Discoveries in Australia/Volume 1/Chapter 5

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Discoveries in Australia, Volume 1 by John Lort Stokes
Chapter 5: From Roebuck Bay to Skeleton Point

CHAPTER 5.[edit]



January 22, 1838.—Satisfied that no inland communication could be expected from Roebuck Bay, we weighed in the early part of the morning, and stood away to the northward.

Roebuck Bay, so named to commemorate the name of Dampier's ship, is about sixteen miles across: the southern shores are low, and extensive sandbanks and mud flats are bared at low-water. Near the N.E. point of the bottom of this bay, is a curious range of low cliffs, from twenty to thirty feet high, and strongly tinged with red, in such a manner as to suggest that they must be highly impregnated with oxide of iron. In the neighbourhood of these cliffs the country had a more fertile, or rather a less desolate appearance, stretching out into extensive plains, lightly timbered with various trees of the genus Eucalypti, while, on the south shore of the bay, the mangroves were numerous.

Towards the afternoon we discovered a small inlet, being then about 30 miles from our former anchorage in Roebuck Bay. We steered directly for it, and when within half a mile of its mouth, we had, at high-water, six fathoms. From the masthead I could trace distinctly the course of this inlet, which at this state of the tide appeared to be of great extent; but the bar which locked its mouth, and over which the sea was breaking very heavily, rendered it impossible to take a boat across without evident risk, by which no real good would be obtained, as the rise and fall of the tide, eighteen feet, on this low coast, was more than sufficient to account for the imposing, though deceptive appearance of this opening. From the main-top-gallant yard I was enabled to take an almost bird's-eye view of the level country stretched apparently at my feet. The shore, like the south side of Roebuck Bay, was fringed with mangroves, while to the N.N.E. lay an extensive plain, over which the water seemed, at certain seasons of the year, to flow. The country around, for miles, wore the appearance of an interminable and boundless plain, with an almost imperceptible landward elevation, and thickly wooded with stunted trees.

In sailing along this part of the coast we found several inaccuracies in Captain King's chart, doubtless owing to the distant view with which he was compelled to content himself, and to the unfavourable state of the weather against which he had to contend. I was on deck nearly, indeed, the whole of the night, baffled by flying clouds in my attempts to fix our latitude by the stars: at length, however, I succeeded in ascertaining it to be 17° 40' S.

January 23.—The morning was fine, but the wind we had experienced the preceding night caused a rather heavy swell, which rendered the attempt to enter this inlet an impracticable task; however, it was tried. We found between the ship and the shore six, four, and two fathoms, but as the mouth of the inlet was filled with breakers, apparently on a bar extending out half a mile, I was fully convinced that further perseverance would only amount to waste of time and needless risk, and therefore, after taking a few angles to fix the position of the boat, we returned on board. It appeared at low-water to be nearly dry, and then only amounted to a collection of mud and sandbanks. The examination quite satisfied me that it partook of the same character as the one already spoken of as seen yesterday, and that they are alike useless.

We were soon underway, and standing towards, or rather along, the shore; and as the day advanced, the wind drew more to the westward, a common occurrence, enabling us to lay along the shore, N. ½ E. By four p.m., we were within two miles of it, in nine fathoms.

The coast here is fronted with a range of sandhills, some of which are topped with verdure: several low black rocky points extend for some distance from the flat sandy beach into the sea. I have no hesitation in saying, that this is a kind of black sandstone, often found at the bases of most cliffy points, and probably coloured by the chemical action of the saltwater. The sandhills, which form the coastline, do not appear to extend more than a mile inland. Beyond, the country appeared to subside into the same dull level which is the characteristic feature of what we have yet seen of this coast, thickly studded with timber of a much finer growth than the stunted productions of Roebuck Bay. Behind the cliffy parts of the coast the land assumed a more fertile appearance; and this seemed an almost invariable law in the natural history of this new world.

Five miles to the northward of Point Coulomb, we passed a reef, lying a mile from the shore, with seven fathoms one mile seaward of it. The land now trended to the eastward, and formed a large bay, the south point of which we rounded at half past four p.m. The mangroves grew right down to the water's edge, and the spring tides appear to inundate the country to a very considerable extent, the land here being lower than any we had yet seen. We anchored, at half past eight, in six and a half fathoms, and I ran below to find how our wounded messmate had borne the day.

From my usual post, the masthead, I traced the shore from point to point of Carnôt Bay, so named after the celebrated French consul and engineer. A very low sandy point bore N. 67°, E. 6 miles. Sandbanks and breakers completely fortified its shores, and effectually forbid all approach, except under the most favourable circumstances.

The several French names with which Commodore Baudin has distinguished leading portions of this coast, of course, professional courtesy will willingly respect; it is, however, only right to mention, that while he contented himself with so distant a view of this part of Australia as to be sometimes completely mistaken in the most important particulars, to the celebrated Abel Tasman belongs the merit of having previously landed upon its shores in that very bay, which now bears the name of the great republican.

