The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 7

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 7. The Discovery of Bass Strait

Chapter VII.

THE DISCOVERY OF BASS STRAIT.

The patching up of the Reliance not being surgeon's work, Bass, throbbing with energy, looked about him for some useful employment. The whole of the New South Wales settlement at this time consisted of an oblong—the town of Sydney itself—on the south side of Port Jackson, a few sprawling paddocks on either side of the fang-like limbs of the harbour, some small pieces of cultivated land further west, at and beyond Parramatta, and a cultivable area to the north-west on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. A sketch-map prepared by Hunter, in 1796, illustrates these very small early attempts of the settlement to spread. They show up against the paper like a few specks of lettuce leaf upon a white table cloth. The large empty spaces are traversed by red lines, principally to the south-west, marking "country which has been lately walked over." The red lines end abruptly on the far side of a curve in the course of the river Nepean, where swamps and hills are shown. The map-maker "saw a bull" near a hill which was called Mount Hunter, and marked it down.

West of the settlement, behind Richmond Hill on the Hawkesbury, the map indicated a mountain range. Bass's first effort at independent exploration was an endeavour to find a pass through these mountains. The need was seen to be imminent. As the colony grew, the limits of occupation would press up to the foot of this blue range, which, with its precipitous walls, its alluring openings leading to stark faces of rock, its sharp ridges breaking to sheer ravines, its dense scrub and timber, defied the energies of successive explorers. Governor Phillip, in 1789, reached Richmond by way of the Hawkesbury. Later in the same year, and in the next, further efforts were made, but the investigators were beaten by the stern and shaggy hills. Captain William Paterson, in 1793, organized an attacking party, consisting largely of Scottish highlanders, hoping that their native skill and resolution would find a path across the barrier; but they proceeded by boat only, and did not go far. In the following year quartermaster Hacking, with a party of hardy men, spent ten days among the mountains, but no path or pass practicable for traffic rewarded his endeavours. Sydney was shut in between the sea and this craggy rampart. What the country on the other side was like no man knew.

In June, 1796, before the Reliance sailed for South Africa, George Bass made his try. The task was hard, and worth attempting, two qualifications which recommended it strongly to his mind. He collected a small party of men upon whom he could rely for a tough struggle, took provisions for about a fortnight, equipped himself with strong ropes with which to be lowered down ravines, had scaling irons made for his feet, and hooks to fasten on his hands, and set out ready to cut or climb his way over the mountains, determined to assail their defiant fastnesses up to the limits of possibility. It was a stiff enterprise, and Bass and his party did not spare themselves. But the Blue Mountains were a fortress that was not to be taken by storm. Bass's success, as Flinders wrote, "was not commensurate to the perseverance and labour employed." After fifteen days of effort, the baffled adventurers confessed themselves beaten, and, their provisions being exhausted, returned to Sydney.

They had pushed research further than any previous explorers had done, and had marked down the course of the river Grose as a practical result of their work. But Bass now believed the mountains to be hopeless; and, indeed, George Caley, a botanical collector employed by Sir Joseph Banks, having seven years later made another attempt and met with repulse, did not hesitate to tell a committee of the House of Commons, which summoned him to appear as a witness, that the range was impassable. It seemed that Nature had tumbled down an impenetrable bewilderment of rock, the hillsides cracking into deep, dark crevices, and the crests of the mountains showing behind and beyond a massed confusion of crags and hollows, trackless and untraversable. Governor King declared himself satisfied that the effort to cross the range was a task "as chimerical as useless," an opinion strengthened by the fact that, as Allan Cunningham had related,* the aboriginals known to the settlement were "totally ignorant of any pass to the interior."[1]

It was not, indeed, till 1813 that Gregory Blaxland, with Lieutenant Lawson and William Charles Wentworth (then a youth), as companions, succeeded in solving the problem. The story of their steady, persistent, and desperate struggle being beyond the scope of this biography, it is sufficient to say that after fifteen days of severe labour, applied with rare intelligence and bushcraft, they saw beneath them waving grass-country watered by clear streams, and knew that they had found a path to the interior of the new continent.

Bass's eagerness to explore soon found other scope. In 1797, report was brought to Sydney by shipwrecked mariners that, in traversing the coast, they had seen coal. He at once set off to investigate. At the place now called Coalcliff, about twenty miles south of Botany Bay, he found a vein of coal about twenty feet above the surface of the sea. It was six or seven feet thick, and dipped to the southward until it became level with the sea, "and there the lowest rock you can see when the surf retires is all coal." It was a discovery of first-class importance—the first considerable find of a mineral that has yielded incalculable wealth to Australia.[2] He made this useful piece of investigation in August; and in the following month undertook a journey on foot, in company with Williamson, the acting commissary, from Sydney to the Cowpastures, crossing and re-crossing the River Nepean, and thence descending to the sea a few miles south of his old resting place, Watta-Mowlee. His map and notes are full of evidence of his careful observation. "Tolerably good level ground," "good pastures," "mountainous brushy land," and so forth, are remarks scored across his track line. But these were pastimes in comparison with the enterprise that was now occupying his mind, and upon which his fame chiefly rests.

