The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 3

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 3. A voyage under Bligh

Chapter III.

A VOYAGE UNDER BLIGH.

Bligh's second expedition was authorised by the admiralty in March, 1791, and the commander was consulted as to "what sort of vessel may be best adapted to the object in view." The Providence, a 28-gun ship, was chosen, with the brig Assistant as a tender. The latter was placed in charge of Lieutenant Nathaniel Portlock. Flinders, eager for sea experience, joined the Providence as a midshipman on May 8th, and thus had the advantage of being under the immediate direction of her captain.

He took this step with Pasley's concurrence, if not actually upon his advice. The captain wrote him an encouraging letter asking him to send from time to time observations on places visited during the voyage; and his protégé complied with the injunction. It is to this fact that we owe some entertaining passages from young Flinders' pen concerning the voyage. The letters despatched to Pasley are lost; but Flinders, with the love of neatness which was ever characteristic of him, sent only fair copies, and some of his original drafts remain in manuscript. Pasley's letter was as follows:[1]

Bellerophon, 
Spithead, 
June 3rd, 1791. 

"Dear Flinders,
"I am favoured with your letter on your return from visiting your friends at the country, and I am pleased to hear that you are so well satisfied with your situation on board the Providence. I have little doubt of your gaining the good opinion of Capt. Bligh, if you are equally attentive to your duty there as you were in the Bellerophon. All that I have to request in return for the good offices I have done you is that you never fail writing me by all possible opportunities during your voyage; and that in your letters you will be very particular and circumstantial in regard to every thing and place you may chance to see or visit, with your own observations thereon. Do this, my young friend, and you may rest assured that my good offices will not be wanting some future day for your advancement. All on board are well. Present my kind remembrances to Captain and Mrs. Bligh, and believe me, yours very sincerely,

Thomas Pasley."


The Providence and Assistant left England on August 2nd. From Santa Cruz in Teneriffe Flinders sent his first letter to Captain Pasley. It is worth while to quote a few passages:[1]

"Not a large town; streets wide, ill-paved and irregular. The houses of the principal inhabitants large; have little furniture, but are airy and pleasant, suitable to the climate. Most of them have balconies, where the owners sit and enjoy the air. Those of the lower classes ill-built, dirty, and almost without furniture. In the square where the market is held, near the pier, is a tolerably elegant marble obelisk in honour of our Lady of Candelaria, the tutelar goddess of the place. The Spaniards erected this statue, calling it Our Lady, keeping up some semblance of the ancient worship that they might better keep the Tenerifeans in subjection. At the top of the obelisk is placed the statue, and at its base are four well executed figures, representing the ancient kings or princes of Teneriffe, each of which has the shin-bone of a man's leg in his hand. This image is held in great honour by the lower classes of people, who tell many absurd stories of its first appearance in the island, the many miracles she has wrought, etc.

"We visited a nunnery of the order of St. Dominic. In the chapel was a fine statue of the Virgin Mary, with four wax candles burning before her. Peeping through the bars, we perceived several fine young women at prayers. A middle-aged woman opened the door halfway, but would by no means suffer us to enter this sanctified spot. None of the nuns would be prevailed upon to come near us. However, they did not seem at all displeased at our visit, but presented us with a sweet candy they call Dulce, and some artificial flowers, in return for which Mr. Smith[2] gave them a dollar. In general these people appear to be a merry, good-natured people, and are courteous to and appear happy to see strangers. We found this always the case, although they said we were no Christians: but they generally took care to make us pay well for what we had. They live principally upon fruits and roots, are fond of singing and dancing, and upon the whole they live as lazily, as contentedly, and in as much poverty as any French peasant would wish to do."

The Cape of Good Hope was reached in October, and Flinders told Captain Pasley what he thought of the Dutch colonists:

"The Dutch, from having great quantities of animal food, are rather corpulent. Nevertheless they keep up their national characteristic for carefulness. Neither are they very polite. A stranger will be treated with a great deal of ceremony, but when you come to the solid part of a compliment their generosity is at a stand. Of all the people I ever saw these are the most ceremonious. Every man is a soldier and wears his square-rigged hat, sword, epaulets, and military uniform. They never pass each other without a formal bow, which even descends to the lowest ranks, and it is even seen in the slaves."

