Discoveries in Australia/Volume 2/Chapter 14

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The barometer, which had been rising gradually within the last three days, now standing at 30.20, showed that the opportunity of getting round the S.W. Cape, had at length arrived. We therefore left Sullivan Cove on the morning of the 15th; and by the following midnight passed the above-mentioned storm-beaten headland with a fine northerly wind. Previous, however, to so doing, we had soundings in 84 fathoms, six miles S.W. of the Mew Stone. From the result of others we had obtained at different times off the south coast of Tasmania, it appears that soundings of a moderate depth extend out only a short distance, and that a ship in 60 fathoms will be within ten miles of the land.

It had been my intention, on our passage to the westward, to have examined the south and west sides of Kangaroo Island, with the rocks lying off the former. I was also anxious to visit S. Australia for another meridian distance, those already obtained not being satisfactory, I wished, moreover, to comply with Sir John Franklin's desire, that we should set up a monument, dedicated to the memory of poor Flinders, which he had sent to Port Lincoln, the centre of his honoured commander's most important discoveries on the south coast of Australia.* The performance of such a task would have constituted an appropriate conclusion to our labours on the shores of this great continent; and certainly nothing could have been more agreeable to our feelings than to be instrumental in paying a tribute of respect to our distinguished predecessor in the career of discovery. I shall always regret that we were prevented from doing so. At the same time I must say, that it will reflect great discredit on the colony of S. Australia, if some portion of its wealth be not devoted to the erection of a suitable monument to the memory of Flinders in one of the squares of Adelaide.

* Sir John Franklin was a midshipman with Captain Flinders when he discovered this part of Australia.

Strong northerly winds prevented us, as I have above hinted, from closing with the land, we consequently continued our course to the westward; and on the twenty-third day arrived at King George's Sound, whence, after completing our wooding and watering, we sailed on the morning of the 21st of April. At noon we passed between Bald Head and Vancouver Reef.†

† See plate facing p. 225.

In the forenoon of the 23rd we saw the lighthouse of Rottenest; and regarded it with great interest, as the work of the aborigines imprisoned on the island. I could not avoid indulging in melancholy reflections as I gazed upon this building, erected by the hands of a people which seemed destined to perish from the face of the earth without being able to leave any durable monuments of their existence, except such fabrics as this, constructed under the control of a conquering race. The time indeed, if we may judge from past experience, seems not far distant when the stranger, on approaching the shores of Western Australia, and asking who erected that lighthouse to guide him in safety to the shore, will be told it was the work of a people that once were and are now no longer.

Passing over the foul ground extending off the Stragglers, we ran into Owen's anchorage during the first watch. Whilst waiting to rate the chronometers several soundings were added to our plan of this place, and a three-fathom patch, about a quarter of a mile in extent, was discovered, with nine on either side of it, lying nearly two miles and a quarter N. 39° W. from Fremantle gaol.

We also visited Rottenest to inspect the establishment. It had now been a penal settlement for four years; besides erecting the buildings, the aboriginal labourers had cleared thirty-four acres of land, chiefly in detached valleys. These grew thirty-five bushels of wheat to the acre (in the Port Phillip district the return is about five more to the acre) and from thirty-four to forty bushels of barley. There are about two thousand acres of available land in the whole island. The average number of native convicts is about seventeen, and the expense of the whole establishment to Government is about £200 per annum; but, under the good management of superintendent Vincent, it has realized £1500 by the sale of corn and salt, and allowing for the value of the buildings erected.

His Excellency Governor Hutt had done a great deal for the improvement of the natives; the schools established for their instruction work exceedingly well; and I am happy to see that a most important step towards civilizing them has since been made, a white having taken a native woman as his wife. This may be regarded as in a great measure the result of the notice bestowed on them.

No opportunity occurred during our stay of adding to the observations I had previously made for the long. of Fremantle (Scott's Jetty); which, however, is the only part of the continent absolutely determined during the Beagle's voyage. It is considered to be in long. 115° 47' 50" E.

Before leaving we received a letter of thanks from his Excellency and the members of the Legislative Council for the services we had rendered the colony. My friend Lieut. Roe presented me, also, with two specimens of the Spined Lizard "Moloch horridus", which I intended to present to Her Majesty; but, unfortunately, I did not succeed in bringing either of them alive to England; one, however, lived beyond the Western Islands.

