An Account of the Expedition of H.M.S. "Success," Captain James Stirling, RN., from Sydney, to the Swan River, in 1827

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An Account of the Expedition of H.M.S. "Success," Captain James Stirling, RN., from Sydney, to the Swan River, in 1827 (1906)
by Augustus H. Gilbert
556999An Account of the Expedition of H.M.S. "Success," Captain James Stirling, RN., from Sydney, to the Swan River, in 18271906Augustus H. Gilbert

An Account of the Expedition of H.M.S.


Captain James Stirling, RN., from Sydney, to the Swan River, in 1827.

By Augustus H. Gilbert, Clerk of H.M.S. "Success."

Sydney, 30th April, 1827.

We sailed from Sydney on Wednesday, 17th January, having on board as passengers Mr. Fraser, Colonial Botanist, and Mr. Garling, of this place, in company with a cutter attached to the "Success" by the Governor, for the purpose of being employed in surveying the coast and to carry provisions to King George Sound, where an infant settlement has been formed, and which I shall speak of in the course of my letter. On the Friday following we parted company, finding she sailed so indifferently that we ran away from her under double-reefed topsails and top-gallant sails, while she had all sails crowded.

On Sunday we encountered a severe gale of wind, which, lasting only twenty hours, did us little or no injury, and from this time we had light winds, and nothing of any interest occurred till the 27th January, in the evening of which day we came to an anchor in the River Derwent, Hobart Town. The capital of Van Diemen's Land is situated about thirty miles from the entrance of this river, at the base of a lofty mountain. The next morning we weighed, and ran up to this town. The different views in passing up the river were most interesting. The little farms and fine ripe cornfields that adorned either side of this beautiful river reminded me strongly of England. The variety of tints the extensive forests afforded at that season of autumn, together with the romantic appearance of the cloud-capped mountains, particularly the one under which the town is erected, gratified the taste of every lover of the works of Nature in the most ample manner.

