Discoveries in Australia/Volume 2/Chapter 7

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Discoveries in Australia, Volume 2 by John Lort Stokes
Chapter 7.


CHAPTER VII.

LAND SALES—UNSETTLED BOUNDARIES—NEW ZEALAND—HUNTER RIVER—MIDNIGHT ALARM—LUDICROUS SCENE—CHANGES IN OFFICERS OF SHIP—LEAVE SYDNEY—PORT STEPHENS—CORROBORY—GALE AT CAPE UPSTART—MAGNETICAL ISLAND—HALIFAX BAY—ASTONISH A NATIVE—DESCRIPTION OF COUNTRY—CORRECT CHART—RESTORATION ISLAND—PICTURESQUE ARRIVAL—INTERVIEW WITH THE NATIVES FROM TORRES STRAIT—THEIR WEAPONS—SHOAL NEAR ENDEAVOUR RIVER—DISCOVER GOOD PASSAGE THROUGH ENDEAVOUR STRAIT—BOOBY ISLAND—NEW BIRDS—THE PAINTED QUAIL

No improvement had taken place in colonial affairs, and the sales of land, in consequence of the high price, were very limited. The fact was, the regulations that had recently been made gave very little satisfaction. By these the minimum price was fixed at one pound per acre; in consequence of which many predicted that millions of acres would be excluded from the market for ages to come, as it seemed not conceivable that any change could make them worth a quarter that sum, especially as on an average the natural grasses of the country will only support one sheep to four acres. The inevitable consequence was to prevent an augmentation of the emigration fund, which inflicted a serious evil on the colony, though by many the high price was considered a great boon, as it enabled them to enjoy, at a trifling charge, immense back runs, as safe from the intrusion of interlopers as if they had been granted by the Crown in perpetuity. It is my impression that the attempt to raise the largest sum of money by the sale of the smallest number of allotments is unwise, as it operates as a discouragement to small capitalists, who wish to occupy the land for themselves; it would in the end be more advantageous almost to give the land away, to a certain extent, in order to encourage people to go there. It may be worth remarking here, that on a rough calculation the pound per acre system would realise, supposing the whole continent were sold, the sum of about £1,679,616,000.

The most curious circumstance connected with the division of land in New S. Wales, is the uncertainty that prevails respecting the boundary line of estates, which must be the source of endless disputes and expensive litigation among the colonists. The whole arises from the system adopted of laying down the boundaries by the magnetic north instead of by the true. This is in itself no easy matter, owing to the local attraction and the difficulty of finding needles that agree. But the chief cause of endless change is the variation, which has progressively increased at Sydney since the colony was first formed, so as to make a difference in the boundary of a grant of land of one square mile in ten.

I will suppose a case in order to illustrate my meaning. In the early days of the colony a piece of land is obtained by a person who merely performs the location duties, and does nothing to his estate until the present time, when he or his successor goes to occupy it. When the land was purchased the direction of the boundary line was, by compass N. 20° E.; but the proprietor finds that in consequence of the increase of variation during the interval, a N. 20° E. line by compass at this time would differ from what it was when his title deeds were made out, one square mile in ten. As this change has at Sydney been progressive, and may indeed take a contrary direction, the boundary lines of grants of lands depending on it will vary accordingly, and afford endless food for the lawyers. A scientific friend of mine, who was once trying to remedy the evil in a particular instance, was entreated by one of that profession not to interfere, for by so doing he would be taking the bread out of the mouths of himself and his brethren.

Since our last visit to Sydney the colonisation of New Zealand had taken place, but from what I heard of the loose system pursued by the Company of obtaining lands from the natives, I could not but form an opinion that those who bought lots of them must in the end be ruined; even their right to sell these lands at all was at the time much questioned. This being the case, the difficulty any Governor must have to contend with, who should attempt to solve the intricate problem involved in the land-question, was apparent, and it will be evident also that those who pretend to form a judgment on the conduct of Captain R. Fitzroy, must take into consideration the character of the people, both white and coloured, with whom he had to deal, and various other circumstances that are usually kept out of sight.

During our long stay at Sydney I visited the mouth of the Hunter, for the purpose of determining the position of Newcastle. The courthouse, according to my observations, is in lat. 32° 55' 50" S. and long. 0° 34' 45" E. of Sydney. This is the district from which all the coal used in New S. Wales is brought, and a good harbour is therefore of importance. A party of convicts were employed in building a breakwater, connecting a cliffy island at the entrance with the south point of the river, for the purpose of deepening the mouth, but I much question whether it will answer, as the silt that is washed down by the stream not finding its former exit may by meeting the sea form a bar.