Hunter's despatch to the Duke of Portland, dated March 1st, 1798, explains the circumstances of the expedition leading to the discovery of Bass Strait: "The tedious repairs which His Majesty's ship Reliance necessarily required before she could be put in a condition for going again to sea, having given an opportunity to Mr. George Bass, her surgeon, a young man of a well-informed mind and an active disposition, to offer himself to be employed in any way in which he could contribute to the benefit of the public service, I enquired of him in what way he was desirous of exerting himself, and he informed me nothing would gratify him more effectually than my allowing him the use of a good boat and permitting him to man her with volunteers from the King's ships. I accordingly furnished him with an excellent whaleboat, well fitted, victualled, and manned to his wish, for the purpose of examining the coast to the southward of this port, as far as he could with safety and convenience go."

It is clear from this despatch that the impulse was Bass's own, and that the Governor merely supplied the boat, provisioned it, and permitted him to select his own crew. Hunter gave Bass full credit for what he did, and himself applied the name to the Strait when its existence had been demonstrated. It is, however, but just to Hunter to observe, that he had eight years before printed the opinion that there was either a strait or a deep gulf between Van Diemen's Land and New Holland. In his Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island (London, 1793), he gave an account of the voyage of the Sirius, in 1789, from Port Jackson to the Cape of Good Hope to purchase provisions. In telling the story of the return voyage he wrote (page 125):—

"In passing at a distance from the coast between the islands of Schooten and Furneaux and Point Hicks, the former being the northernmost of Captain Furneaux's observations here, and the latter the southernmost part which Captain Cook saw when he sailed along the coast, there has been no land seen, and from our having felt an easterly set of current and when the wind was from that quarter (north-west), we had an uncommon large sea, there is reason to believe that there is in that space either a very deep gulf or a strait, which may separate Van Diemen's Land from New Holland. There have no discoveries been made on the western side of this land in the parallel I allude to, between 39° 00' and 42° 00' south, the land there having never been seen."

Hunter was, therefore, quite justified, in his despatch, in pointing out that he had "long conjectured" the existence of the Strait. He seems, not unwarrantably, to have been anxious that his own share in the discoveries, as foreseeing them and encouraging the efforts that led to them, should not be overlooked. The Naval Chronicle of the time mentioned the subject, and returned to it more than once.[3] But if we may suppose Hunter to have inspired some of these allusions, it must be added that they are scrupulously fair, and claimed no more for him than he was entitled to have remembered. Bass's work is in every instance properly appreciated; and in one article (N. C. XV. 62) he is characterised, probably through Hunter's instrumentality—the language is very like that used in the official despatch—as "a man of considerable enterprise and ingenuity, a strong and comprehensive mind with the advantage of a vigorous body and healthy constitution." The boat was 28 feet 7 inches long, head and stern alike, fitted to row eight oars, with banksia timbers and cedar planking.

One error relating to this justly celebrated voyage needs to be corrected, especially as currency has been given to it in a standard historical work. It is not true that Bass undertook his cruise "in a sailing boat with a crew of five convicts.[4] His men were all British sailors. Hunter's despatch indicates that Bass asked to be allowed to man his boat "with volunteers from the

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FLINDERS' VOYAGES IN BASS STRAIT IN THE FRANCIS, NORFOLK, AND INVESTIGATOR.

King's ships," and that she was "manned to his wish," and Flinders, in his narrative of the voyage, stated that his friend was "furnished with a fine whaleboat, and six weeks' provisions by the Governor, and a crew of six seamen from the ships."

It is, indeed, much to be regretted that, with one exception to be mentioned in a later chapter, the names of the seamen who participated in this remarkable cruise have not been preserved. Bass had no occasion in his diary to mention any man by name, but it is quite evident that they were a daring, enduring, well-matched and thoroughly loyal band, facing the big waters in their small craft with heroic resolution, and never failing to respond when their chief gave a lead. When, after braving foul weather, and with food supplies running low, the boat was at length turned homeward, Bass writes "we did it reluctantly," coupling his willing little company with himself in regrets that discovery could not be pushed farther than they had been able to pursue it. Throughout his diary he writes in the first person plural, and he records no instance of complaint of the hardships endured or of quailing before the dangers encountered.

It is likely enough that the six British sailors who manned Bass's boat had very little perception that they were engaged upon a task that would shine in history. An energetic ship's surgeon whom everybody liked had called for volunteers in an affair requiring stout arms and hearts. He got them, they followed him, did their job, and returned to routine duty. They did not receive any extra pay, or promotion, or official recognition. Neither did Bass, beyond Hunter's commendation in a despatch. He wrote up his modest little diary, a terse record of observations and occurrences, and got ready for the next adventure.

