Chapter 7 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter VII

Further explorations

Attempts to cross the Blue Mountains — Blaxland’s success — Evans discovers the Bathurst Plains — Voyages of Bass and Flinders in the Tom Thumb — Bass discovers coal — Discovery of Bass Strait and Westernport — Bass and Flinders circumnavigate Tasmania in the Norfolk — End of Bass — Voyage of the Lady Nelson — Murray discovers Port Phillip — Flinders’s voyage in the Investigator — Discovery of Spencer’s and St. Vincent’s Gulfs and Kangaroo Island — Meeting with Baudin in Encounter Bay — Circumnavigation of Australia — The name Australia — Flinders in Mauritius — His liberation and death.

The settlement at Port Jackson, together with its extensions at Parramatta and on the Hawkesbury River, occupied an area which, compared with the total bulk of Australia, was but an insignificant fragment. It was not so large as is the island of Corsica in comparison with the size of Europe. What the continent was like, even in outline, was not known until fifteen years after the First Fleet arrived. That it was a continent at all, and not a cluster of islands, was not known. That Van Diemen’s Land was isolated was not known. What the inland territory was like was not known. There was an immense field of labour for explorers to cover, both by sea and land.

The first problem of exploration which occupied attention was that of finding a way across the mountains into the heart of the country. The interior of New South Wales is an immense plain. Ages ago there were mountains upon it. The sea covered a large part of it. But the hills have been worn down, dissolved, washed away and spread out by the rains and the floods of millions of years. For it must be remembered that, although Australia was the latest of the continents to be discovered and peopled by the white race, it is geologically an inconceivably ancient land. It is full of the stumps of old mountains, once ten or twenty thousand feet high, which have been ground away by water and weather much as a sugar-loaf might be reduced by rubbing away its top and sides. Upon the interior plains there are great stretches of soil as level as a bowling-green, through which you can bore for hundreds of feet without striking any rock. This plain comes to an end at the slopes of the range of mountains which, like vertebrae, stretch north and south from Cape York to Wilson’s Promontory. There are gaps between, but the dividing line of the mountains is well marked throughout. In some places they oppose a stubborn barrier to a crossing.

The difficulty experienced in traversing this range did not consist in the height of the mountains. They run up to seven thousand feet (Mount Kosciusco attains 7,328 and Mount Townsend 7,238), but the section lying at the back of Sydney does not exceed 4,500 feet. The difficulty lay in the tumbled, chaotic fashion in which these hills, or rather, this broken plateau of sandstone, was found to crumple into deep, sheer precipices, open into impenetrable gorges, fling rocky ribs athwart the gaps, and toss tree-crested ridges one behind the other defiantly. The explorer pushed up a valley, and found that it ended in a rugged wall with trees above him; he pursued the line of a spur, and found himself peering over the edge of a ravine with trees below him. There seemed to be no valley leading through.

East of this mass lay the somewhat narrow and wrinkled slope fringing the sea, where Sydney was situated. To the early inhabitants, the distant mountains, wrapped in an atmosphere of perpetual purple, were a region of mystery, to many a gateway of hope; to some they proved a lure to delusion and death. They were so blue, and so soft to the distant view, that a superstition sprang up that delectable lands lay on the farther side of them; so that Governor King, after some had perished, had to issue an order denouncing the story as being ‘as wicked as it is false, and calculated to bring the believers in it to destruction.’

With the extension of settlement it became a matter of necessity to penetrate beyond the mountains; but apart from this there were adventurous spirits to whom the exploration had attractions for its own sake. Captain William Paterson, in 1793, led a party of Scottish Highlanders to the attack; in 1794 Henry Hacking made an attempt; in 1796, Surgeon George Bass took rope ladders and grappling-irons for a vigorous assault; in 1804 George Cayley described an attempt which he led as being like travelling ‘over the tops of houses in a town,’ and, though himself a man of remarkable bodily strength and enthusiasm, and having with him a good equipment and ‘the strongest men in the colony to assist him,’ had to admit that he was beaten. After receiving Cayley’s report, Governor King confessed that perseverance in an endeavour to cross such ‘a confused and barren assemblage of mountains with impassable chasms between would be as chimerical as useless.’ Even the crows which Cayley’s party saw seemed to them to bear an appearance of ‘having lost their way.’