Tasman describes the natives as being quite naked, black in colour, and having curly hair, "malicious and cruel," using for arms bows and arrows, hazeygaeys* and kalawaeys. They came, upon one occasion, fifty in number, to attack a party of the Dutch, who had landed, but took fright at the sight and sound of firearms. "Their proas," he adds, "are made of the bark of trees, and they use no houses."

* Hazeygaeys are synonymous with assagais, the name for the short African spear, used by the tribes between Port Natal and the Cape, and which is generally supposed to be the native term for the weapon. Captain Harris, however, states that this supposition is incorrect; and, certainly, its appearance and termination here incline me to join him in suspecting it of a Dutch origin.

Such is the account of this distinguished and trustworthy discoverer, upon whose veracity I should be the last to attempt to affix suspicion: his very simplicity of detail, and the entire absence of rhetorical artifice, would convey sufficient internal evidence of his truth, had not the subsequent progress of Australian discovery served to confirm all the material facts of his narrative. I may, however, remark, that the natives seen upon this coast during our cruise, within the limits of Roebuck Bay to the south, and Port George the Fourth to the north, an extent of more than 200 miles, with the exception that I shall presently notice, agreed in having a common character of form, feature, hair, and physiognomy, which I may thus describe. The average height of the males may be taken to be from five feet five inches to five feet nine inches, though, upon one occasion, I saw one who exceeded this height by an inch. They are almost black—in fact, for ordinary description, that word, unqualified by the adverb, serves the purpose best. Their limbs are spare and light, but the muscle is finely developed in the superior joint of the arm, which is probably owing to their constant use of it in throwing the spear. Some tribes are entirely naked, while others wear girdles of skin and leaves, hardly sufficient, however, to serve any purpose of decency, much less of comfort.

Their hair is always dark, sometimes straight and sometimes curled, and not unfrequently tied up behind; but we saw no instance of a negro, or woolly, head among them. They wear the beard upon the chin, but not upon the upper lip, and allow it to grow to such a length as enables them to champ and chew it when excited by rage; an action which they accompany with spitting it out against the object of their indignation or contempt. They have very overhanging brows, and retreating foreheads, large noses, full lips, and wide mouths: in some cases they want the two foreteeth in the upper jaw, and while, in any one tribe in which the custom prevails, it seems to be unanimous, it does not appear to be, by any means, universally diffused along the whole north-western coast. The unfavourable impression produced by the prevailing character of their physiognomy, is confirmed, if their phrenological conformation is taken into consideration; and certainly, if the principles of that science are admitted to be true, these savages are woefully deficient in all the qualities which contribute to man's moral supremacy. Let me, in justice, add, that while we found them ignorant and incurious to the last degree, they were generally suspicious rather than treacherous, and not insensible to such acts of kindness as they could comprehend.

Upon all this extent of coast, we saw no single instance of the use, or even existence, of any proa, or canoe; and my own opinion, strengthened by personal experience, and enforced by the authority of the most recent navigators, is, that the canoe is not used upon the north-west coast. The negative evidence, at least, is strongly in favour of this presumption; for, while we saw the canoe in use in Clarence Strait—the western boundary of the northern coast—we saw nothing but the raft to the south of that point. I cannot, therefore, avoid the conclusion, that, misled by the similarity of external appearance, Tasman mistook the raft of unbarked timber for a bark canoe, such as he may have seen upon other parts of the coast.

We had a return of the same kind of squall from the eastward, as we had experienced before our arrival in Roebuck Bay, and from which, since that time till now, we had luckily managed to escape.

January 24.—We were again at work by daylight, but were delayed, getting clear of the foul ground, lying off Cape Baskerville, on which we twice shoaled the water to three and five fathoms, five and seven miles W. and by S. from that headland.

The land over it rises to an elevation of nearly 200 feet, and then again becomes low and sandy, opening out a bay, which from appearance promised, and wherein we afterwards found, good anchorage: it was named Beagle Bay, and may serve hereafter to remind the seamen who benefit by the survey in which that vessel bore so conspicuous a part, of the amount of his obligations to the Government that sent her forth, the skill and energy that directed her course, and the patient discipline by which, during her long period of active service, so much was done for the extension of our maritime knowledge. In the bight formed between this bay and Cape Baskerville we passed two high-water inlets; the mouths of both were fronted with rocky ledges. We anchored here, soon after midday, and had every reason to be satisfied with our berth. Beagle Bay is about three miles broad and seven deep; the country around is low and open, and traces of water deposit were visible in several spots to indicate its dangerous proximity to the sea. The smaller shrubs of the country were common; and the mangroves flourished in great abundance on the beach, and along the little creeks that diverge from it. Some large anthills, and very small palm trees, not six feet in height, were noticed for the first time so far south. During the night the wind veered round to S.W., and blew quite fresh, a circumstance which made us additionally prize our good anchorage here. We had, however, no squall, nor any dew, which I should mention falls most copiously upon certain nights, without any apparent indication; to these dews, the vegetation of this country, so far as we can judge, seems to owe its principal nourishment and support.