In ascending the valley of the Hunter I saw sufficient to convince me that a railroad could easily be carried up from Newcastle to Maitland, and thence to Patrick's Plains.*

* It appears that a company having for its object the realization of this idea has just been formed.

I cannot at this place resist the temptation of relating an anecdote, which, though it is not exactly connected with the subject of my work, may not be thought uninteresting by the reader. I was one night sleeping at a friend's house; all the family had retired to rest, and I have no doubt that a perfect stillness prevailed around. Suddenly, a noise like thunder startled me from my slumbers, and as soon as I was able to collect my scattered thoughts, I distinctly heard a series of violent blows against a door at the foot of the staircase leading up to my bedroom. Though the first impression might have been that the disturbance was caused by thieves breaking into the house, it appeared improbable that such characters should make their approach with so much clamour. I instantly leaped out of bed, and arrived in time to see a sight which I shall never forget.

The owner of the house, who slept on the ground floor, equally astonished with myself at the noise, had also quitted his pillow, and, arming himself with a sword and taper, advanced, in the costumes of Iago, when he reappears upon the stage after stabbing Cassio and Rodorigo, towards the door against which the monotonous thumping still continued at regular intervals. It now appeared that the cause of his alarm was on the inside; and my host who believed that a party of robbers had introduced themselves into his premises, hailed them in a loud voice, promising that if they did not cease their hammering, and surrender, he would put them every one to death. So far from attending to his suggestion the thumps increased in rapidity and violence, and he had scarcely time to put himself in a defensive position when the door burst open and out rushed his assailants—a multitude of round figures of all sizes, without heads, legs, or arms! His first thought was that the supernatural existences of New S. Wales had now for the first time revealed themselves to his eyes! Here was material for a fairytale! The genii of this country in which everything runs into leg were then it appeared all body! Such were the fancies that flashed through his mind as he made a desperate lunge at the advancing foe, one of whom he transfixed from breast to back, whilst the rest in an instant overthrew and trampled him under foot, if I may use the expression. And now arose a wild scream—of laughter from myself and the others who had witnessed this mortal combat, for the disturbers of our night's repose were no other than a number of huge pumpkins, which had been placed in a heap upon a press on the landing, and from having been perhaps carelessly piled had given way, and rolled, one by one, downstairs, accumulating at the bottom against the door, until by their weight they forced it open!

During our stay at Sydney some important changes took place among the officers of the ship, the principal of which were the departure for England of Captain Wickham, who had never thoroughly recovered from the attack of dysentery he experienced on our first arrival at Swan River, and the promotion of the writer to the vacancy thus created. Lieutenants Emery and Eden also left for England; the former was succeeded by Lieutenant Graham Gore.

This almost total change in the arrangements of the ship requiring some delay, and the season for passing through Torres Strait, moreover, not having commenced, it was the 3rd of June 1841, before the Beagle again rounded Breaksea Spit, having touched on the way for a meridian distance at Port Stephens.*

* We ran out of Port Stephens before a westerly gale. After passing between Entrance Island and Soldier Point, we steered for Salamander Head, and then for Tomaree Summit, when it was over the centre of the first projection inside Nelson Head, which led over the south-west corner of the shoal patch lying abreast of Red Point in 4 fathoms. When Nelson Head just shut in Yacaba extreme, we steered for the former, and passing it hauled over N.E. ½ E. for the western part of Yacaba Head, keeping a white spot on the second point inside Nelson Head, just open of the latter, until the leading marks for running out (which I have before given in my former visit to Port Stephens) were on.

Whilst at the latter place, I witnessed a corrobory presenting a peculiar feature. As soon as it was dark, a number of heaps of fuel scattered here and there were simultaneously ignited, and the whole surface of the green was speedily lighted up by the flames. When the illumination was complete, the men, painted with spots and lines of white commenced the dance, which consisted in running sideways or in file, stamping with great violence, and emitting an inharmonious grunt, gesticulating violently all the time, and brandishing and striking together their weapons. The peculiar feature in this corrobory, was the throwing of the kiley, or boomerang, lighted at one end; the remarkable flight and extraordinary convolutions of this weapon marked by a bright line of fire, had a singular and startling effect.

