Robert O'Hara Burke
1820 - 1861
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The following short article was first published in the weekly White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.413 - 20th August 2010
Melbourne Joins the Race for Broadband
"150 years ago this month Melbourne joined the race for broadband domination of Australia. The colony of Victoria flush with money from its resources boom equipped and funded the Burke & Whstsisname expedition to find a path across the continent to the far north. This expedition had a number of purposes. Finding new grazing land would be very good. Scientific study would be laudable - even though much of the scientific equipment had to be ditched once the going got tough. Beating the other colonies to this achievement would be very good. But a particular aim, often ignored by modern retellings, was to find a possible route from the north for an overland telegraph to help establish Melbourne as the communications and information hub of Australia.
Information from England and Europe arrived via boat and this could take up to three months. The boats sailed down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of good Hope and picked up the winds of the roaring forties and charged off for Melbourne often crashing into bits of Australia along the way if they placed more reliance on good hope than good navigation. Melbourne, the gold capital, was where you were heading as your first port of call, then after that you might head on to Sydney. Melbourne got the news first and then repackaged it in our local newspapers and shipped it off to the lesser colonies. Even little Johnny Fawkner’s hotel promoted itself as having a selection newspapers newly arrived from England. Gentlemen’s Clubs, upmarket hotels and major libraries still prided themselves up until the 1960s on having airmail edition (printed on ricepaper to reduce their weight) newspapers direct from Europe.
Communication from Melbourne to Sydney and Adelaide could be done by ship, but depending on conditions, this was often faster over land. Like most of our early public services, Melbourne’s first mail service to and from Sydney was operated by a private operator who galloped the mail to and from Howlong on the Murray where it met up with the NSW operator. Similar overland mail was available to Adelaide.
However, an annoying trend had emerged that could threaten Melbourne’s dominance as a communications hub. Some ships from England were stopping off first in Perth. That didn’t matter because Western Australia was (and some think, still is) a different country with no overland contact with civilisation which was to be found on the east coast. However ships were also stopping in Adelaide. To Melbourne’s enduring chagrin, we only found out from a ship docked in Adelaide and the news travelling over land that Victoria had been made a colony separate form NSW. Adelaide had become the place where you heard it first and spread it to the rest of Australia. Both Sydney and Melbourne newspapers assigned reporters to that dreary upstart metropolis to try to pounce on the information as it arrived form England and get it back to their respective cities by whatever means possible as fast as they could.
But a new technology was emerging. The telegraph! Electrical impulses sent along wires had the potential to make their way to and from Europe in a fraction of the time taken by a ship. Laying telegraph lines across inhabited countryside was a relatively easy process and lines from Europe were already approaching South East Asia. An undersea cable could link them with Australia. Western Australia and Queensland both put up proposals, but the best route seemed to be that taken by the early Aboriginal people when they arrived from Asia. Unlike the fiction taught in some schools that Aboriginal people arrived via a land bridge, we know that there was a major over-the-horizon sea voyage to be negotiated and despite changing sea levels this trench between Java and Australia still remained the major obstacle but shortest route for an undersea cable. However once on land near Darwin, whichever colony could link overland to this cable could become the information hub of Australia.
Burke and Whatsisname were already on their camels, however Whatsisname was quickly disillusioned with Burke and got replaced by Wills. But Adelaide was not to be outdone. John McDouall Stuart had been engaged to mount an expedition with a major goal of finding the route for a telegraph line from the top end to Adelaide. We know now of course that he succeeded and his exploration led to the establishment of the overland telegraph to Adelaide, while Burke & Wills perished in the wilderness. However there was no point in just having a telegraph to Adelaide. Connection had to be made with the rest of Australia, and South Australia commenced building a telegraph line in the direction of Melbourne. The early sections were not promising because an existing private telegraph was already operating there. It would not be ethical to use taxpayer money to undercut its competitor so the government used a strategy which became a blueprint for governments of all descriptions since then – buy out the private operator, dismantle his infrastructure, create a monopoly and quietly bump up the prices. Telegraph connection between Adelaide and Melbourne as well as Melbourne and Sydney had been established by 1858 and in the following decade reliable telegraph connection was established across Bass Strait.
