Discoveries in Australia/Volume 1/Chapter 3

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Discoveries in Australia, Volume 1 by John Lort Stokes
Chapter 3: From the Cape to Swan River

CHAPTER 3.[edit]



We had, upon the whole, a favourable passage across to the Cape; but on the 17th of September, when distant from it about 500 miles, we encountered a moderate gale from the north. As this was the first heavy weather we had experienced since our departure from England, I was curious to see what effect such a strange scene would have on our passengers. Wrapt in mute astonishment, they stood gazing with admiration and awe on the huge waves as they rolled past, occasionally immersing our little vessel in their white crests—and listening, with emotions not wholly devoid of fear, to the wild screams of the seabirds as they skimmed o'er the steep acclivities of these moving masses. The landsmen were evidently deeply impressed with the grandeur of a storm at sea; nor can the hardiest seaman look with unconcern on such an exhibition of the majesty of Him, whose will the winds and waves obey. Not more poetically beautiful than literally true are the words of the Psalmist, so appropriately introduced into the Form of Prayers at Sea—"They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters: these men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep: for at his word the stormy wind ariseth, which lifteth up the waves thereof." My own experience has over and over again satisfied me, that, mingled with many a dim superstition, a deep religious sentiment—a conviction of the might and mercy of Heaven—often rests on the heart of the most reckless seaman, himself all unconscious of its existence, yet strangely influenced by its operations!

We sighted land on the evening of the 20th of September, rounded the Cape the next morning, and in the afternoon anchored in Simon's Bay. We found here H.M.S. 'Thalia,' bearing the flag of Admiral Sir Patrick Campbell, Commander-in-chief of the Cape station: and during our subsequent stay received every attention which kindness and courtesy could suggest, from himself and his officers.

We were glad to ascertain that our chronometers had been performing admirably. They gave the longitude of Simon's Bay, within a few seconds of our homeward determination during the last voyage. Mr. Maclear, of the Royal Observatory, and Captain Wauchope, of the flagship, had been measuring the difference of longitude between Simon's Bay dockyard and Cape Town Observatory, by flashing lights upon the summit of a mountain midway between those two places. Their trials gave a greater difference, by a half second, between the two meridians, than we had obtained on a former visit by carrying chronometers to and fro. The results stand as follow:

Mr. Maclear and Captain Wauchope 11.5"
H.M. Sloop "Beagle" 11.0"

We found at the Cape the renowned Captain Harris, H.E.I. Company's Bombay Engineers, who had just returned from his sporting expedition into the interior of Southern Africa, having made his way through every obstacle, from the frontier of the Cape Colony, through the territories of the chief Moselekatse, to the Tropic of Capricorn. With his spirit-stirring accounts of hunting adventure and savage manners we were all most highly gratified. What he had seen, where he had been, and what he had performed "by flood and field," have since been told to the world by himself, and therefore need not be repeated here: but it would be unpardonable not to do justice to his energy, his perseverance, and his success. He had collected quite a museum of the Natural History of the wild beasts against whom his crusade had been directed; while his collection of drawings, both as regarded the animals delineated, and the appearance of the country in which they were found, was really most beautiful: and many a pleasant hour was spent in viewing the various specimens and illustrations, each one of which testified the intrepidity and skill of himself or his no less adventurous companion, William Richardson, Esquire, B.C.S. It will readily be believed that these two gentlemen were then, themselves, the great Lions of that part of Africa.

Having completed our observations, and crammed every available square inch of the 'Beagle' with various stores—a proceeding rendered absolutely necessary by the unsatisfactory accounts we received of the state of affairs at Swan River—we sailed for that place on the morning of the 12th of October.

It should be mentioned, that Lieutenant Grey, hearing it would be impossible for him to obtain a suitable vessel at Swan River, hired a small schooner from this port, and sailed, with his party, for Hanover Bay, on the north-west coast of Australia, the day after our departure. His subsequent perils, wanderings, and adventures having been fully described in his own published account, I need do no more here than allude to them.

