The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 16

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 16. Flinders in Port Phillip

Chapter XVI.

FLINDERS IN PORT PHILLIP

Flinders' actual discovery work on the south coast was completed when he met Baudin in Encounter Bay; for the whole coast line to the east had been found a short while before he appeared upon it, though he was not aware of this fact when completing his voyage. For about a hundred and fifty miles, from the mouth of the Murray eastward to Cape Banks, the credit of discovery properly belongs to Baudin, and Flinders duly marked his name upon the chart. Further eastward, from Cape Banks to the deep bend of the coast at the head of which lies Port Phillip, the discoverer was Captain Grant of the Lady Nelson. His voyage was projected under the following circumstances.

When Philip Gidley King, who in 1800 succeeded Hunter as Governor of New South Wales, was in England in 1799, he represented to the Admiralty the desirability of sending out to Australia a small, serviceable ship, capable of being used in shallow waters, so that she might explore bays and rivers. One of the Commissioners of the Transport Board, Captain John Schanck, had designed a type of vessel that was considered suitable for this purpose. She was to be fitted with a sliding keel, or centreboard, and was deemed to be a boat of staunch sea-going qualities, as well as being good for close-in coastal service. A sixty-ton brig, the Lady Nelson, was built to Schanck's plans, and was entrusted to the command of Lieutenant Grant. She was tried in the Downs in January, 1800, when Grant reported enthusiastically on her behaviour. She rode out a gale in five fathoms of water without shipping "even a sea that would come over the sole of your shoe." Running her into Ramsgate in a heavy sea, Grant wrote of her in terms that, though somewhat crabbed to a non-nautical ear, were a sailor's equivalent for fine poetry: "though it blew very strong, I found the vessel stand well up under sail, and with only one reef out of the topsails, no jib set, a lee tide going, when close hauled she brought her wake right aft and went at the rate of five knots."

Grant was ambitious to make discoveries on his own account, and did not lack zeal. He was a skilful sailor, but was lacking in the scientific accomplishment required for the service in which he aspired to shine. When at length he returned from Australia, King summed him up in a sentence: "I should have been glad if your ability as a surveyor, or being able to determine the longitude of the different places you might visit, was any ways equal to your ability as an officer and a seaman."

Grant left England early in 1800, intending to sail to Australia by the usual route, making the Cape of Good Hope, and then rounding the south of Van Diemen's Land. But news of the discovery of Bass Strait was received after the Lady Nelson had put to sea; and the Admiralty (April, 1800) sent instructions to reach him at the Cape, directing him to sail through the strait from the west. This he did. Striking the Australian coast opposite Cape Banks on December 3rd, 1800, he followed it along past Cape Otway, thence in a line across to Wilson's Promontory and, penetrating the strait, was the first navigator to work through it from the far western side. He attempted no survey, and shortness of water and provisions deterred him from even pursuing the in-and-out curves of the shore; but he marked down upon a rough eye-sketch such prominent features as Mount Gambier, Cape Northumberland, Cape Bridgewater, Cape Nelson, Portland Bay, Julia Percy Island, and Cape Otway. "I took the liberty of naming the different capes, bays, etc., for the sake of distinction," he reported to the Governor on his arrival at Sydney on December 16th.

It was in this way that both Baudin and Flinders were anticipated in the discovery of the western half of the coast of Victoria. The Investigator voyage had not been planned when the Lady Nelson sailed; and when Flinders was commissioned the Admiralty directed that Grant should be placed under his orders, the brig being used as a tender.

The baffling winds that had delayed Flinders' departure from Kangaroo Island on April 8th, 1802, continued after he sailed from Encounter Bay, so that he did not pass the fifty leagues or so first traversed by Le Géographe for eight tedious days. On April 17th he reached Grant's Cape Banks; on April 18th passed Cape Northumberland; and on the 19th Capes Bridgewater, Nelson and Grant. But the south-west gale blew so hard during this part of the voyage that, the coast trending south-easterly, it was difficult to keep the ship on a safe course; and Flinders confessed that he was "glad to miss a small part of the coast." Thick squally weather prevented the survey being made with safety; and, indeed, it was rarely that the configuration of the land could be distinguished at a greater distance than two miles. On the 21st Flinders noticed a subsidence of the sea, which made him conclude that he was to the windward of the large island concerning which he had questioned Baudin. He resolved to take advantage of a period when the close examination of the mainland had become dangerous to determine the exact position of this island, of whose whereabouts he had heard from sealers in 1799.

The south part of King Island had been found by the skipper of a sealing brig, named Reid, in 1799, but the name it bears was given to it by John Black, commander of the brig Harbinger, who discovered the northern part in January, 1801. Flinders was occupied for three days at King Island. On the 24th, the wind having moderated, he made for Cape Otway. But it was still considered imprudent to follow the shore too closely against a south-east wind; and on the 26th the ship ran across the water to Grant's Cape Schanck.

