The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 8

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 8. The voyage of the Francis

Chapter VIII.

THE VOYAGE OF THE FRANCIS.

During the absence of Bass in the whaleboat, the repairing of the Reliance was finished, and in February, 1798, Flinders was able to carry out a bit of exploration on his own account. The making of charts was employment for which he had equipped himself by study and practice, and he was glad to secure an opportunity of applying his abilities in a field where there was original work to do. The schooner Francis (a small vessel sent out in frame from England for the use of the colonial government, but now badly decayed) was about to be despatched to the Furneaux Islands—north-east of Van Diemen's Land, and about 480 miles from Sydney—to bring to Sydney what remained of the cargo of the wrecked Sydney Cove, and to rescue a few of the crew who had been left in charge. Flinders obtained permission from the Governor to embark in the schooner, "in order to make such observations serviceable to geography and navigation as circumstances might afford," and instructions were given to the officer in command to forward this purpose as far as possible.

The circumstances of the wreck that occasioned the cruise of the Francis were these:—

The Sydney Cove, Captain Guy Hamilton, left Bengal on November 10th, 1796, with a speculative cargo of merchandise for Sydney. Serious leakages became apparent on the voyage, but the ship made the coast of New Holland, rounded the southern extremity of Van Diemen's Land, and stood to the northward on February 1st, 1797. She encountered furious gales which increased to a perfect hurricane, with a sea describedin a contemporary account as "dreadful." The condition of the hull was so bad that the pumps could not keep the inrush of water under control, and the vessel became waterlogged. On February 8th she had five feet of water in the well, and by midnight the water was up to the lower deck hatches. She was at daybreak in imminent peril of going to the bottom, so the Captain headed for Preservation Island (one of the Furneaux Group), sent the longboat ashore with some rice, ammunition and firearms, and ran her in until she struck on a sandy bottom in nineteen feet of water. The whole ship's company was landed safely, tents were rigged up, and as much of the cargo as could be secured was taken ashore.

It was necessary to communicate with Sydney to procure assistance. The long-boat was launched, and under the direction of the first mate, Mr. Hugh Thompson, sixteen of the crew started north on February 28th. But fresh misfortunes, as cruel as shipwreck and for most of these men more disastrous, were heaped upon them. They were smitten by a violent storm, terrific seas broke over the boat, and on the morning of March 2nd she suddenly shipped enough water to swamp her. The crew with difficulty ran her through the surf that beat on the coast off which they had been struggling, and she went to pieces immediately. The seventeen were cast ashore on the coast of New South Wales, hundreds of miles from the only settlement, which could only be reached by the crossing of a wild, rough, and trackless country, inhabited by tribes of savages. They were without food, their clothing was drenched, and their sole means of defence consisted of a rusty musket, with very little ammunition, a couple of useless pistols, and two small swords.

The wretched band commenced their march along the coast northwards on March 25th. They had to improvise rafts to cross some rivers; once a party of kindly aboriginals helped them over a stream in canoes; at another time they encountered blacks who hurled spears at them. They lived chiefly on small shell-fish. Hunger and exposure brought their strength very low. On April 16th, after over a month of weary tramping, nine of the party dropped from fatigue and had to be left behind by their companions, whose only hope was to push on while sufficient energy lasted. Two days later, three of the remainder were wounded by blacks. At last, in May, three only of the seventeen who started on this heart-breaking struggle for life against distance, starvation and exhaustion, were rescued, "scarcely alive," by a fishing boat, and taken to Sydney. The others perished by the way.

Captain Hamilton, who had stayed by his wrecked ship, was rescued in July, 1797; and, as already stated, in January of the following year, Governor Hunter fitted out the schooner Francis to bring away a few Lascar sailors and as much of the remaining cargo as could be saved. "I sent in the schooner," wrote the Governor in a despatch, "Lieutenant Flinders of the Reliance, a young man well-qualified, in order to give him an opportunity of making what observations he could among those islands." The Francis sailed on February 1st.

