The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 11

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 11. On the Queensland coast

Chapter XI.


Two more incidents in the career of Flinders will concern us before we deal with his important later voyages. The first of these is only worth mentioning for the light it throws upon the character of the man. In March, 1799, he sat as a member of a court of criminal judicature in Sydney, for the trial of Isaac Nichols, who was charged with receiving a basket of tobacco knowing it to have been stolen. The case aroused passionate interest at the time. People in the settlement took sides upon it, as upon a matter of acute party politics, and the Governor was hotly at variance with the Judge Advocate, the chief judicial officer.

Nichols had been a convict, but his conduct was good, and he was chosen to be chief overseer of a gang employed in labour of various kinds. On the expiration of his sentence, he acquired a small farm, and by means of sobriety and industry built himself a comfortable house. Through his very prosperity he became "an object to be noticed," as the Governor wrote, and by reason of his diligent usefulness securing him official employment, "he stood in the way of others." In Hunter's opinion, the ruin of Nichols was deliberately planned; and he was convicted on what the Governor believed to be false and malicious evidence.

The striking feature of the trial was that the Court (consisting of seven members—three naval officers and three officers of the New South Wales Corps, presided over by the Judge Advocate) was sharply divided in opinion. The three naval men, Flinders, Waterhouse, and Lieutenant Kent, were convinced of the accused man's innocence; the three military men, with the Judge Advocate, voted for his conviction. There was thus a majority against Nichols; but the Governor, believing that an injustice was being done, suspended the execution of the sentence, and submitted the papers to the Secretary of State. Bass came into the matter in the month after the trial, as a member of a Court of Inquiry into the allegation that certain persons had carried the tobacco to Nichols' house with the object of implicating him.

The only point that need concern us here, is that Flinders wrote a memorandum analysing the evidence with minute care, in justification of his belief in the prisoner's innocence. It was a skilfully drawn document, and it exhibits Flinders in a light which enhances our respect for him, as the strong champion of an accused man whom he believed to be wronged. In the result, the Crown granted a pardon to Nichols; but this did not arrive till 1802, so tardy was justice in getting itself done. Apart from Flinders' share in it, the case is interesting as revealing the strained relations existing between the principal officials in the colony at the time. The Judge Advocate was a bitter enemy of the Governor, and the very administration of the law, affecting the liberties of the people, was tinctured by these animosities.

It is pleasant to turn from so grimy a subject to the work for which Flinders' tastes and talents peculiarly fitted him. The explorations which he had hitherto accomplished were sufficient to convince Hunter that he had under him an officer from whom good work could be expected, and, the Reliance not being required for service, he readily acquiesced when Flinders proposed that he should take the Norfolk northward, to Moreton Bay, the "Glasshouse Bay" of Cook, and Hervey Bay, east of Bundaberg. On this voyage he was accompanied by his younger brother, Samuel Flinders. He also took with him an aboriginal named Bongaree, "whose good disposition and manly conduct had attracted my esteem."

He sailed on July 8th. The task did not occupy much time, for the sloop was back in Sydney by August 20th. The results were disappointing. It had been hoped to find large rivers, and by means of them to penetrate the interior of the country; but none were found.

Flinders missed the Clarence, though he actually anchored off its entrance. Nor did he find the Brisbane, though, ascending the Glasshouse Mountains, he saw indications of a river, which he could not enter with the Norfolk on account of the intricacy of the channel and the shortness of the time available.

Uneasiness of mind respecting the condition of the sloop must have had much to do with the missing of the rivers. She sprung a leak two days out of Port Jackson, and this was "a serious cause of alarm," the more so as grains of maize, with which the Norfolk had been previously loaded, were constantly choking up the pump. Weather conditions, also, did not favour taking the vessel close inshore on her northward course, and it would have been almost impossible to detect the mouths of the New South Wales rivers without a close scrutiny of the coastline. Those considerations are quite sufficient, when duly weighed, to account for the omissions. It certainly was a rash statement, after so imperfect an examination, that "however mortifying the conviction might be, it was then an ascertained fact that no river of importance intersected the east coast between the 24th and 39th degrees of south latitude." But it is equally certain that he could not have found these rivers with the means at his disposal. They could not well have been observed from the deck of a vessel off the coast.[1] A closer inspection of the shore-line was required. In fact, the rivers were not found by seaward exploration; they were discovered by inland travellers.

