The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 10
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Chapter 10. The fate of George Bass
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THE FATE OF GEORGE BASS
It has been already mentioned that Bass Strait was named by Governor Hunter on the recommendation of Flinders. There is no reason to suppose that George Bass himself made any claim that his name should be applied to his discovery. One derives the impression, from a study of his character as revealed in his words and acts, that he would have been perfectly content had some other name been chosen. He was one of those rare men who find their principal joy in the free exercise of an intrepid and masculine energy, especially in directions affording a stimulus to intellectual curiosity. He did not even write a book or an essay about the work he had done. The whaleboat voyage was tersely recorded in a diary for the information of the Governor; his other material was handed over to Collins for the purposes of his History of New South Wales, and Bass went about his business unrewarded, officially unhonoured.
It is curiously significant of the modesty of this really notable man that when, in 1801, he again sailed to Australia, he mentioned quite casually in a letter that he had passed through Bass Strait without any reference to his own connection with the passage. It was not, to him, "the strait which I discovered," or "my strait," or "the strait named after me," but simply Bass Strait, giving it the proper geographical name scored on the map, just as he might have mentioned the name of any other part of the globe traversed during the voyage. The natural pride of the discoverer assuredly would have been no evidence of egotism; but Bass was singularly free from all semblance of human weakness of that kind. The difficulties battled with, the effort joyfully made, the discovery accomplished, he appears hardly to have thought any more about his own part in it. Not only his essential modesty but his affectionate nature and the frank charm of his manner are apparent in such of his letters as have been preserved.
The association of Bass with Flinders was fruitful in achievement, and their friendship was perfect in its manliness; it is pathetic to realise that when they parted, within a few weeks after the return of the Norfolk to Sydney, these two men, still young in years and rich in hope, ability and enterprise, were never to meet again.
As from this time Bass disappears from the story of his friend's life, what is known of his later years may be here related. His fate is a mystery that has never been satisfactorily cleared up, and perhaps never will be. He returned to England "shortly after" the voyage of the Norfolk. So wrote Flinders; but "shortly after" means later than April, 1799, for in that month Bass sat on a board of inquiry into the Isaac Nicholls case, to be mentioned again hereafter.
In England, Bass married Elizabeth Waterhouse, sister of his old shipmate Henry Waterhouse, the captain of the Reliance. With a wife to maintain, he was apparently dissatisfied with his pay and prospects as a naval surgeon. Nor was he quite the kind of man who would, in the full flush of his restless energy, settle down to the ordinary practice of his profession. Confined to a daily routine in some English town, he would have been like a caged albatross pining for regions of illimitable blue.
Within three months of his marriage Bass had become managing owner of a smart little 140-ton brig, the Venus, in a venture in which a syndicate of friends had invested £10,890. In the early part of 1801 he sailed in her with a general cargo of merchandise for Port Jackson. The brig, which carried twelve guns—for England was at war, and there were risks to be run —was a fast sailer, teak-built and copper-sheathed, and was described as "one of the most complete, handsome and strong-built ships in the River Thames, and will suit any trade." She was loaded "as deep as she can swim and as full as an egg," Bass wrote to his brother-in-law; and there is the sailor's jovial pleasure in a good ship, with, perhaps, a suggestion of the surgeon's point of view, in his declaration that she was "very sound and tight, and bids fair to remain sound much longer than any of her owners."
But the speculation was not an immediate success. The market was "glutted with goods beyond all comparison," in addition to which Governor King, who succeeded Hunter in 1800, was conducting the affairs of the settlement upon a plan of the most rigid economy. "Our wings are clipped with a vengeance, but we shall endeavour to fall on our feet somehow or other," wrote Bass early in October, 1801.
A contract made with the Governor, to bring salt pork from Tahiti at sixpence per pound, provided profitable employment for the Venus. Hogs were plentiful in the Society Islands, and could be procured cheaply. The arrangement commended itself to the thrifty Governor, who had hitherto been paying a shilling per pound for pork, and it kept Bass actively engaged. He was "tired of civilised life." There was, too, money to be made, and he sent home satisfactory bills "to stop a few holes in my debts." "That pork voyage," he wrote to his brother-in-law, "has been our first successful speculation"; and he spoke again in fond admiration of the Venus; "she is just the same vessel as when we left England, never complains or cries, though we loaded her with pork most unmercifully." While he was pursuing this trade, the French expedition under Baudin visited Sydney, and they, on their chart of Wilson's Promontory gave the name of Venus Bay to an inlet on the west side of Cape Liptrap. They also bought goods to the extent of £359 10s. from "Mr. George Basse."
