Discoveries in Australia/Volume 2/Chapter 4

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Discoveries in Australia, Volume 2 by John Lort Stokes
Chapter 4. Victoria River to Swan River.



December 12.—By this day Mr. Bynoe thought I was sufficiently recovered to be able to bear the motion of the ship at sea, and we accordingly sailed in the morning for Swan River.

Standing out from Point Pearce we had a better view, than on our first approach, of the coast to the north of it; trending in a N. 11° E. direction. It had a sandy appearance and was fronted with a rocky ledge at low-water, with one or two remarkable bare sand patches, four or five miles from the Point. We had a shoal cast of nine fathoms (eight at low-water) ten miles west from Point Pearce. In the afternoon we stood to the westward, in very even soundings of 15 fathoms.

On the 13th we saw the white cliffs of Cape Rulhieres, which, like Point Pearce, we found to be four miles and a half west of its assigned position. On the 14th and 15th we were beating to the westward with a light and variable wind.

Our progress was slow, the monsoon being light; we therefore stood to the northward, to find a more steady breeze, and in order, whilst making our westing, to get some soundings over a large dotted space in the chart, bearing the name of the Great Sahul Shoal. We desired also to ascertain the extent of the bank of soundings extending off this part of the Australian continent, which here approaches to within 245 miles of the south end of Timor. The soundings varied, according to the boards we made over it, from 30 to 60 fathoms; the bottom in the lesser depth being a kind of coral, with bits of ironstone mixed with sand; whilst in the greater depth, it was a green sandy mud.

On the 17th at 8 p.m., whilst standing on the north-west, near the centre of the eastern part of the supposed Sahul Shoal, the water shoaled suddenly to 16 fathoms, from 68, a mile to the south-east. The helm was put down, and when in stays there were only 14½. The position of this patch is in lat. 11° 8½' S., long. 126° 33' E. Standing off S. by E., in two miles the water deepened to 72 fathoms. It was not until we had gone about ten miles, that we again got into 60 fathoms, on the outer edge of the bank of green sandy mud, fronting the Australian shore, and approaching within a hundred miles of the south end of Timor. This bank appears to be separated from the collection of coral patches, forming the Sahul Shoal by a deep gap or gut, in which the depth generally was above 70 fathoms, with a rocky bottom; though in part of it, in lat. 11° 36' S. and long. 124° 53' E., there was no bottom with 207 fathoms.

Dr. Wilson, in his Voyage round the World, mentions that he crossed several parts of the Sahul Shoal on his passage from Timor to Raffles Bay, and never found less than 14 fathoms.

On the 20th, at noon, we had no bottom with 131 fathoms, lat. 11° 34' and long. 124° 52' E. Our progress now appeared to improve. Strange to say, though apparently in the very heart of the monsoon, we were favoured with a light breeze from the south-east; and, to show how currents are governed by the wind, I may remark that the current experienced this day had changed its direction from N.N.E. to W.

On the 24th, several water-snakes were seen, and in the afternoon, with a light north-west wind, we passed about six miles from the north end of Scott's Reef,* which we placed a few miles to the westward of its position in the chart, and of which we shall take another opportunity of speaking.

* One of the discoveries of Captain Peter Heywood, R.N.

Through God's mercy I was now so far recovered as to be able to crawl on the poop to see this reef, but soon found that I had overrated my strength: my back became affected; all power appeared to have deserted my limbs; and I suffered dreadfully. Even to this day I feel the weakness in my back, particularly in cold weather, or when I attempt to lift any great weight suddenly.

Westerly winds, that increased as we got to the southward, brought us in sight of Depuch Island, a level lump of land, on the evening of New Year's Day, and at 7 p.m. we tacked in 15 fathoms, about twelve miles N.W. ½ N. from it. We spent a couple of days beating to westward in the neighbourhood of the coast, from which the bank appeared to extend sixty miles, with an equal number of fathoms on its edge.

January 14, 1840.—At noon, the same prevailing westerly winds brought us within fifty miles of the north point of Sharks Bay, bearing S.E. by S. On the same evening we saw a herd of sperm whales. From that day we had a southerly wind, which drawing round to the east as we got to the south, forced us away from the land, so that from there our track to Swan River described two sides of an acute-angled triangle; the 24th placing us somewhat further than we were on the 14th, namely 700 miles west from our destination; but at length we got a favourable wind to take us in.

