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Title: The Beginning Of The Sea Story Of Australia (1901)
Author: Louis Becke

From "The Tapu Of Banderah and Other Stories"




To many people in England the mention of Australia conjures pictures of
tented gold-fields and tall, black-bearded, red-shirted bushrangers; of
mounted police recruited from "flaxen-haired younger sons of good old
English families, well-groomed and typically Anglo-Saxon"; of squatters
and sheep runs; of buckjumpers ridden by the most daring riders in the
world; and of much more to the same purpose; but never is presented a
picture of the sea or sailor folk.

Yet the first half-century of Australian history is all to do with the
ocean. The British sailor laid the foundation of the Australian nation,
and, in the beginning, more than any other class, the sailorman did the
colonising--and did it well. This, however, is the story of most British
possessions, and generally it is gratefully remembered and the sailor
duly credited and kindly thought of for his work. But in these days
the dry west wind from the back blocks seems to have blown the taste of
brine and the sound of the seethe of the curling "white horse" out of
the mind of the native-born Australian; and the sailing day of a mail
boat is the only thing that the average colonial knows or cares to know
about salt water.

To write on such a subject as this, one has to leave out so much, that
it is necessary to begin almost in the middle in order to reach an
ending. Sea exploration and coast surveying opened the ways; whaling--it
may surprise the reader, but it is nevertheless true--was once the main
support of Australia and New Zealand; and runaway sailors formed a
very considerable part of the back country population, such men making
handier and better farm labourers, stockmen, and, later on, miners,
by reason of their adaptability to strange surroundings, than
ticket-of-leave men or the average free emigrant.

The first four successive Governors of Australia--in the beginning, be
it remembered, the continent was one colony--were captains in the Navy.
Governing in those rough days was not a mere master-of-the-ceremonies
appointment, and Phillip, Hunter, King, and Bligh, if they made
mistakes, considering their previous training, the populations they
governed and the times in which they lived, amply justify Palmerston's
words that if he wanted a thing done well in a distant part of the
world; when he wanted a man with a good head, a good heart, lots of
pluck, and plenty of common sense--he would always send for a captain of
the Navy.

Phillip, the first of these Governors, was sent out to found "a penal
settlement at Botany Bay, on the coast of New Holland," and did the work
in such fashion, in spite of every discouragement from the forces of
nature, the Home Government, and his own officers, as to well entitle
him to a place among the builders of Greater Britain. What was known
of Australia, or rather New Holland--the name of Australia was still in
futurity--in 1788, when Phillip first landed on its shores?

Let us say nothing of Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch voyages; of wrecks
and piracies; of maroonings, and massacres by blacks; of the discoveries
of Dampier and of Cook, but sum the whole up thus: the east coast of
Australia, from its northernmost extremity to its southernmost,
was practically unknown to the world, and was absolutely unknown to
Englishmen until Cook's first voyage. Cook, in the _Endeavour_, ran
along the whole east coast, entering a few bays, naming many points,
and particularly describing Botany Bay where he stayed some little time;
then he sailed through Torres Straits, and thence, _via_ Batavia, home
to England, where he arrived in June, 1771. The English Government took
no advantage of his discoveries until 1786, when Botany Bay was
fixed upon as the site of a new penal settlement; and this choice was
determined, more than anything else, by the advice of Sir Joseph Banks,
who, from the time of his voyage with Cook in the _Endeavour_ till his
death, took the keenest interest in the continent; and colonists are
more indebted to the famous naturalist for his friendly services than to
any other civilian Englishman of the time.

Phillip's commission ordered him to proceed to Botany Bay, but
authorised him to choose another site for the settlement if he
considered a better could be found. He arrived with his fleet of
transports in 1788, after a voyage of many months' duration, so managed
that, though the fleet was the first to make the passage and was made
up of more ships and more prisoners than any succeeding fleet, there was
less sickness and fewer deaths than on any of the convoys which followed
it Phillip made a careful examination of Botany Bay, and finding it
unsuitable for planting, the settlement was removed to Port Jackson.
After landing the exiles, the transports returned to Europe _via_ China
and the East Indies, and their route was along the north-east coast of
Australia. The voyages of these returning transports, under the
navy agent, Lieutenant Short-land, were fruitful in discoveries and
adventures. Meanwhile Phillip and his officers were working hard,
building their homes and taking their recreation in exploring the
country and the coast for many miles around them. And with such
poor means as an indifferent Home Government provided, this work of
exploration went on continually under each naval governor, the pressing
want of food spurring the pioneers ever on in the search for good
land; but that very need, with the lack of vessels, of men who could be
trusted, of all that was necessary for exploration, kept them chained in
a measure to their base at Sydney Cove.