On April 10th, 1792, Bligh's ships anchored at Tahiti, where they remained till July 19th. There was no disturbance this time, and the relations between Bligh and his crew were not embarrassed by the indulgent kindness of the islanders. Their hospitality was not deficient, but a wary vigilance was exercised.

At Tahiti Bligh found the major part of the crew of a whaler, the Matilda, which had been wrecked about six days' sail from the island. Some of the men accepted passages on the Providence and the Assistant; some preferred to remain with the natives; one or two had already departed in one of the lost ship's boats to make their way to Sydney.[3] Two male Tahitians were persuaded to accompany the expedition, with a view to their exhibition before the Royal Society, in England, when at length, laden with 600 breadfruit trees, it sailed for the West Indies.

The route followed from the Friendly Islands to the Caribbean Sea was not via Cape Horn (since that cold and stormy passage would have destroyed every plant), but back across the Pacific, through Torres Strait to Timor, thence across the Indian Ocean and round the Cape of Good Hope. St. Helena was reached on December 17, and Bligh brought his ships safely to Kingston, St. Vincent's, on January 13th 1793. Three hundred breadfruit trees were landed at that island, and a like number taken to Jamaica. The plants were in excellent condition, some of them eleven feet high, with leaves 36 inches long. The gardener in charge reported to Sir Joseph Banks that the success of the transplantations "exceeded the most sanguine expectation." The sugar planters were delighted, and voted Bligh £500 for his services.[4] To accentuate the contrast between the successful second expedition and the lamentable voyage of the Bounty, it is notable that only one case of sickness occurred on the way, and that from Kingston it was reported that "the healthy appearance of every person belonging to the expedition is remarkable."[5]

But though nothing in the nature of a mutiny marred the voyage, Flinders' journal shows that Bligh's harshness occasioned discontent. There was a shortness of water on the run from the Pacific to the West Indies, and as the breadfruit plants had to be watered, and their safe carriage was the main object of the voyage, the men had to suffer. Flinders and others used to lick the drops that fell from the cans to appease their thirst, and it was considered a great favour to get a sip. The crew thought they were unfairly treated, and somebody mischievously watered some plants with sea-water. When Bligh discovered the offence, he flew into a rage and "longed to flog the whole company." But the offender could not be discovered, and the irate captain had to let his passion fret itself out.

Bligh published no narrative of this expedition; but Flinders was already accustoming himself to keep careful notes of his observations. Twenty years later, when preparing the historical introduction to his Voyage to Terra Australis, he wrote out from his journal (and with Bligh's sanction published) an account of the passage of the Providence and Assistant through Torres Strait, as a contribution to the history of navigation and discovery in that portion of Australasia. From the Pacific to the Indian Ocean the passage was accomplished in nineteen days. "Perhaps," commented Flinders, "no space of 3½ degrees in length presents more dangers than Torres Strait, but with caution and perseverance the captains, Bligh and Portlock, proved them to be surmountable, and within a reasonable time." Bligh's Entrance and Portlock Reef, marked on modern charts, are reminders of a feat of navigation which even nowadays, with the dangers accurately described, and the well-equipped Torres Strait pilot service to aid them, mariners recognise as pregnant with serious risks. On this occasion it was also attended with incidents which make it worth while to utilise Flinders' notes, since they are of some biographical importance.

The high lands of the south-eastern extremity of Papua (New Guinea), were passed on August 30th, and at dusk on the following day breakers "thundering on the reef" were sighted ahead. On September 1st the vessels edged round the north end of Portlock Reef. Thence the monotonous record of soundings, shoals, reefs seen and charted, passages tried and abandoned, in the prolonged attempt to negotiate a clear course through the baffling coral barrier, is relieved by the story of one or two sharp brushes with armed Papuans in their long, deftly-handled canoes. On September 5th, while boats were out investigating a supposed passage near Darnley Island, several large canoes shot into view. One of these, in which were fifteen "Indians," black and quite naked, approached the English cutter, and made signs which were interpreted to be amicable. The officer in charge, however, suspecting treacherous intentions, did not think it prudent to go near enough to accept a green cocoanut held up to him, and kept his men rowing for the ship. Thereupon a native sitting on the shed erected in the centre of the canoe, called a direction to the Papuans below him, who commenced to string their bows. The officer ordered his men to fire in self-defence, and six muskets were discharged.

