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!!]


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.


The Gift of Music #2 ~ Russell Morris

You will remember that recently I had my 60th birthday, and suggested that if guests wanted to give me a present, then music would be wonderful. Then I decided to share that gift with you, letting you know about the birthday album that  have been listening to.

Denise couldn’t make it to the Party, but she did send me love, and some CDs. 2 of them were the recent Russell Morris albums, Sharkmouth and Van Diemen’s Land.

If you are an Aussie of a Certain Age, the name Russell Morris will probably make you think The real thing. Well, his latest work is so far away from this. Both are wonderful blues music. I don’t think I am a blues fan, but then I wonder. A couple of years ago I went to the Blues Festival in Echuca and loved it. I wanted Dave Hogan’s Meltdown to play at my Party, because their blues music is fantastic to dance to. And then Denise sent me these albums. Maybe I do enjoy blues after all. 🙂

Both albums are rooted in Australian history, but you don’t need to know that history to enjoy it. The music is strong and gutsy ~ and the album notes in both fill in knowledge gaps.

At the beginning of the notes for Sharkmouth, Morris says that he had always wanted to write music about Australian characters, stories and legends, such as the boxer Les Darcy, the racehorse Phar Lap and the thug Squizzy Taylor. The “characters, events and moods” from the album come from 1919 to the 40’s, with the exception of Mr Eternity who was writing his chalk message, “Eternity”, on the footpaths in the 50s and 60s.

The Great Depression hit Australia very hard. One in three adults were out of work. “Blackdog Blues” is a general feel song about that time, and its intention “is to set up the mood for the album, one of listlessness, out of work, boredom.”

I did a little research about the album and found that it won the ARIA for ‘Best Blues and Roots Album’. Apparently its success took Morris by surprise. He originally only made 500 copies to sell at gigs. Late last year it had sold 60,000, making it nearly platinum! This is an interesting interview with Morris, where he talks about that success as well as his music.

The second album, Van Diemen’s Land, is my favourite of the two and takes a broader view of Australian history. (Van Diemen’s Land was the original white name for Tasmania.) There are songs about the paddle steamers on the Murray River, with the interesting aspect of what indigenous people may have felt, the shipwreck of the Loch Ard, Breaker Morant and the Eureka Stockade. He sings about the misery of prisoners sent to Van Diemen’s Land, the misery of the Islanders who were taken from Pacific Islands to work on the sugar cane, and the 1894 Shearers’ strike.

In this clip Morris talks about “Sandakan”, a forced march in WW2. Morris’s father was one of five men who escaped and were on the run for six months.

And a final clip, “The Bridge” from Sharkmouth. Whatever you think of the music, it is worth watching for the footage of the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

So I give Denise a big hug, and thanks for showing me that I may well be a Blues fan after all!