The black shadow of the catastrophe that had overtaken the Sydney Cove crossed the path of the salvage party. The Francis was accompanied by the ten-ton sloop Eliza, Captain Armstrong. But shortly after reaching the Furneaux Islands the two vessels were separated in a storm, and the Eliza went down with all hands. Neither the boat nor any soul of her company were ever seen or heard of again.

Flinders had only twelve days available for his own work, from February 16th till the 28th, but he made full and valuable use of that time in exploring, observing and charting. The fruits of his researches were embodied in a drawing sent to the British Government by Hunter, when he announced the discovery of Bass Strait later on in 1798. The principal geographical result was the discovery of the Kent group of islands, which Flinders named "in honour of my friend" the brave and accomplished sailor, William Kent, who commanded the Supply.

The biological notes made by Flinders on this expedition are of unusual interest. Upon the islands he found "Kanguroo" (his invariable spelling of the word), "womat" (sic), the duck-billed platypus, aculeated ant-eater, geese, black swan, gannets, shags, gulls, red bills, crows, parrakeets, snakes, seals, and sooty petrels, a profusion of wild life highly fascinating in itself, and, in the case of the animals, affording striking evidence of connection with the mainland at a comparatively recent period. The old male seals were described as of enormous size and extraordinary power.

"I levelled my gun at one, which was sitting on the top of a rock with his nose extended up towards the sun, and struck him with three musket balls. He rolled over and plunged into the water, but in less than half an hour had taken his former station and attitude. On firing again, a stream of blood spouted forth from his breast to some yards distance, and he fell back senseless. On examination the six balls were found lodged in his breast; and one, which occasioned his death, had pierced the heart. His weight was equal to that of a common ox. … The commotion excited by our presence in this assemblage of several thousand timid animals was very interesting to me, who knew little of their manners. The young cubs huddled together in the holes of the rocks and moaned piteously; those more advanced scampered and bowled down to the water with their mothers; whilst some of the old males stood up in defence of their families until the terror of the sailors' bludgeons became too strong to be resisted. Those who have seen a farmyard well stocked with pigs, with their mothers in it, and have heard them all in tumult together, may form a good idea of the confusion in connection with the seals at Cone Point. The sailors killed as many of these harmless and not unamiable creatures as they were able to skin during the time necessary for me to take the requisite angles; and we then left the poor affrighted multitude to recover from the effect of our inauspicious visit."

Flinders' observations upon the sooty petrels, or mutton birds, seen at the Furneaux Islands, are valuable as forming a very early account of one of the most remarkable sea-birds in the world:

"The sooty petrel, better known to us under the name of sheerwater, frequents the tufted grassy parts of all the islands in astonishing numbers. It is known that these birds make burrows in the ground like rabbits; that they lay one or two enormous eggs in the holes and bring up their young there. In the evening they come in from the sea, having their stomachs filled with a gelatinous substance gathered from the waves, and this they eject into the throats of their offspring, or retain for their own nourishment, according to circumstances. A little after sunset the air at Preservation Island used to be darkened with their numbers, and it was generally an hour before their squabbling ceased and every one had found its own retreat. The people of the Sydney Cove had a strong example of perseverance in these birds. The tents were pitched close to a piece of ground full of their burrows, many of which were necessarily filled up from walking constantly over them; yet notwithstanding this interruption and the thousands of birds destroyed (for they constituted a great part of their food during more than six months), the returning flights continued to be as numerous as before; and there was scarcely a burrow less except in the places actually covered by the tents. These birds are about the size of a pigeon, and when skinned and smoked we thought them passable food. Any quantity could be procured by sending people on shore in the evening. The sole process was to thrust in the arm up to the shoulder and seize them briskly; but there was some danger of grasping a snake at the bottom of the burrow instead of a petrel."