January 21.—I must refer back to this date to record that a gloom was cast over the ship in the morning, in consequence of the rigid hand of death having been laid on one of our men, the cook, by name Mitchell, worn out by old age and bodily infirmities. He breathed his last at midnight, and at 10 a.m. we committed his body to the deep. There is perhaps no place where the burial service has a more impressive effect than at sea; and in the present instance the grave demeanour of the whole crew attested that it was so. The day too was gloomy, and in keeping with the solemn scene; while a fresh breeze gave the ship a steady keel. Occasionally the beautiful prayers were interrupted by the roar of the foaming waters as the ship plunged onwards; then swelling on the breeze and mingling with its wailings they were wafted, we would fain hope, to that peaceful home to which we were sending our shipmate. A chilling plunge announced his passage into the mighty deep, leaving no trace to mark the spot on the wave, which swept on as before.

The wandering and strange life of the deceased became the theme of conversation during the day, and many interesting anecdotes were recalled. On one occasion he had passed a few days in a vessel that had been turned bottom up in a squall, but which, luckily, having a light and shifting cargo, floated. His only companions were two negroes, who, with the apathy of their race, spent the principal part of the time in sleep. It was by boring a small hole through the vessel's bottom, and pushing up a stick with a handkerchief attached, that they were enabled to attract the attention of a passing ship, by whose people they were cut out. Old Mitchell's propensity for fishing was very singular. Almost down to the last, when in his hammock under the forecastle, he would have a line passed to him whenever he heard fish playing about; and he would catch at it as it was drawn through his fingers, until exhausted nature failing he fell into a lethargic sleep. His situation latterly was peculiarly pitiable. Worldly affairs and a future state were so painfully mingled, that it was impossible to determine whether or not resignation predominated. He evidently recoiled from the awful contemplation of futurity, and sought refuge in the things of this life. Even whilst in the pangs of death he could not conceive why he should be so cold, and why his feet could not be kept up to a heat which nature, in obedience to the dictates of infinite wisdom, was gradually resigning.

We arrived at Swan River on the 31st, under circumstances which must forcibly illustrate to a landsman the precision with which a ship may be navigated. We had not seen land for fifty-two days, and were steering through a dense fog, which confined the circle of our vision to within a very short distance round the ship. Suddenly the vapour for a moment dispersed, and showed us, not more than a mile ahead, the shipping in Gage's Road.

We found a vast improvement in the colony of Western Australia since our last visit, and again experienced the greatest hospitality from the colonists. To the assiduous attentions of my much valued friend, the Surveyor-General, Lieutenant Roe, R.N., I in great measure ascribe my rapid recovery. He gave me a painfully interesting account of an excursion he had made in search of the party left behind by Captain Grey during his exploring expedition in the neighbourhood of Sharks Bay, with the sufferings and disastrous termination of which the public have already been made acquainted in the vivid language of the last-mentioned officer.

It was on one of those soft beautiful evenings, so common in Australia, that I received this narrative from my friend. We had strolled from his cottage, at the western extremity of the town of Perth, and had just emerged from the patch of woodland, concealing it from the view of the Swan, which now lay at our feet. About a mile below, the broad shadow of Mount Eliza, nearly extended across the river; and in the darkness thus made, the snow-white sails of a tiny pleasure-boat flitted to and fro. Beyond lay the beautiful lake-like reach of the river, Melville Water, just ruffled by a breeze that came sweeping over its surface with all the delicious coolness of the sea. The beauty of the scene did not divert me from the events of my friend's story, serving rather to impress them the more vividly on my mind. I remember well the animated and affecting manner in which he delivered his narrative, and how his hard features became lit up as he proceeded by an expression of honest pride, fully justified by the fact that he had on that occasion been the means of saving the lives of several of his fellow-creatures. When he found them they were under a headland, which they had not sufficient strength left to ascend, nor were they able to round the sea face of it. One of them, finding all hope of proceeding further at an end, went down on his knees and prayed to the almighty for assistance; and just as another had bitterly remarked on the uselessness of proffering such a request, Mr. Roe and his party, as if directed by the hand of Providence, appeared on the ridge above them. It would be painful to describe minutely the condition to which these poor fellows had been reduced; it will be sufficient to state, that thirst had compelled them to resort to the most offensive substitute for pure and wholesome water.

One of their party, Mr. Frederick Smith, had been left behind; and so bewildered were they in their despair, that they could give no definite account of what had become of him. Mr. Roe immediately went in search, and not many miles in the rear, found the poor fellow quite dead in a bush, with his blanket half rolled round him. It appeared that he had tried to scramble up a sandhill and had fallen back into the bush and died—a sad and melancholy fate for one so young. He had laboured under great disadvantages in walking, having cut his feet in very gallantly swimming out to save one of the boats during a hurricane in Sharks Bay. He was reduced to a perfect skeleton; having, in fact, been starved to death. The sight drew forth a tributary tear of affection even from the native who accompanied the party. Mr. Roe consigned poor young Smith's remains to the earth, and setting up a piece of board to mark the spot, smoothed down his lonely pillow, and moved with his companions in mournful silence towards the south.