Phillip, white-faced, cold and reserved, but with a heart full of pity,
was responsible for the lives of a thousand people in a desolate country
twelve thousand miles from England--so desolate that his discontented
officers without exception agreed that the new colony was "the
most God-forsaken land in the world." The convict settlers were so
ill-chosen, and the Government so neglected to supply them with even the
barest necessities from Home, that for several years after their landing
they were in constant distress from famine; and disease and death from
this cause alone was an evil regularly to be encountered by the silent,
hard-working Phillip. The only means of relief open to the starving
settlement was by importing food from Batavia and the Cape of Good
Hope, and to procure such supplies Phillip had but two ships at his
disposal--the worn-out old frigate _Sirius_ (which was lost at Norfolk
Island soon after the founding of the settlement) and a small brig of
war, the _Supply_--which for many weary months were the only means of
communication with civilisation.

The Home Government, when they did despatch a second fleet, instead of
sending supplies for the starving people under Phillip's care, sent more
prisoners, and very little to eat was sent with them. The authorities
seem to have had an idea that a few hundred shovels, some decayed garden
seeds, and a thousand or two of Old Bailey men and women criminals, were
all the means needed to found a prosperous and self-supporting colony.
How Phillip and his successors surmounted these difficulties is another
story; but in the sea history of Australia the work of the naval
governors occupies no small space in it. Remember, too, that the Torres
Straits route and the Great Barrier Reef, now as well charted as the
Solent, were only then being slowly discovered by clumsy old sailing
craft, whose masters learnt to dread and avoid the dangers of the
unknown coast as children grow cautious of fire, by actually touching
it.

Hunter, the second Governor of New South Wales, and King, the third
Governor, both did remarkable surveying work on the coast while serving
under Phillip, and both made still more remarkable voyages to England.
Hunter was the senior naval officer under Phillip, and was in command of
the _Sirius_ when she was lost on Norfolk Island.

This is how the dauntless Hunter got home with the crew of the _Sirius_,
after waiting six months on Norfolk Island for the chance of a passage.
The _Waaksamheyd_, a Dutch snow{*} of 300-tons burden, which had brought
supplies to Sydney from Batavia, was engaged to take Hunter and his
shipwrecked crew to England. She was _thirteen months_ on the voyage,
and here are some extracts from Hunter's letter to the Admiralty,
written from Portsmouth on the 23rd of April, 1792:--

"I sailed from Port Jackson on the 27th of March, 1791, victualled
for six months and with sixty tons of water. We were one hundred and
twenty-three people on board all told" (remember this vessel was of
three hundred tons burden). "The master was directed to call at Norfolk
Island to receive despatches, but contrary winds prevented us carrying
out these orders. We steered to the northward and made New Caledonia,
passing to the westward of it, as the master (a Dutchman) did not feel
himself qualified to navigate a vessel in these unknown seas. He had,
upon leaving Port Jackson, requested my assistance, which I gave him. In
sailing to the northward we fell in with several islands and shoals, the
situations of which we determined, and it is my intention, if the Navy
Board will permit me, to lay a short account of this northern passage
before the Board, when the discoveries will be particularly mentioned.
No ship that I have heard of having sailed between New Britain and New
Ireland since that passage was discovered by Captain Carteret in
Her Majesty's sloop _Swallow_, I was the more desirous to take that
route.... We passed through the Straits of Macassar and arrived at
Batavia after a tedious and distressing passage of twenty-six weeks."

     * A snow differed somewhat slightly from a brig. It had two
     masts similar to the fore and mainmasts of a brig or ship,
     and, close abaft the mainmast, a topsail mast.