January 25.—The forenoon was devoted to the examination of this excellent anchorage, and a party was also despatched to haul the seine. On landing they were met by a party of natives, who saluted them in a manner which strikingly resembled the eastern mode. They had no weapon, save one kiley or boomerang, and bowed down until they almost kissed the water.

Their speech was shrill and quick, perfectly unintelligible to our friend Miago, who seemed greatly in fear of them: they seemed astonished to find one apparently of their "own clime, complexion, and degree" in company with the white strangers, who must have seemed to them a different race of beings; nor was their wonder at all abated when Miago threw open his shirt, and showed them his breast curiously scarred after their fashion—for this custom of cutting stripes upon the body, as other savages tattoo it, by way of ornament, seems universally to prevail throughout Australia—as a convincing evidence that he, though now the associate of the white man, belonged to the same country as themselves. When Miago had, in some degree, recovered from his alarm—and their want of all weapons no doubt tended to reassure him more than anything else, he very sagaciously addressed them in English; shaking hands and saying, "How do you do?" and then began to imitate their various actions, and mimic their language, and so perfectly did he succeed that one of our party could not be persuaded but that he really understood them; though for this suspicion I am convinced there was in truth no foundation. In general appearance this tribe differed but little from those we had previously seen. They wore their hair straight, and tied behind in a rude semblance of the modern queue; their beards were long, and two or three among them were daubed with a kind of black ochre. All of them had lost one of the front teeth, and several one finger joint;* in this particular they differed from the natives seen in Roebuck Bay, amongst whom the practice of this mutilation did not prevail. They were, I think, travelling to the southward, at the time they fell in with us, for they had no females among the party, by whom they are usually at other times accompanied. The circumstance of their being unarmed may seem to militate against the supposition that they were travelling, but it is to be borne in mind that these people universally consider the absence of offensive weapons as the surest test of peaceful intentions, and would therefore, if they desired to maintain a friendly footing with the newcomers, most probably deposit their arms in some place of concealment before they made themselves visible.

* A similar custom was noticed by Captain Cook at the Sandwich Islands, where it was regarded as a propitiatory sacrifice to the Eatooa, to avert his anger; and not to express, as the same mutilation does in the Friendly Islands, grief for the loss of a friend.

The coast seems pretty thickly populated between Roebuck and Beagle Bays; as the smoke from native fires was constantly to be seen, but in all cases these signs of human existence were confined to the neighbourhood of the sea. The fishing proved unsuccessful, so we were fain to content ourselves without the promised addition to our evening meal. We found the tide rise here 18 feet.

In the afternoon we reached another anchorage, some ten miles further to the N.E. The coast along which we sailed within the distance of two miles, was chiefly remarkable for its tall, dark-looking cliffs, with here and there a small sandy bay intervening. We anchored under Point Emeriau, so named by Captain Baudin, by whom it was mistaken for an island; its tall, white cliffs, springing from and guarded by a base and ledges of black rock, and tinged with red towards their summits, render it a point not easily to be mistaken or forgotten by any who have once seen it. Beyond this the coast curved away to the eastward, forming a bight about eleven miles in length.

January 26.—Leaving our anchorage at daylight, we passed the north point of the bight just mentioned soon after noon; it is a low black rugged cliffy point, called Borda by the French, having a much more weather-beaten appearance than would have been anticipated in this latitude. Behind it the country rose obliquely, the horizon terminating in an inconsiderable, undulatory, and well-wooded elevation.

We passed another bight in the afternoon, the shores of which were low and rocky, with a mangrove creek in its depth: from this bight the coast becomes almost straight, the line being hardly broken by rocky points and shallow sandy bays, to Cape Levêque, on the N.E. side of which we found an indifferent anchorage just before sunset. Cape Levêque is a red cliffy point some sixty feet in height, with an islet of the same character lying close off it. The latter bore from our anchorage in 5 fathoms, S. 56° W. 2 miles, and 4 ½ W. 20° S. from the entrance point of the inviting opening, we were now about to explore, with an interest rather stimulated than decreased by the want of success that attended our examination of Roebuck Bay.

This point was named by Captain King, Point Swan, in honour of Captain Swan of the Cygnet, under whom Dampier first discovered it; and was an appropriate tribute of respect and admiration, from one distinguished no less than Dampier himself, by the possession of those qualities of firmness, patience, judgment and perseverance, which make up the character of the scientific and adventurous navigator, to him by whom he had been preceded in Australian discovery. The country between Point Swan and Cape Levêque has a very sandy and barren aspect; the hillocks near the latter partook of its prevailing red colour.