We will follow him on this one.

On the evening of Sunday, December 3, 1797, at six o'clock, Bass's men rowed out of Port Jackson heads and turned south. The night was spent in Little Bay, three miles north of Botany Bay, as Bass did not deem it prudent to proceed further in the darkness, the weather having become cloudy and uncertain, and things not having yet found their proper place in the boat. Nor was very much progress made on the 4th, for a violent wind was encountered, which caused Bass to make for Port Hacking. On the following day, "the wind headed in flurries," and the boat did not get further than Providential Cove, or Watta-mowley, where the Tom Thumb had taken refuge in the previous year. On the 7th, Bass reached Shoalhaven, which he named. He remained there three days, and described the soil and situation with some care. "The country around it is generally low and swampy and the soil for the most part is rich and good, but seemingly much subject to extensive inundation." One sentence of comment reads curiously now that the district is linked up by railway with Sydney, and exports its butter and other produce to the markets of Europe. "However capable much of the soil of this country might upon a more accurate investigation be found to be of agricultural improvement, certain it is that the difficulty of shipping off the produce must ever remain a bar to its colonisation. A nursery of cattle might perhaps be carried on here with advantage, and that sort of produce ships off itself." Bass, a farmer's son, reared in an agricultural centre, was a capable judge of good country, but of course there was nothing when he saw these rich lands to foretell an era of railways and refrigerating machinery.

On December 10th the boat entered Jervis Bay, and on the 18th Bass discovered Barmouth Creek (probably the mouth of the Bega River), "the prettiest little model of a harbour we had ever seen." Were it not for the shallowness of the bar, he considered that the opening would be "a complete harbour for small craft;" but as things were, "a small boat even must watch her times for going in." On the 19th, at seven o'clock in the morning, Twofold Bay was discovered. Bass sailed round it, made a sketch of it, and put to sea again, thinking it better to leave the place for further examination on the return voyage, and to take advantage of the fair wind for the southward course. He considered the nautical advantages of the harbour—to become in later years a rather important centre for whaling—superior to those of any other anchorage entered during the voyage. A landmark was indicated by him with a quaint touch: "It may be known by a red point on the south side, of the peculiar bluish hue of a drunkard's nose." On the following day at about eleven o'clock in the morning he rounded Cape Howe, and commenced his westerly run. He was now nearing a totally new stretch of coast.

From the 22nd to the 30th bad weather was experienced. A gale blew south-west by west, full in their teeth. The situation must have been uncomfortable in the extreme, for the boat was now entering the Strait. The heavy seas that roll under the lash of a south-west gale in that quarter do not make for the felicity of those who face them on a well-found modern steamer. For the seven Englishmen in an open boat, groping along a strange coast, the ordeal was severe. But no doubt they wished each other a merry Christmas, in quite the traditional English way, and with hearty good feeling, on the 25th.

On the last day of the year, in more moderate weather, the boat was coasting the Ninety Mile Beach, behind the sandy fringe of which lay the fat pastures of eastern Gippsland. The country did not look very promising to Bass from the sea, and he minuted his impressions in a few words: "low beaches at the bottom of heights of no great depth, lying between rocky projecting points; in the back lay some short ridges of lumpy irregular hills at a little distance from the sea."

Nowhere in his diary did Bass seize upon any picturesque features of scenery, though they are not lacking in the region that he traversed. If he was moved by a sense of the oppressiveness of vast, silent solitudes, or by any sensation of strangeness at feeling his way along a coast hitherto unexplored, the emotion finds scarcely any reflection in his record. Hard facts, dates, times, positions, and curt memoranda, were the sole concern of the diarist. He did not even mention a pathetic, almost tragic, incident of the voyage, to which reference will presently be made. It did not concern the actual exploratory part of his work, and so he passed it by. The one note signifying an appreciation of the singularity of the position is conveyed in the terse words: "Sunday 31st, a.m. Daylight, got out and steered along to the southward, in anxious expectation, being now nearly come upon an hitherto unknown part of the coast."