It was not until 1813 that Gregory Blaxland, Lieutenant Lawson, and a young student, William Charles Wentworth, starting from near Penrith, cut their way through the thick scrub and timber, scrambled and clambered with slow and toilsome steps for fifteen days along the range towards Mount York, and, skirting that obstacle, saw the great green Bathurst Plains lying west of them. Blaxland and his brother John had come out to New South Wales in 1806 as ‘gentlemen settlers.’ They were experienced English farmers, and it was hoped that they would introduce improvements in agriculture which would increase the production of the colony. They were therefore granted areas of land on the condition that they invested capital in its development. But they found it to be more profitable to engage in cattle breeding than in cultivation. Their herds increased, and they were continually on the look out for more pasturage. It was in the hope that extensive grazing grounds would be discovered beyond the mountains that Gregory Blaxland, accompanied by his two friends, undertook this piece of exploration, which proved to be so brilliantly successful. They knew that they had conquered the task at which others had failed so signally that a tradition of insuperableness had grown up about it; and it was with the pen of one who knew the joy of discovery that Wentworth, three years later, in competing for a Cambridge prize for poetry, described how —

As a meteor shoots athwart the night
The boundless champaign burst upon our sight,
Till, nearer seen, the beauteous landscape grew,
Opening like Canaan on rapt Israel’s view.

The route found by Blaxland and his companions was followed up by Surveyor G. W. Evans, who descended the range on the far side, traversed the plains to a point beyond Bathurst, and returned with the glad tidings that the country across the mountains was equal to every demand that could be made for the extension of pasture land and tillage for centuries to come. These endeavours to master the Blue Mountains were the precursors of many long inland journeys which made the story of the exploration of Australia a romance tinged with tragedy.

The series of voyages by which the discovery of the continent by sea was completed centres around the person of Matthew Flinders. This celebrated navigator came out to Australia as a midshipman on the Reliance, the vessel commissioned to convey Governor Hunter to New South Wales in 1795. The ship’s surgeon, George Bass, was animated by an eager spirit, and his intellectual interest in the geographical problems which then awaited solution was very keen. Flinders and Bass, both Lincolnshire men, became close friends during the voyage, and laid their plans for pursuing a course of discovery together.

Bass had brought out from England with him a tiny boat which he called the Tom Thumb. She had only an eight-foot keel with a five-foot beam — a mere tub of a boat. Yet, having no better craft available, the two friends took her for a cruise out of Port Jackson shortly after their arrival. They explored the George’s River, and presented to the Governor so good a report of what they found that he established Bankstown there. A few months later (March 1796) Bass and Flinders, in a second Tom Thumb, built in Sydney, again sailed out of harbour, and ran south to Port Hacking, which they explored. It was an exceedingly adventurous cruise, calling for all the seamanship of which the two friends were capable. Several times they were nearly capsized, and only saved themselves by the most dexterous management. Falling amidst a party of aboriginals upon the banks of a small stream, where they had landed to make some repairs and to dry their powder in the sun, Flinders amused them by clipping their hair and beards with a large pair of scissors, while Bass attended to the mending operations and filled the casks with fresh water.

The taste of exploration obtained upon these two cruises whetted the appetite of Bass and Flinders, who were fully aware of the valuable discovery work remaining to be done upon the Australian coast; and the keenness they showed in the tasks they set themselves induced Governor Hunter to encourage them in further enterprises of a like character. Ships’ duties, however, prevented Flinders from accompanying his friend on his next two expeditions. On the first of these Bass discovered coal at the place now called Coalcliff, about twenty miles south of Botany Bay, and was thus the first to direct attention to the presence of coal deposits, which have since yielded an enormous part of the wealth of New South Wales. On the second expedition, in a whaleboat lent to him, with a crew of six bluejackets, by the Governor, Bass rounded the south-east corner of the continent at Cape Howe, entered Bass Strait, and discovered Westernport (January 1798), which he named ‘from its relative situation to every other known harbour on the coast.’ It was, in fact, the most important discovery that had been made since the establishment of settlement in Australia.