The details of these movements are of some moment, for the ship was nearing the gates of Port Philip. "We bore away westward," Flinders records, "in order to trace the land round the head of the deep bight." In view of the importance of the harbour which he was about to enter, we may quote his own description of his approach to it, and his surprise at what he found:

"On the west side of the rocky point,[1] there was a small opening, with breaking water across it. However, on advancing a little more westward the opening assumed a more interesting aspect, and I bore away to have a nearer view. A large extent of water presently became visible withinside, and although the entrance seemed to be very narrow, and there were in it strong ripplings like breakers, I was induced to steer in at half-past one; the ship being close upon a wind and every man ready for tacking at a moment's warning. The soundings were irregular, between 6 and 12 fathoms, until we got four miles within the entrance, when they shoaled quick to 2 3/4. We then tacked; and having a strong tide in our favour, worked to the eastward, between the shoal and the rocky point, with 12 fathoms for the deepest water. In making the last stretch from the shoal, the depth diminished from 10 fathoms quickly to 3; and before the ship could come round, the flood tide set her upon a mud bank and she stuck fast. A boat was lowered down to sound; and, finding the deep water lie to the north-west, a kedge anchor was carried out; and, having got the ship's head in that direction, the sails were filled, and she drew off into 6 and 10 fathoms; and it being then dark, we came to an anchor.

"The extensive harbour we had thus unexpectedly found I supposed must be Westernport; although the narrowness of the entrance did by no means correspond with the width given to it by Mr. Bass. It was the information of Captain Baudin, who had coasted along from thence with fine weather, and had found no inlet of any kind, which induced this supposition; and the very great extent of the place, agreeing with that of Westernport, was in confirmation of it. This, however, was not Westernport, as we found next morning; and I congratulated myself on having made a new and useful discovery. But here again I was in error. This place, as I afterwards learned at Port Jackson, had been discovered ten weeks before by Lieutenant John Murray, who had succeeded Captain Grant in the command of the Lady Nelson. He had given it the name of Port Phillip, and to the rocky point on the east side of the entrance that of Point Nepean."

It was characteristic of Flinders that he allowed no expression of disappointment to escape him, on finding that he had been anticipated by a few weeks in the discovery of Port Phillip. Baudin, it will be remembered, observed the satisfaction felt by his visitor in Encounter Bay, when he learnt that Le Géographe had not found King Island, because he thought he would have the happiness of being the first to lay it down upon a chart. In this he had been forestalled by Black of the Harbinger; and now again he was to find that a predecessor had entered the finest harbour in southern Australia. Disappointment he must have felt; but he was by no means the man to begrudge the success that had accrued to another navigator. He made no remark, such as surely might have been forgiven to him, about the determining accidents of time and weather; though it is but right for us to observe that, had the Investigator been permitted to sail from England when she was ready (in April, 1801) instead of being delayed by the Admiralty officials till July, Port Phillip, as well as the stretch of coast discovered by Baudin, would have been found by Flinders. That delay was caused by nothing more than a temporary illness of the Secretary of the Admiralty, Evan Nepean, whose name is commemorated in Point Nepean, one of the headlands flanking the entrance to the Port.

A perfectly just recognition of the real significance of Flinders in southern exploration has led to his name being honoured and commemorated even with respect to parts where he was not the actual discoverer. It is a function of history to do justice in the large, abiding sense, discriminating the spiritual potency of personalities that dominate events from the accidental connection of lesser persons with them. In that wider sense, Flinders was the true discoverer of the whole of the southern coast of Australia. He, of course, made no such claim; but we who estimate the facts after a long lapse of years can see clearly that it was so. Only the patching up of the old Reliance kept him in Sydney while Bass was creeping round the coast to Westernport. Only the illness of an official and other trifling causes prevented him from discovering Port Phillip. It was the completion of his chart of Bass Strait, based upon his friend's memoranda, that led the Admiralty to direct Grant to sail through the strait from the west, and so enabled him to be the first to come upon the coast from Cape Banks to Cape Schanck. It was only the delay before-mentioned and the contrary winds that hindered him from preceding Baudin along the fifty leagues that are credited to that navigator.

Thus it is that although not a league of the coastline of Victoria is in strict verity to be attributed to Flinders as discoverer, he is habitually cited as if he were. Places are named after him, memorials are erected to him. The highest mountain in the vicinity of Port Phillip carries on its summit a tablet celebrating the fact that Flinders entered the port at the end of April, 1802; but there is nowhere a memorial to remind anyone that Murray actually discovered it in January of the same year. The reason is that, while it is felt that time and circumstance enabled others to do things which must be inscribed on the historical page, the triumph that should have followed from skill, knowledge, character, preparation and opportunities well and wisely used, was fairly earned by Flinders. The dates, not the merits, prevent their being claimed for him. His personality dominates the whole group of discoveries. We chronicle the facts in regard to Grant, Baudin, Murray, and Bass, but we feel all the time that Flinders was the central man.

