Ill-fated explorers get chance to turn new page

Perceptions unfounded: Robert Burke (on the left) and William Wills; the CSIRO book that takes another look at their achievements; a children’s python, identified by Ludwig Becker; a white-winged chough; and a long-haired rat.A NEW book on the science of the Burke and Wills expedition aims to change public perceptions of the 1860-61 trek as a shambles.

Co-editor Dr Doug McCann said the advance of science was a key original aim of the expedition, but had been blotted out in a race to cross the continent led by Robert O’Hara Burke.

His co-leader William John Wills, and many others in the party of 20, continued to make weather, astronomical, botanical and geological notes but the death of Burke, Wills and five others meant many of these were never written up. Most people now wrongly believe ”little or nothing of scientific value resulted”, Dr McCann said.

A team of academic specialists in the book, Burke & Wills: The Scientific Legacy of the Victorian Exploring Expedition, finds that ”there was, indeed, much constructive scientific work of lasting value done… Some of it is limited and patchy, but much of it is extraordinarily rich, historically valuable, fascinating and unique, and a lasting tribute to the intrepid, idealistic, dedicated naturalists who recorded it.”

Dr Frank Leahy, a University of Melbourne geomatics fellow, found that Wills’s astronomical observations and calculations used to plot location, which had previously been seen as sloppy, were accurate.

He said Wills’s wind direction data noted at Cooper Creek showed the first known set of data in Australia proving a ”Coriolis effect” in which the wind direction rotates anti-clockwise through a complete circle in a day.

University of Melbourne botanical historian Dr Linden Gillbank finds that naturalist Hermann Beckler collected more than 900 plant specimens, of which dozens were found to be new species.

Dr McCann says the explorers made detailed descriptions of the landscape, much of it ”previously undescribed and unexplored”. Wills ”produced good-quality sketch maps of the new terrain over which they travelled, all the way to the Gulf” and correctly identified likely gold mining areas.

The Royal Society of Victoria was backer of the Burke and Wills expedition.

The book, published by the CSIRO, was commissioned by the Royal Society of Victoria, and the academics who write chapters are society members, raising questions of objectivity, but Dr McCann says the book is based on data analysis and makes many criticisms including Dr McCann dubbing Burke as ”unsympathetic and appallingly ignorant when it came to an appreciation of science and natural history” and saying the Royal Society’s exploration committee gave the explorers poor support.

For example, it failed to send naturalist Ludwig Becker animal collecting equipment he requested.

”It was science in spite of Burke and the Royal Society,” Dr McCann said, citing intricate drawings Becker made until he died of dysentery: the book’s cover features images of a native pigeon, snail, beetle and lizard.

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