Voyages of Bass and Flinders: The discovery of Bass Strait [chapter 8 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 8 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 5 August 1934.]

The story of Australia — VIII.

Voyages of Bass and Flinders

The discovery of Bass Strait

In 1785, just seven years after the foundation of the colony, Captain Hunter, having been appointed Governor in succession to Captain Phillip, arrived in Port Jackson with the “Reliance” and the “Supply,” bringing George Bass as surgeon and Matthew Flinders, midshipman.

During the voyage there sprang up between these two men a firm and long-lasting friendship. They found in each other kindred spirits for adventure and exploration. In their leisure hours they discussed their plan for the future. Difficulties might be placed in their way, but these would be surmounted.

No sooner were the two young men in Port Jackson and at liberty from the ship routine than they began a career of adventure that has left its mark on Australian history. They had been barely a month in the country when the colonists saw them start on their first expedition.

The “Tom Thumb”

Bass had brought a boat eight feet long from England, and this he suitably named “Tom Thumb.” Accompanied by a boy they sailed round to Botany Bay, and traced the Georges River for 20 miles beyond what was previously known. The report of this voyage led to the establishment of a new settlement called Bank’s Town. To-day Bankstown, as it is now designated, is a growing suburb of Sydney.

The success attending this adventure encouraged Bass and Flinders to make a more ambitious voyage of discovery. They had another boat built, not much larger, to which they gave the same name — “Tom Thumb.” Their object was to examine a large river, which was supposed to flow into the ocean, south of Botany Bay. They sailed out to sea to catch the current, but on the night of March 25 a strong northerly wind arose, and the current carried them southwards, and a head wind prevented their return.

Cut natives’ hair

Very bad weather set in, and near the five islands (close to Cook’s Red Point) the rough seas tossed their frail boat to such an extent that finally it was washed ashore by the surf. All their provisions and powder were saturated with water.

Their supply of water having run out they launched the boat and sailed still further south, hoping to find a more suitable locality. Eventually they cast anchor about two miles beyond the present town of Wollongong, in an inlet which, in commemoration of this incident, still bears the name of the Tom Thumb Lagoon. Here they encountered some natives who were inclined to be troublesome. Flinders, to divert them, produced a pair of scissors, and while Bass dried the powder and stores, he kept them in good humour by cutting their hair and beards.

Next morning they got safely away and began their return journey. Stormy weather prevailed, and seeking shelter they ran into an opening, which they called Providence Cove, now known as Wattamolla Cove. On April 1 they entered a sheet of water which ran inland for many miles. It was the river that they had sought. The inlet was named Port Hacking, in acknowledgment of the services of a pilot of that name. The following day the Tom Thumb reached Port Jackson after an absence of 10 days.

Exploration work was now suspended for a short time. Flinders rejoined the Reliance and sailed to the Cape of Good Hope, where he was appointed lieutenant in 1797. During this period Bass, whose services were not required on the Reliance, was anxious to take a voyage of discovery on a larger scale. On his own petition the Governor furnished him with a whale boat carrying a crew of six seamen, and provided with supplies for six weeks only.

In Bass Strait

On Sunday, December 3, 1797, he sailed from Port Jackson on a memorable voyage which led to the discovery of Bass Strait. He had a definite object in view, which was either to determine whether Tasmania was connected with the mainland or to survey the coast from the Point Hicks of Captain Cook to Furneaux’s Land, which was at first supposed to be identical with Wilson’s Promontory.

Scarcely had the familiar landmarks dropped out of sight when a storm was encountered, which drove the adventurers to seek shelter first at Port Hacking, next at Wattamolla, and again near Cook’s Red Point. The headland, under the lee of which the boat took refuge, still bears the name of Bass Point.

When approaching Jervis Bay, he discovered a small inlet, which he named Shoalhaven. He entered Jervis Bay, which had already been named and chartered by Lieutenant Richard Bowen, whose name is still preserved in an island lying near the entrance. Twelve days later Bass had the good luck to discover Twofold Bay.

Sailing southwards he passed Wilson’s Promontory on January 2, and set a course for Furneaux Island, where he hoped to obtain fresh water and some mutton birds for food. But, the weather proved very boisterous, and he was driven westward, and, so discovered, on January 4, a fine harbour, which he named Western Port. During the 13 days he stayed here he made a careful examination of the harbour, which he fully described in his report. This port is now the naval base for the Commonwealth fleet.

Safe return

It was now imperative that Bass should return to Sydney. His boat was badly strained and the provisions were diminishing to an alarming extent. He had intended to settle the problem of the insularity of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), but he could no longer delay his departure with safety. Unknowingly, Bass had already done so, for he had passed through the strait which now bears his name.

He arrived in Sydney on February 25, 1798, having been absent 11 weeks, during which time he had explored 600 miles of the coast south of Port Jackson. Years afterwards Flinders wrote: “A voyage especially undertaken for discovery in an open boat, and in which 600 miles of coast, mostly in boisterous weather, was explored, has not, perhaps its equal in maritime history.”

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 5 August 1934, p. 37

[Editor: Corrected “alrady done” to “already done”]

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