Australia (Part 5) Young Men In Boats

Posted on Wed 05/14/2008 by


The third part of the mind set I mentioned in the previous post deals with some of the early exploration.

A young man George Bass joined the Royal Navy at the age of 14. Yes, you might say that happened in those days but for you readers who have a son around the age of 14, you know that he’s only still a boy, so, when I say that he joined the Navy, I want you all to read very closely the position he held as a 14 year old having just joined the Navy. George Bass joined the Royal Navy at the age of 14 as an Apprentice Surgeon. Makes you think eh!
He arrived in New South Wales in 1795, and hooked up with another young Navy guy, Lieutenant Matthew Flinders.

They were pretty adventurous fellows and liked to have a look around. So, the pair of them decide to explore a little. So they got a rowboat, just on eight feet long, and with a hole in the front centre board where a pole could be fitted for a tiny square sail. They called her ‘Tom Thumb’.
George was 24, and Matthew was 21.
They threw in some provisions and some casks of water, and just took off.
In an eight foot rowboat with a tiny sail.

Not for a couple of hours tooling around on the harbour, close to shore.

This is a replica of the original ‘Tom Thumb’ built in 1987 by Ken Garvins and reproduced by courtesy of The Sydney Heritage Fleet.Photograph courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

Click on the image to see a larger picture in a new window.

No, these guys rowed and sailed out of the Heads into the open Pacific Ocean, turned South and started exploring, not for a day or two, but for up to weeks at a time, in an eight foot boat. They found new places suitable for settling, and reported back to the new Governor, Arthur Phillip having returned to England, and had been replaced by John Hunter. Convicts were then sent to set up new settlements, and the colony slowly expanded. Some convicts were actually being released, given land and setting up farming properties, and among the first was John Ruse, freed after his 7 year term, transported on the First Fleet. He was given land at Rose Hill, now Parramatta one of Sydney’s largest suburbs, with Rose Hill now the site of one of Sydney’s main horse racing tracks.

Something highlighted by this was that some convict’s release date was actually not long after the fleet actually landed, virtually a double sentence if you will, jail, and then exile upon release.

John Hunter, the new Governor was impressed with the young Bass and Flinders, well, who wouldn’t be. So, he gave George a new boat and a new task. A pretty impressive new craft it was too. A whole whaleboat, almost twice the length of the rowboat and with a bigger sail. Off you go now then, see you later. He was given a crew of 6 sailors and provisions for 6 weeks.
This time George explored 500 miles along the Coast, charting and mapping as he went, not as a Naval guy trained in navigation, but as surgeon, his apprenticeship long since served.

When he reported back, the young surgeon had a hunch, so he was given a new boat and with Flinders as master, he was tasked to test his theory. The boat, was the Norfolk, a 17 ton sloop, sounding pretty big and impressive, but in reality just a fair sized yacht. The Norfolk was the first vessel constructed in the new colony, at Norfolk Island, and from the pine trees indigenous to the Island, the famed and huge Norfolk Island Pines.

George’s theory was a pretty big ask in those days. A young guy approaching his boss three levels up the chain of command and proposing that Naval records of the time were wrong, a pretty radical thing indeed. That theory was that there was a sea passage between what was known as Van Diemens Land, (discovered by a Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in 1642, named after his benefactor back in Holland, and later called Tasmania in his honour as discoverer) and what was then New South Wales. The pair took the Norfolk and proved that the body of land was indeed an island and that the expanse of water between the two was quite significant indeed, completely sailing around and mapping the smaller island of Van Diemens Land and also the southern side of the larger body of Land.

This was an important thing. The last leg of the long trip from England started at the Cape Of Good Hope, and was around eight weeks in duration, and the best latitude to sail this trip was in the 40 degree south latitudes, known as the ‘roaring forties’ because there was always a good tail wind behind the boat, aiding with the speed. This latitude brought you into contact with the west coast of Van Diemens Land, where you turned South and followed that land mass all the way around and then North to Port Jackson and the Sydney Cove settlement. If there was an open body of water then that trip would be significantly shorter, as Bass and Flinders proved on this expedition.

George Bass was then given command of his own ship and in 1803 sailed out of Sydney Cove headed for Chile across the Pacific Ocean. He was never seen again. He was 31 years old.

Matthew Flinders went back to England and his reputation followed. He was then tasked with mapping the coastline of this Great Southern Continent. He sailed back to Sydney, and in 1802 set out to circumnavigate Australia, proving once and for all that it was indeed an Island. This took him more than a year, and his maps were so accurate, they have barely changed to this day. Once finally back in England he campaigned that the new Country should be known as Terra Australis or Australia. Terra Australis was the name given to the mythical Great Southern Land centuries before, and Flinders suggestion was that this name should actually be revived and adopted for the new country. This was considered a little too far out into left field, and the status quo saw it remain as New South Wales.
The other settlements grew and they adopted their own names and borders were settled upon, borders that changed significantly over time. However, they remained as separate colonies.

What happened to all these brave young men, those first great Australians?

This statue of
James Cook is a copy of the original from Whitby in England, where Cook started his Naval career.
This is at Waimea on the island of Kauai.This photograph is
a Creative
Commons photograph.

Click on the image to see a larger one in a new window.

, the discover of the Great Southern Land. Well, after that, he went on to a distinguished if somewhat shortened Naval career. After discovering Australia, he was made a full Commander, and searched twice in vain for the North West Passage across the top of the American Continent. Promoted to full Captain, he made two more voyages into the Pacific, and was the first navigator to actually enter Antarctic Waters. He was killed in 1779 by indigenous natives on what he named The Sandwich Islands, now know as Hawaii, not living to see his legendary discovery of The Great Southern Continent settled. There are numerous statues of this famed navigator at all points of the Globe, including a statue and a plaque at Waimea on Kauai commemorating his discovery of the Hawaiian Islands.

His good friend Matthew Flinders named that body of water between the Mainland and the southern island Bass Strait, an extraordinary navigator who gave up his day job.

His reputation now made for life, was one of the first to actually perceive, along with Lord Sydney, that the colony would have to start life as a penal colony, but right from the start would also have to start working towards normal settlement. He returned to England in 1792, was given increasing levels of command rising to the rank of Vice Admiral, (three stars) retiring at age 67 in 1805. He died in 1814, and continued pursuing the interests of the colony right up till his death.

Following his circumnavigation of Australia he returned to England not knowing they were now at war with the French. His Schooner pulled in for repairs at Mauritius, and not knowing about the war, he was arrested by the French as a spy, and imprisoned for 6 years. On his release he returned to England in poor health and started on a book, the definitive early work on Australia, titled ‘A voyage to Terra Australis’, again using that mythical name that gathered such little support.. The book was published in 1814 and one day after publication, Flinders died, aged only 40. The fifth Governor of Australia, Colonel Lachlan Macquarie, (later Major General, 2 stars) supported Flinders name of Australia, and also fruitlessly campaigned for its acceptance.

Finally, in 1899, the six colonies gathered in the run up to Federation on January 1st 1901, and decided to federate as one Country and name the Country as Australia, one hundred and four years after those two young men, George Bass and Matthew Flinders set off in a tiny rowboat, exploring.

Legends, every one of them. How times change.