Not being aware of Murray's good fortune in January, Flinders treated Port Phillip as a fresh discovery, and examined its approaches with as much thoroughness as his resources would allow. At this time, however, the store of provisions was running low. The Investigator was forty weeks out from England, and re-equipment was fast becoming imperative. Her commander had felt the urgency of his needs before he reached Port Phillip. He had seriously considered whether he should not make for Sydney from King Island. "I determined, however, to run over to the high land we had seen on the north side of Bass Strait, and to trace as much of the coast from thence eastward as the state of the weather and our remaining provisions could possibly allow."

As related in the passage quoted above, Flinders at first thought he had reached Westernport, though the narrowness of the entrance did not correspond with Bass's description of the harbour he had discovered four years previously. But Baudin had told him that he found no port or harbour of any kind between Westernport and Encounter Bay. Consequently, it was all the more astonishing to behold this great sheet of blue water broadening out to shores overlooked by high hills, and extending northward further than the eye could penetrate. It was not until the following day, April 27th, that he found he was not in the port which his friend had discovered in the whaleboat. Immediately after breakfast he rowed away from the ship in a boat, accompanied by Brown and Westall, to ascend the bluff mountain on the east side which Murray had named Arthur's Seat. From the top he was able to survey the landscape at a height of a thousand feet; and then he saw the waters and islands of Westernport lying beneath him only a few miles further to the east, whilst, to his surprise, the curves of Port Phillip were seen to be so extensive "that even at this elevation its boundary to the northward could not be distinguished."

Next morning, April 28th, Flinders commenced to sail round the bay. But the wind was slight and progress was slow; with his fast diminishing store of provisions vexing his mind, he felt that he could not afford the time for a complete survey. Besides, the lead showed many shallows, and there was a constant fear
Page 308 view (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg

PORT PHILLIP. VIEW OF WEST ARM OF THE WESTERN PART.
From the copy (in the Mitchell Library) of Westall's original drawing in the Royal Colonial Institute. London.
The view appears to be one of Indented Head. On April 30, 1802, the date of the sketch. Flinders was "nearly at the northern extremity of Indented Head" and took some bearing "from the brow of a hill a little way back."

Page 310 map (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg

FLINDERS' MAP OF PORT PHILLIP AND WESTERNPORT.

of running the ship aground. He therefore directed Fowler to take the Investigator back to the entrance, whilst, on the 29th, he went with Midshipman Lacy, in a boat provisioned for three days, to make a rapid reconnaissance of as much as could be seen in that time. He rowed north-east nine miles from Arthur's Seat, reaching about the neighbourhood of Mornington. Then he crossed to the western side of the bay, and on the 30th traversed the opening of the arm at the head of which Geelong now stands.

At dawn on May 1st he landed with three of the boat's crew, for the purpose of ascending the highest point of the You-yang range, whose conical peaks, standing up purple against the evening sky, had been visible when the ship first entered Port Phillip. "Our way was over a low plain, where the water appeared frequently to lodge. It was covered with small-bladed grass, but almost destitute of wood, and the soil was clayey and shallow. One or two miles before arriving at the feet of the hills, we entered a wood, where an emu and a kangaroo were seen at a distance; and the top of the peak was reached at ten o'clock."

From the crest of this granite mountain he would command a superb view. Towards the north, in the interior, the dark bulk of Mount Macedon was seen; and all around lay a fertile, promising country, mile after mile of green pastures, as fair a prospect as the eye could wish to rest upon. There can be little doubt that Flinders made his observations from the flat top of a huge granite boulder which forms the apex of the peak. "I left the ship's name," he says, "on a scroll of paper deposited in a small pile of stones upon the top of the peak." He called it Station Peak, for the reason that he had made it his station for making observations. In 1912 a fine bronze tablet was fastened on the eastern face of the boulder on which Flinders probably stood and worked.[2]

The boat was reached, after the descent of the mountain and the return tramp across the sodden flats, at three o'clock in the afternoon. The party were very weary from this twenty-mile excursion, a feat requiring some power of endurance, as one who has walked along the same route and climbed Station Peak several times can testify; and especially hard on men who were fresh from a long voyage. The party camped for the night at Indented Head, on the west side of the port, and on Sunday, May 2nd, they again boarded the Investigator.

The ship was anchored under the shelter of the Nepean Peninsula, nearly opposite the present Portsea. On the way back Flinders shot "some delicate teal," near the piece of water which Murray had called Swan Harbour, and a few black swans were caught.