But men are emotional beings after all, and an entry for "January 1st, 1798" (really the evening of December 31), bare of the human touch as it is, brings the situation of Bass and his crew vividly before the eye of the reader. The dramatic force of it must have been keenly realised by them. At night there was "bright moonlight, the sky without a cloud." A new year was dawning. The seven Englishmen tossing on the waves in this solitary part of the globe would not fail to remember that. They were near enough to the land to see it distinctly; it was "still low and level." A flood of soft light lay upon it, and rippled silvery over the sea. They would hear the wash of the rollers that climb that bevelled shore, and pile upon the water-line creaming leagues of phosphorescent foam. And at the back lay a land of mystery, almost as tenantless as the moon herself, but to be the future home of prosperous thousands of the same race as the men in the whaleboat. To them it was a country of weird forms, strange animals, and untutored savages. If ever boat breasted the "foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn," it was this, and if ever its occupants realised the complete strangeness of their situation and their utter aloofness from the tracks of their fellowmen, it must have been on this cloudless moonlit summer night. There was hardly a stretch of the world's waters, at all events in any habitable zone, where they could have been farther away from all that they remembered with affection and hoped to see again. About half an hour before midnight a haze dimmed the distinctness of the shore, and at midnight it had thickened so that they could scarcely see land at all. But they crept along in their course, "vast flights of petrels and other birds flying about us," the watch peering into the mist, the rest wrapped in their blankets sleeping, while the stars shone down on them from a brilliant steel-blue sky, and the Cross wheeled high above the southern horizon.

Cook, on his Endeavour voyage in 1770, first sighted the Australian coast at Point Hicks, called Cape Everard on many current maps. His second officer, Lieutenant Zachary Hicks, at six in the morning of April 20, "saw ye land making high," and Cook "named it Point Hicks because Lieutenant Hicks was the first who discovered this land." Point Hicks is a projection which falls away landward from a peak, backed by a sandy conical hill, but Bass passed it without observing it. The thick haze which he mentions may have obscured the outline. At all events, by dusk on January 1st he found that he had filled up the hitherto unexplored space between Point Hicks "a point we could not at all distinguish from the rest of the beach," and the high hummocky land further west, which he believed to be that sighted by Captain Tobias Furneaux in 1773. It is, however, to be observed that Flinders pointed out that all Bass's reckonings after December 31st were ten miles out. "It is no matter of surprise," wrote his friend indicating an error, "if observations taken from an open boat in a high sea should differ ten miles from the truth; but I judge that Mr. Bass's quadrant must have received some injury during the night of the 31st, for a similar error appears to pervade all the future observations, even those taken under favourable circumstances." The missing of Point Hicks, therefore, apart from the thick haze, is not difficult to understand.

On Tuesday, January 2nd, Bass reached the most southerly point in the continent of Australia, the extremity of Wilson's Promontory. The bold outlines were sighted at seven o'clock in the morning. "We were surprised by the sight of high hummocky land right ahead, and at a considerable distance." Bass called it Furneaux Land in his diary, in the belief that a portion of the great granite peninsula had been seen by the captain of the Adventure in 1773. Furneaux' name is still attached to the group of islands divided by Banks' Strait from the north-east corner of Tasmania. But the name which Bass gave to the Promontory was not retained. It is not likely that Furneaux ever saw land so far west. "It cannot be the same, as Mr. Bass was afterwards convinced," wrote Flinders. Governor Hunter, "at our recommendation," named it Wilson's Promontory, "in compliment to my friend Thomas Wilson, Esq., of London." It has been stated that the name was given to commemorate William Wilson, one of the whaleboat crew, who "jumped ashore first."[5] Nobody "jumped ashore first" on the westward voyage, when the discovery was made, because, as Bass twice mentions in his diary, "we could not land." Doubly inaccurate is the statement of another writer that "the promontory was seen and named by Grant in 1800 after Admiral Wilson."[6] Grant himself, on his chart of Bass Strait, marked down the promontory as "accurately surveyed by Matthew Flinders, which he calls Wilson's Promontory," and on page 78 of his Narrative wrote that it was named by Bass. The truth is, as related above, that it was named by Hunter on the recommendation of Bass and Flinders; and the two superfluous Wilsons have no proper place in the story. The Thomas Wilson whose name was thus given to one of the principal features of the Australian coast—a form of memorial far more enduring than "storied urn or animated bust"—is believed to have been a London merchant, engaged partly in the Australian trade. Nothing more definite is known about him. He was as one who "grew immortal in his own despight." Of the Promontory itself Bass wrote—and the words are exceedingly apt—that it was "well worthy of being the boundary point of a large strait, and a corner stone of this great island New Holland."

Bass found the neighbourhood of the Promontory to be the home of vast numbers of petrels, gulls and other birds, as is still the case, and he remarked upon the seals observed upon neighbouring rocks, with "a remarkably long tapering neck and sharp pointed head." They were the ordinary Bass Strait seal, once exceedingly plentiful, and still to be found on some of the islands, but unfortunately much fewer in numbers now. The pupping time was passed when Bass sailed through, and many of the females had gone to sea, as is their habit. This cause of depletion accounts for his remark on his return voyage that the number was "by no means equal to what we had been led to expect." But, he added, "from the quantity I saw I have every reason to believe that a speculation on a small scale might be carried on with advantage."

