Discoveries in Australia/Volume 1/Chapter 2

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Discoveries in Australia, Volume 1 by John Lort Stokes
Chapter 2: Plymouth to Bahia

CHAPTER 2.[edit]



The morning of the 5th July saw us running out of Plymouth Sound with a light northerly wind, and hazy weather: soon after we were outside we spoke H.M.S. 'Princess Charlotte', bearing the flag of Admiral Sir R. Stopford, and as she was bound down channel we kept together for the next three days: she had old shipmates on board, and was not the less an object of interest on that account. Nothing worthy of particular notice occurred during the run to Santa Cruz in Tenerife, which we made on the 18th of July; having in obedience to our instructions passed over the presumed site of "The Eight Stones", thus adding another though almost needless "testimony to their non-existence, at least in the place assigned them in the old charts."

In passing the gut of Gibraltar we remarked the current setting us into it: this I have before noticed in outward voyages: in the homeward, one is generally too far to the westward to feel its effects. A small schooner sailed for England on the 20th, and most of us took the opportunity of sending letters by her. I learnt from the master of her that a timber ship had been recently picked up near the island, having been dismasted in a gale off the banks of Newfoundland; she was 105 days drifting here.

We were not so fortunate on this occasion as to obtain a distant sea view of the far-famed peak of Tenerife. There are few natural objects of greater interest when so beheld. Rising at a distance of some 40 leagues in dim and awful solitude from the bosom of the seemingly boundless waves that guard its base, it rests at first upon the blue outline of the horizon like a conically shaped cloud: hour after hour as you approach the island it seems to grow upon the sight, until at length its broad reflection darkens the surrounding waters. I can imagine nothing better calculated than an appearance of this kind to satisfy a beholder of the spherical figure of the earth, and it would seem almost incredible that early navigators should have failed to find conviction in the unvarying testimonies of their own experience, which an approach to every shore afforded.

In approaching the anchorage of Santa Cruz, vessels should close with the shore, and get into soundings before—as is the general custom—arriving abreast of the town, where from the steepness of the bank, and its proximity to the shore, they are obliged to anchor suddenly, a practice never desirable, and to vessels short handed, always inconvenient: besides calms sometimes prevail in the offing, which would prevent a vessel reaching the anchorage at all.

Lieut. Grey was most indefatigable in collecting information during the short period of our stay at the island, as an examination of his interesting work will at once satisfy the reader: he explored a cave three miles to the north-east of Santa Cruz, known by tradition as "La Cueva de los Guanches", and reputed to be a burying-place of the aboriginal inhabitants of the island: it was full of bones, and from the specimens he brought away, and also from his description of all that he examined, they appear to have belonged to a small-limbed race of men.

Besides the wine trade, a considerable traffic is carried on with the Moors upon the opposite coast, who exchange gums and sometimes ivory for cotton and calico prints, and occasionally tobacco.

The chief port for this trade is Mogadore, from whence ships not unfrequently sail direct to Liverpool.

A singular circumstance was mentioned to me by our first Lieutenant Mr. Emery, as tending to prove the existence of commercial intercourse between the various tribes in the interior, and the inhabitants of the coast at Mogadore on the north-west coast of Africa, and Mombas on the south-east. In the year 1830, certain English goods were recognized in the hands of the Moors at Mogadore which had been sold two years previously to the natives at Mombas. The great extent of territory passed over within these dates, renders this fact somewhat extraordinary; and it affords a reason for regretting that we did not keep possession of Mombas, which would 'ere this have enabled us to penetrate into the interior of Africa: we abandoned it, at the very time when the tribes in the interior were beginning to find out the value of our manufactures, especially calicoes and cottons.

From the best information that Lieutenant Emery had obtained among the natives, it seems certain that a very large lake exists in the interior, its banks thickly studded with buildings, and lying nearly due west from Mombas.

It was Lieutenant Emery's intention to have visited this lake had he remained longer at Mombas; the Sultan's son was to have accompanied him, an advantage which, coupled with his own knowledge of the country and its customs, together with his great popularity among the natives, must have ensured him success. It is to be feared, that so favourable an opportunity for clearing up the doubts and darkness which at present beset geographers in attempting to delineate this unknown land, will not soon again present itself.

