PORT ESSINGTON—BEARINGS FROM SHOALS IN THE HARBOUR—APPEARANCE OF THE SETTLEMENT—MEET CAPTAIN STANLEY—CHURCH—POINT RECORD—PROSPECTS OF THE SETTLEMENT—BUFFALOES ESCAPE—FENCE ACROSS NECK OF PENINSULA—LIEUTENANT P.B. STEWART EXPLORES THE COUNTRY—NATIVES—USES OF SAND—TUMULI-BUILDING BIRDS—BEAUTIFUL OPOSSUM—WILD BEES—ESCAPE FROM AN ALLIGATOR—RESULT OF ASTRONOMICAL OBSERVATIONS—GEOLOGICAL FORMATION—RAFFLES BAY—LEAVE PORT ESSINGTON—POPHAM BAY—DETECT ERROR IN POSITION OF PORT ESSINGTON—MELVILLE ISLAND—DISCOVER A REEF IN CLARENCE STRAIT—CAPE HOTHAM—NATIVE HUTS AND CLOTHING—GEOLOGICAL FORMATION—DISCOVER THE ADELAIDE RIVER—INTERVIEW WITH NATIVES—ATTEMPT TO COME ON BOARD—MESSRS. FITZMAURICE AND KEYS NEARLY SPEARED—EXPLORATION OF THE ADELAIDE—ITS CAPABILITIES—WOOD-DUCKS—VAMPIRES—ANOTHER PARTY ASCENDS THE ADELAIDE—MEET NATIVES—CANOES—ALLIGATOR—VISIT MELVILLE ISLAND—GREEN ANTS—THOUGHTS OF TAKING SHIP UP ADELAIDE ABANDONED—TIDES IN DUNDAS STRAIT—RETURN TO PORT ESSINGTON—THEATRICALS—H.M.S. PELORUS ARRIVES WITH PROVISIONS—FURTHER REMARKS ON THE COLONY.
The expanse of water presented to our view in standing up Port Essington, quite delighted us. It is in truth a magnificent harbour, and well worthy of having on its shores the capital of Northern Australia, destined, doubtless, from its proximity to India, and our other fast-increasing eastern possessions, to become not only a great commercial resort, but a valuable naval post in time of war. Many circumstances combine to render it a desirable station. Its great size, having an extent sufficient to hold the largest fleet, is in itself of vast importance, while, as a shelter for distressed vessels, or the surviving crews of wrecks, it cannot be too highly rated: the more so that excellent wood for repairing ships grows in the neighbourhood, especially teak and oak, specimens of which with others, Captain Laws forwarded, in 1828, to one of the dockyards in England.
As we advanced the shores of the harbour contracted, and at the distance of thirteen miles from the entrance are only one mile apart; scarcely half, however, of this space is navigable, from a bank extending off the west side, which is a rocky head called Spear Point, from the circumstance of Captain King having been there nearly speared by the natives. The bearings for clearing the extremes of this reef are as follows. For the south-eastern, Adam Head S. 20° W., for the eastern, Middle Head S. 18° W., and for the north-eastern, Oyster Head N. 47° W. This great decrease in the breadth of the passage, necessarily gives the tide at this spot great rapidity, by which a channel, thirteen fathoms deep, has been formed close to the eastern shore, a low sandy tongue of land called Point Record. This name was given to it on the occasion of Port Essington and the contiguous country, being taken possession of by Sir Gordon Bremer when on his way to settle Melville Island, in 1824. A bottle containing an account of their proceedings was buried, and hence the name. The same cause which influences the tides, has rendered the sides of the narrow channel very steep, and a vessel standing towards the bank fronting Spear Point, should, accordingly, tack when the water shoals to nine fathoms, as the soundings in approaching that part fronting Port Record are 12, 9, 7, and 2 fathoms.
Beyond these points, the harbour again widens and forms a large basin nearly five miles in extent; but from a broad point projecting two miles from the south-east side, the inner harbour is proportionably decreased in size. From the extreme of this cliffy point, called by Captain King, from its position, Middle Head, a narrow bank extends some distance in the direction of Point Record, forming the only danger in this part of the harbour.
From its outer edge, Point Record bears north, and the N.E. part of Middle Head, S. 76° E. These and other bearings recently given, will perhaps be considered of little value by the general reader, but as they were required to take the Beagle into Port Essington, they will be found useful to others for the same purpose.
The narrow entrance to the inner harbour, may by some be considered a drawback, but on the other hand, it must be borne in mind, that what is an impediment to navigation, is also a safeguard against attack. Moreover, from this want of breadth in the harbour, a fort on Point Record, which is commanded by no height, would perfectly protect it.
It was from this confined portion that our anxious desire to catch a glimpse of the new settlement was at length gratified; and we were somewhat surprised, considering the recent date of its formation, to discover the presence of so many buildings as were scattered over the top of a cliffy point on the south-west part of the harbour, called Adam Head, at the base of which was a long jetty.
Clearing the bank off Spear Point, we ran up and anchored near H.M.S. Britomart, lying off the settlement, early in the afternoon. The sight of another vessel is ever cheering to the hearts of those who have been, as it were, for a time, cut off from the world;* nor was our arrival, bringing, as we did, news and letters, any less welcome; though after a long interval the receipt of a letter, perhaps bearing an ill omen in the very colour of its wax, is very far from generating unmixed emotions of pleasure. So much may occur in the brief space of a few months, that a seal must ever be broken with feelings of great anxiety.
- * I well remember the sensations I experienced on first seeing a sail after an interval of nine months, and that wholly spent on the storm-beaten shores of S.western Tierra Del Fuego. J.L.S.
We too had our share of news to be made acquainted with. Captain Stanley had been on a most interesting cruise to the Arru Islands, the deeply interesting narrative of which expedition the reader will peruse, we are sure, with unqualified satisfaction, in a later section of the present work. This meeting gave me real pleasure, though with regret I saw that he had been much harassed. Lieutenant P.B. Stewart,* of the Alligator, had also made a journey over the Peninsula, to which I shall presently further allude.
- * Since promoted for services in China; he also served in the Beagle during her last expedition.
We were of course extremely anxious to visit the settlement. Landing at the jetty, which we found a very creditable piece of workmanship erected under the direction of Lieutenant P.B. Stewart, we ascended the cliff, and on gaining the summit, found ourselves on a small piece of tableland partially cleared. Seen through the trees, the dwellings of the settlers had an air of neatness, pleasing to the eye. Among the other buildings in progress was the church, which, planted as it was on the northern shores of the Australian continent, was expected to form a nucleus from which offshoots might by degrees draw within its influence the islands in the Arafura Sea, and thus widely spread the pure blessings of Christianity. It is highly characteristic of our countrymen, that where with other nations, the tavern, the theatre, the dancing-house, are among the earliest buildings in a new settlement, with us everywhere the church is first thought of. In few corners of the world, where English influence has extended itself, is this otherwise than true, and it is a highly enviable distinction. It seems, indeed, that wherever the flag of Britain floats, there is made known the Word of God in its purity; and as an empire has been vouchsafed us on which the sun never sets, the extent of our influence for good in this respect is incalculable. We may venture to express our sincere hope, that our country will ever continue to enjoy this noble supremacy.
At the south-east extremity of the settlement, raised on piles, was the Government-house, fronted on the harbour side by a small battery. Behind the table-plain, the land, producing very coarse grass, falls away to the south-west, and some clear patches which from lying in a low situation, are flooded during the rains, form tolerable soil. Generally speaking, however, there is a great deficiency of land fit for cultivation. On some of the best spots lying to the southward and westward, gardens have been commenced with some success.