We encountered a good deal of heavy weather, shifting winds, and consequently irregular seas, during our run to Swan River; and owing to the deep state of our loaded little vessel, her decks were almost constantly flooded. For many days we had never less than an inch and a half of water on them all over; and this extra weight, in our already overburdened craft, did not, of course, add to her liveliness; however, she struggled on, and on the 1st of November bore us in sight of the Island of Amsterdam, and in the afternoon passed to the southward of it, sufficiently near to determine its position. The summit of the Island, which has rather a peaked appearance, we found to be 2,760 feet high, in latitude 38° 53' South, longitude 77° 37' East of Greenwich. It is singular that though this Island, which is almost a finger-post for ships bound from the Cape either to New Holland or India, has been so long known to all navigators of these seas, its true longitude should have been till now unascertained. The western side presented the appearance of a broken-down crater, nor indeed can there be any reason to doubt its volcanic origin. Light brown was the pervading colour upon the sides of the island, and appeared to be caused by stunted bushes and grass. The southern island, St. Paul's, affords a good anchorage in 21 fathoms, about midway on its eastern side, latitude 38 degrees 42 minutes, and is in every way preferable to the spot chosen for that purpose by Vlaming in 1764, on the south-east side of Amsterdam, where landing is never very easy, and generally quite impracticable.

The well ascertained fact, that water is found in abundance at St. Paul's, leads to a very fair inference, that in this humid atmosphere, and with a much greater elevation, the same essential commodity may be met with at Amsterdam; but certainly at St. Paul's, and most probably at Amsterdam, the rugged nature of the travelling over these volcanic islands, would render useless any attempt to water a ship.

The following table, though it may not possess much interest for the general reader, will not be without its value in the eyes of my nautical brethren: it shows the increase of variation since 1747:—

From Horsburg's
1747 17½
1764 18¾
1793 20
H.M.S. Beagle 1837 21

As these islands lie in the same meridian, the longitude given above of Amsterdam, will equally apply to St. Paul's: they are admirably situated for connecting the meridians of Africa and Australia. We lost sight of Amsterdam towards evening, and flattered ourselves that we were also leaving the bad weather behind. The sky more settled; the sea less high; and the barometer rising: such indications, however, cannot be implicitly trusted in this boisterous climate; and shortly after dark, having shipped a very heavy sea, we rounded too for the night. The constant set of the huge following seas, carried our little vessel much faster to the eastward than could be easily credited, till proved by actual observation. During the last three or four days, we had run upwards of 195 miles daily by the observations, being from twenty to thirty more each day than appeared from the reckoning.

We made Rottenest Island on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 15th; and in the afternoon of the same day, anchored in Gage's Road, Swan River. Our position at midnight, the night before, made us about 30 miles from the mainland, when we had the wind from the eastward, getting round again towards noon to south and by west. This may be some guide to the limit of the land wind, and as such I record the fact. During the three days previous to our making the land, we experienced a northerly current of one knot per hour. We tried during the same period for soundings, with nearly 200 fathoms, but in vain.

We passed along the north shore of Rottenest at the distance of a mile and a half, closing with it as we got to the eastward, where it is not so rocky. The north shore should not be approached within a mile. As we were opening out the bay on the north-east end of the island, we passed over a rocky patch, with, from appearance, not more than three fathoms on it, it is small, and we had 14 fathoms close to it. This patch is about one mile N. by W. from the north-west point of the bay. Off this point is a low rocky islet; and when on the shoal, we could just make out the white sandy beach in the bay open between it and the point. The western points of the island are all shut in by the north point; therefore, keeping them open, will always enable the navigator to give this dangerous rock* a wide berth.

* Now called Roe's Patch.

The Swan River Settlement, which is a portion of the colony of Western Australia, was founded in August 1829, under the auspices of the Colonial Office, Captain Stirling being the first Lieutenant-Governor. Freemantle, at the entrance of Swan River, is the sea port; and Perth, situate about nine miles inland, the seat of Government: Guilford and York are the other chief places in the colony.

There is nothing very particularly inviting in the first appearance of Western Australia; dull-green-looking downs, backed by a slightly undulating range of hills, rising to nearly 2,000 feet high, are the chief natural features of the prospect. Freemantle, of which it was wittily said by the quartermaster of one of His Majesty's ships who visited the place, "You might run it through an hourglass in a day," is but a collection of low white houses scattered over the scarce whiter sand. The only conspicuous landmark visible in approaching the anchorage is the Jail: rather a singular pharos for a settlement in Australia, which boasts its uncontaminated state. This building I afterwards induced the Governor to have white-washed, and it now forms an excellent mark to point out the river, as well as the town.*

* A large patch of white sand, on the coast, about three miles to the northward of Swan River, also serves as a landmark.

Shortly after our arrival, I was introduced to the Governor, Sir James Stirling; he, and all those here best qualified to judge, joined in regretting that Lieutenant Grey had not decided to come on with us. The accounts we heard of the country and the natives gave us every reason to entertain but slender hopes of his success.

