State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 68 Spring 2001


Ludwig Becker's ‘First Camp from Duroadoo’

TO ANYONE unfamiliar with the Burke and Wills expedition, this must be a mystifying image. In a desert landscape, a large quantity of stores and equipment has been carefully deposited on the ground. The only human beings to be seen are scattering in different directions toward the featureless horizon. Two rifles are propped handily against the luggage. A coat lies draped over one of the bundles.
The story behind this drawing is no mystery, however, and begins in August 1860, when the Victorian Exploring Expedition set out from the Royal Park, Melbourne. The expedition was organised by the Royal Society of Victoria, prodigally funded by a gold-rich Victorian Government, and led by a former cavalry officer and policeman, Robert O'Hara Burke. Its goal was the first European crossing of the Australian continent, from Melbourne to the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
By 18 February 1861, the date of this drawing, much had changed. Burke had quarrelled violently with his second-in-command, George Landells, and sent him packing, appointing the navigator William Wills in his place. Impatient to move
ahead, Burke had split his large party at Menindie in October 1860, leaving the bulk of stores and equipment behind to be brought up by a new recruit, William Wright, while he moved on with a smaller group to set up a base camp at Cooper's Creek. Amongst the men left in the rearguard was the expedition's scientific illustrator, Ludwig Becker. Burke had taken a strong and irrational dislike to Becker, and having no regard for the scientific objectives of the expedition, was only too glad to leave him behind.
William Wright's attempt to bring the supply party from Menindie to Cooper's Creek was a disastrous failure. Months earlier, Burke had made this journey easily with the benefit of recent rains, but, delayed by disorganisation and prevarication, Wright was trying to follow at the driest time of year. His journey was an agonizing process of bringing the pack-animals on, scouting ahead for water, and sending the animals back to the last good water if the next day's supply could not be found.
Just such a scene is depicted in this drawing. Becker, lame after being trodden on by a horse, has been left with another man — Thomas Purcell — to guard a small mountain of luggage. In the distance, nearly at the horizon, are the pack-horses being returned to water at Duroadoo (also spelled Torowotto’ by other expedition members). Behind them follow the more slowly-moving camels, raising clouds of dust. In the middle distance, William Wright and John Smith set out to scout for the next waterhole. The futility of Wright's efforts was such that, by the time this drawing was made, Burke and Wills had not only reached the Gulf of Carpentaria, but had already begun their desperate return to the depot camp that Wright was meant to be reinforcing.
Becker was to remain at this spot, which he named ‘Desolation camp’, for three weeks. He put the time to good use, producing this superb drawing, as well as nature studies, sketch maps and landscapes, but it was probably not the kind of adventure he had imagined when originally making his strenuous efforts to be appointed to the expedition.
Born in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1808, he had come to Australia in 1851, possibly as part of the German intellectual diaspora following the failed liberal revolutions of 1848. Once in Melbourne, he became a prominent member of the German intellectual community, which played the major part in shaping the scientific aims of the proposed expedition. With his training as a scientific illustrator, he was well qualified for his appointment, but some wondered whether, at the age of 52, he was not too old for a journey into unknown territory. As it turned out, the hardships of Wright's protracted struggle through the drought lands, combined with malnutrition, were too much for Becker, and he died on the trail, some 10 weeks after making this drawing.
In the early stage of the expedition, up to and at Menindie, Becker had been able to send reports and drawings back to Melbourne by post. Once past Menindie, however, he had to stockpile them. After his death, they were taken into safekeeping by the expedition's medical officer, Hermann Beckler, who annotated a number of them. On the back of this drawing Beckler wrote: First camp from Duroadoo. Mr. Wright and Smith start to look for water. Mr. Hodgkinson and Belooch and myself leave for Duroadoo to supply the camp with water.
Upon their return to Melbourne, Becker's drawings, along with the other surviving expedition records, were deposited with the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria. The drawings, along with some made by Hermann Beckler, were mounted in an album, the fly-leaf of which is inscribed with the date 1 September 1863. When the Committee wound up its affairs, in March 1875, this album, along with most of the remaining expedition records, was deposited in the Public Library of Victoria.
There is evidence to suggest that this drawing was never included in the album. Each page of the album which holds a drawing has four diagonal slits into which the corners of the drawing are inserted. Becker used several different formats of paper for his drawings, and each slitting of the album pages had to be ‘tailor made’. There is only one page in the album which has slits cut in it, but which holds no drawing, and these slits do not fit the sheet of the ‘First Camp from Duroadoo’. (Unfortunately, this also suggests that there may have once been a drawing in the album which is not there now. The inventory of Expedition documents that was made in 1875 when they were placed in the Library, records a total of ‘85 drawings by Dr. Becker’. Today there are 84 drawings in the album).
No detailed inventory of Becker's drawings appears to have been made, by either the Exploration Committee or the Library: certainly none has been preserved. It seems reasonable to suppose that this drawing was extracted from Becker's folio at some point between its return to Melbourne in 1861, and the placement of the drawings in the album in 1863. Souveniring certainly went on during this period, mostly by Committee members who were supposedly custodians of this material, and several important expedition documents disappeared shortly after their return to Melbourne. One member even helped himself to a loose tooth from Burke's skull.
The drawing never having been documented, its existence was unknown to researchers until it appeared in the catalogue of Melbourne dealer Deutscher-Menzies in August 2000. It had apparently been long held in an anonymous private collection, and was in a very good state of preservation. The State Library was successful at auction, and was able to return this striking and memorable image to the company from which it had strayed 140 years earlier.
Furthermore, the State Library acquired the drawing in time for it to be included in the online exhibition Burke and Wills: Terra Incognita, then in preparation. A detailed key to the drawing can be found there (
Gerard Hayes