Before proceeding further with our journal of events at Port Essington, it may be proper to introduce some brief account of the state and prospects of the settlement at that place. The reader will remember an allusion in a previous chapter to the departure from Sydney of the expedition despatched for the purpose of forming it, as well as some remarks on the policy of giving it a purely military character. That expedition reached its destination on October 27, 1838, having taken formal possession on the way, of Cape York and the adjacent territory. Sir Gordon Bremer's first care was to select a site for the proposed township; and after due deliberation, a spot was fixed on which was thought to combine all desirable advantages: as good soil, the neighbourhood of fresh water, and easy approach from the ships in port. In the selection of the spot to be occupied by a settlement, the capabilities of the soil must ever be the first consideration; still, however, there will always exist an objection on the ground of its great distance of 16 miles from the mouth of the harbour. A similar disadvantage in the Falkland Islands, proved of great detriment to the settlement in Berkeley Sound.
The site of Victoria, for such was the name bestowed, in honour of her Majesty, on the new settlement, is raised in the loftiest part about fifty feet above high-water level. Upon it the plans of a number of cottages and gardens were rapidly marked out; and it was not long before this hitherto desolate spot presented the appearance of a large straggling village. A pier was speedily run out into the sea; and a good road cut to it. The church, also, which I have before mentioned, was soon to be distinguished, rising above the Government cottage and officers' quarters; while in order to ensure an ample supply of water, deep wells were sunk on the tableland within the settlement, which fully answered expectation, the water proving good and abundant.
Not long after the arrival of the expedition, M. Dumont D'Urville, with the Astrolabe and Zelie, arrived in Raffles Bay, and it was popularly believed that they had entertained some intentions of forestalling our settlement. At any rate, the question whether foreign powers were entitled to take possession of points on the coast of Australia was much debated at the time. However this may be, and with whatever feelings the respective Governments of France and England may have regarded each other at the time, the officers of the two nations seemed to vie in courtesy. A boat was despatched from Victoria to invite them to enter the harbour, and the greatest harmony prevailed during their stay.
On the 28th of March, six Malay proas came in and were soon followed by others, their owners soliciting permission to erect their establishments for curing trepang under the protection of the British flag. This being granted, they made choice of a spot on the beach, and a little subsidiary settlement soon sprung up. Being now for the first time secure from the attacks of the natives, whose hostility had until then forced every other man of them to keep under arms whilst the rest worked, they expected to pursue their occupation with far greater advantage to themselves. Originally hopes were entertained that a very large population of Malays, and even Chinese would speedily collect at Port Essington: but from some defect in the colonial regulations their immigration was for a time checked. At length, however, a remedy has been applied, and facility given for the introduction of settlers from the Indian Archipelago and the Celestial Empire.
The great difficulty that this small settlement has had to contend with from the beginning, is the climate; which, though not absolutely pernicious in itself, is unsuited to European constitutions. The settlers have been attacked at various times by fever, and have experienced a large comparative mortality; but hopes are entertained that by proper regulations, especially if temperate habits could be introduced, this may be avoided.
The capabilities of the soil, though it has by some been pronounced totally unfit for agricultural purposes, are still supposed by others to be great, and it is believed that if colonists, capable of working in the climate, could be induced to repair to Port Essington, rice, cotton, indigo, etc. might be raised, of the finest quality, and in great abundance.
The livestock at the settlements, consisted, by the last accounts, of an English cow and a bull, two Indian heifers and two cows, above fifty goats, six working oxen, thirty buffaloes, six pigs, a few fowls, five ponies, and thirty half-greyhounds for catching kangaroos. Some of these were private, others public property. Several cattle have been lost, on hearing which, a plan that had before suggested itself, recurred vividly to my mind. I once thought the herds of buffalo and other animals might be prevented from straying, by a fence run across the Peninsula, between Mount Norris Bay, and the north-east corner of Van Diemen's Gulf. The width is only three miles, and the rude Micmac Indians of Newfoundland, have carried fences for a similar purpose many times that extent. The necessity of so doing became more apparent each time I visited the place, especially when I heard of herds of buffaloes being seen upon the main. Another advantage which occurred to me in connection with this subject, was, that it would have rendered an out-station necessary, and have thus led to a further communication with the natives, which would ultimately tend to increase our knowledge of them and the interior; this after our subsequent discovery of Adelaide river became of still greater moment. The existence of the out-station would also form a change for the settlers, and journeys thither would remove the dreary inactivity of a new settlement at certain periods. The absence of this fence may account for Captain Grey's party having seen signs of buffalo on the mainland; he discovered the tracks of a cloven-footed animal, which one of his men who had been much in S. Africa, at once recognised as the spur of a buffalo. But one advantage can arise from the want of this precaution. Some of the finest lands in the neighbourhood of Sydney, now called Cow Pastures, were discovered, by finding them to be the constant haunt of wild cattle; a similar accident might prove equally advantageous in the neighbourhood of Port Essington.
To return, however, to the period of the establishment of the colony: it was of course deemed desirable to take an early opportunity of exploring Cobourg Peninsula, on which Victoria is situated; and accordingly on May 1st, Lieutenant P.B. Stewart, with several well-armed companions, started on an exploring expedition. They carried water and a week's provisions on two ponies, but did not encumber themselves with a tent; sheltering themselves at night from the dew in little huts made of branches. On the second day they crossed several running streams, with extensive grassy patches, and came to a halt during the sultry part of the day on the banks of a river or chain of pools. Here grew many fine cedar-trees, of a light colour and close-grained, while thick woods of the mangrove appeared on all sides: these much impeded their advance, and prevented them from making any great progress. However, they crossed to the eastern side of the Peninsula, where they found a rich and beautiful country, in some parts reminding them of the rich South American forest, rather than the dreary sameness of an Australian wood. Numerous tracks of the buffalo seemed to testify to the excellence of the pasture. Several evidences, also, of the presence of natives were from time to time discovered, and at length a small party met them and exhibited a very friendly spirit. They acted as guides to the explorers, showing them where water could be found, giving every information in their power, and supplying them with crabs; but of course they did not fail to ask for bread, of which as much as could be spared was given them. On May 8th, they conducted Lieutenant Stewart's party back to Middle Head, and he expresses great surprise at the precision with which they found their way in the bush without having any apparent means to guide them. I have before alluded to this instinctive power of the aborigines of Australia.
Lieutenant Stewart gives as the general result of his observations, extending over about seventy or eighty miles, that there is abundance of fresh water on the Peninsula; that the S. side is by far the finest and best watered country; that the trees are there free from the white ant; and that in a large tract of country, the cabbage-palm abounds. He also observes, that as much of the south coast as he saw, has a coral reef extending about a mile from the beach; and that the rise and fall of the tide is much greater than at Port Essington.
The natives were found by the settlers, as we have already stated, very friendly, and their assistance proved valuable: they brought in the head of the palm-cabbage, which makes an excellent vegetable, though to procure it, the tree is cut down and destroyed: they also supplied the party with wild honey. One of the Raffles Bay tribe instantly made himself known on the arrival of the Expedition in the Bay; he was called by the name of Alligator, on account of his huge teeth, though his proper appellation was Marambari.
From Lieutenant Vallach* of H.M.S. Britomart, I received much valuable information respecting the natives, whom I find to be divided in three distinct classes, which do not intermarry. The first is known as Maudrojilly, the second as Mamburgy, the third as Mandrouilly. They are very particular about the distinction of classes, but we could never discover which was the superior and which the inferior class, though it is supposed by most of those who have inquired into the subject, that the Madrojilly, or first class, head the others in war, and govern the affairs of the tribe.
- * Lieutenant Vallach died at Moulmain in 1841.
These aborigines were certainly a fine race, differing in some matters from the other natives of Australia; their hair was neither curly nor straight, but crisp. The custom of extracting a front tooth prevails among them, while the nasal cartilage here as elsewhere was perforated. I noticed in particular that they did not make use of the boomerang, or kiley, but of the throwing stick or womera, of a larger kind, however, than any I have observed elsewhere; the head of their spears was made of stone. They have a smaller kind, chiefly used to kill birds and other animals at a considerable distance. They have also large heavy clubs, while the natives on the S. coast carry only the short throwing stick.* They go wholly naked, except when entering the settlements, on which occasions they wear a few leaves. Their canoes were chiefly obtained from the Malays.
- * We refer our readers to Mr. Eyre's work, where these and other weapons are figured.