Bass now secured fishing concessions in New Zealand waters, from which he hoped much. "The fishery is not to be put in motion till after my return to old England," he wrote in January, 1803. Then, he said playfully, "I mean to seize upon my dear Bess, bring her out here, and make a poissarde of her, where she cannot fail to find plenty of ease for her tongue. We have, I assure you, great plans in our heads, but, like the basket of eggs, all depends upon the success of the voyage I am now upon." It was the voyage from which he never returned.
There is another charming allusion to his wife in a letter written from Tahiti: "I would joke Bess upon the attractive charms of Tahiti females but that they have been so much belied in their beauty that she might think me attracted in good earnest. However, there is nothing to fear here." He speaks of her again in writing to his brother: "I have written to my beloved wife, and do most sincerely lament that we are so far asunder. The next voyage I have she must make with me, for I shall badly pass it without her." The pathos of his reference to her in a letter of October, 1801, can be felt in its note of manly sympathy, and is deepened by the recollection that the young bride never saw him again. "Our dear Bess talks of seeing me in eighteen months. Alas! poor Bess, the when is uncertain, very uncertain in everything except its long distances. Turn our eyes where we will, we see nothing but glutted markets around us."
PAGE FROM BASS'S MS. ACCOUNT OF THE VOYAGE OF THE NORFOLK.
The position was this. The persistent policy of Spain in the government of her South American possessions was to conserve trade exclusively for Spanish ships and Spanish merchants; and for this purpose several restrictions were imposed upon unauthorised foreign traders. Nevertheless the inhabitants of these colonies urgently required more goods than were imported under such excessive limitations, and wanted to get them much cheaper than was possible while monopoly and heavy taxation prevailed. There was, consequently, a tempting inducement to skippers who were sufficiently bold to take risks, to ship goods for  The profits from success were great; but the consequences of detection were disastrous.and Peru, and run them in at some place along the immense coast-line, evading the lazy eyes of perfunctory Spanish officials, or securing their corrupt connivance by bribes. Contraband trade was, in fact, extensively practised, and plenty of people in the Spanish colonies throve on it. As a modern historian writes: "The vast extent of the border of Spain's possessions made it impossible for her to guard it efficiently. Smuggling could therefore be carried on with impunity, and the high prices which had been given to European wares in America by the system of restriction, constituted a sufficient inducement to lead the merchants of other nations to engage in contraband trade."
Now Bass, as already related, had brought out to Sydney in the Venus a large quantity of unsaleable merchandise. He could not dispose of it under conditions of glut. He had hoped that the Governor would take the cargo into the Government store and let it be sold even at a 50 per cent. reduction. But King declined to permit that to be done. Here, then, was a singularly courageous man, fond of daring enterprises, in command of a good ship, with an unsaleable cargo on his hands. On the other side of the Pacific was a country where such a cargo might, with luck, be sold at a bounding profit. He could easily find out how the trade was done. There was more than one among those with whom he would associate in Sydney who knew a great deal about it.
One or two sentences in Bass's last letters to Henry Waterhouse contain mysterious hints, which to him, with his experience of Port Jackson, would be significant. He explained that he intended taking the Venus to visit the coast of Chili in search of provisions, "and that they may not in that part of the world mistake me for a contrabandist, I go provided with a very diplomatic-looking certificate from the Governor here, stating the service upon which I am employed, requesting aid and protection in obtaining the food wanted. And God grant you may fully succeed, says your warm heart, in so benevolent an object; and thus also say I; Amen, say many others of my friends."
But was the diplomatic-looking paper intended rather to serve as a screen than as a guarantee of bona fides? "In a few hours," wrote Bass at the beginning of February, 1803, "I sail again on another pork voyage, but it combines circumstances of a different nature also"; and at the end of the same letter he added: "Speak not of South America to anyone out of your family, for there is treason in the very name." What did he mean by that? He spoke of "digging gold in South America," and clearly did not mean it in the strict literal sense.