"The Indians fell flat into the bottom of the canoe, all except the man on the shed. The seventh musket was fired at him, and he fell also. During this time the canoe dropped astern; and, the three others having joined her, they all gave chase to the cutter, trying to cut her off from the ship; in which they would probably have succeeded, had not the pinnace arrived at that juncture to her assistance. The Indians then hoisted their sails and steered for Darnley Island." Flinders had watched the encounter from the deck of the Providence, and his seaman's word of admiration for the skill of the savages in the management of their canoes, is notable. "No boats could have been manoeuvred better in working to windward, than were these canoes of the naked savages. Had the four been able to reach the cutter, it is difficult to say whether the superiority of our arms would have been equal to the great difference of numbers, considering the ferocity of these people and the skill with which they seemed to manage their weapons."

Five days later, between Dungeness and Warrior Islands, there was a livelier encounter. A squadron of canoes attacked both ships in a daring and vigorous fashion. The Assistant was pressed with especial severity, so that Portlock had to signal for help. A volley of musketry had little effect upon the Papuans; and when one wing of the attacking squadron, numbering eight canoes, headed for the Providence, and a musket was fired at the foremost, the natives responded with a great shout and paddled forward in a body." Bligh had one of the great guns of the ship loaded with round and grape shot, and fired fair into the first of the long Papuan war canoes, which were full of savage assailants. The round shot raked the whole length of the craft, and struck the high stern. Men from other canoes, with splendid bravery, leaped into the water, and swam to the assistance of their comrades, "plunging constantly to avoid the musket balls which showered thickly about them." So hard was the attack pressed, that three of the Assistant's crew were wounded, one afterwards dying; and "the depth to which the arrows penetrated into the decks and sides of the brig was reported to be truly astonishing." But bows and arrows, on this as on many another occasion, were no match for gunnery; so that, after a hot peppering, the Papuans gave up the fight, paddling back to a safe distance as fast as they could, without exposing themselves to fire. They rallied beyond reach of musket balls, as though for a second onslaught, but a shot fired over their heads from the Providence served to convince them of the hopelessness of their endeavour, and they abandoned it.

An incident not without heroic pathos is recorded by Flinders. One native was left sitting alone in the canoe which the gun-shot of the Providence had raked and splintered. The men in the canoes which had made good their flight observed their solitary companion, and some of them returned to him; whereafter "with glasses, signals were perceived to be made by the Indians to their friends on Dungeness Island, expressive, as was thought, of grief and consternation." Whether the lone warrior was too severely wounded to be moved, or whether he was some Papuan Casabianca clinging to his shattered craft "whence all but he had fled" or been killed, or hurled into the sea, we are not told. But that canoe had been foremost in attack, perhaps the flagship of the squadron; and the memory of that solitary warrior still sitting upon the floating wreck while his defeated companions returned to him, and then left him, to explain his case with gestures of grief to those on the island, clings to the memory of the reader, as it did to that of the young observer and historian of the encounter.

No more natives were seen during the passage through Torres Strait, nor were there other incidents to enliven the narrative, unless we include the formal "taking possession of all the islands seen in the Strait for His Britannic Majesty George III, with the ceremonies used on such occasions" (September 16). The name bestowed upon the whole group of islands was Clarence's Archipelago.

Flinders described the natives whom he saw carefully and accurately; and his account of their boats, weapons, and mode of warfare is concise and good. Some friendly Darnley Islanders were described as stoutly made, with bushy hair; the cartilage between the nostrils cut away; the lobes of the ears split, and stretched "to a good length." "They had no kind of clothing, but wore necklaces of cowrie shells fastened to a braid of fibres; and some of their companions had pearl-oyster shells hung round their necks. In speaking to each other, their words seemed to be distinctly pronounced. Their arms were bows, arrows, and clubs, which they bartered for every kind of iron work with eagerness, but appeared to set little value on anything else. The bows are made of split bamboo, and so strong that no man in the ship could bend one of them. The string is a broad slip of cane fixed to one end of the bow; and fitted with a noose to go over the other end when strung. The arrow is a cane of about four feet long, into which a pointed piece of the hard, heavy, casuarina wood is firmly and neatly fitted; and some of them were barbed. Their clubs are made of casuarina, and are powerful weapons. The hand part is indented, and has a small knob, by which the firmness of the grasp is much assisted; and the heavy end is usually carved with some device. One had the form of a parrots head, with a ruff round the neck, and was not ill done.