Port Phillip has since become important as the seat of one of the great cities of the world, and its channels are used by commercial fleets flying every colour known to the trading nations. Scarcely an hour of the day goes by, but the narrow waters dividing the port from the ocean are churned by the propellers of great ships. The imagination sets itself a task in trying to realize those few days in May, 1802, when Flinders called it a "useful but obscure port" and when the only keels that lay within the bay were those of one small sloop at anchor near the entrance, and one tiny boat in which her captain was rowing over the surface and making a map of the outline. And if it is difficult for us to recapture that scene of spacious solitude, it was quite impossible for Flinders to foresee what a century would bring forth. He recognised that the surrounding country "has a pleasing and in many places a fertile appearance." He described much of it as patently fit for agricultural purposes. "It is in great measure a grassy country, and capable of supporting much cattle, though much better calculated for sheep." It was, indeed, largely on his report that settlement was attempted at Port Phillip in 1803. But it is quaint, at this time of day, to read his remark that "were a settlement made at Port Phillip, as doubtless there will be some time hereafter, the entrance could be easily distinguished, and it would not be difficult to establish a friendly intercourse with the natives, for they are acquainted with the effect of firearms, and desirous of possessing many of our conveniences."

Seaman Smith devotes a paragraph in his Journal to the visit to Port Phillip, and it may as well be quoted for its historical interest: "On the 28th we came to an anchor in a bay of very large size. Thinking there was a good channel in a passage through, we got aground; but by good management we got off without damadge. Here we caught a Shirk which measured 10 feet 9 inch in length; in girt very large. 29th the captn and boats went to investigate the interior part of the harbr for 3 days, while those on board imploy'd in working ship to get as near the mouth of the harbr as possible. May 2nd our boat and crew came on board. Brought with them 2 swanns and a number of native spears."

At daylight on May 3rd the Investigator dropped out of Port Phillip with the tide. Westall, the artist, made a drawing of the heads from a distance of 5 miles.

At dusk on Saturday, May 8th, she stood seven miles off the entrance to Port Jackson. Flinders was so thoroughly well acquainted with the harbour that he tried to beat up in the night; but the wind was adverse, and he did not pass the heads till one o'clock on the following day. At three o'clock the ship was brought to anchor, and the long voyage of discovery, which had had larger results than any voyage since the great days of Cook, was over. It had lasted nine months and nine days.

The horrors of scurvy were such a customary accompaniment of long voyages in those days that the condition of Flinders' company at the termination of this protracted navigation was healthy almost beyond precedent. But this young captain had learnt how to manage a ship in Cook's school, and had profited from his master's admonitions. Cook, in his Endeavour voyage of 1770 and 1771, brought his people through a protracted period at sea with, "generally speaking," freedom from scurvy, and showed how by scrupulous cleanliness, plenty of vegetable food, and anti-scorbutic remedies the dreadful distemper could be kept at bay. But, fine as Cook's record is in this respect, it is eclipsed by that of Flinders, who entered Port Jackson at the end of this long period aboard ship with an absolutely clean bill of health. There is no touch of pride, but there is a note of very proper satisfaction, in the words which he was able to write of this remarkable record:—

"There was not a single individual on board who was not on deck working the ship into harbour; and it may be averred that the officers and crew were, generally speaking, in better health than on the day we sailed from Spithead, and not in less good spirits. I have said nothing of the regulations observed after we made Cape Leeuwin. They were very little different from those adopted in the commencement of the voyage, and of which a strict attention to cleanliness and a free circulation of air in the messing and sleeping places formed the most essential parts. Several of the inhabitants of Port Jackson expressed themselves never to have been so strongly reminded of England as by the fresh colour of many amongst the Investigator's ship's company."

As soon as the anchor was dropped, Flinders went ashore and reported himself to Governor King, to whom he delivered his orders from the Admiralty. He also reported to Captain Hamelin of Le Naturaliste, who had sought refuge in the port and had been lying there since April 24th, the intention of Baudin to bring round Le Géographe in due course. Then he set about making preparations for refitting the ship and getting ready for further explorations.

  1. Point Nepean.
  2. It is much to be regretted that this very laudable mark of honour to his memory was not effected without doing a thing which is contrary to a good rule and was repugnant to Flinders' practice. The name Station Peak was sought to be changed to Flinders' Peak, and those who so admirably occasioned the erection of the tablet managed to secure official sanction for the alteration by its notification in the Victorian Government Gazette. But nobody with any historical sense or proper regard for the fame of Flinders will ever call the mountain by any other name than Station Peak. It was his name; and names given by a discoverer should be respected, except when there is a sound reason to the contrary, as there is not in this instance. As previously observed, Flinders never named any discovery after himself. Honour him by calling any other places after him by all means; the name Flinders for the Commonwealth Naval Base in Westernport is an excellent one, for instance. But his names for natural features should not be disturbed.