The remark that the egg of the sooty petrel is of enormous size is of course only true relatively to the size of the bird. The egg is about as large as a duck's egg, but longer and tapering more sharply at one end. For the rest the description is an excellent one. The wings of the bird are of great length and strength, giving to it wonderful speed and power of flight. The colour is coal-black. Flinders saw more of the sooty-petrel on his subsequent voyage round Tasmania; and it will be convenient to quote here the passage in which he refers to the prodigious numbers in which the birds were seen. It may be added that, despite a century of slaughter by mankind, and after the taking of millions of eggs—which are good food—the numbers of the mutton-birds are still incalculably great.[1]

Writing of what he saw off the extreme north-west of Tasmania in December, 1798, Flinders said:—

"A large flock of gannets was observed at daylight to issue out of the great bight to the southward; and

Page 173 letter (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg
Page 174 narrative (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg

PAGE FROM FLINDERS' MS. NARRATIVE OF THE VOYAGE OF THE FRANCIS, 1798.
(Melbourne Public Library.)

[illustration 1]
  1. text to illustration

    (12)

    1798
    February
    Saturday 10 
    close round the rock. At 8, when off a rocky point on which are two eminences of white stone in the form of oblique cones inclining inwards, we stood to the southward, and off and on during the night, keeping the peak and high land of Cape Barren in sight, the wind, from the westward. Sunday 11  At the following noon, the observed latitude was 40 degrees 41 1/2, Cape Barren bearing north-by-west. The wind being strong at west-south-west we continued standing off and on, and lying to occasionally, till day light next morning, when we made sail Monday 12  west-north-west for the south end of Clarkes Island, having the wind now at north by east. A little to the westward of the rocky point, which has the inclining cones upon it, lies an island, between which and the point, is a deep channel of between half and three-quarters of a mile wide; and about the same distance to the westward of this island, is another of nearly the same size: they are rather low and covered with brush and grass. Between these islands and Clarkes Island, we observed two low islets, and two rocks above water, the latter not more than three or four miles from us. To the southward also, we saw the land extending a great distance; but the whole are better seen in the sketch.
    About ten o'clock, the ebb tide was running with such violence, that although the schooner was going one knot and a half through the water, yet by the land we were evidently going retrograde almost as much, and towards the land withal: but the light air that remained enabled us to draw the (undecipherable) (Wikisource contributor note)

they were followed by such a number of sooty petrels as we had never seen equalled. There was a stream of from fifty to eighty yards in depth and of three hundred yards, or more, in breadth; the birds were not scattered, but flying as compactly as a free movement of their wings seemed to allow; and during a full hour and a half this stream of petrels continued to pass without interruption at a rate little inferior to the swiftness of a pigeon. On the lowest computation I think the number could not have been less than a hundred millions."

He explained how he arrived at this estimate, the reliableness of which is beyond dispute, though it may seem incredible to those who have not been in southern seas during the season when the sooty petrels "most do congregate." Taking the stream of birds to have been fifty yards deep by three hundred in width, and calculating that it moved at the rate of thirty miles[2] an hour, and allowing nine cubic yards for each bird, the number would amount to 151,500,000. The burrows required to lodge this number would be 75,750,000, and allowing a square yard to each burrow they would cover something more than 18½ geographical square miles.

The mutton-bird, it will therefore be allowed, is the most prolific of all avian colonists. It has also played some part in the history of human colonisation. When, in 1790, Governor Phillip sent to Norfolk Island a company of convicts and marines, and the Sirius, the only means of carrying supplies, was wrecked, the population, 506 in all, was reduced to dire distress from want of food. Starvation stared them in the face, when it was discovered that Mount Pitt was honeycombed with mutton-bird burrows. They were slain in thousands. "The slaughter and mighty havoc is beyond description," wrote an officer. "They are very fine eating, exceeding fat and firm, and I think (though no connoisseur) as good as any I ever eat." Many people who are not hunger-driven profess to relish young mutton-bird, whose flesh is like neither fish nor fowl, but an oily blend of both.

