The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 9

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 9. Circumnavigation of Tasmania

Chapter IX.

CIRCUMNAVIGATION OF TASMANIA.

Flinders arrived in Sydney in the Francis about a fortnight after Bass returned in the whaleboat. It was, we may be certain, with delight that he heard from the lips of his friend the story of his adventurous voyage. The eye-sketch of the coastline traversed by Bass was, by the Governor's direction, used by him for the preparation of a chart to be sent to England. He was able to compare notes and discuss the probability of the existence of a strait, and it was but natural that the two men who had so recently been exploring, the one on the north the other on the south side of the possible strait, should be eager to pursue enquiry to the point of proof. Flinders acknowledged, in relating these events, his anxiety to gratify his desire of positively sailing through the strait and round Van Diemen's Land, and he chafed under the routine duties which postponed the effort. The opportunity did not occur till September.

In the meantime, Flinders had to sail in the Reliance to Norfolk Island to take over the surgeon, D'Arcy Wentworth, father of that William Wentworth whose name has already figured in these pages, and who was then a boy of seven. This trip took place in May to July.

In August he sat as a member of the Vice-Admiralty Court of New South Wales to try a case of mutiny on the high seas. Certain members of the New South Wales Corps were accused of plotting to seize the convict ship Barwell, on her voyage between the Cape and Australia, and of drinking the toast "damnation to the King and country." The Court considered the evidence insufficient, and the men were acquitted, after a trial lasting six days.

At last Flinders had an interview with the Governor about completing the exploration of the seas to the southward, and offered his services. Hunter, too, was anxious to have a test made of Bass's contention, which Flinders' own observations supported. On September 3rd he wrote to the Secretary of State that he was endeavouring to fit out a vessel "in which I propose to send the two officers I have mentioned," Bass and Flinders. Later in the month the Governor entrusted the latter with the command of the Norfolk, a sloop of twenty-five tons burthen, built at Norfolk Island from local pine. She was merely a small decked boat, put together under the direction of Captain Townson of Norfolk Island for establishing communication with Sydney. She leaked; her timbers were poor material for a seaboat in quarters where heavy weather was to be expected; and the accommodation she offered for a fairly extended cruise was cramped and uncomfortable. But she was the best craft the Governor had to offer, and Flinders was too keen for the quest to quarrel with the means. In those days fine seamanship and endurance often had to make up for deficiencies in equipment.

There were not two happier men in the King's service than these fast friends, when they received the Governor's commission directing them to sail "beyond Furneaux' Islands, and, should a strait be found, to pass through it, and return by the south end of Van Diemen's Land." The affection that existed between them is manifest in every reference which Flinders made to Bass in his book, A Voyage to Terra Australis. "I had the happiness to associate my friend Bass in this new expedition," he wrote of the Norfolk's voyage; and it was a happiness based not only on personal regard, but on kindred feeling for research work, and a similarity in active, keen and ardent temperament.
Page 183 memorial (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg

MEMORIAL ON THE SUMMIT OF STATION PEAK, PORT PHILLIP.[illustration 1]

The sloop was provisioned for twelve weeks, and "the rest of the equipment was completed by the friendly care of Captain Waterhouse of the Reliance." A crew of eight volunteers was chosen by Flinders from the King's ships in port. It is likely that some of them were amongst the six who had accompanied Bass to Westernport, and Flinders to the Furneaux and Kent Islands, but their names have not been preserved.

The Norfolk sailed on October 7, 1798, in company with a sealing boat, the Nautilus.[1] The plan was to make the Furneaux Group, then steer westward through the strait till the open ocean was reached on the further side; and, that accomplished, and the fact of strait's existence conclusively demonstrated, to turn down the western coast of Van Diemen's Land, round the southern extremity, and sail back to Port Jackson up the east coast. This programme was successfully carried out.

An amusing incident, related by Flinders with dry humour, occurred in Twofold Bay, which was entered "in order to make some profit of a foul wind," Bass undertaking an inland excursion, and Flinders occupying himself in making a survey of the port. An aboriginal made his appearance.

"He was of middle age, unarmed, except with a whaddie or wooden scimitar, and came up to us seemingly with careless confidence. We made much of him, and gave him some biscuit; and he in return presented us with a piece of gristly fat, probably of whale. This I tasted; but, watching an opportunity to spit it out when he should not be looking, I perceived him doing precisely the same thing with our biscuit, whose taste was probably no more agreeable to him, than his whale was to me." The native watched the commencement of Flinders' trigonometrical operations, "with indifference, if not contempt," and after a little while left the party, "apparently satisfied that from people who could thus occupy themselves seriously there was nothing to be apprehended."