Having completed the necessary magnetic observations, and rated the chronometers, we sailed from Tenerife, on the evening of the 23rd. It should be noticed that the results obtained from our observations for the dip of the needle, differed very materially from those given by former observers: the experiments made by Lieutenant Grey in different parts of the island, satisfied us that the variation could not be imputed to merely local causes.

As in obedience to our instructions we had to examine and determine the hitherto doubtful position of certain rocks near the Equator, about the meridian of 20° W. longitude, we were obliged to take a course that carried us far to the eastward of the Cape de Verd Islands; for this reason we had the N.E. trade wind very light; we finally lost it on the 30th, in lat. 13° 0' N., and long. 14° 40' W.; it had been for the two previous days scarcely perceptible.

The S.E. trade reached us on the 8th of August, lat. 3° 30' N. long. 17° 40' W., and on the morning of the 10th we crossed the Equator in long. 22° 0' W.: when sundry of our crew and passengers underwent the usual ceremonies in honour of old Father Neptune. A close and careful search within the limits specified in our instructions justified us in certifying the non-existence of the rocks therein alluded to: but before we presume to pass any censure upon those who preceded us in the honours of maritime discovery, and the labours of maritime survey, it will be proper to bear in mind the ceaseless changes to which the earth's surface is subject, and that, though our knowledge is but limited of the phenomena connected with subterranean and volcanic agency, still, in the sudden upheaval and subsidence of Sabrina and Graham Islands, we have sufficient evidence of their vast disturbing power, to warrant the supposition that such might have been the case with the rocks for which our search proved fruitless. Nor are these the only causes that may be assigned to reconcile the conflicting testimonies of various Navigators upon the existence of such dangers; the origin of which may be ascribed to drift timber—reflected light discolouring the sea, and causing the appearance of broken water—or to the floating carcass of a whale, by which I have myself been more than once deceived.

A succession of winds between S.S.E. and S.E., with the aid of a strong westerly current, soon brought us near the Brazils. We made the land on the morning of the 17th, about 15 miles to the north-east of Bahia, and in the afternoon anchored off the town of San Salvador.

Though this was neither my first nor second visit to Bahia, I was still not indifferent to the magnificent or rather luxuriant tropical scenery which it presents. A bank of such verdure as these sun-lit climes alone supply, rose precipitously from the dark blue water, dotted with the white and gleaming walls of houses and convents half hidden in woods of every tint of green; while here and there the lofty spires of some Christian temple pointed to a yet fairer world, invisible to mortal eye, and suggested even to the least thoughtful, that glorious as is this lower earth, framed by Heaven's beneficence for man's enjoyment, still it is not that home to which the hand of revelation directs the aspirations of our frail humanity.

I had last seen Bahia in August, 1836, on the homeward voyage of the Beagle; and it was then in anything but a satisfactory condition; the white population divided among themselves, and the slaves concerting by one bloody and desperate blow to achieve their freedom. It did not appear to have improved during the intervening period: a revolutionary movement was still contemplated by the more liberal section of the Brazilians, though at the very period they thus judiciously selected for squabbling with one another, they were living in hourly expectation of a rising, en masse, of the blacks. That such an insurrection must sooner or later take place—and take place with all the most fearful circumstances of long delayed and complete revenge—no unprejudiced observer can doubt. That selfish and short-sighted policy which is almost invariably allied with despotism, has led to such constant additions by importation to the number of the slave population, that it now exceeds the white in the ratio of ten to one, while individually the slaves are both physically and in natural capacity more than equal to their sensual and degenerate masters. Bahia and its neighbourhood have a bad eminence in the annals of the Brazilian slave-trade. Upwards of fifty, some accounts say eighty cargoes, had been landed there since the Beagle's last visit: nor is the circumstance to be wondered at when we bear in mind, that the price of a slave then varied from £90. to 100., and this in a country not abounding in money.

The declining trade, the internal disorganization, and the rapidly augmenting slave population of Bahia, all tend to prove that the system of slavery which the Brazilians consider essential to the welfare of their country, operates directly against her real interests. The wonderful resources of the Brazils will, however, never be fully developed until the Brazilians resolve to adopt the line of policy suggested in Captain Fitzroy's interesting remarks upon this subject. To encourage an industrious native population on the one hand, and on the other to declare the slave-trade piratical, are the first necessary steps in that march of improvement, by which this tottering empire may yet be preserved from premature decay.

