Odds and Ends Travels

Flinders and Bass –Island and Strait

My last blog had left some of the crew of the wrecked Sydney Cove clinging to Preservation Island. You may remember that a party had sailed off to get help and that a remnant of them struggled into Sydney, alerting Governor John Hunter to the plight of the others. [If you have missed out on that story of courage and determination, go back to my last blog post.]

So, let’s pick up the story…..

Those wrecked on Preservation Island had had a miserable time:

After the departure of the longboat, Capt. Hamilton and the people remaining with him were employed in getting ashore various pasts of the cargo from the wreck. The stock of provisions saved being but small, and the time when relief might arrive uncertain, each man’s daily allowance of rice was limited to a teacupful.

The weather proved extremely cold, with constant gales and heavy rains, and the people, having no other shelter than tents made from old sails, suffered greatly.

From the 23rd April till the 1st May was one continued storm, with thunder, lightning, rain and extreme cold. The tents being soon dismantled and blown to pieces, the unfortunate sufferers were left exposed to the extremities of cold, wetness and hunger, for during the continuance of this storm it was impossible to keep always fire to dress the pittance of rice on which their subsistence depended.

Once Governor Hunter knew about the plight of the Sydney Cove he sent a rescue ship, with Matthew Flinders on board.

Flinders and Hunter had both come to the new colony in 1795, on board HMS Reliance. On this outward journey Flinders established his reputation as a fine navigator and cartographer, skills that Hunter would later use.

While sailing too and from Preservation Island Flinders suspected that a strait existed between Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania] and the colony of New South Wales. On his return to Sydney he chatted with a good friend George Bass about the geography of the area. Bass had also recently returned from an expedition to the south, and had formed the opinion that there was a strait. It was a subject dear to his heart.

Bass had also come out on the Reliance as surgeon. He approached Hunter, asking to be allowed to explore the southern coast. Hunter describes him as “of a well-informed mind, and an active disposition”, and gave Bass “an excellent whaleboat, well fitted , victualled and manned to his wish, for the purpose of examining along the coast to the southward of this port, as far as he could with safety and convenience go.”

He was able to get as far as what is now Western Port Bay, just to the east of Port Phillip Bay, where Melbourne is. Hunter reports Bass’s findings of the country as “barren and unpromising…..with very few exceptions, and were it even better, the want of harbours would render it less valuable.”

What Bass did find was a group of escaped convicts trapped on an island. His boat was too small and provisions too low to accommodate them. He could only help them to the mainland, leaving them with a small amount of food, a musket and directions and advice for the 500 mile walk to Sydney.

He also noticed that the swells came in from the west. As Flinders says

It ought to be first observed that his Excellency the Governor named it Bass’s Strait, after my worthy friend and companion, as a just tribute to the extreme dangers and fatigues he had undergone in first entering it in the whaleboat. The southwesterly swell which rolled in upon the shores of Western Port and its neighbourhood sufficiently indicated to the penetrating Bass that he was exposed to the Southern Indian Ocean.

So Flinders and Bass persuaded Hunter to equip an expedition to explore the area further, to confirm their idea of a strait. So began the Expedition in the Colonial sloop Norfolk, from Port Jackson, through the Strait which separates Van Diemen’s Land from New Holland

As you can see from Flinders’s map, they circumnavigated Tasmania, proving that it was an island. It was confirmed when, following the coast around Hunter’s Isles, they turned south. Also, they knew they were looking at the Indian Ocean because “for what within the extent of a vast sea could give birth to the monstrous swell that was rolling before their eyes?”

They only touched the sides of the Furneaux Group, of which Flinders Island is the biggest island. However Flinders does write this:

…when the granite mountains of Furneaux’s largest island made their appearance through the haze, and their towering peaks, bathed in the late showers, reflected the gleaming sunshine, and presented a spectacle so magnificent and stupendous that the circular, gently declining Mount Chappell ceased to attract attention. I could not at the moment blame the sterility that produced so rich a scene.