The town is well planned, and is extensive, considering the short time that it has been in existence (about thirteen years), and appears to be rapidly increasing. This town possesses some natural advantages over Sydney, which renders it a more desirable place of residence; it is not subject to those sudden changes from heat to cold, and the soil is far superior and much deeper than at Sydney. All the necessaries of life are to be procured here in abundance, particularly vegetables, which flourish during the whole of the year. They have not erected a market place, which is an evil much complained of by the inhabitants, making the price of provisions, although abundant, excessively high, little or none being brought in from the country; there is one now, I believe, in contemplation, which will shortly be built. During our short stay we had many visitors, and we received several invitations, the inhabitants being much pleased with our arrival, and anxious to show us every attention. Among those who came on board was the son of one of the principal chiefs of New Zealand. He was brought on board by Captain Wilson, late of the Hon. East India Company's service, now a merchant of this place. This young chief had the misfortune to be wrecked in New South Wales, in one of Mr. Wilson's vessels, and only escaped with his life by being an excellent swimmer. He had an intelligent open countenance, and appeared quickly to comprehend the use of the different things on board on being explained to him. On the Wednesday following we went down the river to await the arrival of the cutter, and came to an anchor between Beanis Island and Pierson's Point, sixteen miles from the town. As there was now no probability of getting to the town, we went ashore at these places shooting, there being many kangaroos, quail, parrots, a beautiful species of pigeon, etc. We thus passed our time agreeably till the 8th February, when the cutter arrived, having experienced a heavy gale of wind for ten days. She had carried away her boom and gaff in two places, and was otherwise considerably damaged. Several head of stock, including two cows, which she had on board for King George Sound, died. We immediately sent the carpenter and sailmaker on board; and, having completed the necessary repairs by evening, we weighed and stood out to sea in company with her. We had a fine moderate breeze at first, but the next day it changed to a fresh beating breeze with occasional squalls. The cutter continued in company till the 13th, when, finding that she proved a great drawback to our progress, we hove to, and sent a boat on board with orders for her to make the best of her way to Swan River. If, however, she could not round Cape Leeuwin on the 15th March, on that day to bear up for King George Sound; and, if she could not reach that place by the 20th, to shape a course for Sydney. We now filled and made sail, and lost sight of her. On the 4th March we weathered Cape Leeuwin, and on the 5th arrived off Rottnest Island, a place described by the French as being a terrestial paradise[1] but we found it a barren place, not possessing the slightest inducement for anyone to settle, the whole island being almost entirely composed of sand, covered with brushwood. There is a vast number of the small species of kangaroo on this island. The next day we sailed toward the Swan River, an distant about ten miles, and came to anchor, off the mouth of the river distant three miles. We sent a boat into the river, and on its return the crew gave us an unfavorable account of the entrance, there being a bar of sand and rocks, with scarcely sufficient water for a boat to pass over in safety, but immediately over this bar they got into deep water, having from 4 to 10 fathoms[2]. They shot several black swans, a remarkable bird found in great numbers there. This bird is about the size of the white swan, and perfectly black, with the exception of the quill feathers at the tip of the wings, which are white. The bill, legs, and eyelids are red, and they fly in flocks. They are rather gross, but otherwise good eating. The next day (Wednesday) we proceeded to the island of Berthollet (Carnac), when we moored ship. This island is a mere mass of rock, intersected here and there with brushwood, the resort of sea birds, breeding here in vast numbers, every part of it being covered with holes similar to a rabbit warren. The next day (Thursday, March 8) being fixed for the expedition up the river, the first gig and cutter were ordered to hold themselves in readiness. At 8 o'clock they accordingly started from the ship, the boats being victualled for a fortnight and well armed. The object of this was to proceed, if possible, to the source of the river, to examine the banks, the depth of water, to fix on an eligible spot for a settlement, to ascertain the productions of the country, the nature of the soil, and the practicability of forming a harbor for shipping; and I am happy to state that our expectations are fully realised, and that our report has given so much satisfaction to the Governor that an immediate settlement is to be formed there. The boats proceeded about twenty[3] miles up the river the first day, when they were prevented going further by meeting with the flats, that here extended themselves the whole width of the river, and one and a-half (1½) miles in length. They were reduced to the necessity of taking everything out of the boats, and landing them on one of the many islands that are formed in this part of the river by the floods, and to drag the boats over by main force, there not being sufficient water to float the gig. In doing this the party were above their knees in mud, and obliged to walk over extensive beds of oyster shells, which lacerated their feet very much. The next day (Friday), however, they got the boats over and continued their course up the river. It is strange that immediately on getting over these flats they found deep water of nearly 8 fathoms. The river, after running two miles to the eastward, takes a N.N.E. serpentine direction. The scenery was delightful—the trees growing to the water's edge, the transparency of the river, the mountains and plains alternately appearing, and the picturesque points and bays, formed the most interesting scenery possible, and this place only requires a little assistance from art to render it one of the most delightful spots on earth. On Sunday they first observed the natives, two children were playing on the shore, who, immediately on perceiving the boat, ran off, but in a few minutes they could see about two hundred watching them from behind trees and the tops of the hills. We continued our course for some time without noticing them, and the natives kept moving along the shore with their spears in their hands, making signs for our people to come on shore. They having followed for some time, we put on shore, and all the natives on this retreated towards a hill near the spot except five rather elderly men, who immediately laid down their spears and made signs of friendship by holding their arms over their heads, etc. Mr. Belches, third lieutenant, went out to meet them, but upon another following him they showed strong symptoms of alarm, snatched up their spears, and would have fled had not the person instantly returned to the boat. By making signs of peace, and giving them some presents, they soon became more easy and familiar. They seemed particularly fond of bread and sugar, but they could not relish the salt meat. These people are about the middle size, possessing rather intelligent countenances than otherwise, and live in the most simple state possible; they walk upright, are small made, their thighs being no larger than the calf of a leg of a common-sized man; this may be owing to the small quantity of animal food they take, living chiefly on roots and berries, and their possessing no effective instruments for sporting, fishing, or hunting. They go in tribes of twenty or thirty, and each tribe has its chief[4], whom they obey and respect. They speak an uncouth and harsh language[5], and when they express either admiration, surprise, or pleasure they vociferate several times the word "Quabba." They have only these weapons, at least we only saw these amongst them—namely, the spear, knife, and tomahawk[6]. The spear is formed of a species of reed that grows in abundance here. These spears are from 8 to 11 feet long, and they fasten a small piece of wood at the end of it to form a barb; this wood they sharpen with stones to a point, and secure it to the spear with the gut of the kangaroo, and strengthen it with the gum that is found here in large quantities. They throw them with great force and correct exactness. The tomahawk