Bass’s whaleboat voyage showed the old belief that Van Diemen’s Land was a southern extension of New Holland to be improbable. He had not, indeed, positively demonstrated the existence of a strait, though the south-westerly swell which rolled in upon Westernport convinced him that there was one. The strait was proved, and Van Diemen’s Land was circumnavigated, by Bass and Flinders together in the Norfolk in October 1798. This was the last piece of exploration in which Bass participated. For Flinders, who published an account of the voyage, it was an achievement which brought him under the notice of his English superiors as a navigator of high capacity who was worthy to be entrusted with more important tasks. But Bass, after returning to England, left the Navy, and when he came back to Australia in 1801 it was as part owner of a trading ship, the Venus, carrying a general cargo from which he hoped to derive substantial gains. Being disappointed in this regard, he took his ship, in 1803, on a voyage to the South American coast, whence he never returned. What became of this high-spirited, accomplished, and brilliant man is an unsolved mystery. The suggestion has been made that he expected to make a profit from participating in the South American contraband trade, was captured by the Spaniards — at Lima it was said — and kept there until he died. His name lives in that of the strait which he discovered, and in the eulogium written upon him by his affectionate friend and companion in adventure, Flinders, who recorded that Bass’s whale-boat expedition ‘has not perhaps its equal in the annals of maritime history,’ and that the man himself had won ‘an honourable place in the list of those whose ardour stands most conspicuous for the promotion of useful knowledge.’

The explorations of Bass and Flinders had been undertaken on their own initiative, in their spare time; but from the beginning of the nineteenth century the task of completing the discovery of Australia was taken in hand systematically. In 1800 a small 60-ton brig, the Lady Nelson, was sent out under the command of Lieutenant James Grant to assist in the work. She had been built to the design of Captain John Schanck, with three sliding centre-board keels, which, by enabling her draft to be lessened in shallow water, would permit her to run close to a coast or into rivers. Grant was instructed to make the voyage to Sydney through Bass Strait, the news of the discovery of that passage having evoked much interest in England. Sighting the Australian coast opposite the present boundary of Victoria and South Australia on December 3, 1800, the Lady Nelson from this point sailed parallel to a country which, as far as Bass’s Westernport, was hitherto unknown, and she was the first vessel to pass through the Strait westward.

The Lady Nelson remained in the Australian service throughout her highly adventurous career, until she was captured by pirates in 1825. The most important of the services rendered in her was the discovery of Port Phillip in 1802. Grant had slipped across the opening at the head of which this great bay stands, and there were some who thought that further exploration would reveal the cleavage which was believed to divide New South Wales on the east from New Holland on the west. Under the command of Lieutenant John Murray, the ship was commissioned to pursue detailed investigations on the south coast. A complete survey of Westernport was made, and Murray then sent his mate, Bowen, in the launch to examine the entrance to Port Phillip. Bowen having found a practicable channel, Murray sailed into the great harbour on February 15, 1802. He named it Port King, but the Governor himself changed the name to Port Phillip, after the first ruler of New South Wales.

It is interesting to note that the first newly discovered place in the British dominions where the Union Jack was hoisted was Port Phillip. The union of Great Britain and Ireland had been effected in 1800, and the flag which united the cross of St. Patrick with the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew came into being shortly after. Murray had one with him on the Lady Nelson, and he recorded in his journal that he took possession of the port on March 8 — ‘At eight o’clock in the morning the united colours of the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland were hoisted on board, and at one o’clock, under a discharge of three volleys of small-arms and artillery, the port was taken possession of in the name of his sacred Majesty George the Third.’

Flinders had returned to England in 1800. Largely through the influence of Sir Joseph Banks, he was appointed to the command of the Investigator, with instructions to solve the remaining problems affecting the geographical configuration of Australia. The task was fulfilled in a masterly manner. Vigorous, diligent, highly trained for scientific inquiry, with consummate seamanship and wonderful accuracy in detail, Flinders justified his selection not only by the great extent of his discoveries but by producing charts of such excellence that they remain substantially sound and dependable to this day. He arrived upon the Australian coast on December 6, 1801, and anchored in King George’s Sound — which had been discovered and named in 1791 by Captain George Vancouver. The whole southern coastline of the continent from the head of the Great Australian Bight to Encounter Bay was discovered and mapped by Flinders. By pursuing Spencer’s Gulf and St. Vincent’s Gulf to their extremities he demonstrated that there was no strait splitting the country into islands. In the following year, 1803, he circumnavigated Australia in the Investigator, and he produced a map of the whole continent showing it to be one vast island.

