Burke, Robert O'Hara (1820/21?–1861), police officer and explorer, was born at Issercleran House, near Loughrea, Co. Galway, second son of James Hardiman Burke (1788–1854), high sheriff (1826), and his wife Anne (d. 1844), daughter of Robert O'Hara of Raheen, Co. Galway. The family was protestant, though of Roman Catholic antecedents. He was educated at boarding school in Belgium and then at Woolwich Academy, London. In 1840 he purchased a commission in the seventh regiment of Hungarian hussars in the Austro–Hungarian army, rising to the rank of lieutenant before returning (1848) to Ireland, where he enlisted in the Irish constabulary. In 1852 he was serving as sub-inspector in command of a mounted troop at the constabulary depot in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. Early in 1853 he emigrated to Australia, first briefly to Tasmania, then to Melbourne, Victoria. He secured an appointment as acting-inspector of state police at Carlsruhe (April 1853). In January 1854 he was made senior inspector at Beechworth, near Melbourne. Probably as a result of the death of his father that month, at which the estate fell to his inheritance (his eldest brother having died in 1853), he got leave immediately to go home and sort out his affairs. He was two years in Ireland. Restlessness eventually made him try for a commission in the Crimean campaign force, but he was beaten to it by the peace treaty of March 1856 and took ship again for Australia. Resuming local command in the Victoria constabulary, he was active in quelling the mining race-riots in the gold-prospecting district of the Buckland river, north-east Victoria (July 1857). He made a name for himself by driving his police detachment by forced march 50 miles (80 km) in a day to reach the fields.
A popular figure among police colleagues, Burke was tall and well-built, though a photograph shows a small face smothered by beard and with an unexpectedly pensive expression. When the government of Victoria proposed a state-sponsored expedition across the Australian continent in 1860, Burke applied to lead it and was put in charge despite his ignorance of bushcraft. He may have owed the appointment to influence with the Irish-born state premier, John O'Shanassy (qv). The expedition was to attempt to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria having been given vague instructions to survey the landscape en route. The party – seventeen men, twenty-three horses, twenty-five camels (a great novelty) and three drays transporting two years supply of food – proceeded from Melbourne on 20 August 1860. Burke reckoned much of the train was an encumbrance and progressively stripped it down as it went, first dumping vital lime-juice at Balranald (300 km out). Getting to Menindee (c.500 km out) in October 1860, he fought with two of the principal officers, who resigned. He appointed William Wills (1834–61) second in command, and decided to speed things up by leaving the bulk of supplies in Menindee under the care of William Wright, a newly appointed local man of dubious merit, with orders to follow the advance party to Cooper's Creek in the heart of Australia. Wright waited three months before leaving and, camped among box-trees on the banks of the creek, Burke waited (11 November–16 December 1860) for him to catch up. Taking advantage of favourable weather, Burke decided to race to the tropical sea and selected three companions for the trip: Wills and two young Irish-born assistants, John King ( 1838–72) and Charles Gray (1842–61). William Brahè was left with stores of food in Cooper's Creek. Rather than ride on the camels taken for the purpose, Burke unaccountably chose to walk at first across Sturt's Stony Desert. Walking daily from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. with one day's rest in four months across scrub, soft clay where camels bogged down, difficult ridges, and into tropical bush (where Burke named a new river after his aristocratic relative, Valentine Lawless, Lord Cloncurry (qv)), they reached tidal mangrove swamps on the north coast (11 February 1861). Turning back, they began to run out of food, and Gray died on 17 April. The others reached Cooper's Creek on 21 April 1861, hours after Brahè had gone, his party having fallen ill with scurvy and Wright having failed to arrive from Menindee. Finding the small cache of provisions left in camp, Burke, Wills, and King embarked on a stumbling luckless walkabout for some two months, eating bits of wild herb, and fed fish by aborigines against whom Burke on occasion fired off rounds. Wills died c.29 June 1861 and Burke 30 June 1861. Accepted into an aboriginal group for a couple of months, King was picked up by a rescue expedition under Alfred Howitt on 21 September 1861 and located Burke's remains. Wills's journal and Burke's notes, secreted in Cooper's Creek camp, proved that the expedition had crossed the continent for the first time in non-native history.
Burke was given a state funeral in Melbourne on 21 January 1862. He never married. There is a story that he undertook the expedition intending to woo Julia Mathews, a young Melbourne actress, by a show of bravery. Though a parliamentary inquiry later found against Burke for reckless conduct, a fine bronze commemorative statue, by Charles Summers, was nevertheless erected outside parliament buildings (1865). Records of the expedition are held in the state library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Though foolhardy and deplorably unskilled for such exploration, Burke was unquestionably courageous and his trek forged a modern myth of heroic failure that has helped shape Australian culture. It also revealed to more perceptive contemporaries the great skills of aboriginal tribesmen, able to fend for themselves in a landscape that defeated white colonists burdened with every material asset.