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Leave Burke and Wills Behind

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Are Burke and Wills national heroes?

With the Metro Tunnel project under construction the Burke and Wills statue has retreated into storage.

Upon the completion of the tunnel, do we wish to uphold the legacy of Burke and Wills by submitting to the statue's re-installation? The return of Burke and Wills to the corner of Collins and Swanston will perpetuate their standing as national heroes and only serve to obstruct any meaningful engagement with our violent colonial history.

The space would be better suited to a more meaningful representation of our history.

Why do we continuously paper over the rich 65,000 year-old Indigenous history of this country with the trifling affairs of posturing colonial explorers?

In recognising the undue credit that Burke and Wills were given on the original plaque on their statue, which claimed that they were the 'first people' to cross the continent, the City of Melbourne agreed to amend the wording on the plaque, slightly.

However, this is not enough. To honour, celebrate and learn more about our rich history, we need to make space, by de-emphasising stories about white colonists. We need to move the focus away from shallow narratives of heroic colonial exploration, through lands that were long before named, and long before mapped.

“When Yandruwandha people in 1861 found the poor men who were the remnants of the Burke and Wills party roaming around apparently aimlessly, they felt they were lost either in mind or spirit. The Burke and Wills party did not know how to communicate effectively with their surrounds, utilise the resources at their fingertips or share their intentions with the native people with whom they came into contact.”  —Aaron Pateron (Yandruwandha descendant). 

Robert O’Hara Burke, the leader of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition across the so-called Australian continent 157 years ago, was inexperienced, incapable, and rash. These were the qualities which led to the avoidable deaths of seven party members.

The avoidable deaths of party members are ultimately what led to the expedition’s fame and place in Australian historical consciousness (though informed observers have been critical of celebrating the expedition or “expensive mistake” all along).

The Yandruwandha people at Cooper’s Creek offered fish, nardoo and other foods to Burke, Wills and King – the stragglers of the starving upward march, only to be treated with disrespect and violence.

Burke shot over the heads of the Yandruwandha people when they sought a meagre piece of cloth in return for the copious amounts of food they had given the entitled explorers, prolonging their survival. Just days before this shooting incident, a man nicknamed Pitchery, out of concern for the lone-wandering Wills, took him to a camp and fed him until he was ‘unable to eat anymore’.

Burke struggled with the idea of being dependent for life on people he saw as inferior. Had he not jeopardised the relationship with Yandruwandha people, Burke and Wills could have survived. After they both died avoidable deaths, the Yandruwandha people saved King, the remaining party member in the area, from the same fate.

One of the party’s two Indigenous guides, Dick, at one point saved the lives of two party members – Lyons and McPherson. Peter was the other Indigenous guide to the group who has received little historical recognition.

Burke and Wills were part of a disorganised and disruptive expedition through lands that were already named, and already mapped. We don’t think they deserve to be honoured and celebrated via the returning of their statue to the city of Melbourne.

These kind of narratives already take up too much space in our national conscious.

“The barriers that have for so long kept Indigenous perspectives out of the Burke and Wills story were based not on lack of material but rather on perception and choice.” — Ian D. Clark and Fred Cahir, 'The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills : Forgotten Narratives'

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