, they had not discovered from the natives an absolutely vital piece of information - to be nutritious, nardoo has to be prepared in a certain way. If the correct processes are not carried out, instead of sustaining a person, nardoo causes beri-beri.

Pathetically, the explorers spent their last hours and final reserves of energy harvesting and grinding masses of nardoo. They consumed it in ever-increasing quantities and thereby poisoned themselves. Had they shown more curiosity, had Burke respected the earlier inhabitants of the land, rather than shooting over their heads to drive them away, the pair might have survived and become celebrated as the first white explorers to reach the north of the continent. The journey they made, when you look at the map and remember the utter lack of any kind of infrastructure at the time, is astonishing and admirable. However, Burke's vanity in a situation that called for care and humility means they are now remembered by most people (other than this puzzling London removalists' firm) merely as the foolish leaders of a doomed enterprise.


  1. Fascinating. That constipation is a real killer isn't it?

  2. Nurse, as always, you made me laugh out loud

  3. Great post, zmkc, thanks for pointing it to me. I love this line: "We are trying to live the best way we can like the Blacks but find it hard work". That does make me laugh - on so many levels.

    And I have your hoarding bug too. I think it's why I ended up being a librarian/archivist though you would think that, as a result, I would be much better at managing and organising my bits of paper, programs, cards etc than I am.

    BTW If I don't always come back to respond to replies you make it's because I can't seem to subscribe to comments on blogger blogs which I find very frustrating.

  4. Hi Whispering, if I had any kind of technical acumen I would change from Blogger: it makes it so ridiculously complicated to comment if you don't have the right kind of email account. I know people who used to be quite fond of me but claim that, after several hours spent trying to leave some flippant remark on the end of one or other post of mine, they have given up, full of animosity towards me and the universe, and gone out into the night to set fire to a bus shelter instead.