We left Swan River on the evening of the 6th of May, 1843, running out with a moderate N.E. breeze. Everything seemed auspicious. The water was smooth, and the sails, as they slept in the breeze, echoed back the sounds of the well-known song, "We are homeward bound," that was sung with an earnestness that could not be mistaken. I fancied I could discern, in the rough tones of the crew under my command, the existence of the same emotions that swelled in my own breast at this moment. For seamen, high and low, though content to pass the greater portion of their lives upon the world of waters, can never entirely suppress that yearning for home, which, perhaps, after all, is one of the finest traits in human nature. And now that it might be legitimately indulged, I was not sorry to see such strong evidences of its existence.

Ere the last vestige of day had passed, the coast of Australia had faded from our sight, though not from our memory; for, however much thoughts of the land to which we were returning crowded on our minds, they could not as yet entirely obliterate the recollection of that we were quitting. The Swan River colony—its history, its state, its prospects—naturally occupied much of our mind. What a change had come over it even since our visit! From a happy little family, if I may use the expression, it had grown into a populous colony, in which all the passions, the rivalries, the loves and the hates of the mother country were in some sort represented. And yet there remained still much of that old English hospitality, which rendered our first stay so pleasant, and which almost made us desire to prolong our last. The alteration that had taken place was rather to be referred to the increasing number of settlers, which rendered inevitable the formation of circles more or less exclusive, and which, with the forms of European society, promised to introduce many of its defects.

But our thoughts wandered, from time to time, over the whole of this extraordinary continent, which we saw for the first time in November 1837, at the point from which we took our departure, in May, 1843. The strange contrasts to the rest of the world which it affords were enumerated and commented upon—its cherries with their stones growing outside—its trees, which shed their bark instead of their leaves—its strange animals—its still stranger population—its mushroom cities—and, finally, the fact that the approach to human habitations is not announced by the barking of dogs, but by the barking of trees!*

* The trees in the vicinity of houses are generally barked to obtain a covering for the roofs.

Westerly winds carried us into the S.E. trade by the 13th, in lat. 22° 30' S. four hundred miles from the North-west Cape, when our course was directed for the Mauritius. We found the trade very squally, and on one or two occasions managed to screw as much as eleven knots out of the old craft.

A little after noon on the 27th we saw Rodrigue Island sooner than we expected, in consequence of our finding it placed seven miles to the westward of its true position, even with reference to the meridian of the Mauritius. Our observations, in passing to southward, made the eastern end of it 5° 59' E. of Port Louis, and 63° 31¾ E. of Greenwich, lat. 19° 42' S. I was rather surprised to find this error in the position of Rodrigue, as it is quite a finger-post for ships on their voyage from India to Great Britain. It trends east and west for seventeen miles, and is in width about six. For a volcanic island its features are not very remarkable; the highest part is a peak or excrescence, 1700 feet high, rising towards the eastern end out of a rather level ridge.

On the morning of the 29th, the high land of the Mauritius was seen breaking through the mass of clouds. Passing round the north end of the island, in the evening we reached Port Louis, where we found a French man-of-war that had just brought in the crew of a vessel foundered at sea. Their escape had been one of the most remarkable on record. The ship was from Liverpool, and was rounding the south-eastern point of Africa with a strong north-west wind, when she sprang a leak, which increased so fast, that the crew were ultimately obliged to abandon her and take to the boats. The sea was so great that they were compelled to run before the wind, with the prospect only of prolonging their lives for a brief space, no land lying in that direction.

Providentially, the morning following they found themselves alongside a French frigate; but the boats were so low in the water that for some time they escaped observation, and were nearly passed. At length, by waving a lady's shawl in the air, they attracted the attention of the Frenchmen, and were taken on board, and treated with an attentive kindness, which entitled their preservers to the thanks of all who would wish to be so received under such circumstances. I regret that the name of the captain of the ship has escaped me; though I remember it being said, that he had himself been saved on a previous occasion by a Liverpool ship in the China Sea.

Not long before the arrival of the Beagle in Port Louis, a fleet of crippled vessels, the victims of a recent hurricane, might have been seen making their way into the harbour, some dismasted, others kept afloat with difficulty, firing guns of distress, or giving other signs of their helpless condition. The monotony of colonial life was suddenly disturbed, by no means disagreeably to some, as the telegraph told off a succession of "Lame ducks", as they were jocularly called, such as seldom or ever had been witnessed, even at that place. It required but a visit to the bell buoy, to see at a glance the destructive effects of the storm on the unfortunate ships.