January 27.—We proceeded this morning in the direction of Point Swan, and remarked, as we approached it, the heavy tide-race which used Captain King so roughly, and which subsequent surveying operations enabled us to account for, from great irregularity in the bottom, changing almost at once from 40 to 17 fathoms. We waited, having no wish to experience the full effect of the current, for slack water, and thus passed round it quietly enough; we anchored in a small bight, S. 20° W. 1 ½ miles from Point Swan, in seven fathoms, which, as we rightly conjectured, would leave us in three, at low-water.*

* The following is Captain King's graphic account of his encounter with this race: "On my way towards Point Swan, we saw from the masthead a line of strong tide ripplings, extending from the Point in a N.W. by W. direction, within which we at first attempted to pass; but finding they were connected to the Point, hauled up to steer through them where they seemed to be the least dangerous. As we approached, the noise was terrific; and although we were not more than two minutes amongst the breakers, yet the shocks of the sea were so violent, as to make us fearful for the safety of our masts. A smaller vessel would perhaps have been swamped; for although the sea was in other parts quite smooth, and the wind light, yet the water broke over the bows, and strained the brig considerably."

As we had now arrived at the point from which we anticipated carrying on our most important operations, it became of paramount interest to know whether we could rely for that indispensable article, fresh water, upon the resources of the wild and barbarous shores. The vast extent of country; the delightful verdure which clothed great portions of it; nay, even the evidences of a people living upon its shores, would, under any other circumstances, and on any other coast, have been deemed conclusively to decide this point in the affirmative: but the voyager knows, from the best authority, that upon the coasts, and within the heart of Australia, nature seems to delight in contradiction, and that she is more than usually capricious with respect to the supply of what is ordinarily her most common, as it is ever one of her most precious gifts. A few wretched mud-holes might serve for a time to content the savages trained to privation from their earliest infancy, but for ourselves it was clear, either that a reasonable supply of fresh water must be found here, or we must not calculate upon remaining beyond the time which would leave us sufficient to proceed to Hanover Bay, where this most needful commodity was, upon the authority of Captain King, to be found.

No sooner, therefore, was the Beagle properly secured in her new berth, than a party was despatched in the boats to commence a search for water, and to fix upon a spot for carrying on the necessary observations: scarcely, however, had we pushed off from alongside, before the white ensign at our main warned us that the natives were in sight from the ship,* and, on turning our eyes to the shore, we beheld it thronged with savages: the rapidity of whose movements, as they shouted in apparent defiance, brandishing their spears, and whirling their arms round and round with windmill-like velocity, as though to threaten our advance, rendered it impossible to estimate their number with any confidence, but they were evidently in considerable force. However, we pulled to the shore, a measure against which the valiant Miago stoutly protested, and landed in a position not directly commanded by the natives. They made no attempt to prevent us, but anxious to avoid hostilities—in every event almost equally deplorable—we deferred any distant search for water; and having fixed on a spot for our temporary observatory, returned to the ship.

* This signal was always made when natives were seen from the ship, if any parties were away.

January 27.—A strong party was sent on shore, early this morning, with the necessary tools for digging a well, should the search for water upon the surface prove abortive. It was at once found that this operation ought forthwith to be commenced, and accordingly a promising spot was selected in a valley not half a mile from the sea. The natives mustered again in force upon the heights, and seemed to watch our proceedings with the greatest interest: we saw nothing of them the following day, but on the third they seemed so much emboldened by our inoffensive proceedings, that they approached so near as to keep the party pretty much upon the alert.

It was, therefore, determined, lest familiarity should breed contempt, to give them a hint of our superiority without inflicting any injury upon their persons or property; and, accordingly, shortly after dark we fired a Congreve rocket from the ship, and in a direction immediately over their presumed position: this had the desired effect, and our well-digging operations, though ultimately unsuccessful, proceeded without further annoyance.

Two or three days afterwards a small party came down upon the beach while we were hauling the seine; and tempted by the offer of some fish—for an Australian savage is easily won by him who comes with "things that do show so fair" as delicacies in the gastronomic department—they approached us, and were very friendly in their manner, though they cunningly contrived always to keep the upper or inland side of the beach. We made them some presents of beads, etc. from the stores supplied by the Admiralty for that purpose, but they received them with an indifference almost amounting to apathy. They very closely examined the heroic Miago, who submitted to be handled by these much-dreaded "Northern men" with a very rueful countenance, and afterwards construed the way in which one of them had gently stroked his beard, into an attempt to take him by the throat and strangle him! an injury and indignity which, when safe on board, he resented by repeated threats, uttered in a sort of wild chant, of spearing their thighs, backs, loins, and, indeed, each individual portion of the frame.