As we were rounding Breaksea Spit, we met four merchant ships, who gladly availed themselves of our convoy. On the 6th, being anxious to repeat our last meridian distance, and also the magnetic observations, we anchored under Cape Upstart. We likewise availed ourselves of the visit to complete the examination of the bay on the east side of the Cape. The 7th was a remarkably gloomy day, signalized by a very unusual fall in the barometer between 8 a.m., and 2 p.m., from 30.14 to 30.00, when the breeze which had been fresh in the morning, increased to a gale with squalls. At 3, the wind shifted to the southward, and at 8 when it moderated, the barometer again rose to 30.17. It is these sudden breezes that are so fatal to ships caught off the outer barrier without an opening to get within its shelter. No traces of natives were seen; but the supply of water was as abundant as before, and we took the opportunity of completing our stock.

On the 8th in the evening we left for Magnetical Island, about half a mile off the west side of which we anchored next day in 5 fathoms. The depth from thence shoals in gradually to the head of the bay. A small rocky islet, to which our observations refer, bore south half a mile, in lat. 19° 7' 10" S. and long. 4° 29' 12" W. of Sydney. On this I found a greyish kind of slate; but on Magnetical Island I discovered no local attraction affecting the needle, so as to warrant the name bestowed by Cook. It is a high piece of land, with an ill-defined peak in the centre, 1770 feet high.

A description and view of it have been given in the first volume. We remained there five days, in order to rate the chronometers, and to examine the head of Halifax Bay, where a large estuary had been reported by Captain King; but of this we could see nothing, and came to the conclusion that he must have been deceived by mirage. The land certainly was low in that direction, and trending in to the southward appeared afterwards to wind round to S.W., offering facilities for getting over the range before spoken of as 3,600 feet high, and bounding the shore of Halifax Bay. We were, however, glad of this opportunity of examining a portion of the continent, that had always excited the attention of those who passed, by its fertile aspect. A party landed in the south corner of Halifax Bay, on a long flat sandy beach, which at high-water is completely covered. Crossing some small sand dunes, bound together by a sort of spinifex, we got into a luxuriant growth of grass, rich and soft, with a springing sort of feel to the feet. A few wallaby were started in this, but we obtained none; and seeing a group of rich-looking eucalypti and tea-trees, some of us bent our steps thitherwards, and found a small stream of fresh water, which filtered itself through the sand towards the beach. There was no time to trace it; but for some distance inland we could follow its course with the eye, from the luxuriant vegetation it nourished. The soil was light and sandy, covered with dense creepers, and innumerable quantities of the Angustifolia in splendid flower, many of the clusters occupying a space of three feet in diameter, with a proportionate stem of about five feet from the earth. The hum of insects, and sudden disturbance of rich-coloured parrots, screaming and fluttering through the branches, and the strong, short, rapid flight of the dove, with its melancholy cooing, transported us in imagination a long way inland, whereas we were not three hundred yards from the beach. We now wended our way towards a small eminence, through long grass, in most places interwoven with creepers, compelling us to tear our way through them in the ascent.

In doing so Mr. Bynoe flushed a native; but before the rest of the party could come up, he had taken to flight. The simultaneous cries of "here's a native!" "where!" "here!" "there he goes stark naked," rose; and before all eyes could catch a glimpse, his dark figure insensibly blended with the waving branches of his wild solitude, and without a cry of fear or joy, he was lost to us, perhaps for ever! We burst through the same brushwood he had recently thrown aside, and entered a labyrinth of forest trees, without finding a clue to the direction he had taken.

The whole of the country appeared to be granitic; the eminence on which we stood bore that character, and some parts, near the beach, were thrown into massive blocks, at high-water, completely surrounded by the flux of tide. The view inland was intercepted by hills and trees, the former assuming the same appearance as the one we were on, but higher. Our game-bag was thinly lined with small curlews, oyster-catchers, and sanderlings.

A sandy spit connects Magnetical Island on the south side with the main, and must be sufficiently shoal at low water to allow the natives to ford over; for we found no canoes with those we met on the island, who were numerous and apparently very well disposed. Although not a large race, they were in very good condition; part of their food, is the native yam, called warran in Western Australia. The birds on the island are common to other parts; and the wallaby, of which Mr. Bynoe shot three, are light coloured.

On the evening of the 13th, we again proceeded on our passage; the night was hazy, with a few slight squalls, much resembling the weather which we had before experienced in the same place. Towards the close of the 15th, we anchored eight miles from Cape Tribulation, bearing N. 11° W. The summit of Snapper Island, bore S. 7° E. six miles; by which we found that both it and the coast are placed on the charts too much to the eastward.