Sir James and Mr. Roe, the Surveyor-General, appeared to coincide with the general opinion that a large inland lake will ultimately be discovered. They had questioned many of the natives about it, who all asserted its existence, and pointed in a south-easterly direction to indicate its position. Their notions of distance are, to say the least, exceedingly rude; with them everything is "far away, far away." The size of this water the natives describe by saying, that if a boy commenced walking round it, by the time he finished his task he would have become an old man! After all may not this be the great Australian Bight that these natives have heard of, for none we met in Western Australia pretended to have seen it? They derive their information from the eastern tribes, and under such circumstances it must at least be considered extremely vague.*

* This much-talked-of lake, which it was the assumed labour of a life to circumambulate, was discovered in January 1843, by Messrs. Landor and Lefroy, who found it about 100 miles South-South-East from Beverley. It is quite salt, called Dambeling, and about fifteen miles long by seven and a half broad!

The Surveyor-General had lately returned from an exploring journey to the eastward of the capital, and reported that there existed no reasonable probability of extending the colony in that direction: he strongly recommended us to proceed at once to the north-west coast, and return again to Swan River to recruit; saying that we should find the heat there too great to remain for a longer period. This course Captain Wickham, after due deliberation, resolved to adopt, and accordingly all the stores, not absolutely required, were forthwith landed, and the ship made in every respect as airy as possible. The 25th November was fixed for our departure, when most unfortunately Captain Wickham, while on his way to Perth, was attacked with a severe dysentery, and continued so ill that he could not be brought to the ship till the end of December. The most that could be effected was done to improve this unavoidable delay; and our tidal observations, before commenced, were more diligently pursued. We found the greatest rise only thirty-one inches, and here, as elsewhere on the Australian coast, we observed the remarkable phenomenon of only one tide in the twenty-four hours! Surveying operations were also entered on, connecting Rottenest Island with the mainland; the dangers which surround it, as well as those which lie between its shores and the coast, were discovered and laid down: this survey, of great importance to the interests of shipping in these waters, was ultimately completed on our subsequent visits to Swan River.

That arid appearance which first meets the settler on his arrival, and to which allusion has already been made, cannot but prove disheartening to him: particularly if, as is generally the case, his own sanguine expectations of a second Paradise have been heightened by the interested descriptions of land jobbers and emigration agents.

However, when he ascends the river towards the capital, this feeling of despondency will gradually wear away; its various windings bring, to his eager and anxious eye, many a bright patch of park-like woodland; while the river, expanding as he proceeds, till the beautiful estuary of Melville water opens out before him, becomes really a magnificent feature in the landscape; and the boats, passing and repassing upon its smooth and glassy bosom, give the animation of industry, and suggest all the cheerful anticipations of ultimate success to the resolute adventurer. From about the centre of this lake-like piece of water, the eye first rests upon the capital of Western Australia, a large straggling village, partly concealed by the abrupt termination of a woody ridge, and standing upon a picturesque slope on the right bank of the river, thirteen miles from its mouth. The distant range of the Darling mountains supplies a splendid background to the picture, and the refreshing seabreeze which curls the surface of Melville water every afternoon, adds to the health, no less than comfort, of the inhabitants. The former inconvenience, caused by the shoal approach, and which rendered landing at low-water a most uncomfortable operation, has now been remedied by the construction of a jetty.

Like all the Australian rivers with which we are yet acquainted, the Swan is subject to sudden and tremendous floods, which inundate the corn lands in its vicinity, and sweep away all opposing obstacles with irresistible impetuosity.

The first settlers had a most providential escape from a calamity of this kind: they had originally selected for the site of their new city, a low-lying piece of land, which, during the first winter after their arrival, was visited with one of these strange and unexplained invasions from the swelling stream: had the deluge been delayed for another year, these luckless inhabitants of a new world would have shared the fate of those to whom Noah preached in vain; but, warned in time, they chose some safer spot, from whence, in future, they and their descendants may safely contemplate the awful grandeur of similar occurrences, and thankfully profit by the fertility and abundance which succeed to such wholesale irrigation. During this, our first visit, I had no opportunity of penetrating into the country further than the Darling range: in journeying thither, we passed through Guilford, a township on the banks of the Swan, about seven miles north-east from Perth, and four from the foot of the mountains. It stands upon a high part of the alluvial flat fringing the river, and which extends from half to one mile from it on either side. The rich quality of the soil may be imagined from the fact, that, in 1843, after thirteen years of successive cropping, it produced a more abundant harvest than it had done at first, without any artificial aid from manures.