After burying an officer and two seamen at Batavia, Hunter left that
place on October 20th, reached the Cape on the 17th of December, and
was driven to sea again after the loss of two anchors, till the 30th.
So weak and ill were his men from the effects of their stay in the
unhealthy climate of Batavia, that he had to remain at the Cape till the
18th of January, when he again put to sea and sailed for England.

Hunter's brief and precise official account of his voyage discloses
little of the great distress of that thirteen months' passage; but it
shows how the spirit of discovery was in the man; how, in spite of the
care of one hundred and twenty-three people in a 300-ton vessel, and
half rations, he had time and energy enough to think of surveying. One
result of his voyage was his strongly expressed opinion that the proper
route home from Australia was _via_ Cape Horn--now the recognised
homeward route for sailing vessels.

The name of King ought never to be forgotten, for the services of father
and son in Australian waters were very great. King, the elder, came
out with Phillip as second lieutenant of the crazy old _Sirius_. He had
previously served under Phillip in the East Indies, and soon after the
arrival of the first fleet in "Botany Bay," as New South Wales was
then called, he was sent with a detachment of Marines and a number of
convicts to colonise Norfolk Island. His task was a hard one, but he
accomplished it in the face of almost heartbreaking difficulties.

Phillip, finding that his despatches failed to awaken the Home
Government to a sense of the deplorable situation of the colony he
had founded at Port Jackson, determined to send home a man who would
represent the true state of affairs. He chose King for the service.
Every other officer--both naval and military--was ready to go, and would
have eloquently described the miseries of the colonists, and harped on
the necessity for an instant abandonment of the settlement--they were
writing letters to this effect by every chance they could get to forward
them--but this was not what Phillip wanted. He, and he alone, recognised
the future possibilities of New South Wales, writing even at the time
of his deepest distress: "This will be the greatest acquisition Great
Britain has ever made." All he asked was for reasonable help in the way
of food and decent settlers who could work. All he got in answer to
his requests was the further shipment of the scum of the gaols and the
hulks--and some more spades and seeds. King believed in his chief and
cordially worked with him--and King was the silent Phillip's one friend.

So King went home, his voyage thither being one of the most singular
ever made by naval officer. He left Sydney Cove in April, 1790, and
after a tedious passage reached Batavia. Here he engaged a small Dutch
vessel to take him to the Cape of Good Hope, sailing for that port in
August Before the ship had been a week at sea, save four men, the whole
crew, including the master, were stricken with the hideous "putrid
fever"--a common disease in "country" ships at that time. King, a quick
and masterful man, took command, and with his four well men lived on
deck in a tent to escape contagion. The rest of the ship's company,
which included a surgeon, lay below delirious, and one after another of
them dying--seventeen of them died in a fortnight.

King tells how, when handling the bodies to throw them overboard, he and
his men covered their mouths with sponges soaked in vinegar to prevent
contagion. In this short-handed condition he navigated the vessel to the
Mauritius, where, "having heard of the misunderstanding with the French"
the gallant officer refused to take passage in a French frigate; but
procuring a new crew worked his way to the Cape, where he arrived
in September, reaching England in December, after a passage which
altogether occupied eight months--a letter from England to Australia and
a reply to it now occupies about ten weeks.

In England King was well received, being confirmed in his appointment as
Commandant of Norfolk Island, and he succeeded in getting some help for
his fellow-colonists. Upon his return to his island command the little
colony proved a great worry. The military guard mutinied, and King armed
the convict settlers to suppress the mutiny! This act of his gave great
offence in some quarters. Phillip had resigned the command at Sydney,
and the Lieutenant-Governor of the colony, who was in charge, was the
commanding officer of the New South Wales Regiment--more celebrated in
the records for its mutinies than its services--and the degradation
of the Norfolk Island detachment by King was never forgiven by the
soldiers, but the Home Government quite approved his conduct.

But King made one very serious mistake. He had sent a vessel to New
Zealand, and from thence had imported certain Maori chiefs to instruct
the settlers on Norfolk Island in flax cultivation.

King had pledged his word to these noble savages to return them to their
native country, and in order to do so, and make sure of their getting
there, he himself embarked in a vessel, leaving his command for a few
days to the charge of his subordinate, while he sailed the thirteen
hundred miles to New Zealand and back. For this he was censured, but
was notwithstanding afterwards appointed the third Governor of New South
Wales, succeeding Hunter.