"Their canoes are about fifty feet in length, and appear to have been hollowed out of a single tree; and the pieces which form the gunwales are planks sewed on with fibres of the cocoanut and secured with pegs. These vessels are low forward, but rise abaft; and, being narrow, are fitted with an outrigger on each side to keep them steady. A raft, of greater breadth than the canoe, extends over about half the length, and upon this is fixed a shed or hut, thatched with palm leaves. These people, in short, appeared to be dexterous sailors and formidable warriors, and to be as much at ease in the water as in their canoes."

On September 19th the two ships, with caution and perseverance, had threaded their dangerous way through the intricate maze of reefs and shoals of Torres Strait, and found open sea to the westward. In latitude 10° 8½' "no land was in sight, nor did anything more obstruct Captain Bligh and his associates in their route to the island Timor."

It is easy to imagine the delight with which these experiences thrilled the young midshipman on the Providence. His eighteenth birthday was spent in the Pacific, in the early Autumn of a hemisphere where the sea was not yet cloven by innumerable keels, and where beauty, enchantment and mystery lay upon life and nature like a spell. A few years previously he had been a schoolboy in the flattest, most monotonous of English shires. Broad fields, dykes and fen had composed the landscape most familiar to his eye. In these surroundings he had dreamed, as a boy will, of palm-fanned islands in distant climes, of adventures with savage peoples, of strange seas where great fishes are, and where romance touches all that is with its purple light. Far horizons steeped in marvels had bounded the vision of his imagining eye. His passion was to see and do in realms at the back of the sunrise. He wanted to sail and explore in parts represented by blank spaces on the map.

These dreams of the boy, basking with Robinson Crusoe under remote skies, were suddenly translated into a reality as dazzling-bright and wonderful as anything pictured in pages often and fondly conned. This was his first voyage, and he was serving under a commander who had lived the romance that other men wrote and read about, who was himself a living part of an adventure whose story will be told and re-told to the centuries, and who had served under as great and noble a captain as ever trod an English deck.

The very nature of the voyage was bound to stimulate that "passion for exploring new countries," to use Flinders' own phrase, the hope for which was a strong factor in prompting him to choose the sea as a career. It was a voyage whose primary object involved a stay in two of the loveliest regions on the earth, the paradise of the Pacific and the gem-like Antilles. The pride and pleasure of participation in discovery were his forthwith. A new passage through an intricate and dangerous Strait was found and charted; a whole archipelago was delineated, named, and taken possession of for the British nation. The world's knowledge was increased. There was something put down on the map which was not there before. The contact with the islanders in the Strait gave a brisk element of adventure to the expedition; and certainly Papuan warriors are foes as wild and weird as any adventurer can desire to meet. The rescuing of wrecked mariners at Tahiti added a spice of adventure of another sort. From beginning to end, indeed, this voyage must have been as full of charm as of utility.

The effect it had upon the future life of Matthew Flinders was very striking. The whole of the salient features of his later career follow from it. He made the most of his opportunities. Captain Bligh found him a clever assistant in the preparation of charts and in making astronomical observations. Indeed, says an expert writer, although Flinders was as yet "but a juvenile navigator, the latter branch of scientific service and the care of the timekeepers were principally entrusted to him."* (* Naval Chronicle Volume 32 180.) These facts indicate that he was applying himself seriously to the scientific side of his profession, and that he had won the confidence of a captain who was certainly no over-indulgent critic of subordinates.

The Providence and the Assistant returned to England in the latter part of 1793. Before Flinders once more sighted the Australian coastline he was to experience the sensations of battle, and to take a small part in the first of the series of naval engagements connected with the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era.

  1. 1.0 1.1 Flinders' Papers.
  2. The botanist.
  3. This incident is reported in the Star, a London newspaper, March 2nd, 1793.
  4. Southey, History of the West Indies, (1827) III., 61.
  5. Annual Register 1793 p. 6