1. Natives Preparing for Corroboree at Broome.

2. Aboriginal Weapons Exhibited at Perth Museum.

Eucalyptus Calophylla, the Red Gum of Western Australia, Erroneously Called Angophora by Fraser.

is simply formed of a small piece of wood, about 18 inches long, with a stone at the end, fastened only by gum. The knife is also formed of stone, sharpened by others, but this is the meanest apology for a knife I ever saw. The natives are almost perfectly naked, having merely a band about 3 inches wide round their waists, made of the bark of a tree. The chiefs paint themselves with a sort of red clay, and twist their hair, which is long[7], round their heads, binding it with the feathers of the cockatoo and swan. The chiefs have likewise feathers through their ears, and a single quill feather through the septum of the nose[8]. On Monday, March 12, we reached the source of the river, which latterly had become so narrow that we were obliged to boat the mast and pull, the trees overhanging on both sides so as to prevent our sailing. Here we encamped[9] for that and the following day, and passed our time in examining the country. We shot as many swans and ducks as we required, and Mr. Fraser made a large collection of various plants. On Wednesday, having got the things into the boat, we commenced our passage down the river. The boats had not proceeded far before both got staved from the large quantity of stumps of trees that had fallen into the river. We repaired this damage and reached the flats. The captain here ordered the first gig to proceed up another of the rivers[10] and ascertain the depth of water and how far it extended, but not to proceed further than to be enabled to be on board by sunset the following evening The cutter continued her course down the river, and reached the ship a little after midnight in safety. The gig returned the next night at 10 o'clock, having proceeded as far up the river as they could consistently with the order to be on board by sunset. It is worthy of remark that the whole way the gig went she had 5 fathoms water, and it was equally deep and broad at the place from which they commenced their return as at first, while the water was extremely salt. On the gig's returning down the river she fell in with another party of natives, who were more timid than those we had observed up the river. The boat was obliged to pull on and off the shore for some time, and make every token and sign of friendship before these natives could be prevailed on to remain while they landed. At last one or two remained, when one of our people landed and gave them some presents. They soon became more friendly. One of the boat's crew gave the chief a jacket, and another a pair of trousers, and it was strange to observe him endeavor to put it on as the other had put on his jacket, thrusting his arms through the places for his legs. It was curious, also, to observe the natives put their fingers and rub them on our people's skin, and then look to see if anything came off, being fully persuaded they were painted. The natives opened their waistcoats, and laughed much when they observed that their breasts were the same color as their hands and faces. Our people secured several spears from them and parted good friends. We were employed from this time in surveying the islands of Rottnest, Buâche, and Berthollet, with the adjacent rocks, and the coast on each side of the river. I had almost forgot that we made two gardens about fifteen miles[11] up the river, and another on Buâche, and sowed several descriptions of garden vegetables and corn. We left on Buâche a cow, three goats, and three sheep with young, etc.

Our expectations of the advantages of a settlement at Swan River are now fully confirmed, and although it would be impossible for vessels of above ten tons burden to enter the river at any state of the tide in safety, at the present entrance, it would be practicable at small expense to cut a canal at about four miles[12] from the mouth of the river to the sea. The distance necessary to be cut is only one quarter of a mile, and would immediately lead into water of 12 fathoms[13] both in the river and in the sea. The land is rocky[14], and would afford excellent sides to the canal. The climate is most delightful, the soil is good, and in many places exceedingly rich, and capable of producing any of the European vegetables and fruits as well as tropical.