I here saw the only musical instrument I ever remarked among the natives of Australia. It is a piece of bamboo thinned from the inside, through which they blow with their noses. It is from two to three feet long, is called ebroo, and produces a kind of droning noise. It is generally made use of at corrobories or dances, some of which express feats of hunting and war, while others are very indecent, and reminded us of similar exhibitions in the E. It was generally remarked that the old clothes given to these savages disappeared in a most mysterious manner. They were understood to be sold to the natives inhabiting the loftier parts of the interior, but of this I entertain very considerable doubt. Sand, in which the Australian continent abounds, is like everything else proceeding from the hand of the Creator, not without its uses. On cold nights the natives make up for their total want of covering, by burying themselves in it, and nothing can be more irresistibly comic than to see these black lumps sticking out of the earth, like so many enchanted unfortunates in an eastern romance. It moreover has other uses, forming a substitute for soap;* and when cooking turtle it is mixed with earth and sprinkled over the meat, as we should pepper.
- * Their general habits are cleanly.
One discovery which was made through the medium of the natives, was that the large tumuli noticed by Captain King and others, and supposed to be raised by the inhabitants, are the works of a bird; some of them are thirty feet long and about five feet high; they are always built near thick bushes in which they can take shelter, at the least alarm. The edifice is erected with the feet, which are remarkable both for size and strength, and a peculiar power of grasping; they are yellow while the body is brown. Nothing can be more curious than to see them hopping towards these piles on one foot, the other being filled with materials for building. Though much smaller in shape, in manner they much resemble moor-fowl. The use made of the mound is to contain eggs, which are deposited in layers, and are then hatched by the heat generated in part from decomposition. The instant that the shell bursts, the young bird comes forth strong and large, and runs without the slightest care being taken of it by the parent. Of the number of eggs laid by each bird, seldom more than two are hatched. It is singular that these mounds are found away from the earth and shells of which they are composed. It seems difficult to credit that a bird so small could raise a structure so large. The largest we ever saw was about eight feet high, on one of the Possession Islands in Endeavour Strait.
The name given to the bird by Mr. Gould is Megapodius tumulus, and it will be unnecessary to enter upon any further details concerning it, as he has described it most interestingly in his work on the birds of Australia.
Great numbers of kangaroos were also found here, which at the period of our arrival the settlers were just getting into the way of killing. There are three varieties, of which the largest weighs about 160 pounds. I must further allude to a most beautiful little opossum which inhabits these parts. It is about half the size of a full-grown rat, and designated as Belideus ariel. Its colour and fur greatly resemble the chinchilla, and I have little doubt that the skin is valuable and might be made an article of trade. This animal has a membrane between the fore and hind paws, which aids it to some extent when leaping from bough to bough. It is a great enemy to the wild bee, devouring them and their nests; the bees the natives discover by tapping the tree and listening for a buzzing from within. Those we saw, amounting to nearly a hundred, were about the size of a fly, of a dusky black colour, and strange to say, were hovering round an empty tar-barrel. They have been unsuccessfully tried in hives at Sydney.
Alligators abound, and one of the marines had a very narrow escape from them. It appears that one of these monsters who had come out of the water in the night, in search of food, found him sleeping in his hammock, which he had very injudiciously hung up near the water. The alligator made a snap at his prize; but startled at this frightful interruption of his slumbers, the man dexterously extricated himself out of his blanket, which the unwieldy brute, doubtless enraged at his disappointment, carried off in triumph. For some time this story was not believed, but when afterwards the huge reptile, on a similar excursion, was shot, a portion of the blanket was found in his stomach with the paw of a favourite spaniel, taken when swimming off the pier head.
Extensive hauls of fish were made on Point Record, amongst which one species, there called salmon, was most excellent eating.
It is unnecessary for a transient visitor to enlarge upon the birds of Port Essington, as in Mr. Gould's work we have the result of the labours of an individual who spent months collecting in the neighbourhood.
The spot selected for our observations was Government House, where nearly a hundred observations with the sun and stars were made for latitude, the mean result being 11° 22' 21" S., which strange to say, was nearly 15 seconds greater than Captain Stanley and Mr. Tyers' determination: this difference to me was quite unaccountable, as the instruments used in the Beagle were before and subsequently, satisfactorily tested at well determined places. The longitude being affected by the doubtful meridian distance between Sydney and Port Stephens, we can only give an approximate result; and therefore for the sake of the longitudes of those places referred to the meridian of Port Essington, we consider it 132° 12' E. of Greenwich.
From the quantity of iron in the rocks at Victoria, it was impossible to get any satisfactory observation for the variation of the compass. Those obtained varied from ¾ to 2½ degrees east.
We found that Mr. Tyers had made about seven months' observations on the tides, which gave a very irregular rise and fall, varying from two to thirteen feet. The time of high-water being half past three, at the full and change. Oxide of iron is found in some places in large quantities, and is used by the natives to adorn themselves when dancing. This it is which gives to the coast the peculiar red hue noticed between Cape Croker and Port Essington. Many of the cliffs were composed of a light-coloured marl; but the formation is chiefly old arenaceous rocks. Two of the highest and most remarkable hills on the Peninsula, known as Mounts Bedwell and Rose, have singular flat tops, bearing some resemblance to the curious appearance of Cape Bedford. I am inclined to believe this formation to be floetz trappe. Their elevation is about four hundred feet, being twice the general height of the Peninsula.
The temperature during our stay averaged 82 while land and sea breezes prevailed. We should not omit to mention, that Lieutenant Stewart, when visiting Raffles Bay in order to invite the French officers as above alluded to, found that a deep inlet intervening, formed a good harbour, to which he gave the name of Port Bremer. Of the old settlement nothing remained, save the graves of those whose labours had tended to render this part of Australia another outlet for the surplus population of the mother country, extending at the same time the blessings of civilization. The rapid growth of rank vegetation had swept all else away, and there in solemn solitude, upon that still and silent shore, mouldered the bones of the original colonists of Raffles Bay, whose praiseworthy efforts were rendered futile, by the unfavourable reports forwarded to Government; reports we cannot think entirely free from prejudice, when we know from Captain Law's account, that one of the Commandants declared that he felt disposed to sell out of the army in preference to going there.* One thus prepared to dislike the place, could scarcely be expected to take an interest in the country, or endeavour fully to develop its resources.
We cannot avoid expressing our regret at the abandonment of the settlement in Raffles Bay, after it had gone on so far successfully under Captain Barker's excellent management. In mentioning his kindness to the natives, to whose goodwill we must always owe much, we have already given one of the causes which assisted in fostering the undertaking. Nothing could be more unwise than the hostility shown to the natives by the first settlers, as from them we must always calculate on learning much that is useful and valuable, with regard to the productions of the country; a knowledge which would otherwise consume much time to acquire. This was not the only matter, however, in which he showed his superior good sense and judgment. His enticing the people of Macassar to come and locate there, was another instance of his foresight, which would have led in time to very favourable results. He was soon, however, compelled to retract his invitation, writing from Coepang to the Dutch Governor of Macassar, in order to stop the immigration, which otherwise would have been considerable. With all these several elements of success, we should doubtless, but for the abandonment, have now had a flourishing settlement in Northern Australia. The causes which led to its breaking up, are thus succinctly given by Dr. Wilson. "The alleged causes were: first, the unhealthiness of the climate; secondly, the hostility of the natives; and thirdly, the non-visitation of the Malays."
These he clearly proved, as we have subsequently done, to be without much foundation; but we ourselves do not so much deplore the leaving of Raffles Bay, perhaps an ill-chosen site, but rather that the settlement was not removed instead of being given up. When the anxieties and difficulties which universally accompany the formation of a new settlement are reflected on, the regret we have already expressed will be more easily understood. When Port Essington was located, all these had to be suffered over again; whereas had the station at Raffles Bay, been transferred thither at once, it would have been now at a very high pitch of perfection. Besides, however small the spot on which the English flag waves constantly, it will always prove a check on the marauding propensities of the neighbouring islanders, and thus add materially to the general welfare and civilization of such portions of the globe as fall within the influence of the respected locality.*
- * In further proof of the prospects of success, which were open to the new settlement under its able Commandant, we give the following extract from Dr. Wilson's journal, when at Coepang, in company with Captain Barker, after their final departure from Raffles Bay. "We were informed by the master of the Mercus, that many Chinese were about to emigrate from Java to Raffles Bay, having recently learned that they would be permitted to do so. The total abandonment of the N. coast of New Holland caused much regret to the mercantile people here, as they had anticipated great advantages from a commercial intercourse.' Wilson's Narrative page 179.
