The Discovery of Bass Strait

On my last post, about the geological history of Bass Strait, Meeks lamented why this history was not taught to us in school. I had History Lessons from Grade 3 onwards, and always loved the subject. Except for a couple of years, History was entirely British and later European. I had one year of Australian History (Grade 4?) and mid-way through secondary school learnt Australian/Asian. I mention this, because even though I loved History, I found Australian history boring. And I mention my boredom because, over the last 10 years or so I have read a lot about the exploration of Australia and it is far from boring. There are many amazing tales to tell.

Way back when I went to school, to learn about the explorers we drew maps from the blackboard of their tracks — maps of the world and maps of Australia with dotted lines in different colours. This quote from Tim Flannery’s introduction to his collection The Explorers sums up the educational point:

I was bored [with the topic of the Explorers] because I did not know the country the map represented. The men were just names, their journeys snail-trails across paper. No attempt was made to bring exploring to life, perhaps because the inconvenient details about Aborigines and barren wastes would simply have got in the way of the main message: that the Europeans had triumphed. Somehow, those lines granted possession of a continent. And in that message, all of the subtlety, the excitement and wonder of exploration was lost.

I have used ‘discovery’ in the title of this post. Too often its use shows ignorance towards the people who were living there ~ people who were not lost and had no need to be discovered. Think of ‘Christopher Columbus discovered America’ or ‘Captain Cook discovered Australia’. However, I think, in this instance that I am right to use it. Tasmanian Aborigines has been separated from mainland tribes for thousands of years. There doesn’t appear to be contact across the Strait during that time, so I assume that the Aborigines on either side considered it to be another ocean and not a smaller body of water. [I could be very wrong about this, and happy to be corrected.]

So, let me tell you the tale of the discovery of Bass Strait, a tale of adventure, daring rescues and rum. It will involve maps with dotted lines, and some side journeys. Make a cup of tea, get comfy and enjoy the stories.

Let me start with Abel Tasman. In 1642 he set sail to explore the southern and eastern oceans. Using the strong westerly winds of the lower latitudes, the Roaring Forties, he careened along, clipping the bottom of Tasmania. He was mighty close to missing it. Was coming upon it just plain good luck? After exploring he used the westerlies to go over and ‘discover’ New Zealand.

Now to the first European sighting of the islands in the Strait.

In 1772, James Cook lead a second expedition that became one of the great journeys. He sailed south to cross the Antarctic Circle and explored many Pacific islands. Not only was he an excellent navigator but in the three year voyage only four crew members died. If you love a good adventure, read about the voyage. Cook is one of the great navigators but it was not Cook who noticed the islands.

There were two ships, Cook’s H.M.S. Resolution and H.M.S. Adventure, under the captaincy of Tobias Furneaux. On February 8 1773 the ships were separated in fog and Adventure headed for their agreed rendezvous, Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand. On the way Furneaux explored Tasmania , and was the first English vessel to follow Tasman’s journey. You can see by the map that he went further up the east coast than Tasman did. He sighted some of the islands in the Strait, but thought they were part of the mainland. They were named the Furneaux Group in his honour.

This extract is from the entry on Furneaux in the Australian Dictionary of Biography Banks Strait is not a typo. It is the strait between Tasmania and Clarke Island.

Sailing north on 15 March, Furneaux named St Patrick’s Head, St Helen’s Point, Bay of Fires and Eddystone Point, all on 17 March. Next day he noted ‘the land trenches away to the westward, which I believe forms a deep bay’; it was, in fact, the entrance to Banks Strait. On this day islands were sighted, the land high and rocky, and the south-eastern point was named Cape Barren. He considered investigating whether a strait lay westward but decided to rejoin his commander and on 19 March the vessel ‘haul’d up for New Zealand’. Furneaux later declared that ‘it is my opinion that there is no strait between New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land’, a view he persuaded Cook to accept.  Adventure and Resolution were united in New Zealand in May 1773 and in August Furneaux re-visited Tahiti where the Tahitian Omai was taken on board. The vessels were again separated in October and Furneaux returned to England, arriving at Spithead in July 1774.

Let’s move on a few years, for it is the next part of the story that involves rum.

Sydney was established as a penal colony in 1788. Ships would often use the Roaring Forties as a quicker route to the new colony. They would come around the bottom of Tasmania and then out west a little more before they turned north to Sydney. As ships did not hug the coast it was still thought that Tasmania was joined to the mainland. I had often wondered why mariners believed that, and I now understand that there was no need explore that coastline.