It was not until November 1st that the Norfolk sailed from the Furneaux Islands on the flood-tide westward. The intervening time had been occupied with detailed exploring and surveying work. Soundings and observations were made, capes, islands and inlets were charted and named. The part of Flinders' narrative dealing with these phases abounds in detail, noted with the most painstaking particularity. Such fulness does not make attractive literature for the reader who takes up a book of travel for amusement. But it was highly important to record these details at the time of the publication of Flinders' book, when the coasts and seas of which he wrote were very little known; and it has to be remembered that he wrote as a scientific navigator, setting down the results of his work with completeness and precision for those interested in his subject, not as a caterer for popular literary entertainment. He preferred the interest in his writing to lie in the nature of the enterprise described and the sincerity with which it was pursued rather than in such anecdotal garniture and such play of fancy as can give charm to the history of a voyage. His book was a substantial contribution to the world's knowledge, and it is his especial virtue to have set down his facts with such exactitude that our tests of them, where they are still capable of being tested, earn him credit for punctilious veracity in respect of those observations on wild life and natural phenomena as to which we have to rely upon his written word. He
Page 186 map (The Life of Matthew Flinders).gif
never succumbs to the common sin of travellers—writing to excite astonishment in the reader, rather than to tell the exact truth as he found it. He was by nature and training an exact man.

On the afternoon of November 3rd the sloop entered the estuary of the river Tamar, on which, forty miles from the mouth, now stands the fine city of Launceston. It was a discovery of first-class importance. Apart from the pleasure which they derived from having made it, the two friends were charmed with the beauty of their surroundings. They derived the most favourable impression of the quality of the land and its suitableness for settlement. They worked up the river for several miles, but time did not permit them to follow it as far as it was navigable. Thus they did not reach the site of the present city, and left the superb gorge and cataract to be discovered by Collins when he entered the Tamar again in 1804. The harbour was subsequently named Port Dalrymple by Hunter, after Alexander Dalrymple, the naval hydrographer.

The extent of the survey, with delays caused by adverse weather, kept the Norfolk in the Tamar estuary for a full month. On December 3rd her westward course was resumed. From this time forth Bass and Flinders were in constant expectancy of passing through the strait into the open ocean. The northern trend of the coast for a time aroused apprehensions that there was no strait after all, and that the northern shore of Van Diemen's Land might be connected with the coast beyond Westernport. The water was also discoloured, and this led Flinders to think that they might be approaching the head of a bay or gulf. But on December 7th the vigilant commander made an observation of the set of the tide, from which he drew an "interesting deduction." "The tide had been running from the eastward all the afternoon," wrote Flinders, "and, contrary to expectation, we found it to be near low water by the shore; the flood therefore came from the west, and not from the eastward, as at Furneaux' Isles. This we considered to be a strong proof, not only of the real existence of a passage betwixt this land and New South Wales, but also that the entrance into the southern Indian Ocean could not be far distant."

On the following day the deduction was confirmed. After the Norfolk had rounded a headland, a long swell was observed to come from the south-west, breaking heavily upon a reef a mile and a half away. This was a new phenomenon; and both Bass and Flinders "hailed it with joy and mutual congratulation, as announcing the completion of our long-wished-for discovery of a passage into the southern Indian Ocean." They were now through the strait. What Bass months before had believed to be the case was at length demonstrated to a certainty. "The direction of the coast, the set of the tides, and the great swell from the south-west, did now completely satisfy us that a very wide strait did really exist betwixt Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales, and also now that we had certainly passed it."

No time was lost in completing the voyage. The Norfolk sped rapidly past Cape Grim and down the western coast of Van Diemen's Land. Amateur-built as she was, and very small for her work in these seas, she was proving a useful boat, and one can enjoy the sailors' pride in a snug craft in Flinders' remark concerning her, that "upon the whole she performed wonderfully; seas that were apparently determined to swallow her up she rode over with all the ease and majesty of an old experienced petrel."

