The Burke & Wills Expedition

David Cairns

The author of a new novel describes the ill-fated journey into the Australian outback.
The Burial of Burke, by William Strutt
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It is hard today to come to terms with the speed of communication that existed some 150 years ago.  In an age where instant video conferencing is available to all it can bring some of my readers up short when I tell them that even 50 or 60 years ago to speak to someone in a different country, the average person would have to book a call with the post office some days ahead.  Then you had to be available for the operator to call you (probably at the local post office) to make the connection.  And the cost! It would make a serious dent in the weekly wage even for a few minutes of audio contact. Extrapolate back another 100 years and you find yourself in an alien landscape that forms the backdrop for my novels.

In researching background events in the 1800s, facts like these make a significant impact on the story itself and the characters. The desire for faster and better ways to communicate has been with us for centuries and in 1860 this led to one of the most notable and tragic events in Australian history – the ill-fated, poorly led Burke and Wills expedition. Led by Robert O’Hara Burke, an Irishman with no relevant experience or skills, it was equipped with an incredible assortment of items including 50 gallons of rum to revive the 27 camels and an oak table. In all, the expedition left Melbourne with 19 men and 20 tonnes of equipment.

I refer to this momentous event in my latest novel, The Case of the Emigrant Niece. It was headline news but was doomed to failure primarily because of the incompetence of the leadership. However, at the time it was a beacon of light offering the potential to map a land route through the centre of Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria which would have allowed the building of a telegraph line that could connect to undersea cables to Batavia and on to Europe. This would cut communication time from about three months by sea to minutes. When you hear the phrase ‘time is money’ it’s not hard to appreciate how significant this was.

Transporting yourself into the mindset, possibilities and challenges of the era is fundamental to creating stories set in this rapidly changing time. It saw the rise of the British Empire, the industrial revolution, wild gold rushes, grinding poverty and obscene wealth, greed and poverty, good and evil. It is into this momentous period that I inject my stories, all weaving into and out of real events and real lives of real people.

My first three novels are based on true stories. But true stories, while rewarding partly because you unearth previously unknown facts, are also constraining. Staying true to the story means you stick to what actually happened so when there are times where you are tempted to add a twist to the story, you absolutely cannot!  It is a true story and must stand on its own merits.  Fiction, however, allows you to incorporate actual events and people who really lived alongside your characters but also gives you the freedom to build the tale, adding texture, complexity, creating tension, anticipation.

David Cairns is the author of The Helots’ Tale series, and his latest novel is The Case of the Emigrant Niece.

Aspects of History Issue 13 is out now.