Their habit of keeping the eyes almost closed, and the head thrown back, in order to avoid the plague of flies, under which this country seems to suffer, adds to the unpleasant expression of their countenance, and quite justifies the correctness of Dampier's account: "Their eyelids are always half-closed, to keep the flies out of their eyes, they being so troublesome here, that no fanning will keep them from coming to one's face; and without the assistance of both hands to keep them off, they will creep into one's nostrils, and mouth too, if the lips are not shut very close; so that from their infancy, being thus annoyed with these insects, they do never open their eyes as do other people, and therefore they cannot see far unless they hold up their heads, as if they were looking at somewhat over them." We found constant occasion, when on shore, to complain of this fly nuisance; and when combined with their allies, the mosquitoes, no human endurance could, with any patience, submit to the trial. The flies are at you all day, crawling into your eyes, up your nostrils, and down your throat, with the most irresistible perseverance; and no sooner do they, from sheer exhaustion, or the loss of daylight, give up the attack, than they are relieved by the musquitos, who completely exhaust the patience which their predecessors have so severely tried. It may seem absurd to my readers to dwell upon such a subject; but those, who, like myself, have been half-blinded, and to boot, almost stung to death, will not wonder, that even at this distance of time and place, I recur with disgust to the recollection.

The natives, in all parts of the continent alike, seem to possess very primitive notions upon the subject of habitation; their most comfortable wigwams hardly deserve the name: not even in the neighbourhood of English settlements are they beginning in any degree to imitate our European notions of comfort. Among these northern people, the only approach to anything like protection from "the skiey influences" that I could discover, was a slight rudely thatched covering, placed on four upright poles, between three and four feet high.

Native habitation (Discoveries in Australia).jpg

Another, of a much superior description, which I visited on the western shore of King's Sound, will be found delineated in that part of my journal to which the narrative belongs.

February 10.—We remained at this anchorage until the 10th of February, in consequence of a continuance of bad weather; indeed, the rain during the three first days of that month was at times of the most monsoon-like character, while the wind, constantly blowing very fresh, kept veering from N.W. to S.-W. Every now and then, by way of agreeable variety, a heavy squall would take us from S.S.W., though more commonly from W.S.W. The only certainty that we could calculate upon, was, that at N.N.W. the wind would remain when it got there, stationary for a few hours. The thunder and lightning, the former loud and with a long reverberating peal, and the latter of the most intensely vivid kind, were constantly roaring and flashing over our heads; and, with the stormy echoes which the rolling deep around woke on these unknown and inhospitable shores, completed a scene that I shall never cease to remember, as I never then beheld it without mingled emotions of apprehension and delight. The rain, however, certainly befriended us in more ways than one: it cooled the atmosphere, which would else have been insufferably hot, diminished for a time the number and virulence of our winged tormentors, and recruited our stock of fresh water; for, though ultimately we were not obliged to have recourse to it as a beverage, it did exceedingly well for washing purposes. We had also, during this time, one most successful haul with the seine, which amply supplied us with fresh fish for that and the two following days; the greater part were a kind of large mullet, the largest weighed six pounds five ounces, and measured twenty-five inches in length.

On the same day we remarked, owing to the N.W. wind, a singular phenomenon in the tides here. From half-ebb to high-water the stream wholly ceased, and the water being heaped up in the bay by the force of the wind, fell only sixteen, instead of twenty-four feet.

Several sporting excursions were made during this period, but with comparatively little success. It is not a country naturally very abundant in game of any kind, except kangaroos, which are numerous, but so harassed by the natives as to be of course extremely shy of the approach of man.

However, Mr. Bynoe succeeded in shooting one which possessed the singular appendage of a nail, like that on a man's little finger, attached to the tail.

Natural size.

I regret that we had no subsequent opportunity to decide whether this was one of a new species of the Macropodidae family, or a mere lusus naturae. The dimensions and height of this singular animal were as follows:—*

Length of body from tip of nose 22 inches.
Do. of tail from stump to tip 24½ inches.
Weight 13 pounds.

We also saw some very large red or cinnamon-coloured kangaroos, but never got near enough to secure one; they were apparently identical with a new race, of which I afterwards procured a specimen at Barrow's Island.†

* This animal has been classed by Mr. Gould as Macropus unguifer, and is now deposited in the British Museum.—One precisely similar was afterwards killed on the east coast of the gulf of Carpentaria.
Osphranter isabellinus—Gould.

One day, when I had penetrated some considerable distance into the bush, farther indeed than any of our party had strayed before, I saw a large bustard, but was unable to get a shot at him; his anxious and acute gaze had detected me, at the same moment that I had discovered him, and he was off. I thought at the time that he bore a strong resemblance to the wild turkey of the colonists in the southern parts of the continent. We were lucky enough to shoot several quails of apparently quite a new species. In one particular they differed from the members of the genus Coturnis, in having no hind toe. Goannas and lizards were plentiful in this neighbourhood, and some of the latter in particular were most brilliant in colour: they ran down the tall trees, in which they seem to pass a great portion of their lives, at our approach, with a most marvellous rapidity, and darting along the ground, were soon in safety.