Foul winds and heavy breaking seas were experienced while the boat was nearing the Promontory. To make matters worse, leaks were causing anxiety. Water was gushing in pretty freely near the water-line aft. The crew had frequently remarked in the course of the morning of January 3rd how much looser the boat had become during the last few days. Her planks had received no ordinary battering. It had been Bass's intention to strike for the northern coast of Van Diemen's Land, which he supposed to be at no very great distance. He may at this time have been under the impression that he was in a deep gulf. As a matter of fact, the nearest point southward that he could have reached was 130 miles distant. Anxiety about the condition of the boat made him resolve to continue his coasting cruise westward. Water rushed in fast through the boat's side, there was risk of a plank starting, and ploughing through a hollow, irregular sea, the explorers were, as Flinders reviewing the adventure wrote, "in the greatest danger." Bass's record of his night of peril is characteristically terse: "we had a bad night of it, but the excellent qualities of the boat brought us through." He says nothing of his own careful steering and sleepless vigilance.

It was on the evening of the third day, January 3rd, that an incident occurred to which, curiously enough, Bass made no allusion in his diary, presumably because it did not concern the actual work of navigation and discovery, but which throws a dash of tragic colour into the story of his adventure. The boat having returned to the coast of what was supposed to be Furneaux Land, was running along "in whichever way the land might trend, for the state of the boat did not seem to allow of our quitting the shore with propriety." The coast line was being scanned for a place of shelter, when smoke was observed curling up from an island not far from the Promontory. At first it was thought that the smoke arose from a fire lighted by aboriginals, but it was discovered, to the amazement of Bass and his crew, that the island was occupied by a party of white men. They were escaped convicts. The tale they had to tell was one of a wild dash for liberty, treachery by confederates, and abandonment to the imminent danger of starvation.

In October of the previous year, a gang of fourteen convicts had been employed in carrying stones from Sydney to the Hawkesbury River settlement, a few miles to the north. Most of them were "of the last Irish convicts," as Hunter explained in a despatch, part of the bitter fruit of the Irish Mutiny Act of 1796, passed to strike at the movement associated with the names of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone, which encouraged the attempted French invasion of Ireland under Hoche. These men seized the boat appointed for the service, appropriated the stores, threatened the lives of all who dared to oppose them, and made their exit through Port Jackson heads. As soon as the Governor heard of the escape he despatched parties in pursuit in rowing boats. The coast was searched sixty miles to the north and forty to the south; but the convicts, with the breeze in their sail and the hope of liberty in their hearts, had all the advantage on their side, and eluded their gaolers.

In April, 1797, news had been brought to the settlement of the wreck of the ship Sydney Cove on an island to the southward. If the Irish prisoners could reach this island, float the ship on the tide, and repair her rents, they considered that they had an excellent chance of escape. The provisions which they had on their boat, with such as they might find on the ship, would probably be sufficient for a voyage. It was a daring enterprise, but it may well have seemed to offer a prospect of success.

Some of the prisoners at the settlement, as appears from a "general order" issued by Hunter, had "picked up somehow or other the idle story of the possibility of travelling from hence to China, or finding some other colony where they expect every comfort without the trouble of any labour." It may have been the alluring hope of discovering such an earthly paradise that flattered these men. As a matter of fact, some convicts did escape from New South Wales and reached India, after extraordinary perils and hardships. They endeavoured to sail up the River Godavery, but were interrupted by a party of sepoys, re-arrested, and sent to Madras, whence they were ordered to be sent back to Sydney.[7]

But the party whom Bass found never discovered the place of the wreck upon which they reckoned. Instead, they drifted round Cape Howe, and found themselves off a desolate, inhospitable coast, without knowledge of their whereabouts, and with a scanty, rapidly diminishing stock of food. In fear of starvation seven of them resolved to desert their companions on this lonely island near Wilson's Promontory, and treacherously sailed away with the boat while the others were asleep. It was the sad, sick, and betrayed remnant of this forlorn hope, that Bass found on that wave-beaten rock on the 3rd January. For five weeks the wretched men had subsisted on petrels and occasional seals. Small prospect they had of being saved; the postponement of their doom seemed only a prolongation of their anguish. They were nearly naked, and almost starved to death. Bass heard their story, pitied their plight, and relieved their necessities as well as he could from his own inadequate stores. He also promised that on his return he would call again at the island, and do what he could for the party, who only escaped from being prisoners of man to become prisoners of nature, locked in one of her straitest confines, and fed from a reluctant and parsimonious hand.

