have been reconfigured as endnotes, and linked. To face page
GEORGE BASS'S WHALEBOAT. [From an engraving by Lesueur, in
the Atlas to Peron and Freycinet's "Voyage
de decouvertes aux Terres Australes." - the boat is represented stayed
up on the foreshore in front of the line of fencing.]
BASS AND HIS
George Bass, the surgeon of H.M.S. Reliance, was the first man
after Cook, to traverse any part of the Victorian coast.
In December, 1797, Governor Hunter gave him the use of a
whale-boat and six seamen to explore the southern part of the
continent; and on the evening of the 3rd of that month, the
adventurous little company rowed out of Port Jackson, and set
sail on a southern and westward cruise.
Bass' portrait shows him to have been a handsome man, with a
face evincing a suggestion of keenness and power, firm will
and swift decision, behind a refined manner and a lively
He was tall, strong, and enduring. In the whole company of
enterprising men whom we remember as the explorers of
Australia, there is none, not even of those who are far more
important for the extent of work they did, who on personal
grounds arouses quite the same affectionate interest as does
George Bass. (1)
Cook-was, of course, a far greater man historically, and
Flinders was a more accomplished navigator, than can for a
moment be claimed for Bass.
Yet he was something more than a dashing amateur in this
The reader of his journal recognises in it the work of a
shrewd and clear-minded observer.
We do Bass an injustice if we regard his whale-boat voyage
simply as an adventure.
It was that, indeed, but-the exploration was pursued in a
scientific manner; and whoever refers to his writing on any
point will find him clear, precise, and dependable.
There is, moreover, a certain brilliancy, a touch of romantic
daring, about Bass, that seems to mark him as a man born for
Governor Hunter, in an official despatch, characterized him as
"a young man of a well-informed mind and an active
and in a second report to the Admiralty as a man "of much
ability in various ways out
of the line of
his profession." (2)
Flinders called him "the penetrating Bass." (3)
We read also, in a description of
him by a relative, of
The mystery surrounding his end will perhaps never be
entirely removed; but meanwhile we may recognise what he
did, with the means available, to
have been brave work, worthy of
his dauntless character.
It may be well at this point to correct an error which has
been unfortunately promulgated in the best known modem
history of the British Navy.
In volume IV. of The Royal Navy: a History,"
edited by Sir William Laird
Clowes, it is stated that Bass' whale-boat voyage was
undertaken "with a crew of five convicts.''(4)
Reference to Governor Hunter's despatches shows that such
was not the case.
"I inquired of him," says Hunter,
" in what way he was desirous of exerting himself, and he
informed me that nothing could satisfy him more effectually
than my allowing him the use of a good boat and permitting
him to man her from the King's ships." Accordingly Hunter "
furnished him with an excellent whale-boat, well fitted,
victualled, and manned to his wish."(5)
The crew were, therefore, honest British sailors.
The convict story is a fabrication.
One of his six picked seamen, John Thistle, afterwards rose
to the rank of master, in which position he served in the Investigator.
Flinders was "much attached" to
him, and Thistle Island, in Spencer's Gulf, was named after
carried provisions for six weeks.
His little craft doubled Cape Howe on 20th December.
On the last day of the year, he confesses in his journal to
have pursued his voyage "in anxious expectation, being now
come upon an hitherto unknown part of the coast."
On the last night of 1797,(6) at 10 o'clock,
there was a bright moon in a cloudless sky, and the
adventurers could distinctly see the low, level land on their
Cramped and uncomfortable as they must have been, they can
hardly have failed to feel, at this moment, that their
privations were worth enduring.
A new year was dawning, and they- these seven hardy Englishmen
in their rocking craft, so small a thing that a man could
hardly stretch his legs in it without kicking the shins of
another- were adding a wide stretch of entirely fresh
territory to the map of the world.
Bass himself was a man of thought and knowledge, and it must,
surely, have stimulated his imagination as he scanned the
bush-backed coastline of the
washed by its long fringe of white foam, breaking in crisp
phosphorescent curls under the moonlight, and wondered what
generations to come would make of this country, and what
they would think, if they spared a thought at all, of him,
the hazardous discoverer.
If a subject were wanted by a sculptor that should symbolize
the moving story of Australian exploration, there could
hardly be a better than a picture in marble or bronze of
George Bass, with his strong intellectual features, standing
erect in his whaleboat, searching the line of the shore, on
that voyage when he was winning enduring renown.
The chart drawn by Bass to show his course was embodied in a
drawing of Bass Strait afterwards published by Flinders.
Copies of the original are extremely rare; but there is one in
the British Museum and another in the Petherick Collection,
Federal Parliamentary Library.
On 2nd January Wilson's Promontory was discovered; but the
name it bears was given, not at the instance of Bass alone,
but of himself and Flinders.
The latter wrote that "at our recommendation Governor Hunter
called it Wilson's Promontory in compliment to my friend
Thomas Wilson, Esq., of London."(7)
Mr. E. A. Petherick informs me that he has seen letters
written by this Thomas Wilson, who was a London merchant
partly engaged in Australian trade ; but I have been unable to
gather anything more definite about him.