A singular flight of strange birds, was noticed at Guilford about the year 1833, during the time when the corn was green: they arrived in an innumerable host, and were so tame as to be easily taken by hand. In general appearance they resembled the land-rail, but were larger, and quite as heavy on the wing. They disappeared in the same mysterious manner as they arrived, and have never since repeated their visit. Were these birds visitors from the interior, or had they just arrived at the end of a migratory journey from some distant country? It is to be regretted that no specimen of them was to be obtained, as it might have helped to clear an interesting subject from doubt.

The change in ascending this range, from the alluvium near its base, to the primitive formation of which it is itself composed, is very remarkable. Shells still common on the adjacent coasts were met with 14 feet below the surface, near the foot of the range, by one of the colonists when sinking a well. In the same locality deposits of sand may be seen, having that particular wavy appearance which is always noticed upon the sea beach. These appearances, as well as the general aspect of the adjacent country, seem to justify the conclusion I arrived at while on the spot, that the land which now intervenes between the mountains and the shore, is a comparatively recent conquest from the sea. The character of this land may be thus described: The first three miles from the coast is occupied with ridges of hills, from 100 to 200 feet high, of calcareous limestone formation, cropping out in such innumerable points and odd shapes as to be almost impassable. Some of these lumps resemble a large barnacle; both lumps and points are covered with long, coarse grass, and thus concealed, become a great hindrance to the pedestrian, who is constantly wounded by them. To these ridges succeed sandy forest land and low hills, except on the banks of the rivulets, where a belt of alluvial soil is to be found. The Darling range traverses the whole of Western Australia in a direction, generally speaking, north and south. It appears to subside towards the north, and its greatest elevation is nearly 2,000 feet. The cliffs of the coast at the mouth of Swan River, have a most singular appearance, as though covered with thousands of roots, twisted together into a species of network.

A similar curiosity is to be seen on Bald Head, in King George's Sound, so often alluded to by former navigators, and by them mistaken either for coral, or petrified trees standing where they originally grew. Bald Head was visited by Mr. Darwin, in company with Captain Fitz-Roy, in February 1836, and his opinions upon the agencies of formation, so exactly coincide with those to which I attribute the appearances at Arthur's Head, that I cannot do better than borrow his words. He says—page 537, volume 3, "According to our views, the rock was formed by the wind heaping up calcareous sand, during which process, branches and roots of trees, and land-shells were enclosed, the mass being afterwards consolidated by the percolation of rain water. When the wood had decayed, lime was washed into the cylindrical cavities, and became hard, sometimes even like that in a stalactite. The weather is now wearing away the softer rock, and in consequence the casts of roots and branches project above the surface: their resemblance to the stumps of a dead shrubbery was so exact, that, before touching them, we were sometimes at a loss to know which were composed of wood, and which of calcareous matter."*

* For more exact details the reader should consult Mr. Darwin's volume on Volcanic Islands.

We were much struck during our stay by the contrast between the natives here, and those we had seen on the Beagle's former voyage at King George's Sound. The comparison was wholly in favour of those living within the influence of their civilized fellow-men: a fact which may surprise some of my readers, but for which, notwithstanding, I am quite prepared to vouch. A better quality, and more certain supply of food, are the causes to which this superiority ought to be attributed: they are indeed exceedingly fond of wheaten bread, and work hard for the settlers, in cutting wood and carrying water, in order to obtain it. Individually they appear peaceable, inoffensive, and well-disposed, and, under proper management, make very good servants; but when they congregate together for any length of time, they are too apt to relapse into the vices of savage life. Among the many useful hints, for which we were indebted to Mr. Roe, was that of taking a native with us to the northward; and, accordingly, after some trouble, we shipped an intelligent young man, named Miago; he proved, in some respects, exceedingly useful, and made an excellent gun-room waiter. We noticed that, like most of the natives, he was deeply scarred, and I learned from him that this is done to recommend them to the notice of the ladies. Like all savages, they are treacherous—for uncivilized man has no abstract respect for truth, and consequently deceit, whether spoken or acted, seems no baseness in his eyes.