But what, perhaps, most attracted our attention, was the very surprising size of the anthills, or nests. I measured one, the height of which was 13 feet, and width at the base 7 feet; from whence it tapered gradually to the apex. They are composed of a pale red earth; but how it is sufficiently tempered, I am unable to state; certain is it, that it has almost the consistence of mortar, and will bear the tread of a man upon the top.

The fishing over the ship's side was not less successful than hauling the seine; though quite a different kind of fish was taken to reward the labour of the saltwater Waltonians, who devoted themselves to it. They generally secured (at slack water) a large fish, in shape like a bream, and with long projecting teeth.

February 6.—We made up a party on the 6th for the purpose of penetrating a little way into the interior, and got seven miles from the sea in a S. by W. direction. Everything wore a green and most delightful appearance; but the reader must bear in mind, how vegetation had just been forced by heavy rains upon a light, heated soil, and also recollect that to one who has been pent up for some time on board ship a very barren prospect may seem delightful.

The country was more open in character than I had before noticed it, and the numerous traces of native fires which we found in the course of the excursion, seemed readily to account for this: indeed during dry seasons it not unfrequently happens, that an immense tract of land is desolated with fire, communicated, either by the design or carelessness of the natives, to the dry herbage on the surface. The moment the flame has been kindled it only waits for the first breath of air to spread it far and wide: then on the wings of the wind, the fiery tempest streams over the hillsides and through the vast plains and prairies: bushwood and herbage—the dry grass—the tall reed—the twining parasite—or the giant of the forest, charred and blackened, but still proudly erect—alike attest and bewail the conquering fire's onward march; and the bleak desert, silent, waste, and lifeless, which it leaves behind seems forever doomed to desolation: vain fear! the rain descends once more upon the dry and thirsty soil, and from that very hour which seemed the date of cureless ruin, Nature puts forth her wondrous power with increased effort, and again her green and flower-embroidered mantle decks the earth with a new beauty!

The soil of the extensive plain over which we journeyed this day, was light and sandy in character, but the large amount of vegetable matter which it contains, and the effect of the late rains, which had penetrated some 24 or 30 inches into it, made us perhaps somewhat overvalue its real merits. This plain rose gradually before us until it reached an elevation of 180 feet above the level of the sea, and was covered with a long, thin grass, through which the startled kangaroo made off every now and then at a killing pace.

The face of the country was well but not too closely covered with specimens of the red and white gum, and paperbark tree, and several others. The timber was but small, the diameter of the largest, a red gum, 18 inches.

Ever and anon the sparkling brilliant lizards darted down from their resting places among the boughs, so rapid in their fearful escape, that they caught the eye more like a flash of momentary light, than living, moving forms. We flushed in the course of the day a white bird, or at least nearly so, with a black ring round the neck, and a bill crooked like the ibis, which bird indeed, except in colour, it more resembles than any I have ever seen.*

* Since ascertained to be an Ibis—the Threskiornis strictipennis.

Among the trees seen in the course of this ramble, I had almost forgotten to mention one which struck me more than any other from its resemblance to a kind of cotton tree, used by the natives of the South Sea islands in building their canoes.

February 7.—The day following we secured several boat-loads of rainwater, deposited in the holes of the rocks, near our temporary observatory, and were the better pleased with our success, as our well-digging had proved unsuccessful.

There was something particularly striking in the geological formation of the cliffs that form the western side of this bay: and which rise from 70 to 90 feet in height, their bases apparently resting amid huge and irregular masses of the same white sandstone as that which forms the cliffs themselves, and from which this massive debris, strewn in all conceivable irregularity and confusion around, appears to have been violently separated by some great internal convulsion.

Some of these great masses, both of the living cliff and ruined blocks beneath, are strangely pierced with a vein or tube of vitreous matter, not less in some instances than 18 inches in diameter. In every place the spot at which this tube entered the rock was indicated by a considerable extent of glazed or smelted surface; but I am not sufficiently versed in the science of geology to offer any specific theory to account for the appearances I have described: the cliffs were rent and cracked in a thousand different ways, and taking into consideration their strange and wrecked appearance, together with the fact that lightning is known to vitrify sand, may we not thus get a clue to the real agency by which these results have been produced?*

* Since this was written, I have consulted my friend, Mr. Darwin, who has kindly examined a specimen I brought away. He pronounces it "a superficial highly ferrugineous sandstone, with concretionary veins and aggregations." The reader should, however, consult Mr. Darwin's work on the Geology of Volcanic Islands page 143.

February 10.—The weather was thick and gloomy, and it rained fast; but, having completed our survey and observations, and the wind being favourable, it was resolved to get underweigh without further loss of time.

In the very act of weighing, the ship's keel grazed a sunken rock, of the existence of which, though we had sounded the bay, we had been, till that moment, in ignorance! He only who has felt the almost animated shudder that runs through the seemingly doomed ship at that fearful moment, can understand with what gratitude we hailed our escape from the treacherous foe.