The wild and desolate aspect of the west coast, as seen from the ocean, seems to have struck Flinders with a feeling of dread. He so rarely allows any emotion to appear in his writing that the sentences in his diary wherein he refers to the appearance of the De Witt range are striking evidence of his revulsion. "The mountains which presented themselves to our view in this situation, both close to the shore and inland, were amongst the most stupendous works of nature I ever beheld, and it seemed to me are the most dismal and barren that can be imagined. The eye ranges over these peaks, and curiously formed lumps of adamantine rock, with astonishment and horror." He acknowledged that he clapped on all sail to get past this forbidding coast. The passage is singular. Flinders was a fenland-bred man, and, passing from the low levels of eastern England to a life at sea in early youth, had had no experience of mountainous country. He had not even seen the mountains at the back of Sydney, except in the blue distance. Now, the De Witt range, though certainly giving to the coast that it dominates an aspect of desolate grandeur, especially when, as is nearly always the case, its jagged peaks are seen under caps of frowning cloud, would not strike a man who had been much among mountains as especially horrid. Flinders' burst of chilled feeling may therefore be noted as a curious psychological fact.[2]

The naming of Mounts Heemskirk and Zeehan, the latter since become a mineral centre of vast wealth, were the most noteworthy events of the run down the western coast. They were named by Flinders after the two ships of Tasman, as he took them to be the two mountains seen by that navigator on his discovery of Van Diemen's Land in 1642.

The Derwent, whose estuary is the port of Hobart, was entered on December 21. Bass's report on the fertility of the soil led to the choice of this locality for a settlement four years later.

On the last day of the year the return voyage was commenced, and on January 1st, 1799, the Norfolk was making for Port Jackson with her prow set north-easterly. The winds were unfavourable, and prevented Flinders from keeping close inshore, as he would have liked to do in order to make a survey. But the prescribed period of absence having expired, and the provisions being nearly exhausted, it was necessary to make as much haste as possible. On January 8th the Babel Isles were marked down, and named "because of the confusion of noises made by the geese, shags, penguins, gulls, and sooty petrels." Anyone who has camped near a rookery of sooty petrels is aware that they are quite capable of maintaining a sufficiently "babelish confusion"—the phrase is Camden's—without any aid from other fowls.

A little later in the month (January 12) the Norfolk sailed into harbour, and was anchored alongside the Reliance. "To the strait which had been the great object of research," wrote Flinders, "and whose discovery was now completed, Governor Hunter gave at my recommendation the name of Bass Strait. This was no more than a just tribute to my worthy friend and companion for the extreme dangers and fatigues he had undergone in first entering it in the whaleboat, and to the correct judgment he had formed, from various indications, of the existence of a wide opening between Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales."

Throughout this voyage we find Bass expending his abundant energies in the making of inland excursions whenever an opportunity occurred. To take a boat up rivers, to cut through rough country, to climb, examine soil, make notes on birds and beasts, and exercise his enquiring mind in all directions, was his constant delight.

The profusion of wild life upon the coasts and islands explored during the voyage astonished the travellers. Seals were seen in thousands, sea-birds in hundreds of millions. Flinders' calculation regarding the sooty petrels has already been quoted. Black swans were observed in great quantities. Bass, for example, stated that he saw three hundred of these stately birds within a space a quarter of a mile square. The Roman poet Juvenal could think of no better example of a thing of rare occurrence than a black swan:

"Rara avis in terris, nigroque simillima cygno."

But here black swans could have been cited in a simile illustrating profusion. Bass quaintly stated that the "dying song" of the swan, so celebrated by poets, "exactly resembled the creaking of a rusty ale-house sign on a windy day." The remark is not so pretty as, but far more true than, that of the bard who would have us believe that the dying swan:

   "In music's strains breathes out her life and verse,
    And, chaunting her own dirge, rides on her watery hearse."

The couplet of Coleridge is vitiated by the same error, but may merit commendation for practical wisdom:

    "Swans sing before they die; 'twere no bad thing
     Should certain persons die before they sing."

Flinders also saw from three to five hundred black swans on the lee side of one point; and so tame were they that, as the Norfolk passed through the midst of them, one incautious bird was caught by the neck.

Bass went ashore on Albatross Island to shoot. He was forced to fight his way up the cliffs against the seals, which resented the intrusion; and when he got to the top he was compelled "to make a road with his club among the albatross. These birds were sitting upon their nests, and almost covered the surface of the ground, nor did they otherwise derange themselves for their new visitors than to peck at their legs as they passed by."