July 24.—Finding that we could not procure a supply of provisions from the settlement, our stay was necessarily, though reluctantly, of short duration, and on the morning of the 24th, we were accordingly running out of Port Essington. After rounding Vashon Head, we steered to the westward, along the northern side of the Peninsula, and early in the afternoon anchored in Popham Bay, one point of which is formed by the N.W. extreme of the Peninsula, a low projection with one tall mangrove growing on the point, and fronted by an extensive coral reef, past which a two-knot tide sweeps into the gulf of Van Diemen. On the eastern side of this projection is a snug boat or small-craft harbour, much frequented by the Malays, who call it Blue-mud Bay. It may be recognized by a little island lying off its mouth.
Our attention having been directed towards the openings on the coast opposite Melville Island, we proceeded towards the first, lying on the south side of Clarence Strait. It was further important to ascertain, if that strait was navigable, and also to examine the south-eastern side of Melville Island.
Finding the western shore of Cobourg Peninsula placed too far from Port Essington on the chart, it was determined to commence the survey at Popham Bay, choosing for the observation spot a small bank of sand and dead coral lying in its centre, and bearing E. ½ S. ¼ of a mile from where we anchored in nine fathoms. We named this Bird Island, from finding it almost covered with terns and gulls. The latitude of it according to our observations was 11° 15½' S. and longitude W. of Port Essington 22½ miles, being 4½ less than is given in Captain King's chart, the N.W. extreme of the Peninsula being there placed too far from Port Essington, and the N.E. point, Cape Croker, too near, it would appear that the discrepancy was chiefly in the position of Port Essington, with respect to the northern extremes of the Peninsula, as Captain King and ourselves only now differ two miles in the distance between Cape Croker and Popham Bay, ours being the greater. The evening was calm as usual, while midnight brought with it a fresh S.E. wind. During the night the temperature was as low as 73 .
July 25.—On leaving at daylight we crossed over to examine the western shores of Dundas Strait, formed by the eastern side of Melville Island; Captain King having passed it in the night. As we stood close along it into the gulf, we found the soundings very irregular. Six miles N. 40° E. from Cape Keith, we passed over two patches of only three or four fathoms; these we could not see from the general disturbed and discoloured state of the water, it blowing fresh from S.E. We found the nature of this part of Melville Island to be low rocky points, separating sandy bays. One of the few remarkable features on it, is a round hill 320 feet high, five miles N.W. from Cape Keith.
Passing the latter, we crossed over to the opposite eastern entrance point of Clarence Strait, Cape Hotham, discovering on our way thither a reef nearly awash, about two miles in extent, bearing S. 25° W. fifteen miles from Cape Keith, and N. 10° E. fourteen miles from Cape Hotham. The deepest water we found while crossing was 22 fathoms, five miles north of the latter, the general depth being 13 and 15 fathoms. The wind failing in the afternoon, it was evening when we reached our anchorage in nine fathoms, Cape Hotham bearing S. 43 W., two miles and a half, and close to the edge of a large shoal which we subsequently found to extend a mile and a half north, and six miles east from the Cape. Here we found the tides set W. by S. and E.N.E. from half a knot to two knots, the westerly stream beginning nearly three hours after high-water, a peculiarity generally occurring in straits.
July 26.—After one of those soft and lovely evenings so common to this part of Australia, with a gentle breeze and cloudless sky, we were surprised to find that the morning opened dreary and gloomy. There was a very fresh S.S.E. wind with heavy masses of clouds; the breeze continued until noon, when as usual it subsided. We moved the ship a few miles down the opening in the south side of the strait, and in the afternoon a party went on shore near Cape Hotham. We found the country very poor and sandy, and elevated about fifteen feet above high-water mark. Despite this, the white gum-trees appear to thrive, growing in great abundance, about thirty or forty feet high; there were also others of a different kind, besides a few palms. The rocks were red sand and ironstone blended together. In some places I noticed it had the same glazed and vitrified appearance, as before remarked by me at King's Sound, on the N.W. coast.
Mr. Bynoe, who was of the party, added to his collection of birds, a kingfisher, and a specimen of a glossy species about the size and colour of an English blackbird; others were seen and killed, but all common to other parts; the most rare of the latter was the large cream-coloured pigeon I have alluded to, some few pages back.
The white ibis with a black neck, plentiful in King's Sound, and a large bird, a species of crane, were also seen. The latter was of a French grey hue, with the exception of the head, which was black and of the shape of a bittern, commonly known among the colonists by the name of "native companion." It is difficult to imagine how this name could have originated, as there is no instance of the natives making a pet of anything, except the wild dog of the country, and of that only, it is probable, from its utility in procuring them food. On visiting this place a few days afterwards, to repeat the observations for the errors of the chronometers, we saw a few natives, but they avoided an interview, disappearing when we landed. They made the same motions with their arms, throwing them open, and bowing as the natives in King's Sound did. The few huts I fell in with, reminded me of one I had seen near the N.W. part of King's Sound, a representation of which will be found in the portion of the work descriptive of that locality.
Those on Cape Hotham, to enter more into particulars, did not exceed five feet in height, nor were they so substantially built; they were, however, well thatched with the same kind of coarse grass. The entrances were carefully closed, except in one instance, when the aperture was so small that it was with difficulty I could crawl in; when I had entered there was nothing to gratify my curiosity. Hanging on trees round these habitations, were specimens of an article of clothing, never before seen among the Aborigines of Australia, for which reason I have been induced to give the woodcut of one.* It is a kind of covering for the shoulders, a species of cape, made from coarse grass.
- * I have since heard from Mr. Earl, that the women in the S.E. part of Van Diemen's Gulf, occasionally wear a covering round their waist, somewhat similar to the representation given.
Baskets were also left hanging on the trees, bespeaking the honesty of the inhabitants of this part of the country.
The land near the huts was turned up in search of roots, and close by were some large clubs. The thermometer fell in the night to 67 , producing the novel though pleasant sensation of cold.
July 27.—Although apparently we could trace the land, near the head of the opening or bay, still the great set of tide in that direction, left hopes of its being the mouth of a river. We have already alluded to the difficulty of detecting the mouth of Australian streams, and the doubts thus engendered occasioned the greater anxiety.
Impatient to learn the truth, Mr. Fitzmaurice was despatched to examine the head of the bay, whilst the ship was moved towards it, anchoring again one mile N.W. from a very remarkable patch of low red cliffs (which from startling circumstances, hereafter to be related, were called Escape Cliffs) and only two cables length distant from the coral ledge, by which this and the shores around were fronted.
Here another party visited the shore, and those whose occupation did not render their presence necessary near the water, strolled into the country, penetrating about four or five miles inland, but they were rewarded by the sight of no novelty, or even variety in the scenery, beyond what was presented to our view on the visit to Cape Hotham, which it will readily be allowed was little enough. Indeed it will in general be found, that in Australia, a change of formation is necessary to produce any of the scenery, which otherwise exhibits a most monotonous sameness.
A coarse kind of ironstone gravel was (if I may use the term) scattered over the face of the country; some of it had a glazed appearance on the surface, being hollow within, and about the size of a musket ball. Properly speaking they are composed of a ferruginous sandstone, but they have been already more fully alluded to when first met with at Point Cunningham, near King's Sound, on the N.W. coast. The general formation is the same as at Cape Hotham, itself almost identical with the rocks at Port Essington. A few traces of small kangaroos were seen; but not a bird or any other living thing two miles from the beach. This peculiarity the reader will remember was also noticed in the neighbourhood of King's Sound.