In passing out, we named two low small rocky islands, lying north of Point Swan, and hitherto unhonoured with any particular denomination, the 'Twins.' It should be noted, that the tide did not begin to make to the southward till 8 hours 15 minutes a.m., being full half an hour after low-water by the shore. We passed through several tide races; not, however, feeling their full force, owing to our encountering them at the time of slack water. In every case our soundings indicated great irregularity of bottom, the cause to which I have already assigned these impediments to in-shore navigation.

We found a temporary anchorage the same morning, on the east side of the large group forming the eastern side of Sunday Strait; so named by Captain King, who was drifted in and out of it on that day, August 19th, 1821, amid an accumulation of perils that will long render the first navigation of this dangerous Archipelago a memorable event in the annals of nautical hardihood.

This group we called after Lieutenant Roe, R.N., Surveyor-General of Western Australia, who had accompanied Captain King in that perilous voyage, and whose valuable information had enabled us to escape so many of the dangers to which our predecessors had been exposed.

Rocks on Roe's Group (Discoveries in Australia).jpg

Nothing could exceed the desolate appearance of the land near which we were now lying: rocks, of a primitive character, massed together in all the variety of an irregularity, that rather reminded the beholder of Nature's ruin than her grandeur, rose, drear and desolate, above the surrounding waters; no trees shaded their riven sides, but the water-loving mangrove clothed the base of this sterile island, and a coarse, wiry grass was thinly spread over its sides.

Soon after we had anchored, some natives were observed by Miago watching us from the shore; and shortly afterwards a party landed, to attempt communicating with them, and to get the necessary observations for the survey. In the first object they failed altogether; for these "black fellows", as that gallant hero called them, retired to the heights, and, while closely watching every movement, refused to trust themselves within our reach. The smallness of their number, and their want of arms, quite elevated the courage of Miago, who loudly vaunted his intention of monopolizing a northern "gin", in order to astonish his friends upon our return to the south: stealing away the ladies being, as I have before remarked, the crowning and most honourable achievement of which man, in the eyes of these savages, is capable. I ought not to omit remarking here, that the natives seen to-day were accompanied by a black dog; the only instance in which, before or since, we observed the existence of a dog of that colour in this vast country. Captain King mentions that he saw one in this neighbourhood during his visit in 1821.

The following day was Sunday, and, there being no absolute necessity to shift our berth, we remained at anchor; marking the character of this sacred festival, by giving it up to the crew, for healthful rest and harmless recreation—after morning prayers had been performed—as much as the needful discipline, upon a proper observance of which the efficiency of a ship's company entirely depends, would allow. This practice, constantly observed throughout our long voyage, was always attended with the best results.

Some rather small pigeons,* of a dark brown colour, marked with a white patch on the wings, were seen, and some specimens shot. They made a whirring sound in flight, like the partridge, and appeared to haunt the rocks; a habit which all subsequent observation confirmed.

* Petrophila albipennis.—Gould.

February 12.—Soon after daylight we left this anchorage, whose exact position I mention, as it may be of use to some future voyager in these seas. The eastern of the three islands north of Roe's group was just open of the north point of the bight in which we lay, and a small rocky islet close to the shore bore S.S.W. one mile; we had five fathoms at low-water in the bight, and twelve immediately outside.

After making a stretch to the southward for about five miles, in soundings varying from 20 to 25 fathoms, we again closed with the shore, and anchored in five fathoms, on the south side of Roe's group, three miles from our former anchorage. A party landed in the afternoon to procure the requisite observations: the country was not quite so sterile, nor its face of so rugged a character.

We found nothing worth particular attention, except a native raft, the first we had yet seen. It was formed of nine small poles pegged together, and measured ten feet in length by four in breadth; the greatest diameter of the largest pole was three inches. All the poles were of the palm tree, a wood so light, that one man could carry the whole affair with the greatest ease. By it there was a very rude double-bladed paddle.

Native raft (Discoveries in Australia).jpg

From a distant station I looked upon the dangerous and rapid current, which divides two rocky islands, and the perils of which are fearfully increased by the presence of an insulated rock in its centre, past which (its fury only heightened by the opposition) the torrent hurries with accelerated force.

It was by this fearful passage that Captain King entered this part of the Sound, drifting towards apparently instant destruction, without a breath of wind to afford him even a chance of steering between the various perils that environed his devoted ship. As the 'Bathurst' swept past the neighbouring shores—covered with the strange forms of the howling savages who seemed to anticipate her destruction, and absolutely within the range of their spears—drifting with literally giddy rapidity towards the fatal rocks, what varied thoughts must have flashed, crowding an age within an hour, upon the mind of her commander? It seemed that all evidence of what his own perseverance, the devotion of his officers, and the gallantry of his crew, had accomplished for the honour of their common country, would in a few brief moments be the prey of the rapid, the spoil of the deep; and yet, while many a heart sent up its voiceless prayer to Him, "whose arm is not shortened that it cannot save," believing that prayer to be their last—not a cheek blanched—not an eye quailed! But the loving-kindness of omnipotent mercy rested even upon that solitary ship, and within a few yards of the fatal rock, one momentary breath of wind, proved His providential care, for those from whom all hope had fled! I shuddered as the events Captain King has recorded, rose up in palpable distinctness to my view, and afterwards, in memory of that day, called the channel Escape—to the sound itself we gave the name of King's, in the full confidence that all for whom the remembrance of skill and constancy and courage have a charm, will unite in thinking that the career of such a man should not be without a lasting and appropriate monument!

