Page:The life of Matthew Flinders.djvu/150

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111
DISCOVERY OF BASS STRAIT

it did not concern the actual work of navigation and discovery, but which throws a dash of tragic colour into the story of his adventure. The boat having returned to the coast of what was supposed to be Furneaux Land, was running along "in whichever way the land might trend, for the state of the boat did not seem to allow of our quitting the shore with propriety." The coast line was being scanned for a place of shelter, when smoke was observed curling up from an island not far from the Promontory. At first it was thought that the smoke arose from a fire lighted by aboriginals, but it was discovered, to the amazement of Bass and his crew, that the island was occupied by a party of white men. They were escaped convicts. The tale they had to tell was one of a wild dash for liberty, treachery by confederates, and abandonment to the imminent danger of starvation.

In October of the previous year, a gang of fourteen convicts had been employed in carrying stones from Sydney to the Hawkesbury River settlement, a few miles to the north. Most of them were "of the last Irish convicts," as Hunter explained in a despatch, part of the bitter fruit of the Irish Mutiny Act of 1796, passed to strike at the movement associated with the names of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone, which encouraged the attempted French invasion of Ireland under Hoche. These men seized the boat appointed for the service, appropriated the stores, threatened the lives of all who dared to oppose them, and made their exit through Port Jackson heads. As soon as the Governor heard of the escape he despatched parties in pursuit in rowing boats. The coast was searched sixty miles to the north and forty to the south; but the convicts, with the breeze in their sail and the hope of liberty in their hearts, had all the advantage on their side, and eluded their gaolers.