It was appropriate that the navigator who had done so much should be the man to give to Australia the name which it bears. Flinders pointed out that, inasmuch as the Dutch had known nothing of the eastern coasts, their name, New Holland, could not be properly applied there; whilst Cook’s name, New South Wales, could not be attached to the western portion. He did not invent the name Australia, for it had already been suggested as a name for the southern region of the earth lying between and to the south of South Africa and America; but he urged that it was necessary to geographical precision that, New Holland and New South Wales having now been demonstrated to be two aspects of the same land, there should be one convenient name for it; and Australia appeared to him to be both a convenient and an agreeable one. Curiously enough, Banks and others opposed the use of it, and Flinders was not allowed to publish the account of his voyage as A Voyage to Australia, but as A Voyage to Terra Australis. But the name which be recommended came gradually into general use in consequence of the strong preference for it which he had expressed, though for some years officially New Holland was still employed. In 1817 Governor Macquarie formally requested that in future Australia should be adopted in despatches; and his successor, Brisbane, to whom a daughter was born in Sydney, named her ‘Eleanor Australia,’ to signify his fondness for the name.

The conclusion of the career of Flinders as an explorer was crowded with misfortunes. After the circumnavigation of Australia the Investigator, an old ship when she was placed in this service by the Admiralty, was too unseaworthy to permit of her further employment in such researches, and Flinders decided to return to England, publish his charts, and ask for another vessel. Taking a passage in the Porpoise, he was wrecked on the Barrier Reef, off the Queensland coast. He made his way in a small boat back to Sydney, where Governor King could give him nothing better for making the voyage of 15,000 miles than the Cumberland, a wretched little 29-ton schooner, ‘something less than a Gravesend packet boat.’ But Flinders determined to match his seamanship and courage against the waves of three oceans in this diminutive craft. He successfully took her through Torres Strait and into the Indian Ocean, but there heavy weather and the failure of one of his pumps compelled him to seek shelter at Mauritius, then a French colony bearing the name of Île de France.

The military governor of the island, General Decaen, did not believe Flinders’s story that he was actually voyaging to Europe in so tiny a ship, and in a flush of anger accused him of being a spy; for Great Britain and France were then at war. Flinders was indignant at being detained, especially as he carried a passport from the French Government guaranteeing protection in French ports. The Governor, however, objected that the passport was granted for the Investigator, not for the Cumberland. Decaen modified his demeanour after the first interview, and sent to Flinders an invitation to dinner. But he was irritated by the suspicion of his bona fides expressed by Decaen, and refused to go. The Governor considered his attitude insolent, and resolved to keep him a prisoner until his case had been referred to the French Government. This unfortunate misunderstanding, intensified by the anger of both men, was the cause of the detention of Flinders in Mauritius for six and a half years. He did not return to England till 1810, and then only sufficient of life was left to him for writing his Voyage to Terra Australis and preparing his splendid atlas of original charts. He died in 1814, on the very day when his book came from the publishers; but he was then unconscious and never saw it.

It was long believed that General Decaen did Flinders the further gross wrong of taking from him his papers and drawings and sending them to Paris to be copied, so as to enable the French officers to appropriate to themselves the credit for work which he had done. This charge, indeed, has been expressly made; but there is no justification whatever for it. It is quite certain that the French never saw any of Flinders’s charts till he published them. The suspicion, however, was not unnatural, since, in consequence of his long detention the official history of Baudin’s discovery expedition was published in Paris seven years before the appearance of Flinders’s Voyage to Terra Australis; and it was accompanied by an atlas delineating coasts which Flinders had undoubtedly discovered. But the French had been upon the same coasts after him, and their charts were engraved from the drawings of their own marine surveyors. Naturally the French drawings were ‘very like’ those of Flinders, as those who launched the charge of plagiarism were quick to point out. But they were ‘like’ because both had worked upon the same coasts, and a critical comparison reveals sufficient important differences to acquit the French officers of the charge which was somewhat vehemently made against them at the time. No ground for it was given by anything which Flinders said or wrote. He thought that he had been wronged by Decaen, but he was chivalrous towards his enemy, and he was incapable of anything like mean envy in estimating the work of rivals in his own field.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 75-86

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