In passing Point Barrow I was very much struck with the similarity which the low line of cliffs, running along the summit of the high land, bears to that on the Victoria River.* We avoided the reef off Cape Flinders, by following the directions given in the first volume, and by making a detour to the southward round Princess Charlotte's Bay, were enabled to keep underweigh all night.

* See Sketches, p. 142.

Continuing, we reached Restoration Island soon after dark on the 19th. It was rather a confined anchorage, to be taken up at that hour with five ships. Our arrival was under rather singular circumstances. The night being dark, we could not make out even the outline of the high rocky island, which appeared one dark mass; and the meeting of the land and sea was only occasionally distinguished by patches of white, where the water broke against the steep rocky sides of the island. Not a sound came from the shore as we drew near our berth; but no sooner did the heavy splash of the anchor, and the noise of the cable running out, resound among the heights, than one loud yell of startled natives seemed to rise from one end of the island to the other. The discharge of a signal rocket, however, that curved its flight over the island, instantaneously quieted the uproar, and a death-like silence succeeded.

In the morning we found that the island was occupied by a party of natives from Torres Strait. Their canoes, which were furnished with outriggers, were hauled up on the beach, and their spears were deposited in the bushes around, ready for immediate use; but, although they seemed to suspect our friendly intentions towards them at first, no disturbance occurred, and some were prevailed upon to come on board. Their presence forcibly reminded us of the melancholy fate of the crew of the Charles Eaton; and no doubt they had come to the southward on a wrecking expedition. They were a much finer race of men, than those met with on the shores of the continent; their voices sounded softer, and their language appeared quite different. They instantly recognized the drawing of a Murray Island canoe, in Flinders' Voyage, and constantly kept repeating the word toolic, meaning iron, in the Murray Island language. The lobe of their ears was perforated with a large piece of bone; and their hair was like that which I have before described as crisp. I noticed that their spears were all pointed with bone, and that the shafts in those used for fishing were large, with a coil of line attached, and a string also connecting the head, which came loose when a porpoise or turtle was struck; whilst the wood, floating, acted as a drag. At daylight on the 21st we proceeded on our passage.

About four or five miles to the southward of Endeavour River, we passed some discoloured patches near the shore; and thereabouts a shoal has since been discovered. Having before expressed an opinion that there was a safe passage through Endeavour Strait, I resolved to take this opportunity of setting the question at rest. Before passing between the Possession Isles, towards the entrance of it, I acquainted the rest of the convoy with my intentions, to give them the option of taking the chance of a passage with me, or of proceeding by the ordinary route. They chose the former, and we accordingly entered the Strait, which we found navigable for vessels drawing 18 feet, by passing about a mile and a half to the northward of the Wallis Islands, steering a westerly course. In crossing the ridge extending off Cape Cornwall, the least water was 3½ fathoms at low tide; N. Wallis Island bearing S. 64° E. seven miles. There still, however, appeared to be more water to the southward, which determined me to examine this passage more minutely on my return from the Gulf. A course was now held for Booby Island, where we anchored in the evening (the 23rd).

It was my intention, in order that we might commence our exploration of the Gulf with a good supply, to have searched for water in Port Lihou, on the south side of Cook Island, in Endeavour Strait; but the ships in company being able to supply us the delay was avoided. Since our last visit, the book at the Post Office, on Booby Island, had been destroyed by some mischievous visitors, and the box was in a very dilapidated state. We repaired the latter, and left a new book with a supply of pens and ink.

A ton or two of water was also procured from some holes in the rocks on the island. I have before spoken of the heaps of stone which Captain King concluded were erected by seamen; but Dr. Wilson, in his Voyage round the World, mentions some cairns of stone on certain islands to the northward, not previously visited by Europeans, and which must have therefore been the work of natives.

Mr. Bynoe was fortunate enough to procure two pigeons of a new species (Ptilinopus superbus) and of beautiful colours; the breast being dark purple, the crown of the head red, and the other parts green; besides one specimen of a bird, of the same genus as one on the Abrolhos, generally called a quail, but with this difference, that it only lays four eggs, whereas quails lay fourteen or fifteen. It is known to the colonists as the Painted Quail; and has been called by Mr. Gould, from the specimen we got on Booby Island, Hæmipodius melinatus.