On returning to the ship we found that Mr. Fitzmaurice had arrived, bringing the expected, and very gratifying intelligence, that a large river with two branches, running S.E. and S., with a depth of four fathoms, emptied itself into the head of the bay. The joy a discovery of this nature imparts to the explorer, when examining a country so proverbially destitute of rivers as Australia, is much more easily imagined than described. It formed a species of oasis amid the ordinary routine of surveying, rousing our energies, and giving universal delight. The castle-builders were immediately at work, with expectations beyond the pale of reason.
An exploring party, however, was at once formed, consisting of Captain Wickham, Lieutenant Emery, and Mr. Helpman, who—the next day being Sunday—did not leave before the morning of the 29th, with two boats and four days' provisions.
Many were the anxious and envious looks bestowed on the party as they left the ship on the deeply interesting service of exploring the new river. So strong and native is man's desire for the unknown, that his feelings are never more tried than when on the brink of a discovery, while those who are in presence of the novelty, and cannot enjoy the satisfaction of tasting that pleasure, must ever experience somewhat acute emotions of regret.
There was no difficulty in finding a name for a river which fell into Clarence Strait; it was at once, therefore, honoured with that of Adelaide, after her most gracious Majesty the Queen Dowager. The bay that receives its waters was called after Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Adam. The remaining part of the south side of Clarence Strait, together with the islands in the western entrance of it, gave ample, though not such interesting employment as the exploration of the Adelaide, to those who were left behind. Several unsuccessful hauls were made with the seine, fish in Adam Bay being very scarce.
Near Escape Cliffs I met a small family of natives, consisting of an elderly man, his wife, and four children; by degrees, advancing alone, I contrived to get near enough to make the woman a present of a handkerchief, in return for which she gave me a large leaf of the cabbage palm, that was slung across her back. I at length drew all the family around me, the eldest child, a youth of about 15, being the most timid. He had a small piece of wood two feet long, sticking through the cartilage of his nose. His teeth and those of the other children were quite perfect, but in the father and mother two of the upper front ones were gone, as we before noticed was the case with the natives at Port Essington, where this ceremony is performed after marriage. The hair of these people was neither curly nor straight, but what I have before called crisp, being of that wavy nature sometimes noticed in Europeans.
They had with them three small-sized dogs of a light brown colour, of which they appeared very fond, and I could not induce them to part with them.
The old man's spear was not barbed, and the womera or throwing stick of the same long narrow shape as at Port Essington. The woman had also the same bottle-shaped basket slung over her neck, as before remarked, and containing white and red earths for painting their bodies.
These people exhibited more curiosity than I had before noticed in the Aborigines, as I was able to induce them to visit the whaleboat that was on shore close by. Here, as in other places, the size of the oars first astonished them, and next the largeness of the boat itself. The exclamations of surprise given vent to by the old man as he gazed on the workmanship of his civilized brethren, were amusing; suddenly a loud shout would burst from his lips, and then a low whistle. I watched the rapid change of countenance in this wild savage with interest; all his motions were full of matter for observation. The mixed curiosity and dread depicted in his dusky face, the feeling of secret alarm at this first rencontre with a white man intruding in his native wilds, which he must have experienced, added much to the zest of the scene. I, however, at length almost persuaded the old man to accompany me on board; he even put one foot in the boat for the purpose, when seeing the depth of the interior, he recoiled with a slight shudder, as if from immersion in cold water. He was now overwhelmed by the woman and elder child with entreaties not to take such a rash step, and their rude eloquence succeeded.
It was amusing to see the struggle between fear and curiosity plainly depicted in the man's face, as he stood with one foot on the boat, and the other on the shore, hearkening but too credulously to the picture of danger, forcibly drawn by his friends, while curiosity, with almost equal strength, was urging him to dare the perils of the white man's boat.
A desire to be better acquainted with the strangers who had come to the shores of his native land in a large bird—such being their strange idea of a ship, the sails forming the wings—no doubt materially influenced him; but the eloquence of his relatives prevailed over all; and this interesting interview terminated by our leaving the shore without our sable friend, who, however, promised to visit the ship in an old bark canoe, about 20 feet long, that was lying on the beach near at hand. This promise was faithfully kept, for the same evening, a canoe was seen paddling off, containing two young natives in addition to the old man. They stopped at some distance from the ship, moving round to view her on all sides.
Fearing at last that their courage had failed, and that they would not come on board, the dinghy, our smallest boat, was sent towards them, there being only a boy besides myself in it.
I had hoped that thus they would not be frightened, but they instantly began to move towards the shore, and it required some manoeuvring to get near them; succeeding at length, however, I found my acquaintance of the morning anxious to go to the ship, a measure the other two did not at all approve of, as they kept edging away towards the land, whilst I gave the old man the presents I had brought him. At one time the dinghy got between the canoe and the shore, when instantly a gleam of terror flashed across the faces of the young men. One of them was a large square-headed fellow of ferocious aspect, whose countenance was lit up by a look of fierce revenge, as the canoe made towards the land, after I had ceased my endeavours to entice them on board.
Whatever these people may have imagined to be our motive in wishing them to visit the ship, I little thought that my pressing them would have so nearly led to fatal results. I shall proceed to explain this remark by relating the startling circumstances from which Escape Cliffs received their name.
A few days after my interview in the dinghy with the natives, Mr. Fitzmaurice went ashore to compare the compasses. From the quantity of iron contained in the rocks, it was necessary to select a spot free from their influence. A sandy beach at the foot of Escape Cliffs was accordingly chosen. The observations had been commenced, and were about half completed, when on the summit of the cliffs, which rose about twenty feet above their heads, suddenly appeared a large party of natives with poised and quivering spears, as if about immediately to deliver them. Stamping on the ground, and shaking their heads to and fro, they threw out their long shaggy locks in a circle, whilst their glaring eyes flashed with fury as they champed and spit out the ends of their long beards.* They were evidently in earnest, and bent on mischief.
- * A custom with Australian natives when in a state of violent excitement.
It was, therefore, not a little surprising to behold this paroxysm of rage evaporate before the happy presence of mind displayed by Mr. Fitzmaurice, in immediately beginning to dance and shout, though in momentary expectation of being pierced by a dozen spears. In this he was imitated by Mr. Keys, who was assisting in the observations, and who at the moment was a little distance off, and might have escaped. Without, however, thinking of himself, he very nobly joined his companion in amusing the natives; and they succeeded in diverting them from their evident evil designs, until a boat landing in a bay near drew off their attention. The foremost of this party was recognised to be the ill-looking fellow, who left me in the canoe with a revengeful scowl upon his face.
Messrs. Fitzmaurice and Keys had firearms lying on the ground within reach of their hands; the instant, however, they ceased dancing, and attempted to touch them, a dozen spears were pointed at their breasts. Their lives hung upon a thread, and their escape must be regarded as truly wonderful, and only to be attributed to the happy readiness with which they adapted themselves to the perils of their situation. This was the last we saw of the natives in Adam Bay, and the meeting is likely to be long remembered by some, and not without pleasant recollections; for although, at the time, it was justly looked upon as a very serious affair, it afterwards proved a great source of mirth. No one could recall to mind, without laughing, the ludicrous figure necessarily cut by our shipmates, when to amuse the natives, they figured on the light fantastic toe; and the readers, who look at the plate representing this really serious affair,* will behold two men literally dancing for their lives.
- * See above.
August 2.—This morning the boats returned; they had gone up the Adelaide in a general southerly direction, nearly 80 miles: the windings of the river, which were very great in some places, forming the shape of the letter S. It became at this distance very narrow, and was divided into two branches, one taking a southerly direction, the other an easterly; the latter was too narrow for the boat's oars, while the former was blocked up by fallen trees lying across it. As in addition to the difficulties just mentioned, only one day's provision remained in the boats, the further exploration of the Adelaide was necessarily, though reluctantly, abandoned.