Bass kept his word; and it may be as well to interrupt the narrative of his westward navigation in order to relate the end of this story of distress. On February 2nd, he again touched at the island. But what could he do to help the fugitives? His boat was too small to enable him to take them on board, and his provisions were nearly exhausted, his men having had to eke out the store by living on seals and sea birds. He consented to take on board two of the seven, one of whom was grievously sick and the other old and feeble. He provided the five others with a musket and ammunition, fishing lines and hooks, and a pocket compass. He then conveyed them to the mainland, gave them a supply of food to meet their immediate wants, and pointed out that their only hope of salvation was to pursue the coastline round to Port Jackson. The crew of the whaleboat gave them such articles of clothing as they could spare. Some tears were shed on both sides when they separated, Bass to continue his homeward voyage, the hapless victims of a desperate attempt to escape to face the long tramp over five hundred miles of wild and trackless country, with the prospect of a prolongation of their term of servitude should they ever reach Sydney. "The difficulties of the country and the possibility of meeting hostile natives are considerations which will occasion doubts of their ever being able to reach us," wrote Hunter in a despatch reporting the matter to the Secretary of State. It does not appear that one of the five was even seen again.[8]

To return to the discovery cruise: on January 5th, at seven in the evening, Bass's whaleboat turned into Westernport, between the bold granite headland of Cape Wollamai, on Phillip Island, and Point Griffith on the mainland. The discovery of this port, now the seat of a naval base for the Commonwealth, was a splendid crown to a remarkable voyage. "I have named the place," Bass wrote, "from its relative situation to every other known harbour on the coast, Western Port. It is a large sheet of water, branching into two arms, which end in wide flats of several miles in extent, and it was not until we had been here some days that we found it to formed by an island, and to have two outlets to the sea, an eastern and western passage."

Twelve days were spend in the harbour. The weather was bad; and to this cause in the main we may
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attribute the paucity of the observations made, and the defective account given of the port itself. It contains two islands: Phillip Island, facing the strait, and French Island, the larger of the two, lying between Phillip Island and the mainland. Bass was not aware that this second island was not part of the mainland. Its existence was first determined by the Naturaliste, one of the ships of Baudin's French expedition, in 1802.

Bass's men had great difficulty in procuring good water. He considered that there was every appearance of an unusual drought in the country. This may also have been the reason why he saw only three or four blacks, who were so shy that the sailors could not get near them. There must certainly have been fairly large families of blacks on Phillip Island at one time, for there are several extensive middens on the coast, with thick deposits of fish bones and shells; and the author has found there some good specimens of "blackfellows' knives"—that is, sharpened pieces of flat, hard stone, with which the aboriginals opened their oysters and mussels—besides witnessing the finding of a few fine stone axes. Bass records the sight of a few brush kangaroos and "Wallabah"; of black swan he observed hundreds, as well as ducks, "a small but excellent kind," which flew in thousands, and "an abundance of most kinds of wild fowl."

By the time the stay in Westernport came to an end, Bass had been at sea a month and two days, and had sailed well into the strait now bearing his name, though he was not yet quite sure that it was a strait. His provisions had necessarily run very low. The condition of the boat, whose repair occupied some time, increased his anxiety. Prudence pointed to the desirableness of a return to Port Jackson with the least possible delay. Yet one cannot but regret that so intrepid an explorer, who was making such magnificent use of means so few and frail, was not able to follow the coast a very few more miles westward. Another day's sail would have brought him into Port Phillip, and he would have been the discoverer of the bay at the head of which now stands the great city of Melbourne. Perhaps if he had done so, his report would have saved Hunter from writing a sentence which is a standing warning against premature judgments upon territory seen at a disadvantage and insufficiently examined. "He found in general," wrote the Governor to the Secretary of State, "a barren, unpromising country, with very few exceptions, and were it even better the want of harbours would render it less valuable." The truth is that he had seen hardly the fringe of some of the fairest lands on earth, and was within cannon shot of a harbour wherein all the navies of the world could ride.

Shortly after dawn on January 18th the prow of the whaleboat was "very reluctantly" turned ocean-wards for the home journey. The wind was fresh when they started, but as the morning wore on it increased to a gale, and by noon there were high seas and heavy squalls. As the little craft was running along the coast, and the full force of the south-westerly gale beat hard on her beam, her management taxed the nerve and seamanship of the crew. Bass acknowledged that it was "very troublesome," and his "very" means much. This extremely trying weather lasted, with a few brief intervals, for eight days. As soon as possible Bass steered his boat under the lee of Cape Liptrap, not only for safety, but also to salt down for consumption during the remainder of the voyage a stock of birds taken on the islands off Westernport.

On the night of the 23rd the boat lay snugly under the shelter of the rocks, where Bass intended to remain until the weather moderated. But at about one o'clock in the morning the wind shifted to the south, blowing "stronger than before," and made the place untenable. At daybreak, therefore, another resting place was sought, and later in the morning the boat was beached on the west side of a sheltered cove, "having passed through a sea that for the very few hours it has been blowing was incredibly high." When the wind abated the sea went down, so that Bass was able to round the Promontory to the east, enter Sealers' Cove, which he named, and lay in a stock of seal-meat and salted birds.