The prevailing botany of this place, as I have collected from Mr. Fraser, consists of the following genera, viz. :— Eucalyptus, Banksia, Dryandra, Casuarina, Leptospermum, and a species of Zamia. The hills near the beach immediately north of the entrance are sandy, but on proceeding two hundred yards the soil changes to a rich red loam, of very considerable depth[15], improving as the hills are ascended to the richest virgin loam, and capable of producing any crop. The hills continue of the same description for seven or eight miles, beyond which their character was not observed. The stony nature of these hills render them admirably adapted for the culture of the vine. The islands[16] on the flats are composed of a muddy deposit, evidently brought on by the floods; their banks are covered with thickets of Casuarina and Metrosideros and their centres with sub

View of Albany and King George the Third Sound.

marine succulent plants. At Point Fraser there is a material change observable in the botany; a magnificent species of Angophora[17] is seen on the summit of the ranges; the Casuarina on the banks assume a more arborescent character than any seen hitherto on the river; Banksia grandis forming a superb feature in the botany of this part, often exceeding 40 feet in height; the Zamia is seen attaining the height of 30 feet; its beautiful pinnated leaves, associated with the superb Xanthorreas, so abundant here, imparts to the forest an appearance perfectly tropical. Proceeding up the river, the country opens into immense plains of the most fertile description. The soil is a rich brown earth, extending to the base of the mountains. The forest land between the river and the ranges is covered with the most magnificent shrubs and stupendous Angophora[17], occupying the same situation in the geography of the botany of this country that the iron bark does on the Eastern coast. Stringy bark[18] was likewise seen on the ranges in considerable quantities.

From this time to the 20th we were employed in surveying the islands of Rottnest, Buâche, and Berthollet, but my limits will not allow me to give you any particulars respecting them. On the 21st of March we weighed and stood to leeward, steering towards Jurien Bay; but, the wind shifting, we bore up for Geographe Bay. On the 24th we made the bay, and as we sailed along the shore towards it we observed a party of about thirty natives on the beach. They likewise saw us, and seemed very anxious not to be left behind, and kept pace with the ship, although going five knots, till 2 o'clock, when we anchored in the bay, thus having walked at least thirty miles. They then seated themselves in a body at the base of a mountain, abreast the ship. We collected some presents, such as knives and pieces of stuff, handkerchiefs, beads, etc., and also some bread, sugar, etc., and sent them on shore. The natives seated themselves to await the boats approach, and on its arrival made every sign of friendship and invited our people on shore. We accordingly landed, and by distributing the presents and dancing completely won the savages' hearts. At last two chiefs ventured to come on board, and they were struck with astonishment at the size of the ship and the many different things they observed on board, more particularly the galley fire, at which they expressed the liveliest pleasure, vociferating, "Quabba, quabba!" After we had rigged them out in mariners' jackets, trousers, etc., we landed them, much gratified with their visit and in perfect amity with us.

We then shaped a course for King George Sound, and after having been beating for several days to windward off Cape Leeuwin we, on the 2nd of April, reached our destination, and came to an anchor off the entrance of Port Royal. The settlement consists of about seventy persons, who landed there on the 25th December, 1826. They have erected several little cottages, or rather huts, made of wood and plastered with mud, but even in the commandant's house the wind blows through in every part. The expectations formed of King George Sound have by no means been realised; the soil is wretched, and with the utmost care and attention they have not hitherto been able to bring anything a few inches above the ground. The town is situated at the foot of an immense mountain. The harbor is excellent, and there is sufficient water for a three-decker up to the town. The people had only thirty days' provisions at half-allowance at the time we arrived, and it was thus fortunate that we touched there, for we found, to our surprise, that the cutter had not reached there. We had but a month's provisions remaining, and we had a voyage of upwards of two thousand miles to go before we could again be supplied, The captain, however, consented to give them all over a fortnight's provisions for the ship's company, and thus supplied them for two months at the same allowance. The day after the people arrived here, from some misunderstanding, the natives attacked a party of six or seven men, who had strayed a short distance from the spot they had fixed on for forming their town, and obliged the party to make off with all speed back again. One man was severely wounded, being speared through the thigh and the back. Another spear was sent through the fleshy part of the arm, which entered his side, thus pinning his arm to his side. In this condition he managed to reach his companions. He still exists, but is entirely maimed for life. We brought him to Sydney. The natives are in other respects perfectly harmless; they have ingress and egress to any of the huts, and never attempted to take anything unless given to them. They appear to be very ill-used by the sealers, who frequent this part of the coast, by forcibly taking their women away, and shooting them for the slightest offences. Just before our arrival the commandant had caused seven sealers to be apprehended for taking four natives to Michaelmas Island (a small barren rock in the Sound), killing one, and leaving the others there with the evident intention of starving, and for violently taking two of their women away and landing them on some part of the mainland directly away from the tribe they belonged to. They are to be tried for murder the first opportunity that offers to bring them to Sydney. Here, as well as at Swan River, they are naked, with the exception of a seal or kangaroo skin, which they throw over their shoulders and which reaches no lower than their waist. There is no other apparent difference between them.