The author of a book about Australia, published in England a
few years ago (8) writing of Wilson's
Promontory, falls into an error of the kind that is committed
by taking statements at second hand, instead of depending upon
It is alleged that one of the crew of the whaleboat, named
William Wilson, "jumped ashore first, and the point was
henceforth called Wilson's Promontory."
ashore first," because, as Bass twice mentions in his journal,
"we could not land."(9)
He at first called the promontory "Furneaux's Land," believing
it to be the country sighted by the captain of the Adventurein
1770; but as Flinders states that Hunter gave the name
Wilson's Promontory "at our recommendation," it may be
inferred that Bass did not convince Flinders of the
correctness of his hypothesis, and changed his own opinion
before a name was affixed by authority.(10)
On 5th January Bass discovered Westernport, which he so named
"from its relative situation to every other known harbor on
the coast." There is no need to dwell upon his
pleasing appearance of the surrounding country, upon the
incidents of his ten days' sojourn in the port, or upon the
return journey to Sydney, where he arrived on Sunday, 25th
The important point in the development of our subject is that
by this voyage of Bass, in 1798, the whole of the eastern
coastline of Victoria, from Cook's Point Hicks to Westernport,
was made known and its general contours were mapped.
Bass Strait Demonstrated.
Bass did not actually demonstrate that the strait which bears
his name was a passage between Tasmania and the mainland; but,
as he informed Governor Hunter, the sea "rose to so
mountainous a height "that there was much
reason to conclude "the absence of land blocking egress
Indeed he "constantly asserted"(11) that
the westerly swell rolling in upon Western-port indicated
exposure at that situation to the Southern Indian Ocean.
In October, 1798, Bass and Flinders together, in the Norfolk, 25
tons, proved that there was a strait by sailing through it.
This piece of investigation was the principal object of their
Their sloop was a tiny craft for a stiff bit of navigation,
but she was a fine sea-boat, whose qualities elicited the
admiration of Flinders.
"Seas that were apparently determined to swallow her up," he
wrote, "she rode with all the ease and
majesty of an old experienced petrel." On 9th December, after rounding
Hunter's Islands and Albatross Island, the problem was solved,
for "the direction of the coast, the set of the tides, and the
great swell from the south-west, did now completely satisfy us
that a very wide strait did really exist between Van Diemen's
Land and New South Wales, and also now that we had certainly
new (11th) edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica does not find
room for an article on George Bass, the discoverer, but
devotes a fair amount of space to one on some other
persons named Bass, who, it appears, are "a family of
English brewers'! " It would be
odd if this represented the relative importance, in the
minds of the editors, of history and beer!
2. Hunter to the Duke of Portland, Historical Records of New South
Wales, III., 363 ; and to
Secretary Nepean, Ibid., 474. 3. "Narrative of the Voyage of the Norfolk," Ibid..
111., 816. 4.The chapter in which
the statement appears
was written by Sir Clements
Markham. 5. Historical
Records, III., 363 and 474. 6. It was January, 1789, by nautical reckoning.
b 7. Flinders Voyage to
Terra Australis, I., p. cxv. 8. The
Coming of the British to Australia, by Ida Lee (London, 1906), p. 51. 9. H.R., III., 321 and 322. 10. Governor King, in a document dated
1801, described Wilson's Promontory as "named by
Lieutenant Flinders." (H.R., IV., 309.)
Whaleboat, Sydney Cove, 1802.
small boat to the right] Detail from:
From an engraving by Lesueur,
in the Atlas to Peron and Freycinet's
de decouvertes aux Terres Australes."
boat is represented stayed up on the foreshore
in front of the line of fencing.
Voyage de Découvertes
aux Terres Australes… Sur les corvettes le Géographe, le
Naturaliste, et la goelette le Casuarina, pendant les années
1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804. BAUDIN, François PERON, Louis
Three volumes, small and large quarto; the two-volume text with
portrait frontispiece and two folding tables; the two-part large
quarto atlas (bound in one volume) containing 40 plates (23
coloured and two folding) and 14 maps (two double-page and
The official account of the
important Baudin voyage to Australia and the Pacific.
As Baudin died in the course of the voyage, the narrative was
begun by Péron, the expedition's naturalist, and completed by
Freycinet after Péron's death.
Volumes on hydrography were separately published and actually
distributed by a different bookseller.
This is the format in which the voyage publication is normally
seen with two volumes of text and two parts of the atlas,
often referred to as the
general reader's set. The exceptional
illustrations are by the remarkable artist Charles-Alexandre
"Lesueur's scientific work runs parallel to artistic work of
He was at one and the same time draughtsman and painter,
naturalist and landscape artist.
His talent was recognised in France in his own lifetime, by
the award… of the silver medal of the Société des Beaux-Arts…"
- Baudin in Australian
Waters, page 26. The well-equipped
Baudin expedition was one of the great French voyages of
discovery, and made significant visits to Western Australia,
Tasmania and Sydney.
The coastal explorations are commemorated by numerous
place-names along the Australian coast, especially in Tasmania
and Western Australia. The French and English
completed their circumnavigations of the Australian continent
at approximately the same time, but Flinders's imprisonment by
the French on Mauritius meant that it was this French account
which contained the first complete and detailed chart of the
Australian continent to appear in print.
This map, often said to have been at least partly based on
Flinders's charts and papers seized by the French, is one of
the most beautiful, as well as one of the most famous of all
maps of Australia.
Ernest Scott: English
and French navigators on the
Victorian coast. in Victorian
Historical Magazine Volume
2 Number 4, December 1912.