It is true that the Governor was anxious to get South American cattle and beef for the settlement in Sydney, but can that have been the only motive for a voyage beyond Tahiti? "If our approaching voyage proves at all fortunate in its issue, I expect to make a handsome thing out of it, and to be much expedited on my return to old England," Bass wrote in January. He would not have been likely to make so very handsome a thing out of beef in one voyage, to enable him to expedite his return to England.
The factors of the case are, then, that Bass had on his hands a large quantity of goods which he had failed to sell in Sydney; that there was a considerable and enormously profitable contraband trade with South America at the time; that he expected to make a very large and rapid profit out of the venture he was about to undertake; that he warned Waterhouse against mentioning the matter outside the family circle, "for there is treason in the very name"; and that he was himself a man distinguished by dash and daring, who was very anxious to make a substantial sum and return to England soon. The inference from his language and circumstances as to the scheme he had in hand is irresistible.
The "very diplomatic-looking certificate" which the Governor gave him was dated February 3, 1803. It certified that "Mr. George Bass, of the brigantine Venus, has been employed since the first day of November, 1801, upon His Britannic Majesty's service in procuring provisions for the subsistence of His Majesty's colony, and still continues using those exertions;" and it went on to affirm that should he find it expedient to resort to any harbour in His Catholic Majesty's dominions upon the west coast of America, "this instrument is intended to declare my full belief that his sole object in going there will be to procure food, without any view to private commerce or any other view whatsoever."
Notwithstanding the terms of this certificate, however, there is clear evidence that Governor King was fully aware of the nature of the trade conducted with the Spanish-American colonies by vessels using Port Jackson; and though it may be that Bass did not tell him in so many words what his whole intentions were, King knew that Bass had a large stock of commodities to sell, and could hardly have been ignorant that a considerable portion of them were re-shipped on the Venus for this voyage. In a later despatch he alluded to vessels which carried goods "from hence to the coasts of the Spanish possessions on the west side of America," and he observed "that this must be a forced trade, similar to that carried on among the settlements of that nation and Portugal on the east side of America, and that much risk will attend it to the adventurers."
Bass sailed from Sydney on February 5th, 1803. He never returned, and no satisfactory account of what became of him is forthcoming. Later in 1803 the brig Harrington, herself concerned in the contraband trade, reported that the Venus had been captured and confiscated by the Spaniards in Peru, and that Bass and the mate, Scott, had been sent as prisoners to the silver mines. In December, 1804, Governor King remarked in a despatch to the Secretary of State that he had been "in constant expectation" of hearing from Bass, "to whom, there is no doubt, some accident has occurred." The Harrington had reported the capture of the Venus before King wrote that. Why did he not mention the circumstance to the British Government? Why did he not allude to the country to which he well knew that Bass intended to sail? It would seem that King carefully avoided referring in his official despatches to an enterprise upon which he had good reason to be aware that Bass had embarked.
War between Great Britain and Spain did not break out till December, 1804, after the seizure of the Spanish treasure fleet by British frigates off Cadiz (October 5th). But in previous years, while Spain, under pressure from Napoleon, lent her countenance to his aggressive policy, English privateers had freely plundered Spanish commerce in the south Pacific, and some of them had brought their prizes to Sydney. That this was done with the knowledge of the authorities cannot be doubted. Everybody knew about it. When the French exploring ships were lying at Sydney in 1802, Peron saw there vessels "provided with arms, fitting out for the western coast of America, stored with merchandise of various kinds. These vessels were intended to establish, by force of arms, a contraband commerce with the inhabitants of Peru, extremely advantageous to both parties."
It would not, therefore, be wonderful that the Spanish authorities in Chili or Peru should regard Port Jackson as a kind of wasp's nest, and should look with suspicion on any vessel coming thence which might fall into their hands, however much her commander might endeavour to make of his official certificate declaring the Governor's "full belief" in his lawful intentions. The irritation caused by the use that was being made of Sydney as a privateering and contraband base of operations can be well imagined. As early as December, 1799, indeed, Governor Hunter related that a captured Spanish merchant vessel had been brought into port, and he acknowledged that "this being the second Spanish prize brought hither, we cannot be surprised, should it be known that such captures make a convenience of this harbour, if it should provoke a visit from some of the ships of war from the Spanish settlements on that coast." The Spaniards would naturally be thirsting for revenge; and a ship sailing direct from the port of which the raiders made a "convenience" would be liable to feel their ire, should there be the semblance of provocation. The authorities would have been justified in holding up the Venus if they suspected that she carried contraband goods; and their treatment of her officers and crew might be expected to reflect the temper of their disposition towards Port Jackson and all that concerned it.