And it really is as stupendous as he says. The wet granite slopes glisten in the afternoon light.

Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015
Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015

Mount Chappell Island was named after Flinders’ wife, Anne Chappell. Flinders not been long married and had hoped to bring Anne with him to Port Jackson. However the Admiralty had strict rules against wives accompanying captains. Flinders brought her on board ship and planned to ignore the rules, but the Admiralty learned of his plans. He was severely chastised for his bad judgment and told he must remove her from the ship. He didn’t see her again for many years, as, on his return to England he was arrested by the French and imprisoned as a spy. He was released after 7 years and finally returned to England in 1810. He died in 1814.

Mt Chappell Island from Flinders island. (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)
Mt Chappell Island from Flinders island. (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson 2015)

Even more important than his journey around Tasmania was his exploration around the whole continent of Australia ~ a story for another time perhaps. The Australian Dictionary of Biography says this about Flinders

Matthew Flinders was among the world’s most accomplished navigators and hydrographers, though his exploration was mostly made in unsuitable, leaky or rotten ships. To ensure that his observations were as accurate as possible and that nothing important was overlooked, his constant practice was to stand his ship off shore at dusk and run back each morning to where the previous day’s work had ended. Each bearing and angle in his charting was taken by himself either from the deck or the mast-head and the results worked up by him each night. Flinders is remembered not only for his achievements in the realm of discovery but also for great improvements in the science of navigation, for his research on the action of the tides, and the affinity between the height of the barometer and the direction of the wind, and for his practical investigations into the deviation of the compass through the presence of iron in ships, since controlled by compensating devices such as the bar named after him.

After the journey Bass was attracted to the profits to be made, or lost, in bringing goods to Sydney. Unfortunately when he arrived with his cargo he found the market was glutted and his goods unsaleable. In 1803 he sailed out of Port Jackson in the Venus, heading for lucrative profits in South America. Nothing was heard from him again.

Bass’s observations are recorded in Lieutenant-Colonel Collin’s Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, and show Bass to be someone fascinated by everything he saw ~ Aborigines, plants, animals, birds, geography. He has quite a long description of the wombat, which Bass describes as “very economically made”(!) and counted three hundred black swans in the space of a quarter of a mile.

Their discovery meant that the sailing time to Sydney was not only shorter, but safer, although Bass Strait can be a very treacherous body of water.

While my history lesson of Bass Strait is finished, I do have more things to tell you about this fascinating and beautiful part of the world. I also have to show you some of my art work that is coming out of my time spent there.

[I must make a mention of Project Gutenberg, which has digitalised so much of the primary material from this period. Such a wonderful resource to have. The two documents I have been quoting from are

Flinders own writing

and Collins’ writings of Bass and Flinders in Vol. 2,  Chapters 15 and 16

Hooray for Project Gutenberg!!]

10 replies on “Flinders and Bass –Island and Strait”

Glad I was entertaining! From the previous posts and discussions you will have realised that even those of us who went to school here only have a limited knowledge of our history. Like many things, delve below the surface and find out all manner of interesting things. 😊

Liked by 1 person

Bass and Flinders gave us quite significant aspects of our history. I had no idea. About Matthew Flinders I’d only read about Trim (Matthew Flinders Cat by Bryce Courtenay). Oh, his poor wife.


Yes, we know so much about the men who dash off around the world, finding things and naming them, but so very little about the women in their lives. You feel for Anne, waiting for some news, but hoping that it was not going to be news that he had perished at sea or died of scurvy.


Very inspiring and insightful post. I loved the rocks on water photo a lot, fantastic colors, just how I imagine a quiet and undisturbed seaside scene.


Thank you for your feedback. The beaches Were very spectacular, although not always quiet. There was a strong wind when we were there and the beaches were very windswept! The orange colour on the rocks are a lichen that uses the salt from the salt spray of the waves.


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