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Matthew Flinders, No community has ever been more completely isolated than the first inhabitants of Sydney. They were three thousand miles away from the nearest white men, before them, a great ocean, visited only at rare intervals, and, for the greater part, unexplored; behind them, an unknown continent, a vast, untrodden waste, in which they formed but a speck. They were almost completely shut out from the civilized world, and few of them could have any hope of returning to their native land. This made the colony all the more suitable as a place of punishment; for people shrank in horror at the idea of being banished to what seemed like a tomb for living men and women.

But for all that, it was not desirable that Australia should remain always as unknown and unexplored as it then was; and, seven George Bassyears after the first settlement was made, two men arrived who were determined not to suffer it so to remain.
When Governor Hunter arrived, in 1795, he bought with him, onboard his ship the Reliance, a young surgeon, George Bass, and a midshipman called Matthew Flinders.

They were young men of the most admirable character, modest and amiable, filled with generous and manly affection for one another, and fired by a lofty enthusiasm which rejoiced in the wide field of discovery and fame that spread all around them. Within a month after their arrival, they purchased a small boat about 8 feet in length, which they christened the Tom Thumb.

Its crew consisted of themselves and a boy to assist, truly a poor vessel with which to face a great and stormy ocean like the pacific.
They sailed out, and after tossing for some time like a toy on the huge waves, they succeeded in entering Botany Bay, which they thoroughly explored, making a chart of its shores and rivers. On their return, Governor Hunter was highly pleased with this chart, and, shortly after, he gave them a holiday, which they spent in making a longer expedition to the south. It was said that a very large river fell into the sea south of Botany Bay, and they went out to search for its mouth.

Boat Excursion

In this trip they met with some adventures which will serve to illustrate the dangers of such a voyage. On one occasion, when their boat had been upset on the shore, and their powder wet by the sea-water, about fifty natives gathered around them, evidently with no friendly intention. Bass spread the powder out on the rocks to dry, and procured a supply of freshwater from a neighbouring pond. But they were in expectation every moment of being attacked and speared, and there was no hope in defending themselves till the powder was ready. Flinders, knowing the fondness of the natives for the luxury of a shave, persuaded them to sit down one after another on a rock, and amused them by clipping their beards with a pair of scissors. As soon as the powder was dry the explorers loaded their muskets and cautiously retreated to their boat, which they set right, and pushed off without mishap.
Once more on the Pacific, new dangers awaited them. They had been carried far to the south by the strong currents, and the wind was unfavorable. There was, therefore, no course open to them but to row as far as they could during the day, and at night throw out the stone which served as an anchor, and lie as sheltered as they could, in order to snatch a little sleep. On one of these nights, while they lay thus asleep, the wind suddenly burst in a gale, and they were roughly wakened by the splashing of the waves over their boat.
They pulled up their stone anchor and ran before the tempest – Bass holding the sail and Flinders steering with an oar. As Flinders says –

“It required the utmost care to prevent broaching to; a single wrong movement or a moment’s inattention would have sent us to the bottom. The task of the boy was to bale out the water, which, in spite of everyday care, the sea threw in upon us. The night was perfectly dark, and we knew no place of shelter, and the only direction by which we could steer was the roar of the waves upon the neighbouring cliffs.”


After an hour spent in this manner, they found themselves running straight for the breakers. They pulled down their mast and got out the oars, though without much hope of escape. They rowed desperately, however, and had the satisfaction of rounding the long line of boiling surf. Three minutes after, they were in smooth water, under the lee of the rocks, and soon they discovered a well-sheltered cove, where they anchored for the rest of the night.
It was not till two days later that they found the place they were seeking. It turned out not to be a river at all but only the little bay of Port Hacking, which they examined and minutely described. When they reached Sydney they gave information that enabled accurate maps to be constructed of between thirty and forty miles of coast.


On arriving at Port Jackson, they found that an accident had indirectly assisted in exploring that very coast on which they had landed. A vessel called the Sydney Cove, on its way to Port Jackson, had been wrecked on Furneaux Island, to the north of Van Diemen’s Land. A large party, headed by Mr Clarke, the supercargo, had started in boats, intending to sail along the coasts and obtain from Sydney. They were thrown ashore by a storm at Cape Howe and had to begin a dreary walk of 300 miles through dense and unknown country. Their small pack of provisions was soon used and they could find neither food nor fresh water on their travels. Many collapsed exhausted and fatigued and had to be left to their own fate. Of those who continued the majority were murdered a little less than 30 miles from Sydney. The culprits were the same tribe of blacks that Bass and Flinders had come across. Clarke and one or two others reached Port Jackson, their clothes in tatters, their bodies wasted almost to the bones and in such a state that when a boat was brought to carry them over the bay to Sydney, they had to be lifted on board like infants. Mr Clarke on his recovery was able to give a very useful account of a great deal of land not previously explored. The crew of the Sydney Cove were meanwhile living on one of the Furneaux Group and several small ships were sent down from Sydney to rescue the crew and cargo. Flinders was very anxious to go in one of the vessels, in order to make a chart of the places he might pass. Unfortunately for him, his ship, the Reliance, sailed for Norfolk, where he spent a great deal of time away. Click here to learn of the sorry tales of George Bass and Matthew Flinders.

(continues … Matthew Flinders)