The ship, The Sydney Cove, took this route. It left Bengal on November 10th 1796 with a cargo of rum headed for the rum-soaked Port Jackson. [There was a period where rum was used as a currency.] Early on its journey the ship encountered heavy gales and took on water.  It laboured away until a final gale ~ “a perfect hurricane with a dreadful sea” according to Captain Hamilton ~ forced them to land.

Finding the ship must soon go down, the longboat was got out and sent ashore to the island with some rice, ammunition, and firearms; still standing in for the island, till she struck on a sandy bottom in 19 feet water, a few minutes after the longboat left her. All the people being safely landed, small parties were sent out in different directions on the following day, the 9th February, in quest of water, but without success.

They named their island haven Preservation Island, and a smaller nearby one Rum Island. They are the first Europeans to venture, albeit unintentionally, into Bass Strait. However, they are in dire straights and need a very bold plan. Capt. Hamilton’s account goes on

…..from the 10th to the 27th February Capt. Hamilton was employed in equipping the longboat in order to dispatch her to Port Jackson with an account of the loss of the ship, and to request such assistance as could be afforded. The longboat being completed was dispatched on the 27th February in charge of Mr. Hugh Thompson, chief mate, with Mr. W. Clark, assistant supercargo, and fifteen men, the best of the crew.

So the intention is to sail in a longboat 400 nautical miles up the east coast to reach Port Jackson and get help. Desperate times, desperate measures. Of course, it does not go to plan. The longboat founders in heavy seas and more gales and they are shipwrecked on the northern part of the Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria. You heart goes out to them:

Imagination cannot picture a situation more melancholy than that to which the unfortunate crew was reduced — wrecked a second time on the inhospitable shore of New South Wales [as the whole of the east coast was called at the time]; cut off from all hopes of rejoining their companions; without provisions, without arms, or any probable means either of subsistence or defence, they seemed doomed to all the horrors of a lingering death, with all their misfortunes unknown and unpitied. In this trying situation they did not abandon themselves to despair; they determined to precede to the northward in the hopes of reaching Port Jackson….

It was thus with our little party; the dangers that surrounded them served but to excite them to exertion; they resolved to brave every difficulty and to commence their journey without delay.

And three of them did make it; the rest died of starvation and exhaustion along the way. In May 1797 three survivors of the march, William Clark, sailor John Bennet and one lascar were able to signal a fishing boat which took them on to Port Jackson.

Project Gutenberg has digitalised many of the documents connected with this shipwreck and journey. [Hooray for Project Gutenberg!] I found it quite a fascinating read.

There is a letter from Governor John Hunter to the Duke of Portland about the survivors. He writes “The remainder of the seventeen have undoubtedly perish’d or been kill’d by the natives, these survivors having been much annoy’d and wounded by them.” Yet, when I read the account of the journey written by Mr Clark, I was struck by the friendliness and generosity of the Aborigines. Yes, they did encounter hostility, but seemed to find that talking and giving small pieces of cloth undercut a lot of the tension.

They had to cross a number of rivers. Sometimes Aboriginal people who had befriended  them a couple of days earlier would arrive at the river to help the Europeans cross. “We began to prepare a raft, which we could not have completed till next day had not three of our native friends, from whom we parted yesterday, rejoined us and assisted us over.” The party was given gifts of shellfish, fish and a kangaroo tail.

It is the familiar story of Europeans in Australia. So many perished in a land where Aboriginal people have lived successfully for tens of thousands of years. And they were seen to be the inferior people.

By now my cup of tea is well and truly drunk and the fire has burnt low. So I am going to leave off my tale for a little while. Captain Hamilton and the crew are still on Preservation Island, but you will be pleased to know that a rescue is on it’s way. Included in the rescue party is Matthew Flinders, and George Bass is waiting in the wings. So let me pick up the tale with them next time.

8 replies on “The Discovery of Bass Strait”

Even at school I found Australian “Modern History” as it was called interesting. But now I know how bare bones and stylised it was. There is so much more to it. I guess education departments were going for the broad relatable view of their time.
It won’t surprise that there are many quotes summing up the inadequacies of formally accepted “history”. The one I most relate to is “All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography.” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Because that is where you find the truest, realist histories, in people’s stories. Such as the explorers you are exploring!


That is a true statement, that history is really biography. Well, true for me, anyway. I suppose there are historians who believe that history is about ideas and how they are played out. I have always been interested in people and the stories of their lives, so I can see that I would be fascinated with a history that explored the lives of those involved.


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