In the Derwent Bass and Flinders encountered Tasmanian aboriginals, now an extinct race of men. A human voice was heard coming from the hills. The two leaders of the expedition landed, taking with them a swan as an offering of friendship, and met an aboriginal man and two women. The women ran off, but the man stayed and accepted the swan "with rapture." He was armed with three spears, but his demeanour was friendly. Bass and Flinders tried him with such words as they knew of the dialects of New South Wales and the South Sea Islands, but could not make him understand them, "though the quickness with which he comprehended our signs spoke in favour of his intelligence." His hair was either close-cropped or naturally short; but it had not a woolly appearance. "He acceded to our proposition of going to his hut; but finding from his devious route and frequent stoppings that he sought to tire our patience, we left him delighted with the certain possession of his swan, and returned to the boat. This was the sole opportunity we had of communicating with any of the natives of Van Diemen's Land."

The results of the cruise of the Norfolk were of great importance. From the purely utilitarian point of view, the discovery of Bass Strait shortened the voyage to Sydney from Europe by quite a week. It opened a new highway for commerce. Turnbull, in his Voyage Round the World (1814) discussing the advantages of the new route, mentioned that "already has the whole fleet of China ships, under the convoy of a 64, passed through these Straits without the smallest accident;" and he pointed out that ships which were late in the season for China, and availed themselves of the prevailing winds by taking the easterly route round Australia, were thus enabled to avoid the tempestuous weather which generally faced them to the south of Van Diemen's Land. Governor King, too, writing to the Governor of Bombay in 1802, sent him a chart of the strait, and pointed out that the discovery would "greatly facilitate the passage of ships from India to this colony."

The discovery also revealed a fresh and fertile field for the occupation of mankind. Geographically no discovery of such consequence had been made since the noble days of Cook. It brought the names of Bass and Flinders prominently before the scientific world, and the thoroughness with which the latter had done his work won him warm praise from men competent to form a judgment. Intimations concerning the discovery published in the Naval Chronicle and other journals valued the work very highly; and it had the advantage of bringing the commander of the Norfolk under the notice of Sir Joseph Banks, that earnest and steadfast supporter of all sincere research work, who thus became the firm friend of Flinders, as he had been the friend and associate of Cook thirty years before.

The turbulent state of Europe in and about 1799, with Napoleon Bonaparte rising fast to meridian glory on the wings of war, did not incline British statesmen to attach much significance to such events as the discovery of an important strait and the increased opportunities for the development of oversea dominions. Renewed activity in that direction came a little later. There is a letter from Banks to Hunter, written just after the return of the Norfolk, but before the news reached England (February, 1799), wherein he conveys a concise idea of the perturbation in official circles and the difficulty of getting anything done for Australia. "The political situation is so difficult," said Banks, "and His Majesty's Ministers so fully employed in business of the deepest importance, that it is scarce possible to gain a moment's audience on any subject but those which stand foremost in their minds; and colonies of all kinds, you may be assured, are now put into the background."

But that was no more than a passing phase. The seeds of a vaster British Empire than had ever existed before had already germinated, and when the years of crisis occurred, the will and power of England were both ready and strong enough to protect the growing plant from the trampling feet of legions. Meanwhile, the work on the Norfolk secured for Flinders such useful encouragement and help as enabled him very little later to crown his achievements with a task that at once solidified his title to fame and ultimately ended his life.

  1. There are three accounts of the voyage: (1) that of Flinders in diary form, printed in the Historical Records of New South Wales Volume III., appendix B; (2) that of Flinders in his Voyage to Terra Australis Volume I., page cxxxviii; and (3) that of Bass, embodied in Collins' Account of New South Wales. It is probable that Bass's diary was lent to Collins for the purpose of writing his narrative. The original is not known to exist.
  2. The reader will perhaps find it interesting to compare this reference with a passage in Ruskin's Modern Painters, Volume III., chapter 13: "It is sufficiently notable that Homer, living in mountainous and rocky countries, dwells thus delightedly on all the flat bits; and so I think invariably the inhabitants of mountain countries do, but the inhabitants of the plains do not, in any similar way, dwell delightedly on mountains. The Dutch painters are perfectly contented with their flat fields and pollards: Rubens, though he had seen the Alps, usually composes his landscapes of a hay-field or two, plenty of pollards and willows, a distant spire, a Dutch house with a mast about it, a windmill and a ditch. … So Shakspere never speaks of mountains with the slightest joy, but only of lowland flowers, flat fields, and Warwickshire streams." Ruskin's citation of the Lincolnshire farmer in Alton Locke is apt, with his dislike of "Darned ups and downs o'hills, to shake a body's victuals out of his inwards."
  1. text to illustration

    Matthew Flinders, R.N.,
    Stood on this Rock to Survey the Bay.
    May 1, 1802.
    National Parks Association,
    1912. (Wikisource contributor note)