It would, however, be "a vain imagination," to suppose that this wiser and more humane determination will be spontaneously adopted by those most implicated in this debasing and demoralizing traffic. Indeed it appears from the best information obtained on the subject, that since the vigilance of our cruizers has comparatively put a stop to the trade on the west coast of Africa—where it has received a great discouragement—it has been greatly extended on the east. Could it but have been foreseen by our Government that their efforts upon the west coast, would in proportion as they were successful, only tend to drive the traders in human flesh to the eastward, it is probable that Mombas would have still been retained under our dominion; for such a possession would have enabled us to exercise an effectual control in that quarter: as it is, it gives additional reason to regret that the place was ever abandoned. The horrors of the passage—horrors which no imagination can heighten, no pen adequately portray—are by this alteration in the chief seat of the accursed trade most fearfully augmented. The poor victims of cruelty and fraud and avarice, in their most repulsive forms, are packed away between decks scarcely three feet high, in small vessels of 30 or 40 tons, and thus situated have to encounter the cold and stormy passage round the Cape: the average mortality is of course most frightful, but the smallness of the vessels employed decreases the risk of the speculators in human flesh, who consider themselves amply repaid, if they save one living cargo out of every five embarked!

In the meantime cargoes of slaves are almost weekly landed in the neighbourhood of Bahia: the thousand evils of the vile system are each day increasing, and with a rapid but unregarded footstep the fearful hour steals on, when a terrible reckoning of unrestrained revenge will repay all the accumulated wrongs of the past, and write in characters of blood an awful warning for the future!

So far as we could learn, no attempts are made by the masters to introduce the blessings of Christianity among those whom they deprive of temporal freedom. The slave is treated as a valuable animal and nothing more: the claims of his kindred humanity so far forgotten as they relate to his first unalienable right of personal freedom, are not likely to be remembered in his favour, in what concerns his coheritage in the sublime sacrifice of atonement once freely offered for us all! He toils through long and weary years, cheered by no other hope than the far distant and oft delusive expectation that a dearly purchased freedom—if for freedom's blessings any price can be too costly—will enable him to look once more upon the land of his nativity; and then close his eyes, surrounded by the loved few whom the ties of kindred endear even to his rude nature.

It would swell this portion of the work to an unreasonable extent, to give any lengthened details of the working of a system, about which among my readers no two opinions can exist. Let it suffice to say, that the Europeans are generally better and less exacting masters than the Brazilians. Among the latter it is a common practice to send so many slaves each day to earn a certain fixed sum by carrying burdens, pulling in boats, or other laborious employment; and those who return at night without the sum thus arbitrarily assessed as the value of their day's work, are severely flogged for their presumed idleness.

During our brief stay at Bahia I paid a visit to the grave of poor young Musters, a little Middy in the Beagle during our last voyage, who died here on the 19th May, 1832, from the effects of a fever caught while away on an excursion up the river Macacu. He was a son of Lord Byron's "Mary", and a great favourite with all on board. Poor boy! no stone marks his lonely resting place upon a foreign shore, but the long grass waves over his humble grave, and the tall palm tree bends to the melancholy wind that sighs above it. As I paid his memory the tribute due to his many virtues and his early death, I breathed a prayer that the still and placid beauty of the spot where his mortal remains return to their kindred dust, may typify the tranquil happiness of that world of spirits with which his own is now united!

On the afternoon of Friday the 25th, we left the magnificent bay of Bahia, and after obtaining an offing, stood away to the southward and eastward. I was much amused by a story of Grey's a day or two after we sailed: it seems he had mistaken the Quartermaster's usual call in conning the ship of "Very well, dice" (a corruption of "very well, thus") for a complimentary notice of the man at the helm; and anxious to know the individual who so distinguished himself, had two or three times gone on deck to see "Mr. Very well Dice:" finding a different helmsman each time, completely confounded him; and when I explained the matter, he joined me in a hearty laugh at the mistake!