On the tranquil surface of the harbour lay a group of shattered vessels, presenting the appearance of floating wrecks. In almost all, the bulwarks, boats, and everything on deck had been swept away; some, that were towed in, had lost all their masts, others more or less of their spars; one had her poop and all its cabins swept away; many had four or five feet water in the hold, and the clank of the pumps was still kept up by the weary crew.

Such was the description given me of the circumstances under which the crowd of vessels that lay at anchor in Port Louis had arrived. I had anticipated that I should here be enabled to make some important additions to the notices of hurricanes that have occasionally appeared in this work; and certainly ample opportunity now presented itself. But I found that this interesting subject was in more able hands, those, namely, of Mr. Alexander Thom, of H.M. 86th Regiment, whose valuable observations have been laid before the public, in a work called, "An Inquiry into the Nature and Course of Storms"; a volume that embraces many important considerations for seamen, to whom, indeed, and to the ship-owner, Mr. Thom, by his scientific investigations, has proved himself a true friend.

It is curious that military men should have been the first to study the causes of hurricanes, and to tell sailors how to avoid their effects; but that such is the case, the works of Colonel Reid and of my friend Mr. Thom will testify.

I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of the latter gentleman in Port Louis. What he considered to be the grand sources of rotatory storms—winds charged with opposite kinds of electricity and blowing in opposite directions—appeared to account satisfactorily for the occurrence of hurricanes in the Pacific, where there are no continents or chains of mountains to produce them and guide their courses.

As so much has been already written about this interesting island, the Mauritius, and as, moreover, space forbids, I do not here make use of the mass of information with which Mr. Thom has kindly furnished me, respecting its history and resources, and the subject of Coolie labour; but on some future occasion I may be able to lay it before the public.

During my stay at Port Louis I received much hospitality, particularly from the family of Colonel Staveley, Commander of the Forces, which I take this opportunity of acknowledging.

We sailed from the Mauritius on the 10th of June, and on the following day passed about 20 miles south-east of the Island of Bourbon. It resembles a large cone emerging from the water; and its features are strikingly different from those of the Mauritius; the outline is not softened by luxuriant vegetation, but is sudden and steep and massive.

Southerly and westerly winds brought us in sight of Madagascar on the 16th, and on the same evening, aided by a southerly current of 2 knots an hour, we were just able to weather its S.E. extreme. The features of this great island that were presented to our view approached the Alpine, and from a passing glimpse of the small hills near the shore, it appeared to be a fertile country. This portion of the globe is one of great interest to the world at large, especially when we know that, if considered as a naval or military station, it is scarcely equalled by any in the Indian Ocean; besides having a soil of the best description, and abounding also in mineral wealth, with timber fit for any purposes, and thousands of cattle running wild in its valleys. On the afternoon of the 27th we were within seven or eight miles of the land, near the great Fish River, on the south-eastern coast of Africa, having apparently got within the eddy of the westerly current, which sweeps round that part of the coast at the distance of thirty miles with a velocity of from two to five miles an hour, which we entirely lost after passing Algoa Bay. Within thirty miles of the latter place we had a strong gale from the southward of twenty-four hours duration; and on the morning of the 1st of July arrived at Simon's Bay, in company with Her Majesty's ship Belleisle, which sailed two days before us from the Mauritius. Nearly six years had elapsed since our last visit, and little improvement had taken place in colonial affairs.

* The little difficulty that strangers found in recognizing this anchorage at night, is now overcome by a light-vessel being placed near the Roman Rocks; but the streaks of sand, resembling snow, down the sides of the hills over Simons Bay, and the remarkable break in the high land over another bay, just to the northward, are sufficient guides of themselves in clear weather.

On the 9th we were again on our way homeward. Touching at St. Helena* and Ascension, we crossed the equator on the forenoon of the 15th, in long. 19° 45' W., where we endeavoured to obtain soundings with 2000 fathoms of line, which parted at 1600 fathoms. Respecting deep-sea soundings, there are some sceptical persons who, in consequence of the bottom not being brought up from the great depths reported to have been found, are inclined to doubt that soundings were actually obtained on those occasions.