February 13.—It blew a violent gale the whole of this day from W.S.W., coming on quite unexpectedly, for neither the state nor appearance of the atmosphere gave us the least indication of its approach. Exposed on a lee-shore, it may be imagined that we were by no means displeased to see it as rapidly and inexplicably depart, as it had suddenly and mysteriously appeared.

February 14.—Leaving this anchorage we found another in a bay on the mainland, 12 miles S. from Point Swan, and 11 N.W. from a remarkable headland named by Captain King, Point Cunningham, in honour of that distinguished botanist, whose zealous exertions have added so much to the Flora of Australia. I well remember when we were preparing to sail from Sydney, in May 1839, the scientific veteran seemed to enter with the utmost interest into all the details of the coming adventure. And even, though the natural force of that frame which had so often set danger at defiance, while engaged in the ennobling pursuits to which his honourable career had been devoted, was too palpably failing the mind whose dictates it had so long obeyed; the fire of the spirit that had burned throughout so brightly, seemed to leap up in yet more glowing flame, ere quenched forever by the ashes of the grave! alas! within the brief period of two months, the world had closed upon him for ever!

A point, fronting a small islet, almost joined to it at low-water, was selected as a fitting spot for the commencement of our well-digging operations, which we hoped to bring to a more successful termination than our former attempt at Point Swan. After sinking to a depth of eight feet our anticipations were fully justified, the water flowing in through the sides in great abundance. It was quite fresh, and in every way most acceptable to us all; but tinged as it was with the red colour of the surrounding soil, we could at once perceive that it was only surface water. As we watched it filling our neatly excavated well, we found no great difficulty in understanding why, in this continent, a native speaks of any very favoured district, as "Very fine country—much plenty water—fine country;" thus comprehending in the certain supply of that one necessary of life, the chief, nay almost the sole condition essential to a happy land.

We named this Skeleton Point from our finding here the remains of a native, placed in a semi-recumbent position under a wide spreading gum tree, enveloped, or more properly, shrouded, in the bark of the papyrus. All the bones were closely packed together, the larger being placed outside, and the general mass surmounted by the head, resting on its base, the fleshless, eyeless scull 'grinning horribly' over the right side. Some of the natives arrived shortly after we had discovered this curious specimen of their mode of sepulture; but although they entertain peculiar opinions upon the especial sanctity of 'the house appointed for all living'—a sanctity we certainly were not altogether justified in disregarding—they made no offer of remonstrance at the removal of the mortal remains of their dead brother. Whether here, as in the neighbourhood of Fremantle, they regarded us as near kindred of their own under a new guise, and so perhaps might suppose that we took away the dry bones in order to rebuild the frame of which they before formed the support, and to clothe the hideous nakedness of death with the white man's flesh; or whether, deeming us indeed profane violators of that last resting-place of suffering humanity, which it seems an almost instinctive feeling to regard with reverence, they left the office of retribution either to the spirit of the departed, or the more potent "boyl-yas"—to be found upon the testimony of Miago in the wicked north—I know not; certain it is that under the superintendence of Mr. Bynoe the removal was effected, and that the skeleton itself, presented by that officer to Captain Grey, was by him bestowed upon the Royal College of Surgeons, in whose museum it is now to be found.

Among the ornithological specimens obtained here was one of the curlew tribe, greatly resembling an ibis, and remarkable for its size. It measured from the extremity of the bill to the tip of the toe 27 ½ inches, and weighed 1 pound 14 ½ ounces. The colour, with the exception of the belly and legs, which were of a dirty white slightly mottled, very much resembled that of the common English wild duck.

One of the natives seen to-day had with him a kiley, so different in shape to any we had previously seen that I preserved a sketch of it. All the party wore their hair tied up behind, and each had suffered the loss of one of the front teeth in the upper jaw: and some had endured an extraordinary mutilation; apparently in exaggeration of an ancient Jewish rite. In general appearance they resembled the natives previously seen at Point Swan.

1-24th of the actual size.

They appeared to luxuriate in the water we had found, wondered at the size of our well, and expressed the greatest admiration of our skill in thus procuring this needful article; and I do not doubt but that long after every other recollection of our visit shall have passed away, this beneficial memorial of it will perpetuate the visit of H.M.S. 'Beagle', to this part of the great continent of Australia.