For thirty miles of the upper part of the river the water was fresh; while the banks, excepting near the point of separation, were low, being not more than five feet above the present level of the river, a circumstance very favourable for irrigation, and the cultivation of rice. Fifteen miles from the mouth they were fringed by the growth of mangroves; and higher up many of the points were thickly wooded, while on either side stretched a vast extent of prairie country, dotted here and there with islands of timber, which served to break the native monotony of the scene. Somewhat less than halfway up, rose on both banks a thick jungle of bamboo, which, in places where the water was always fresh, attained the gigantic height of from 60 to 80 feet. Between 20 and 70 miles from the mouth the soil is a good light-coloured mould; above this, commencing where the bank of the river is marked by a coarse red gritty sandstone projection, the aspect of the country changes from that of low plains to a slightly wooded and gently undulating surface, in some places stony. This character continued to the furthest point reached in the boats, in lat. 12° 57' S., and long. 131° 19' E.
When they had penetrated thus far into the new lands of Australia, the explorers returned, having experienced those sensations of delightful excitement, to which we have before alluded, and which naturally called forth strong emotions of regret in those who were denied a participation in the feverish enjoyment of discovery.
From the highest tree at Captain Wickham's furthest point, the appearance of the country was, as far as the eye could reach, one wearisome level, broken to the southward, at a distance of ten miles, by a rocky mound about 150 feet high.
The river, which for some distance had not been fifty yards wide, with a rocky bed in places, and banks from six to twenty feet high, was subject at this point to a tidal change of level of about three feet, but there was no perceptible stream, and the water which a few miles lower down had been muddy, was here quite clear. Small bamboos and other drift were observed in the branches of the trees eight or ten feet above the water, showing the height which the river attains at some seasons of the year. By the hollows on many of the plains, water appeared to have lain some time, and doubtless parts of this low land were periodically overflowed.
On the point dividing the upper branches of the river some coarse sand was washed up, which on examination was found to be of a granitic character, clearly showing the primary formation of the country through which the Adelaide flowed. The only rocks noticed in the parts traversed by the boats were, as I have before said, of red porous sandstone. The smoke of several large fires was observed up the country, but none of the natives were seen.
Towards the upper part of the river they noticed a strange bird, very much like a guineafowl in size and manner of running along the ground. The colour was speckled white and brown. This, doubtless, from Mr. Bynoe's description of one he wounded on the coast in the neighbourhood of the Adelaide, must have been the Leipoa ocellata of Gould, one of the mound or tumuli-building birds, first seen in Western Australia by Mr. George Moore, and afterwards on the N.west coast, and in S. Australia by Captain Grey. Although known to range over a large expanse of the continent, this was the first time it was discovered in Northern Australia.
In the reaches where the bamboo grew, flights of large vampires (resembling the Pteropus rubricollis of Geoff.) were met with: they kept continually flying to and fro close over the boats as they passed up, making a screeching disagreeable noise, which, however, was far less unpleasant than the mildewy odour with which they filled the air, calling to mind the exclamation placed by our immortal bard in the mouth of Trinculo. The heavy flap of the leathern wings of these monkey-birds, as the men called them, was singular, while sometimes a flight would darken the verdure of a bamboo, which, yielding to their weight, bent low, as if before a passing gust of wind. To fix themselves appeared always a difficult, and was certainly a noisy operation, each apparently striving to alight upon the same spot. They first cling to the bamboo by means of the long claw, or hook attached to the outer edge of the wing, and then gradually settle themselves.
The river swarmed with alligators. Fish also abounded; and in the salt water, a kind commonly known in the river Plate by the name of Cat-fish, is plentiful. One that we caught was of the enormous weight of twenty pounds. A large kind of dark bream of excellent flavour was taken in fresh water.
Many of the reaches also swarmed with wildfowl, consisting almost wholly of ducks, which, from a habit of perching on the trees, have received the name of wood-ducks. They were very different and far superior in plumage to those found on the south-eastern parts of the continent, and as they have not yet been numbered among the Australian birds so vividly described by Mr. Gould, we may venture to be somewhat minute in describing them.
They are inferior in size to the common European wild duck, but are marked in much the same manner on the breast. The back is a dark brown, while the wings, still darker, are slightly bronzed at the tips. Their singularly long legs are of a pale flesh colour, while the web on the foot is very much arched near the toes, giving greater pliability to the foot and a power of grasping, which enables them to perch on trees. The head and bill, the latter of a pale ash colour, are both large. When on the wing they make a peculiar though pleasing whistling sound, that can be heard at a great distance,* and which changes as they alight, into a sort of chatter. Their perching on trees is performed in a very clumsy manner, swinging and pitching to and fro. We subsequently often found them on the rivers on the N. coast, but not within some miles of their mouths or near their upper waters, from which it would appear that they inhabit certain reaches of the rivers only: we never found them in swamps. The farthest south they were afterwards met with, was on the Albert River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, in lat. 18° S., which gives them a range of six and a half degrees of latitude over the northern part of the continent. Their nests never came under our notice, and consequently we are not aware either of the size or colour of their eggs; neither did we see any young birds during the period of our observation, ranging from July to November only.*
- * Mr. Eyre has since informed me that there is a whistling-duck, something similar, on the Murray River, but is not aware that it has the peculiar habit of perching on trees.
- * Mr. Gould, who had previously described this bird (Leptotarais Eytoni) being desirous of figuring it in his splendid work, has been furnished with this account.
August 4.—The southern arm of the Adelaide River, and about fifteen miles near the mouth of the other branch, still remaining to be explored, I started on this interesting service the day of the return of Captain Wickham, August 4th. We soon found that the one we ascended promised nothing, from there being no tidal stream of any consequence; still we hoped to trace its rejunction with the main branch, but after proceeding in a general S. by W. direction five miles, and E.S.E. the same distance, it became so narrow that the mangroves on each side entirely blocked up the passage, and stopped the boat's progress. I here again felt the inconvenience of our not being furnished with one of the pendulum horizons, invented by Captain Becher, R.N.* It being high-water, and as the shore was lined with an impenetrable growth of mangroves, we were unable to land. In vain did I try, by cutting down some of them, to find a rest for the artificial horizon on one of the stumps; they were so connected with each other beneath the water, by a perfect network of roots, that although several of the surrounding trees were felled, a tremulous motion was still conveyed from a distance, and I consequently lost the observation for latitude.
- * I strongly recommend this ingenious invention to every seaman. In foggy weather it will save hours of anxiety, and may often prevent the horrors of shipwreck.
The saltwater arm of the Adelaide we found had another branch, which took us eight miles in a S.W. direction, terminating like the other, and at low-water being a mere ditch. There was nothing picturesque in following the windings of these creeks or inlets; a tall growth of mangroves with their stems immersed, rendering the view limited and wearisome. We, however, were urged on by hope, being in momentary expectation that each turn would bring some change, while to add to the zest of our proceedings we felt ourselves to be the first Europeans who had traversed these parts.
Now and then the deep stillness of nature would be broken by the mournful cry of a curlew, disturbed by the splash of the oars, while sometimes a heavy flapping of wings was heard amid the mangroves, and out would start suddenly three or four white ibises with black necks, giving utterance to a peculiar cry, which faintly resembles that of the male guinea fowl. All else was deep unbroken silence.
By evening we had again reached the entrance of the river, where we passed the night, during which there was a very heavy dew.
August 5.—The lower part of the Adelaide having been already explored, prevented us from experiencing that depth of interest which we should otherwise have felt; still we were destined to enjoy our share of pleasurable sensations, as on the result of our examination depended the important fact of whether the river was navigable for large vessels. We therefore started to settle this momentous question, even before the eastern sky was tinted with orange from the rising of the sun, which in these latitudes gives no glimmering twilight: day fading and appearing instantaneously, the rapidity of the change presenting a remarkable effect.
Passing a narrow part, formed by two low red cliffy projections, we entered a wide reach that had an extensive flat of 2 and 2½ fathoms water on the south side. The next was similarly circumstanced, the shoal water of the same depth, being, however, on the west side. Still in both there was a 3-fathom channel at low-water, and in the reaches above, seven in number, trending in a general S.S.E. direction, about twice that depth. This imparted to our discoveries the stamp of utility, and as Captain Wickham found it navigable for thirty miles higher up where the water is fresh, we may pronounce the Adelaide the deepest river in Australia.