"The Promontory," wrote Bass, "is joined to the mainland by a low neck of sand, which is nearly divided by a lagoon that runs in on the west side of it, and by a large shoal inlet on the east. Whenever it shall be decided that the opening between this and Van Diemen's Land is a large strait, this rapidity of tide and the long south-west swell that seems continually running in upon the coast to the westward, will then be accounted for." It is evident, therefore, that at this time Bass regarded the certainty of there being a strait as a matter yet to "be decided." He was himself thereafter to assist in the decision.

Though Bass does not give any particulars of aboriginals encountered at Wilson's Promontory, it is apparent from an allusion in his diary that some were seen. The sentence in which he mentions them is curious for its classification of them with the other animals observed, a classification biologically justifiable, no doubt, but hardly usual. "The animals," he wrote, "have nothing new in them worth mentioning, with these exceptions; that the men, though thieves, are kind and friendly, and that the birds upon Furneaux's Land have a sweetness of note unknown here," i.e., at Port Jackson. He would not, in February, have heard the song-lark, that unshamed rival of an English cousin famed in poetry, and the sharp crescendo of the coach-whip bird would scarcely be classed as "sweet." "The tinkle of the bell-bird in the ranges may have gratified his ear; but the likelihood is that the birds which pleased him were the harmonious thrush and the mellow songster so opprobiously named the thickhead, for no better reason than that collectors experience a difficulty in skinning it[9]

The cruise from the Promontory eastward was commenced on February 2nd. Eight days later, the boat being in no condition for keeping the sea with a foul wind, Bass beached her not far from Ram Head. He had passed Point Hicks in the night. Cape Howe was rounded on the 15th, and on the 25th the boat entered Port Jackson.

Bass and his men had accomplished a great achievement. In an open boat, exposed to the full rigours of the weather in seas that are frequently rough and were on this voyage especially storm-lashed, persecuted persistently by contrary gales, they had travelled twelve hundred miles, principally along an unknown coast, which they had for the first time explored. Hunter in his official despatch commented on Bass's "perseverance against adverse winds and almost incessant bad weather," and complimented him upon his sedulous examination of inlets in search of secure harbours. But there can be no better summary of the voyage than that penned by Flinders, who from his own experience could adequately appreciate the value of the performance. Writing fifteen years later, when Bass had disappeared and was believed to be dead, his friend said:—

"It should be remembered that Mr. Bass sailed with only six weeks' provisions; but with the assistance of occasional supplies of petrels, fish, seals'-flesh, and a few geese and black swans, and by abstinence, he had been enabled to prolong his voyage beyond eleven weeks. His ardour and perseverance were crowned, in despite of the foul winds which so much opposed him, with a degree of success not to have been anticipated from such feeble means. In three hundred miles of coast from Port Jackson to the Ram Head, he added a number of particulars which had escaped Captain Cook, and will always escape any navigator in a first discovery, unless he have the time and means of joining a close examination by boats to what may be seen from the ship.

"Our previous knowledge of the coast scarcely extended beyond the Ram Head; and there began the harvest in which Mr. Bass was ambitious to place the first reaping-hook. The new coast was traced three hundred miles; and instead of trending southward to join itself to Van Diemen's Land, as Captain Furneaux had supposed, he found it, beyond a certain point, to take a direction nearly opposite, and to assume the appearance of being exposed to the buffeting of an open sea. Mr. Bass himself entertained no doubt of the existence of a wide strait separating Van Diemen's Land from New South Wales, and he yielded with the greatest reluctance to the necessity of returning before it was so fully ascertained as to admit of no doubt in the minds of others. But he had the satisfaction of placing at the end of his new coast an extensive and useful harbour, surrounded with a country superior to any other harbour in the southern parts of New South Wales.

"A voyage especially undertaken for discovery in an open boat, and in which six hundred miles of coast, mostly in a boisterous climate, was explored, has not, perhaps, its equal in the annals of maritime history. The public will award to its high-spirited and able conductor—alas! now no more—an honourable place in the list of those whose ardour stands most conspicuous for the promotion of useful knowledge."

Bass would have desired no better recognition than this competent appraisement of his work by one who, when he wrote these paragraphs, had himself experienced a full measure of the perils of the sea.

Was Bass at the time of his return aware that he had discovered a strait? It has been asserted that "it is evident that Bass was not fully conscious of the great discovery he had made."[10] Bass's language, upon which this surmise is founded, was as follows: "Whenever it shall be decided that the opening between this and Van Diemen's Land is a strait, this rapidity of tide … will be accounted for." He also wrote: "There is reason to believe it (i.e., Wilson's Promontory) is the boundary of a large strait." I do not think these passages are to be taken to mean that Bass was at all doubtful about there being a strait. On the contrary, the words "whenever it shall be decided" express his conviction that it would be so decided; but the diarist recognised that the existence of the strait had not yet been proved to demonstration. His reluctance to turn back when he reached Westernport was unquestionably due to the same cause. The voyage in the whaleboat had not proved the strait. It was still possible, though not at all probable, that the head of a deep gulf lay farther westward. The subsequent circumnavigation of Tasmania by Bass and Flinders proved the strait, as did also Grant's voyage through it from the west in the Lady Nelson in 1800.