The most interesting features of the voyage lay in the meeting with aboriginals in Moreton Bay. Some of the incidents were amusing, though at one time there seemed to be danger of a serious encounter. Flinders went ashore to meet a party of the natives, and endeavoured to establish friendly relations with them. But as he was leaving, one of them threw a spear. Flinders snatched up his gun and aimed at the offender, but the flint being wet missed fire. A second snap of the trigger also failed, but on a third trial the gun went off, though nobody was hurt. Flinders thought that it might obviate future mischief if he gave the blacks an idea of his power, so he fired at a man who was hiding behind a tree; but without doing him any harm. The sound of the gun caused the greatest consternation among the natives, and the small party of white men had no more serious trouble with them while they were in the bay. Flinders was "satisfied of the great influence which the use of a superior power has in savages to create respect and render their communications friendly"; but he was fortunately able to keep on good terms without resort to severity.

An effort to tickle the aboriginal sense of humour was a failure. Two of the crew who were Scotch, commenced to dance a reel for the amusement of the blacks. "For want of music," it is related, "they made a very bad performance, which was contemplated by the natives without much amusement or curiosity." The joke, like Flinders' gun, missed fire. There have been, it is often alleged, other occasions when jokes made by Scotsmen have not achieved a shining success; and we do well to respect the intention while we deplore the waste of effort.

An example of cunning which did not succeed occurred shortly after the first landing. Flinders was wearing a cabbage-tree hat, for which a native had a fancy. The fellow took a long stick with a hook at the end of it, and, laughing and talking to divert attention from his purpose, endeavoured to take the hat from the commander's head. His detection created much laughter; as did that of another black with long arms, who tried to creep up to snatch the hat, but was afraid to approach too near. The account which Collins, writing from Flinders' notes, gave of the Queensland natives seen at Moreton Bay, is graphic but hardly attractive. Two paragraphs about their musical attainments and their general appearance will bear quotation:—

"These people, like the natives of Port Jackson, having fallen to the low pitch of their voices, recommenced their song at the octave, which was accompanied by slow and not ungraceful motions of the body and limbs, their hands being held up in a supplicating posture; and the tone and manner of their song and gestures seemed to bespeak the goodwill and forbearance of their auditors. Observing that they were attentively listened to, they each selected one of our people and placed his mouth close to his ear, as if to produce a greater effect, or, it might be, to teach them the song, which their silent attention might seem to express a desire to learn." As a recompense for the amusement they had afforded him Flinders gave them some worsted caps, and a pair of blanket trousers, with which they seemed well pleased. Several other natives now made their appearance; and it was some time before they could overcome their dread of approaching the strangers with the firearms; but, encouraged by the three who were with them, they came up, and a general song and dance was commenced. Their singing was not confined to one air; they gave three.

"Of those who came last, three were remarkable for the largeness of their heads, and one, whose face was very rough, had much more the appearance of a baboon than of a human being. He was covered with oily soot; his hair matted with filth; his visage, even among his fellows, uncommonly ferocious; and his very large mouth, beset with teeth of every hue between black, white, green and yellow, sometimes presented a smile which might make anyone shudder."

The Norfolk remained fifteen days in Moreton Bay. The judgment that Flinders formed of it was that it was "so full of shoals that he could not attempt to point out any passage that would lead a ship into it without danger." The east side was not sounded, and he was of opinion that if a good navigable channel existed it would be found there. His visit to Hervey Bay, further north, did not lead to any interesting observations. He left there on his return voyage on August 7th, and reached Port Jackson at dusk on the 20th.

  1. See Coote, History of Queensland, I., 7, and Lang, Cooksland, p. 17.