King's son, who was born at Norfolk Island in 1791, entered the Navy
in 1807, and saw any amount of fighting in the French war; then went to
Australia in 1817, and surveyed its eastern coast in such a manner that,
when he returned to England in 1823 there was little but detail
work left for those who followed him. Then he was appointed to the
_Adventure_, which, in conjunction with the _Beagle_, surveyed the South
American coast. In 1830 he retired and settled in Australia, dying there
in 1856. His son in turn entered the service, but early followed his
father's example, and turned farmer in Australia. He still lives, and
is a member of the Legislative Council or Upper House of the New South
Wales Parliament.

Here is a family record! Three generations, all naval officers, and all
men who have taken an active share in the founding and growth of Greater
Britain; and yet not one man in a thousand in Australia, much less in
England, has probably the remotest idea of the services rendered to the
Empire by this family.

The fourth and last naval Governor, Bligh, is more often remembered in
connection with the _Bounty_ mutiny than for his governorship of New
South Wales. He was deposed by the military in 1808, for his action in
endeavouring to suppress the improper traffic in rum which was being
carried on by the officers of the New South Wales Regiment. This second
mutiny, of which he was the victim, certainly cannot be blamed against
the honesty of his administration; and the assertion, so often repeated,
that he hid himself under his bed when the mutinous soldiers--who had
been well primed with rum by their officers--marched to Government
House, can best be answered by the statement that Nelson publicly
thanked him for his skill and gallantry at Copenhagen, and by the
heroism which he showed in the most remarkable boat voyage in history.
He may have been the most tyrannical and overbearing naval officer that
ever entered the service, but he was not the man to hide himself under a
bed.

There were other naval officers of the early Australian days whose
services were no less valuable to the infant colony. Think of the men
associated with this time, and of the names famous in history, which
are in some way linked with Australia. Dampier, Cook, La Pérouse, Bligh,
Edwards and the _Pandora_, Vancouver, Flinders, Bass--all these are
familiar to the world, and there are others in plenty; for example,
Grant, who in his vessel, the brig _Lady Nelson_, did such work in
Australian waters as, if performed nowadays say in Africa, would have
been recorded in hundreds of newspaper interviews, many process-work
pictures and a 21s. book with cheap editions!

What a story is that of Bass and Flinders! Such noble, disinterested
courage! Such splendid service to English colonisation, and such a sad
ending to it all.

Bass and Flinders, in their tiny open boat, the _Tom Thumb_, and in the
sloop _Norfolk_, dotting the blank map of Australia with the names of
their discoveries--it is not necessary surely to remind the reader
that Bass began, and together the two men completed, the discovery and
passage of the straits between Van Dieman's Land and the main continent.
Bass surveyed something like six hundred miles of the Australian coast
in a whaleboat with a crew of six men! And one _cannot_ summarise
Flinders' work in the _Norfolk_ and in the _Investigator_ before the old
ship was condemned and converted into a hulk to rot in Sydney Harbour.

How were these men rewarded for their services, and what has posterity
done to keep their names in remembrance? In 1803 Flinders started for
England, was wrecked, and making his way to the Mauritius was there,
to the everlasting disgrace of Napoleon's Island governor, detained
a prisoner for more than six years. Of course the English Government
ultimately procured his release, but it took them all that time to do
it; and when he did get back they promoted his juniors over his head.
When he died in 1814, a broken heart was as much as anything else the
cause of his death.

Bass, after leaving Australia, went to England and sailed in an armed
merchantman bound to South America. At Valparaiso the Governor of the
town refused to allow the vessel to trade. Bass, who was then in
command of the ship, threatened to bombard the town, and the refusal was
withdrawn; but, watching their opportunity the authorities seized
him when he was off his guard, and it was supposed he was sent to the
interior. As the years passed by there were one or two reports that
he was seen working in the mines, but it seems to have been no one's
business to inquire into his fate. It is more than probable that the
brave Bass died a slave.