The scenery as we entered the Sound was bold and magnificent. The lofty mountains in various shapes, the curiously-formed islands, and the sea breaking violently on the rocks, give it a most striking effect; but there is, at the same time, a barren appearance in the landscape that soon fatigues the eye of the spectator. I had procured some specimens of a most curious plant that flourishes in this part of the globe only. It is called the pitcherplant, and grows in the marshy ground here; it consists of thin stalks about 2 feet high, which produce at the top small wild flowers, similar to the lily in form, only much smaller and possessing no smell. On the stalk, just above the soil, grow several (three to seven) small bulbous flowers, shaped similar to a pitcher, with a cover or top to them. When there is rain, or heavy dew, these covers lift up, and receive all the moisture that falls into them ; on its leaving off raining, the covers shut down, and thus prevent the water escaping. The pitchers thus contain sufficient to supply the plant with nourishment the whole of the dry season, each pitcher containing from one to three spoonsful of water.

On the 4th of April we stood to sea, with a strong breeze from the S.W., and at 10 p.m. on the 15th we anchored within the heads of the heads of Port Jackson, and found that the cutter had reached this place a week before us, having, while off King George Sound, carried away her rudder in a gale of wind, which obliged her to bear up. On the[19] King's Birthday (April 23) the Governor[20] gave a splendid ball and supper, to which we were all invited, but I have no room left for particulars.

On Saturday, the 28th of April, the first regatta witnessed took place. It was got up on board us by Captain Stirling and Captain Ross, of the "Rainbow," and on that day we had all the beauty and flower of Sydney on board, together with the 57th Band, and between the races quadrilles were the order of the day. Captain Ross' boat won the pulling match, and our cutter the sailing. Captain Stirling gave an excellent cold collation, and the party did not break up till late in the evening. The river[21] presented one of the gayest scenes possible, and everybody was delighted.

  1. Rottnest Island was not called by the French a terrestial paradise, but a very correct description of the island which is diversified by hill, valley, and salt lakes, was given by them.
  2. Immediately over the bar the depth of water was about three or four fathoms, and this was followed by a number of sandbanks, some of which, near the railway bridge, still exist.
  3. Really twelve miles.
  4. The aborigines of Australia have no chiefs in the proper sense of the term. Their most expert and powerful warriors are feared and obeyed, bat can scarcely be said to govern.
  5. Some authorities consider the aboriginal dialects to be soft and mellifluous.
  6. In addition to these are others, notably the boomerang, womerah and nullah.
  7. The hair of the natives of Australia is short and curly as a general rule; in some instances the tail of the dingo has been introduced and wound round the top of the head, which no doubt deceived the visitors.
  8. Usually a small bone of the kangaroo or a piece of wood is passed through the septum of the nose.
  9. This camp was at the junction of Ellen's Brook, named after Mrs. Stirling. There is a sketch of the camp at the Public Library, but the trees are not true.
  10. Canning River.
  11. Eleven or twelve miles,
  12. Two miles.
  13. The deepest water in Rocky Bay and for some distance on the sea coast is only four fathoms. The greatest depth in the Swan is seventy feet near the Chine in Freshwater Bay, and not very far from Blackwall Reach. Although the coast is known to be rising, it is incomprehensible to account for such considerable discrepancies, both in the given depths and the distances. In another direction also, Stirling figured the height of some hills and mountains absurdly. Mount William he called 3,000 feet, nearly double its known altitude.
  14. Rocky Bay.
  15. Grossly exaggerated.
  16. Heirisson's Islands.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Not Angophora, but Eucalyptus calophylla, the red gum of Western Australia.
  18. The jarrah, Eucalyptus marginata.
  19. George IV. was born August 12, 1762, but on his accession to the throne, in 1820, directed St. George's Day to be observed as his birthday.
  20. General Sir Ralph Darling.
  21. Parramatta River.

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