Proceeding upwards, we met a party of natives about seven miles from the mouth, in a very pretty bark canoe, fifteen feet long, and about two deep. The bark was sewn together with much neatness, and it was altogether the most artistic piece of workmanship I had seen among the Aborigines of Australia. It was the last of that description we met with in this direction, for we did not find canoes in use with the natives to the westward of Clarence Strait, but only rafts, a fact alluded to in an earlier portion of the work.
Two young men only were in the craft, which ran close in under the mangroves, through which we could see other natives passing. By proceeding cautiously and slowly, I got pretty close to them. They were evidently afraid that if they left it we should take their boat, and this gave them courage to face the strange white men. Terror, however, was marked in their countenances, and one of the two leaped on shore, as we approached, in a state of great excitement, jumping and flinging his arms about violently; whilst sometimes he would dip up a handful of water and squirt it out with great force from the corners of his mouth. The size of the boat appeared, as usual, to astonish the lad who remained in the canoe. He appeared less frightened than the other, and I induced him to accept a few presents from the end of a long stick. Though they had a deficiency in the upper front teeth, they had not disfigured any other part of their bodies. The stature of the two young men was small, perhaps 5 feet 7 inches, but those behind the mangroves were much taller. Alligators being so very numerous I was surprised to notice what little dread the natives appeared to have of them, dancing and wading about in the water near the bank, as if they and the animal had entered into a treaty of amity.
Their alarm appearing to have worn off, we continued our journey, but by hoisting the sail, the good effect was in a great measure counterbalanced, as the sight of it called forth a yell from the whole of them, which catching the echoes, reverberated from side to side, and resounded in our ears for some time afterwards. Proceeding, we gained the end of the twelfth reach early in the afternoon, when we obtained observations for longitude, that being the highest part of the river not surveyed, and distant about fifteen miles from the mouth; we had also just reached the portion frequented by the peculiar whistling wild duck, of which we bagged about twenty, forming an agreeable addition to our evening and next day meals. After concluding the observations, we examined the country for some distance; a level tract met the eye wherever it wandered, broken here and there by patches of low trees. The plains were thinly dotted with a coarse wiry grass. In places near hollows, where water had collected, the soil, which was a dark kind of clayey mould, cracked and curled up with the heat. A few shells were found scattered over the plains, of the kind so common on the north-east coast (Helix).
The tedious uniformity and sameness in the banks of the Adelaide, thus far, may be illustrated by the fact, that to know the boat's position on returning, it was necessary to have the sketch of the river constantly before our eyes, and to reckon each reach as we passed.
Taking the return tide, we passed the night in the fourth reach; very stringent orders were given to the watch to keep a sharp lookout for alligators, as a great many had been seen during the day, while we knew that on the previous night a monster of this description had attempted to get into one of the boats. We had fired at several, but with one exception had done no mischief. To be roused by the noise of the boat's keel or side grating harshly against the scaly back of an alligator, is far from being a pleasant occurrence, and on such occasions I generally found myself clutching a pistol, always kept near me, for the purpose of executing judgment upon the very first flat head that showed his nose above the gunwale. Entertaining very vivid recollections of our experience on Fitzroy River, on the first start of the boats great preparations were made against the mosquitoes; to our agreeable surprise, however, we experienced but slight annoyance from them. The exemption, however, was fully made up by the swarms of flies which infest the Adelaide, and during mealtimes availed themselves of the opportunity of popping into our mouths.
There had been a fresh N.E. wind the latter part of the day, which dying away was succeeded by a calm and cloudless night with a heavy dew. The thermometer was down to 77 , and in the day varied from 87 to 92.
August 6.—We got on board in the forenoon, when the result of our examination was heard with a satisfaction not easily expressed, but which may be readily imagined. We felt that we had discovered a river navigable for vessels of four and five hundred tons, for about fifty miles, and into fresh water, a thing hitherto unknown in Australia. We may then with justice congratulate ourselves on the importance of the discovery of the Adelaide.
The bay into which it flows, named after Sir Charles Adam, is six miles deep and ten broad at the entrance, where there are 9 fathoms. The shores gradually approach each other, and at the head, where it receives the waters of the Adelaide, the width is only one mile.
The mouth of the river is fronted with shoals that extend out five miles; the channel between them is narrow, 3 and 4 fathoms deep, and lies on the western side of the bay. A guide for the mouth of it is the east entrance point of the river, bearing S. 40° E.
The generally discoloured state of the water prevents the shoals from being seen, as well as the coral reefs extending from half to three quarters of a mile off the east side of the bay, where there is excellent anchorage. Sea and land breezes prevailed; the former blowing from the N.W. which gave it the advantage of being of easy access either from the westward through Clarence Strait, or from the eastward through that of Dundas. The spring tides sometimes rise 18 feet, when the time of high-water is six o'clock. The stream set N.E. and N.W. from half to one knot, changing to the latter direction two and a half hours after high-water. Our observations place Escape Cliffs (too remarkable and conspicuous to be overlooked, and which ships should anchor abreast of) in lat. 12° 8½' S. and longitude 0° 15' W. of Port Essington. The variation of the compass was 2 degrees easterly. I was able at this anchorage, by a bearing of a distant point, to ascertain the local attraction in the ship, which in no instance exceeded 1 degree, being the amount we had found at Plymouth, previous to our departure from England. Our deeply interesting researches on the south side of Clarence Strait, leading to so important a discovery, were now concluded.
The success which had rewarded our efforts, made us wish to cling to the spot, and it was therefore almost with regret that we found ourselves leaving to examine the southern shores of Melville Island, where we anchored two miles from the beach, and fifteen within the west entrance of the strait. A quarter of a mile off the sandy flat, extending some distance from the shore, there was one fathom of water, being a very gradual decrease from six where the ship lay.
The necessary angles and bearings for the survey, were taken from the top of some cliffs sixty feet high, composed of a red sand and ironstone, and a white kind of marl or pipe clay. The shore trended nearly S.W. and N.E. Six miles in the former direction is an inlet which Mr. Fitzmaurice has visited from the Vernon Isles, and another much smaller, about a third of the intervening distance from where we stood. The high land which was almost level, lay about three miles in our rear, following the trend of the shore. Two peaks rising in hollows on it attained an elevation of 260 and 290 feet. There were no rocky points visible at low-water—a clean sandy beach, which appeared, strange to say, to have been washed occasionally by a heavy surf, forming the coastline. A singular clump of Casuarina was close to the westward of the cliffs, and its dark naked aspect contrasted with the stunted gumtrees and scattered palms, sparingly sprinkled over this sterile tract of country. With the exception of a few seabirds, there was nothing living stirring to change the opinion we have just expressed of this part of Melville Island. Our visit, however, was not to be forgotten in an instant, although no very pleasing recollections were connected with it.
Whilst taking a few angles near the cliffs, we suddenly experienced a series of severe bites or nippings in several parts of our body, and looking round to discover whence arose this unexpected attack, found ourselves under a tree covered with large green ants. Their bites were exceedingly painful, and it was only by beating and tearing off our clothes that we could rid ourselves of these unwelcome visitors. From a distance our appearance must have been sufficiently amusing. One moment soberly intent upon our duties, and the next jumping like madmen, and hastily stripping off our garments. The name of Ant Cliffs records our visit to the south shores of Melville Island. The tide on this side of the strait ran nearly two knots an hour, following the direction of the shore; the time of high-water being a quarter of an hour earlier than in Adam Bay.
August 15.—Recrossed Clarence Strait to obtain observations for rating the chronometers, and examine the extensive shoal off Cape Hotham. On anchoring near its edge, a patch with only five feet was discovered close to the ship; the muddy and restless state of the water, caused by a meeting of the tides, setting out of Van Diemen's Gulf and Adam Bay, renders it necessary to approach Cape Hotham from the northward, with caution. However, the unusually great depth, for this strait, of twenty fathoms, will give warning of a ship's proximity to this danger, the limits of which have been given on the occasion of our first visit to Cape Hotham.