On the 24th a continuation of westerly winds† brought us in sight of St. Jago and Bravo, of the Cape de Verd Group; on passing which we got the N.E. trade, and, after staying a part of the 10th and 11th at Fayal, where we met Her Majesty's Steamer Styx, Captain Vidal, who, on parting, gave us three hearty farewell cheers, we did not, in consequence of easterly winds, arrive at Spithead until the 30th day of September, after an absence of upwards of six years. During this period we only lost two men, and preserved throughout almost the same spars* and boats,† we left Plymouth with in 1831. From Portsmouth we proceeded round to Woolwich, where the ship was paid off on the 18th of October, 1843.

After giving the men their certificates, I loitered a short time to indulge in those feelings that naturally arose on taking a final leave of the poor old Beagle at the same place where I first joined her in 1825. Many events have occurred since my first trip to sea in her: I have seen her under every variety of circumstances, placed in peculiar situations and fearful positions, from nearly the antarctic to the tropic, cooled by the frigid clime of the extreme of South America, or parched by the heats of North Australia; under every vicissitude, from the grave to the gay, I have struggled along with her; and after wandering together for eighteen years, a fact unprecedented in the service, I naturally parted from her with regret. Her movements, latterly, have been anxiously watched, and the chances are that her ribs will separate, and that she will perish in the river‡ where she was first put together. She has made herself as notorious as during the war did her namesake, that reaped golden opinions from her success in prize-making; while my old friend has extensively contributed to our geographical knowledge.

* This place is famed for its large flying-fish, of which some are from 18 to 24 inches in length: and not a little so, for those monsters of the finny tribe called sharks. In the Admiralty book of directions, the fact is related of an artillery-man being found fully accoutred in the stomach of one taken there.
† Ships availing themselves of these winds, when, also, the westerly current ceases near the equator, might, by running away to the eastward in them, shorten the passage to either Ascension or St. Helena.
* I have already mentioned that the Beagle was fitted with Mr. Snow Harris's lightning conductors; the fact mentioned in the text is ample proof that they do not weaken even the smallest spars.
† It is in justice due to say, that the boats were chiefly built by Mr. Johns, of Plymouth Dockyard.
‡ The Beagle, now employed in the Preventive Service, is moored in Crouch Creek, near S. End.

There was only one drawback to the pleasure I experienced on arriving in England—namely, that Lieutenant G. Gore did not obtain his promotion, but was compelled to seek it by a second voyage to the N. Pole. All the mates were, in the course of a short time, promoted, and the ship's company received the favour of having half of their slop bill deducted, an indulgence which the Lords of the Admiralty, from the kindest and most considerate motives, have in some instances bestowed upon the crews of surveying vessels, on their return from distant voyages. This boon, however, in some instances, operates unfairly. In the first place, it often happens, in spite of the strictest surveillance, that the worst characters will, if they can, take up the greatest quantity of slops, which they convert either into money or grog, whenever an opportunity presents itself. The really steady men generally look clean and neat as long as possible, without much assistance from the purser. Then again, the boats' crews of all surveying vessels are necessarily so much more exposed, that they not only the sooner wear out their ordinary clothing, but absolutely require additional comforts in that way. I am therefore strongly of opinion that, in this department (and I speak from experience) the Captain should be allowed a certain portion of slops, to be placed at his disposal, and distributed under his sole authority; or might not he be enabled to recommend a certain number of the best men for a small increase upon their regular pay? This judicious exercise of discretion would be the means of retaining in this important branch of the service, a class of men who would become most valuable to their officers when engaged in the arduous and responsible duties of a survey.

As in the Royal Engineers, a great deal of the superior talent of the officers might be better bestowed, by abandoning to the petty officers the rougher part of the surveying work, in which calculation is not required. For this purpose, a kind of instruction might be imparted, which that class of men, if encouraged by extra pay, is capable of receiving, particularly those who have had the advantage of a Greenwich education.

To strengthen the suggestions I have made regarding the surveying service, I cannot refrain from alluding—and I do so with honest pride—both to the actions in China, and the very recent gallant destruction of the Argentine batteries in the River Parana, as instances of the importance of this branch of the profession in time of war. During peace the new countries that are explored, and the new fields of commerce that are opened to the world, will speak for themselves.