But the whalers, "South Seamen" and East Indiamen, did no less good
service than the King's ships in the early days, and yet even the old
books do them but scant justice. For the first fifty years of Australian
colonisation the merchantmen charted reefs, discovered harbours, and did
just those things for the desert waters of the Australasian Pacific as
were afterwards done by land explorers, in their camel and pack-horse
journey-ings into the waterless interior of the continent And the
stories that could be told! The whalers and sealers who were cast away
on desert islands, and lived Robinson Crusoe lives for years! The open
boat voyages. The massacres by blacks. The cuttings-off by the savage
islanders of the South Pacific. The mutinies and sea fights!

Hobart in Tasmania, Twofold Bay in New South Wales, and many New
Zealand ports were the great whaling stations, and Sydney the commercial
headquarters. Fifty years ago there were something like twenty whalers
in the Hobart Fleet alone; now, one or two hulks lying in Whaler's
"Rotten Row" is practically all that survives of the trade.

The Americans took a leading part in the industry, and ships with _New
Bedford_ or _Nantucket_ under their sterns traversed the Pacific from
one end to the other. Australian whaling was begun (Dampier reported
whales as early as 1699) in Governor Phillip's time, by some of the
convict transports coming out with whaling equipment in their holds, and
after disembarking their human freight, departing for the "Fisheries."

Some of these ships often remained in the Pacific for years, making
cruises of twelve or eighteen months' duration, returning to Sydney when
full ships to discharge and refresh, their cargoes being sent to England
in some returning "favourite fast clipper," while the whalers went back
to their greasy and dangerous vocation, until they were lost, or cut off
by the savages, or worn out and converted into hulks.

What numbers of them _were_ lost! and what wonderful and blood-curdling
experiences their crews underwent when they were castaways, or deserted,
or were marooned on "the islands"! Here is a story of a vessel lost in
Torres Straits in 1836--not a whaler, but an East Indiaman. Some of her
crew and passengers managed to land on the mainland of North Australia
and were there captured by blacks. Six months later a few survivors were
rescued and landed in Sydney; and this is what had happened to the only
woman of the party, Mrs. Fraser, wife of the captain: She had seen her
child die, her husband speared to death before her face, the chief mate
roasted alive, the second mate burned over a slow fire until he was too
crippled to walk, and otherwise horribly and indescribably tortured, and
she herself was made to climb trees for honey for her captors by having
lighted gum branches applied to her body.

In another instance a vessel was wrecked on the North Australian coast
in 1846, and nearly twenty years later the sole survivor turned up at a
cattle station near Port Denison, in North Queensland. He had been all
this time living among the blacks, unable to escape, and civilisation
had found its way, in the years that had elapsed, far enough into the
back country to reach him. The stockman who first saw the man took him
for a black and levelled his rifle at him, when he was stopped from
shooting the poor fellow by the words, "Don't fire, I am an Englishman."

Here, told in a few words, is the story of the first landing in
Victoria, and the first discovery of coal in New South Wales: On the map
of Tasmania, in the north-east corner, is marked the Furneaux Group of
islands in Bass's Straits. Dotted about the cluster are such names as
Preservation Island, Clarke Island, and Armstrong Channel. These names
all commemorate the wreck of the _Sydney Cove_, Captain Hamilton, bound
from Calcutta to Sydney, and lost in February, 1797. She sprang a leak
on the 13th of December, 1796, and her crew, chiefly Lascars, managed to
keep her afloat till the 9th of the following February, when the skipper
made Preservation Island, and there beached her. All the people landed
safely, and got what stores they could ashore. Then it was decided to
despatch the long boat to Port Jackson for help.

Thompson the mate, Clarke the supercargo, three European seamen, and
a dozen Lascars manned the boat and left the island on the 29th of
February. On the 1st of March the boat was driven ashore and battered
to pieces close to Cape Howe (near the present boundary line of Victoria
and New South Wales) three hundred miles from Sydney, in a country never
before trodden by the feet of white men. All hands were saved, and after
a fortnight's rest, feeding on such shellfish as they could obtain, the
party set out to walk to Sydney.

Clarke kept a rough diary of this journey, telling of encounters with
blacks, of death and madness by starvation and other privations; of how
they crossed wide and shark-infested rivers by building rafts of tree
branches cut down and fashioned with jack knives; of how the lives of
men were purchased from the blacks by strips of clothing; and of how
they counted the buttons on their ragged garments, and thus reckoned how
many lives could be bought from the savages with what remained.