Even if the news arrived first in Adelaide it had to be transmitted first to Melbourne before it got to Sydney, and Melbourne and Sydney newspapers competed as strongly as today for a scoop. It would not be ethical or Christian for the proprietor of a Melbourne newspaper to bribe the local telegraph office to delay the transmission of a story until after their print deadlines. It would however be a thoroughly Christian thing to do to block the line from all other traffic by paying to transmit whole chapters of the Bible for hours on end until the print deadline had passed.
The overland telegraph was completed in 1872, but by that time Adelaide had direct contact with Sydney, bypassing Melbourne – you can’t trust these croweaters. Melbourne had lost its broadband race.
This weekend was to see a number of activities celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Burke & Wills expedition. These events have been postponed because of the election. However, when they re-emerge, it is worth remembering that if their expedition had been successful, Melbourne might now be the technological and information hub of South East Asia."
You can find a large monument to Burke & Wills in the centre of Melbourne, as well as a memorial cairn in a city park commemorating the point of departure.
Memorials to Burke & Wills abound throughout Australia. As wall as their impressive grave in Melbourne General Cemetery, you will find:
- A monumental bronze statue in the centre of Melbourne. This monument has been moved four times since its installation. The Streeton painting of the statue (currently hanging in the NGVA, Melbourne) shows it outside the Princess Theatre.
- A memorial cairn in Royal Park commemorating their point of departure
- A large memorial fountain in the main street of Ballarat
- A large monument to Burke & Wills in Bendigo Cemetery
- The Burke Museum in Beechworth
- A monument to Burke in Castlemaine
- The Dig Tree, the Burke Tree and various other monuments at Coopers Creek
|The memorial in Melbourne General Cemetery consists of a massive granite slab. Around the four sides of the base are thee following inscriptions: |
In addition, a separate stone stands out the front with the following inscription:
|Visit this grave on White Hat Tours' highly entertaining and informative Tour of Melbourne Cemetery.|
|This monument in Royal Park states:|
- A famous painting by William Strutt hanging in the Cowen Gallery shows Robert O'Hara Burke being buried at Coopers Creek. However there is a large monument in Melbourne General Cemetery to Burke and Wills. Where are Burke and Wills really buried?
- The Burke and Wills Statue in recent years has occupied several positions in or near the City Square. What was its original position (hint – try page 1 of the great murder mystery yarn Mystery of a Hansom Cab) and why was it shifted? What was its second position (hint you will find it there in a Tom Roberts painting) and why was it shifted again after that?
- The monument in Melbourne General Cemetery names William John Wills as the Second in Command of the expedition. Was that his position when the expedition left Melbourne?
- Ballarat has a Burke and Wills Fountain and Bendigo has a large monument to Burke and Wills in their cemetery. Did the Burke and Wills expedition pass through these two settlements?
|To find the answers to questions like these ask a White Hat Accredited Guide or subscribe to our free newsletter where similar questions and answers are provided each week. For a sample of previous questions see The White Hat Quiz.|
In 1860, an eccentric Irish police officer named Robert O'Hara Burke set out from Melbourne at the head of the most lavish expedition of his age. Accompanied by William Wills, a shy English scientist, he was prepared to risk everything to become the first European to cross the Australian continent. Meanwhile, John McDouall Stuart, a dour Scotsman, was already trekking north from Adelaide. The race was on. Sarah Murgatroyd's spell-binding book, which reveals new historical and scientific evidence, tells the full story of the disaster with all its heroism and romance, its discoveries, coincidences and lost opportunities. Generously illustrated with photographs, paintings and maps, The Dig Tree is a compelling account of one of the world's great adventure tragedies.
Sarah Murgatroyd's spell-binding book, which reveals new historical and scientific evidence, tells the full story of the disaster with all its heroism and romance, its discoveries, coincidences and lost opportunities. Generously illustrated with photographs, paintings and maps, The Dig Tree is a compelling account of one of the world's great adventure tragedies.
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