Hunter had no more evidence than that afforded by Bass's discoveries when he wrote, in his despatch to the Secretary of State: "He found an open ocean westward, and by the mountainous sea which rolled from that quarter, and no land discoverable in that direction, we have much reason to conclude that there is an open strait through." Hunter's "much reason to conclude" implies no more doubt about the strait than do the words of Bass, but the phrase does imply a recognition of the want of conclusive proof, creditable to the restrained judgment of both men. Flinders also wrote: "There seemed to want no other proof of the existence of a passage than that of sailing positively through it," which is precisely what he set himself to do in Bass's company, as soon as he could secure an opportunity. Still stronger testimony is that of Flinders, when summing up his account of the discovery: "The south-westerly swell which rolled in upon the shores of Westernport and its neighbourhood sufficiently indicated to the penetrating Bass that he was exposed to the southern Indian Ocean. This opinion, which he constantly asserted, was the principal cause of my services being offered to the Governor to ascertain the principal cause of it." Further, although Colonel David Collins was not in Sydney at the time of the discovery, what he wrote in his Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (2nd edition, London, 1804), was based on first-hand information; and he was no less direct in his statement: "There was every appearance of an extensive strait, or rather an open sea"; and he adds that Bass "regretted that he had not been possessed of a better vessel, which would have enabled him to circumnavigate Van Diemen's Land" (pp. 443-4).

These passages, when compared with Bass's own careful language, leave no doubt that Bass was fully conscious of the great discovery he had made, though a complete demonstration was as yet lacking.[11] An interesting light is thrown on the admiration felt for Bass among the colonists at Sydney, by Francois Péron, the historian of Baudin's voyage of exploration. When the French were at Port Jackson in 1802, the whaleboat was lying beached on the foreshore, and was preserved, says Péron, with a kind of "religious respect." Small souvenirs were made of its timbers; and a piece of the keel enclosed in a silver frame, was presented by the Governor to Captain Baudin, as a memorial of the "audacieuse navigation." Baudin's artist, in making a drawing of Sydney, was careful to show Bass's boat stayed up on the sand; and Péron, in his Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes, respectfully described the discovery of "the celebrated Mr. Bass" as "precious from a marine point of view."
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GEORGE BASS

  1. On "Progress of Interior Discovery in New South Wales," Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (1832) Vol. II., 99.
  2. It is well to remember that the use of coal was discovered in England in very much the same way. Mr. Salzmann, English Industries of the Middle Ages, (1913) p. 3, observes that "it is most probable that the first coal used was washed up by the sea, and such as could be quarried from the face of the cliffs where the seams were exposed by the action of the waves." He quotes a sixteenth century account relative to Durham: "As the tide comes in it bringeth a small wash sea coal, which is employed to the making of salt and the fuel of the poor fisher towns adjoining." Hence, originally, coal in England was commonly called sea-coal even when obtained inland.
  3. See Naval Chronicle Vol. IV. 159 (1800); VI., 349 (1801); XV., 62 (1806), etc.
  4. The Royal Navy: a History Vol. IV., 567.
  5. The Coming of the British to Australia, by Ida Lee (London, 1906) p. 51.
  6. Blair, Cyclopaedia of Australia, 748.
  7. See Annual Register 1801, p. 15.
  8. What some convicts dared and endured in the effort to escape, is shown in the following very interesting paragraph, printed in a London newspaper of May 30th, 1797:—"The female convict who made her escape from Botany Bay, and suffered the greatest hardships during a voyage of three thousand leagues [presumably she was a stowaway] and who was afterwards retaken and condemned to death, has been pardoned and released from Newgate. In the story of this woman there is something extremely singular. A gentleman of high rank in the Army visited her in Newgate, heard the details of her life, and for that time departed. The next day he returned, and told the gentleman who keeps the prison that he had procured her pardon, at the same time requesting that she should not be apprized of the circumstances. The next day he returned with his carriage, and took off the poor woman, who almost expired with gratitude."
  9. Mr. Chas. L. Barrett, a well known Australian ornithologist, and one of the editors of the Emu, knows the Promontory well, and he tells me that he has no doubt that the birds which pleased Bass were the grey shrike thrush (Collyriocincla harmonica) and the white-throated thickhead (Pachycephala gutturalis.)
  10. F. M. Bladen, Historical Records of New South Wales III., 327 note.
  11. The reasons given above appear also to justify me in saying that there is insufficient warrant for the statement of Sir J.K. Laughton (Dictionary of National Biography XIX., 326) that "Bass's observations were so imperfect that it was not until they were plotted after his return that the importance of what he had done was at once apparent."