The terrible march lasted until the 15th of May; then three exhausted
men, horrible to look upon, and the only survivors of seventeen who had,
sixty days before, begun the journey, were picked up a few miles to the
south of Sydney by a fishing boat.

The spot where they were seen walking along the beach was close to Port
Hacking, and Clarke, three days before his rescue, had lit a fire and
cooked some fish with coal he picked up. This was the first discovery of
the great southern coal-fields of New South Wales.

There are other less gruesome stories than these; for example that of
the Sydney whaler _Policy_, which, sailing under a Letter of Marque
for the Moluccas, was set upon by a Dutch private ship of war--the
_Swift_--at one time a formidable and successful French privateer.
Captain Foster of the _Policy_, though his armament was very inferior
and many of his crew were prostrated with fever, engaged the Dutchman,
fought him for some hours, and brought his ship a prize into Sydney
Harbour. Two Spanish vessels were captured in the same way by armed
Sydney whalers; so that Australian waters have seen a little fighting.

On board the convict ships of those early days there were often
mutinies, desperate and sometimes bloody, and some of these led
to remarkable results. In one instance the soldiers--not the
prisoners--rose upon the crew and the ship's officers, turned them
adrift in an open boat, and carried off the ship. They were recaptured
afterwards by a man-of-war in the Indian Ocean and brought to justice.
Convict mutinies often were only suppressed after desperate hand-to-hand
fighting; then a day or two later the ringleaders would be hanged from
the yardarm, and a dozen or more convicts flogged at the gratings. And
these things, be it remembered, were going on only an old man's lifetime
ago.

New Zealand is fertile in adventure stories, and the well-known _Boyd_
massacre is paralleled by two or three other tragedies equally as
dreadful, if less often told. The whaling history of that colony would
make a book--not of the kind suitable for young ladies seminaries, 'tis
true, but mighty strong in human interest, and presenting the race as
well as the sex problem for the study of the reader.

Statistics are terribly dry reading, but by way of contrasting the
condition of Australian shipping then and now, it is worth while quoting
a few figures.

In 1835, the heyday of the colonial whaling trade, when the smoky glare
of the whaleships' try-works lit up the darkness of the Pacific ocean
night, there were forty-one vessels, of a total tonnage of 9,257 tons,
registered in New South Wales, employed in the fishery. In the same year
twenty-two vessels arrived in Sydney from the various grounds, their
cargoes of whalebone, sealskins, and sperm and black oil valuing
altogether about £150,000. Now the whaling trade in Southern Seas is
represented by two or three small and poorly equipped ships from Hobart,
though the whales--sperm, right, and humpback--are again as plentiful as
they were in the first years of the fishery. One of the present writers,
less than four years ago, counted over three hundred humpbacks passing
to the northward in two days on the coast of New South Wales, while
there were ten times that number of the swift and dangerous "fin-back"
whales travelling with them.

But, though the whale fishery is extinct, there is something to be shown
instead.

It has been said that twenty-two whalers entered Sydney in 1835, which
means that during that year not twice that number of vessels of all
descriptions entered the port--for the whaling was then _the_ trade.
But the steamer was beginning to count, and the beginning of the Sydney
steam trade is not without a peculiar interest--for Londoners at any
rate.

The _Sophia Jane_ was the first steamer in Australasian waters. She
arrived in Sydney from London, _via_ the Cape of Good Hope, with cargo
and passengers, on the 14th of May. This vessel was built on the Thames
by a well-known shipbuilder of the time, William Evans, who was the
builder of many other notable early steamers. She was running for a
summer or two as a passenger steamer between Gravesend and London;
then between different ports in the south of England; and then, under
a Lieutenant Biddulph, of the Royal Navy, she was sent to Sydney. The
little vessel was 126 feet long by 20 feet beam, drew 6 feet of water,
was of 256 tons burden, and had accommodation for fifty-four passengers;
her engines were of 50 horse-power, and her speed eight knots an hour.
This was the first steamer in the Southern Seas--the forerunner of a
fleet of mighty leviathans.



THE END




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