On this cruise Flinders came in sight of Cook's Point Hicks; and his reference to it has some interest because Bass had missed it; because Flinders himself did not on any of his other voyages sail close enough inshore on this part of the coast to observe it, and did not mark it upon his charts; and because the more recent substitution of the name Cape Everard for the name given by Cook, makes of some consequence the allusion of this great navigator to a projection which he saw only once. The Francis on February 4th "was in 38° 16' and (by account) 22' of longitude to the west of Point Hicks. The schooner was kept more northward in the afternoon; at four o'clock a moderately high sloping hill was visible in the N. by W., and at seven a small rocky point on the beach bore N. 50° W. three or four leagues. At some distance inland there was a range of hills with wood upon them, though scarcely sufficient to hide their sandy surface." That describes the country near Point Hicks accurately.

The largest island in the Furneaux group, now called Flinders Island, was not so named by Flinders. He referred to it as "the great island of Furneaux." Flinders never named any of his discoveries after himself, not even the smallest rock or cape. Flinders Island in the Bight (Investigator Group) was named after his brother Samuel.

It is a little curious that no allusion to the useful piece of work done by Flinders on this cruise was made by the Governor in his despatches. The omission was not due to lack of appreciation on his part, as the subsequently given to Bass and Flinders sufficiently showed. But it was, in truth, work very well done, with restricted means and in a very limited time.

The question whether the islands examined lay in a strait or in a deep gulf was occupying the attention of Flinders at just about the same time when his friend Bass, in his whaleboat on the north side of the same stretch of water, was revolving the same problem in his mind. The reasons given by Furneaux for disbelieving in the existence of a strait did not satisfy Flinders. The great strength of the tides setting westward could, in his opinion, only be occasioned by a passage through to the Indian Ocean, unless the supposed gulf were very deep. There were arguments tending either way; "the contradictory circumstances were very embarrassing." Flinders would have liked to use the Francis forthwith to settle the question; but, as she was commissioned for a particular service, and not under his command, he had to subjugate his scientific curiosity to circumstances.

Throughout his brief narrative of this voyage we see displayed the qualities which distinguish all his original work. Promptness in taking advantage of opportunities for investigation, careful and cautiously-checked observations, painstaking accuracy in making calculations, terse and dependable geographical description, and a fresh quick eye for noting natural phenomena: these were always characteristics of his work. He recorded what he saw of bird and animal with the same care as he noted nautical facts. We may take his paragraph on the wombat as an example. Bass was much interested in the wombats he saw, and with his surgeon's anatomical knowledge gave a description of it which the contemporary historian, Collins, quoted, enunciating the opinion that "Bass's womb-bat seemed to be very œconomically made"—whatever that may mean. Flinders' description, which must be one of the earliest accounts of the creature, is true:

"Clarke's Island afforded the first specimen of the new animal, called wombat. This little bear-like quadruped is known in New South Wales, and is called by the natives womat, wombat, or womback, according to the different dialects—or perhaps to the different rendering of the wood-rangers who brought the information. It does not quit its retreat till dark; but it feeds at all times on the uninhabited islands, and was commonly seen foraging amongst the sea refuse on the shore, though the coarse grass seemed to be its usual nourishment. It is easily caught when at a distance from its burrow; its flesh resembles lean mutton in taste, and to us was acceptable food."

The original manuscript containing Flinders' narrative of the expedition to the Furneaux Islands is in the Melbourne Public Library. It is a beautiful manuscript, 22 quarto pages, neat and regular, every letter perfect, every comma and semi-colon in place: a portrait in calligraphy of its author.

  1. The author may refer to a paper of his own, "The Mutton Birds of Bass Strait," in the Field, April 18, 1903, for a study of the sooty petrel during the laying season on Phillip Island. An excellent account of the habits of the bird is given in Campbell's Nests and Eggs of Australian Birds.
  2. Flinders is calculating in nautical miles of 2026⅔ yards each.