If, as the Harrington reported, Bass and his companions were sent to the mines, the Spanish officials managed their act of punishment, or revenge, very quietly. But at that time there was not a formal state of belligerency between England and Spain, though the tension of public feeling in Great Britain concerning Spanish relations with France was acute. If it were considered that such an act as the seizure of the Venus would be likely to precipitate a declaration of war, the motive for secrecy was strong. Secrecy, moreover, would have been in complete conformity with Spanish methods in South America. It is not recorded whether the seizure of the Venus occurred at Callao, Valparaiso or Valdivia; but a British lieutenant, Fitzmaurice, who was at Valparaiso five years later, heard that a man named Bass had been in Lima some years before.
A friend of the Bass family residing at Lincoln in 1852 wrote a letter to Samuel Sidney, the author of The Three Colonies of Australia, stating that Bass's mother last heard of him "in the Straits of China." But this was evidently an error of memory. If Bass ever got out of South America, he would have written to his "dear Bess," to Waterhouse, and to Flinders. The latter, in 1814, wrote of him as "alas, now no more." There is on record a report that he was seen alive in South America in that year, but the story is doubtful. He was a man full of affectionate loyalty to his friends, and it is not conceivable that he would have left them without news of him if any channel of communication had been open, as would have been the case had he been at liberty as late as 1814. His father-in-law made enquiries, but failed to obtain news. The report of the Harrington was probably true, but beyond that we really have no information upon which we can depend. The internal history of Spanish America has been very scantily investigated, and it is quite possible that even yet some diligent student of archives may find, some day, particulars concerning the fate of this brave and adventurous spirit.
The disappearance of Bass's letters to his mother is a misfortune which the student of Australian history must deplore. He was observant, shrewd, an untiring traveller, and an entertaining correspondent. He probably related to his mother, to whom he wrote frequently, the story of his excursions and experiences, and the historical value of all that he wrote would be very great. The letters, said the Lincoln friend, were long, "containing full accounts of his discoveries." His mother treasured them till she died, when they came into the possession of a Miss Calder. She kept them in a box, and used occasionally to amuse herself by reading them. But some time before 1852 Miss Calder went to the box to look at them again, and found that they had disappeared. Whether she had lent them to some person who had failed to return them, or had mislaid them, is unknown. It is possible that they may still be in existence in some dusty cupboard in England, and that we may even yet be gratified by an examination of documents which would assuredly enable us to understand more of the noble soul of George Bass.
It has been mentioned that Flinders and Bass did not meet again after the voyage of the Norfolk and Bass's return to England. Though Sydney was the base of both Flinders in the Investigator and Bass in the Venus in 1802 and 1803, they always had the ill-luck to miss each other. Bass was at Tahiti while Flinders lay in port from May 9th to July 21st, 1802. He returned in November, and left once more on his final voyage in February, 1803. Flinders arrived in Sydney again, after his exploration of the Gulf of Carpentaria, in June, 1803. A farewell letter from him to his friend is quoted in a later chapter.
- Manuscript accounts of Baudin, Archives Nationales BB4, 999.
- Bernard Moses, Spanish Rule in America, 289.
- The writer of the article on Bass in the Dictionary of National Biography says that "except that he left Australia in 1799 to return to England nothing certain is known of Bass's subsequent history." But we know fairly fully what he was doing up till February, 1803, as related above. The Bass mystery commences after that date. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition) finds no space for a separate article on this very remarkable man.
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The Plants, retain in general, the air of those of New South Wales, while, they are in reality, different. The rich & vivid colouring of the more northern flowers, and that soft & exquisite graduation of their tints, for which they are so singularly distinguished, hold with them here, but in a less eminent degree. The two countries present a perfect similarity in this, that the more barren spots are the most adorned.
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