It must have been an impressive scene; the sun, as if conscious that he was shining for the last time on the remains of the ill-fated young explorer, seemed to linger as if unwilling to descend into the western horizon; and his full red orb painted a number of light airy clouds that floated through the sky in the most brilliant colours, and shed a stream of fire over the water as it rolled with a mournful dirge-like sound on the strand close by. The howl of a wild dog now and then fell on their ears as they performed their melancholy task, and alone broke the stillness that reigned around, as they retreated slowly along the beach.

Whilst on this humane excursion, Mr. Roe witnessed a wondrous gift possessed by the natives. The one that accompanied him, perceiving footmarks on the sand, where some of his countrymen had been, was enabled by them to tell Mr. Roe, not only in what number they were, but the name of each. This account was verified on their return to Perth, from whence the natives had been sent during Mr. Roe's absence on the same errand.

The hurricane I have mentioned, as encountered by Captain Grey in Sharks Bay, lat. 26° S., occurred on February 28th, which, corresponding with the hurricane season of the Mauritius, leaves little doubt that at the same time the shores of New Holland are occasionally visited by more easterly ones, moving in nearly the same direction. The other two instances of hurricanes occurring in the neighbourhood are those of the Ceres, in 1839, in lat. 21° S., above 300 miles N.N.W. from Sharks Bay, and of the Maguashas towards the end of February,* 1843, in lat. 18° S., about 400 miles north of the same place. Ships, therefore, passing along the North-west coast of New Holland at the season we have mentioned, should be prepared for bad weather. The hurricane experienced by Captain Grey began at South-east and ended at North-west. The lull in the centre of it showed that the focus of the storm must have passed over that locality. Captain Grey does not enter sufficiently into detail to enable us to trace the veering of the wind.

* In vol. I, p. 101, will be found mention of the bad weather met with by the Beagle in this month on the north-west coast. For further information on this subject see Mr. Thom's interesting "Inquiry into the Nature and Course of Storms," London 1845.

An observation I made on visiting this time the upper course of the Swan, is worth recording. Many parts were perfectly dry, more so than any I had seen on the Victoria, and yet I was informed that last year those very parts were running with a good stream. It seems reasonable to infer, therefore, that in certain seasons of the year the Victoria, though dry in some places when I visited it, is a full and rapid river.

During our stay the Colonial schooner, Champion, returned from an unsuccessful search for the mouth of the Hutt River, discovered by Captain Grey in the neighbourhood of Moresby's Flat-topped Range. Near the south end of it, however, they found a bay affording good anchorage.

March 25.—We moved the ship to Rottenest Island, to collect a little material for the chart, and select a hill for the site of a lighthouse. The one we chose lies towards the south-east end of the island, bearing N. 76° W. (true) twelve miles and a quarter from Freemantle gaol. The Governor and Mr. Roe accompanied us to Rottenest, where we found that a penal establishment of Aboriginal prisoners had been formed during our absence.

No one would say that the Australian natives cannot work, if they could just see the nice cottages of which this settlement is composed. The Superintendent merely gives the convicts a little instruction at first, and they follow his directions with astonishing precision. They take great pride in showing visitors their own work. It is an interesting though sorrowful sight to see these poor fellows—some of them deprived of their liberty for life, perhaps for crimes into which they have been driven by the treatment they receive from those who have deprived them both of their land and of their liberty. Many, if not most of them, are in some measure unconscious of guilt; and they are almost incapable of appreciating the relation between what they have committed and the punishment which has fallen on them. Their minds are plunged in the darkest ignorance; or if they know anything beyond the means of satisfying their immediate wants, it is that they have been deprived of their rightful possessions by the men whose chains they wear. Surely this reflection should now and then present itself to the white man who is accustomed to treat them so harshly, and induce him to judge more leniently of their acts, and instead of confining himself to coersive measures for protection, make him resort to the means which are within his reach of raising the despised and oppressed savage more nearly to a level with himself in the scale of humanity.

The native prisoners at Rottenest collect salt from the lagoons, cut wood, and at present almost grow sufficient grain to keep them, so that in a short time they will be a source of profit rather than of loss to the crown. Some of them pine away and die; others appear happy. Generally, however, when a fresh prisoner comes among them, great discontent prevails; they enquire eagerly about their friends and families; and what they hear in reply recalls vividly to their minds their wild roving life, their corrobories, the delights of their homes; and of these, too, they are sometimes compelled to think when a blue streak of smoke stealing over the uplands, catches their restless eye, as it wanders instinctively forth in that direction from their island prison. They will often gaze on these mementos of their former free life, until their eyes grow dim with tears and their breasts swell with those feelings which, however debased they may appear, they share in common with us all. On these occasions they naturally turn with loathing to their food. Those who suffer most are the oldest; for they have ties to which the younger are strangers.