I heard an anecdote at Perth that bears upon this subject: A native of the name of Tonquin asked a settler, who lived some distance in the interior, permission to spend the night in his kitchen, of which that evening another native was also an inmate. It seems that some hate, either personal, or the consequences of a quarrel between their different tribes, existed in the mind of Tonquin towards his hapless fellow lodger; and in the night he speared him through the heart, and then very quietly laid down to sleep! Of course in the morning no little stir took place. Tonquin was accused, but stoutly denied the charge. So satisfied, however, was the owner of the house of the guilt of the real culprit, that had he not made his escape, he would have been executed "red hand"—as the border wardens used to say—by the man, the sanctity of whose roof-tree he had thus profaned. Tonquin afterwards declared that he never slept for nearly a fortnight, being dogged from place to place by the footsteps of the avengers of blood. He escaped, however, with his life, though worn almost to a shadow by constant anxiety. When I saw him some years afterwards, I thought him the finest looking native I had ever seen, but he was apparently, as those who knew him best reported him to be, insane. If not the memory of his crime, and the consequent remorse which it entailed upon him, perhaps the fugitive life he was compelled to lead in order to avoid the wrath of human retribution, had been used to make manifest the anger of Heaven for this breach of one of those first great laws of human society, which are almost as much instincts of our nature as revelations from the Creator to the creatures of his will!

The natives have a superstitious horror of approaching the graves of the dead, of whom they never like to speak, and when induced to do so, always whisper. A settler, residing in a dangerous part of the colony, had two soldiers stationed with him as a guard: upon one occasion five natives rushed in at a moment when the soldiers were unprepared for their reception, and a terrible struggle ensued: the soldiers, however, managed, while on the ground, to shoot two of them, and bayonetted the remaining three. The five were afterwards buried before the door, nor could a more perfect safeguard have been devised; no thought even of revenge for their comrades would afterwards induce any of the tribe to pass that fearful boundary.

Their most curious superstition, however, remains to be recorded; it is the opinion they confidently entertain, and which seems universally diffused among them, that the white people are their former fellow countrymen, who in such altered guise revisit the world after death. Miago assured me that this was the current opinion, and my own personal observation subsequently confirmed his statement. At Perth, one of the settlers, from his presumed likeness to a defunct member of the tribe of the Murray River, was visited by his supposed kindred twice every year, though in so doing they passed through sixty miles of what was not unfrequently an enemy's country.

Their religious opinions, so far as I have been able to obtain any information on the subject, are exceedingly vague and indefinite. That they do not regard the grave as man's final resting place, may, however, be fairly concluded, from the superstition I have just alluded to, and that they believe in invisible and superior powers—objects of dread and fear, rather than veneration or love—has been testified in Captain Grey's most interesting chapter upon Native Customs, and confirmed by my own experience.

I used sometimes to question Miago upon this point, and from him I learned their belief in the existence of an evil spirit, haunting dark caverns, wells, and places of mystery and gloom, and called Jinga. I heard from a settler that upon one occasion, a native travelling with him, refused to go to the well at night from fear of this malevolent being; supposed to keep an especial guardianship over fresh water, and to be most terrible and most potent in the hours of darkness. Miago had never seen this object of his fears, but upon the authority of the elders of his tribe, he described its visible presence as that of a huge many-folded serpent; and in the night, when the tall forest trees moaned and creaked in the fitful wind, he would shrink terrified by the solemn and mysterious sounds, which then do predispose the mind to superstitious fears, and tell how, at such a time, his countrymen kindle a fire to avert the actual presence of the evil spirit, and wait around it—chanting their uncouth and rhythmical incantations—with fear and trembling, for the coming dawn.

I have preserved these anecdotes here, because I can vouch for their authenticity, and though individually unimportant, they may serve to throw additional light upon the manners, customs, and traditions of the Aborigines of Australia; but to all really interested in the subject, I would recommend a perusal of Captain Grey's second volume. I have as yet neither space nor materials to attempt any detailed account of the customs, superstitions, or condition of this strange people; but it would be impossible to pass them by quite unnoticed: nor can the voyager, whose chief object is to make their native land a field for the exertions of British enterprise, be wholly indifferent to the manner in which our dominion may affect them. The history of almost every colony, founded by European energy, has been one fearful catalogue of crime; and though by the side of the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese, English adventurers seem gentle and benevolent, still cruelty and oppression have too often disgraced our name and faith.

Thank Heaven, with many a doubt as to the time that must elapse ere that glad day shall come, I can look onward with confidence to a period—I trust not far remote—when throughout the length and breadth of Australia, Christian civilization shall attest that the claims upon England's benevolence have been nobly acknowledged!