The rapidity with which the young ones grow up and improve in appearance, in consequence of their regular food and the care taken of them, is astonishing. They are allowed to have a common kind of spear, though without any throwing stick; and sometimes receive permission to go to the west end of the island to endeavour to kill wallaby, which are there rather numerous.

We were happy to find that the attention of the public, and the Government at home, had been drawn to the wrongs and sufferings of the Aborigines of Australia; and that a desire of preserving them from deterioration and ultimate destruction, had been evinced. Protectors had been sent out for the purpose of attending especially to their interests, so that it was evident that what was wanted was not goodwill towards them. It was easy, however, to perceive that the system was a bad one, and to foretell its failure. The most prominent feature in the plan adopted, was the gathering together of the natives in the neighbourhood of settlers without previously providing them with any means of subsistence, so that they were in a manner compelled to have recourse to depredations.

To show to what extent whaling is carried on in these seas by foreigners, I may mention that during our stay at Swan River, I at one time counted as many as thirteen American whalers at anchor. It was to be regretted that this department of industry had been abandoned by the colonists, who however derived considerable advantage from the barter trade they carried on with the whale ships.

At Perth we found our old shipmate Miago, and were sorry to observe that he was as great a savage as ever. He had got into considerable disgrace among his fellows on account of his having performed one of these feats of which he was so continually boasting on the North-west coast, namely, carrying away a woman. He was hiding about, in momentary fear of being speared by those whom he had injured.

Among the information obtained this time at Swan River, was the following table, relating to the vegetable kingdom of Western Australia.

Names commonly given by Settlers.

Native name.



Mahogany Jarrail* Eucalyptus Grows on white sandy land.
Red gum Kardan  " On loamy land.
Bluegum Co-lort  " On river banks and flooded lands, a sure indication of vicinity of water.
White gum Wando  " On stiff clay lands, sometimes tapped for water contained in hollow trunk.
York gum To-art  " Abundant in York—on good soil.
Cable gum, these varieties all seen in the interior, not common at Perth Gnardarup  " Like several stems twisted together, abondant in interior.
Wooruc  " Brown glossy stem, smooth.
Gnelarue  " Nankeen-coloured stem.
Mallat  " Tall, straight, rough bark.
Morrail  " Nearly similar.
Balwungar  " Glaucus-leaved.
Honeysuckle Mang-ghoyte Banksia Large flowering cones containing honey.
 " Be-al-wra Banksia Large flowering cones containing honey.
Black wattle Kile-yung Acacia Indication of good soil—produces gum.
Broom or Stinkwood Cab-boor Light sandy loam.
Holly Tool-gan Hakea Sandy soil—produces gum.
Cabbage tree Mote yar Nuytsia floribella Gum in abundance.
Beef tree or the oak  ... Casuarina.
Palm tree Djir-jy or jirjy Zamia media, gl. Red fruit, nut, called baio, ripe in March, is considered a delicacy by the natives.
Raspberry jam Maug-art Acacia Sweet scented—grows on good ground.
Raspberry jam Minnung Acacia Gum very abundant.
Blackboy Balga Zantha hast Gum on the spear—resin on the trunk.
York nut Madda Smells like sandalwood.
Red apple Quonni Affects salt grounds.
Swamp oak Yeymbac Name applies rather to the paper-like bark—used to hold water, to cover houses, etc.
Rough-topped blackboy Barro Zantha Resin makes a powerful cement.
Native yam Werrang Said to grow to a large size to the North.
Native potato Tubuc Orchis.
Native turnip Canno.
New Zealand flax Phormium tenax This grows pretty abundantly, I forget the native name.
* The letter "a" is sounded broad and full as in Father.

The result of our soundings between Rottenest Island and the main, showed that a bank extended out to the north-east, from the foul ground off the Stragglers, sufficiently to check, in some measure, the vast body of water rolling in from the north-west; and thereby adding to the safety of Gage Roads, provided vessels anchor in the proper berth, which is in seven or eight fathoms, on sandy mud, about a mile from the gaol, bearing E. by N. A quarter of a mile nearer the shore the bottom shoals rapidly to four and three fathoms, on rocky ground slightly coated with sand. It is therefore not likely a ship, well found, can drag her anchor up a bank so steep as that inclination in the bottom forms. The wrecks that have occurred in this anchorage may be traced to vessels not selecting a proper berth. From their desire to be near the shore they get into the shoal rocky ground; a breeze comes on when they are in no way prepared, in the midst of discharging cargo; and in some cases, before a second anchor can be let go, the ship is driven on shore. Thus, through the want of judgment exhibited by a few individuals, has a whole community suffered in the manner I have alluded to, when speaking of the loss of the Orontes at Port Essington.*

* See Vol. I, p. 379.