Our stock of water being now much reduced, it was necessary before proceeding further, that we should procure a supply. As it was a matter of no certainty that we should find sufficient on the coast to the westward, it was at first suggested that we should take the ship up the Adelaide and fill the tanks from alongside. This would have been a grand feat, having never before been accomplished in any river in Australia. Indeed it was the only one on the whole continent, which could carry up a vessel of the Beagle's draught into fresh water. An idea, the realization of which would so completely crown our exploration with success, naturally gave rise to a great degree of enthusiasm and excitement. Soon, however, more sober thoughts prevailed, when we reflected on the time this proceeding would consume, on account of the tortuous* course of the river: time which we could, with our scanty stock of provisions, ill spare. At Port Essington it was possible we should be able to get a supply of both, as a ship might have arrived during our absence. Moreover it was highly important, that we should make known without delay, the discovery of a river of such magnitude as the Adelaide, distant only seventy miles from the settlement.
- * Nothing shows the flat nature of a country more than the tortuous course of a stream passing through it. It is a want of change in the level, which causes a river to twist and wind about in search, as it were, of the weakest spot for its exit.
It was then finally resolved that we should return to Port Essington, and in the forenoon of the 17th, the Beagle was drifting along the western shore of Dundas Strait, out of Van Diemen's Gulf. The day happening, very remarkably for the locality at this season, to be calm throughout, the anchor was dropped at sunset in 22 fathoms; Cape Fleming the N.E. point of Melville Island, bearing N.W. ½ W. eight miles. A deep sandy bay bore S.W. five miles, which promised good anchorage. The appearance of the north-east part of Melville Island was still very triste, presenting to the eye nothing save patches of mangroves, behind which rose a range of ill-defined hills, 300 feet in elevation.
- * The tide out of Van Diemen's Gulf takes a N.W. direction, until coming in contact with Cape Keith, it branches off along the east and south side of Melville Island.
We anchored to prevent being taken back through Dundas Strait by the return tide, which from 5 p.m., to midnight, set S.E. by S. from two to three knots an hour. High-water at Popham Bay on the east side of the Strait being at a quarter past eleven, we may conclude the N.W. stream began at this anchorage three quarters of an hour after high-water. Weighing as soon as the tide made out of the strait, although there was still no wind, we were rather surprised at daylight to find how little the ship had drifted to the N.N.W. The only reason I can give in explanation is that the ebb or N.W. stream out of the gulf joins with, and is thrown out of its course by the easterly or ebb stream setting past Cape Fleming.
A breeze springing up late in the morning, we beat along the north side of the Cobourg Peninsula, entering Port Essington at dusk. In working round Vashon Head, we found the water shoal very rapidly to 12, 9, and 7 fathoms on approaching it; on the bearing S. 30° W. This head is fronted by a reef of some extent, which similar to the other at the entrance of Port Essington, cannot be distinguished, owing to the muddy colour of the water; it is therefore necessary that the lead should be kept constantly going when in its vicinity. When daylight broke, we found no fresh arrival to greet our anxious gaze, the Britomart being still the only guardian of the port. Her solitary aspect at once destroyed our hopes of supplies, and on reaching the settlement our fears proved to have too much foundation. Hope, however, is the last feeling which leaves the human breast, and in this instance did not desert us; as there was still a chance of a vessel arriving, while we were engaged in watering the ship.
The news of our discovery of the Adelaide was hailed with infinite satisfaction, and the numerous speculations and ideas on the subject which were at once afloat, afforded an agreeable variety to the monotony of existence in the settlement, where however at the moment of our arrival an unusual degree of excitement prevailed through the activity of Captain Stanley.
Ever anxious to provide for the amusement of others, he had been for some time engaged in getting up a play, which was now nearly ready to be performed. Its name I regret to have forgotten; it was however nothing very deep, and was selected from a volume that had already performed a voyage to the N. Pole. This adventurous playbook, which had certainly done its duty, was originally picked up by its owner on Tower-hill. The scenery was painted by Captain Stanley with earths of the country, who also was stage manager and general planner of the whole. The wives of some of the garrison supplied female costumes, while a large workshop was converted into a theatre. At length, after the difficulties usually attendant on private theatricals, everything was in readiness for the first performance of the drama in Northern Australia. Tickets were issued, of which I have one before me, a small piece of card containing the words "Victoria Theatre, Port Essington, August 24th, 1839." In after years this will be looked upon as a curious relic in connection with the history of this part of the continent. As if to cause the first performance of a play at Victoria, to take place under smiling auspices, such as the occasion properly called for, H.M.S. Pelorus arrived with supplies and letters from Sydney. The previous growing dearth of provisions had rendered it somewhat difficult to secure a very happily disposed audience, an empty stomach being apt to provoke fault finding: but the arrival of a ship on the very play day caused a crowded and delighted attendance. Everything went off smoothly, and with hearty peals of laughter. All the characters being supported by men, the female personages of the drama presented a most grotesque appearance; moreover the "act drop" being an old ensign, the ladies could be seen through it, regaling themselves, during these intervals, with a pipe. The whole affair gave infinite satisfaction, while ours was greatly enhanced, and our minds prepared for any duty, by the timely arrival of supplies and letters, of both of which we fortunately received our share.
Our departure from Port Essington, was not therefore hurried; and I had some slight opportunity of adding to my knowledge, with regard to the capabilities of the place, which were found to grow upon acquaintance. The fact of its being well fitted for the growth of cotton was in particular a great additional recommendation. The sallow appearance of the settlers clearly demonstrated the temperature to be high, though apparently there was no diminution in physical strength. It should however be remembered that up to this time they had not had the same nourishment as those who appeared amongst them as transient visitors, with ruddy faces. The warmth of the climate in itself conduces to intemperance, which to Europeans is ever fatal.
The Pelorus brought orders for the Britomart to proceed to Sydney.
Captain Stanley was anxious—with the westerly monsoon—to have attempted the passage through Torres Strait, instead of going round the west coast, as such a course might have led to some discoveries in that neighbourhood; a result always in such a service of the utmost importance.
It is however to be regretted that the senior officer did not approve of this plan, as the passage has only once been made from the westward by Captain Lihou, R.N., who having experienced some difficulties reported unfavourably of it. The importance of an intimate acquaintance with this route will be better appreciated, when we reflect that ultimately through this passage will the great traffic be carried on between our E. Indian and Australian possessions.
During our visit to Port Essington, some of the changes among our officers, mentioned in the beginning of the work, took place. Mr. Forsyth joined us from the Pelorus, and, from his knowledge of surveying, was a valuable addition to our party.
Having said so much in relation to Port Essington on our former visit, and wishing to create among our readers an interest in the locality, we give a slight sketch of the appearance of the settlement from the anchorage, which will be more effective than our most elaborate description of it.
Before taking leave of this new colony, we must at once express a hope that it will not be made a Penal settlement; not that we doubt the wonderful degree in which the convict system has hastened the prosperity of our possessions on the south-eastern part of the continent; but from the proximity of northern Australia to the islands in the Arafura sea—the waters separating them being often navigable for boats—the natives would be contaminated and vitiated, their women corrupted, and the badly disposed among the islanders rendered worse; and instead of our advent bringing with it the light of the gospel, and the real and substantial blessings of civilization, we should enjoy the unenviable privilege of still further degenerating the savage. The evil thus caused in New Zealand has been incalculable; to the bad example of convicts we owe much of the ills which have there arisen; the fine fearless bearing of the wild man, has been partially exchanged for the low cunning, acquired from the runaway felon; who reckless of his own life can have no regard for that of others. The worst crimes of the dregs of a civilized population have been introduced; and many of those wretched beings, who might otherwise have been reclaimed from the rude vices of savage life, have, through the white man's instrumentality, perished in sin.*
- * I knew an instance of a convict, who when dying actually picked a man's pocket. The ruling passion, strong in death, was here painfully exemplified. J.L.S.
The number of Malay proas that visit this part of the continent, would also furnish facilities for the escape of convicts from the neighbourhood of Port Essington.
We shall now fulfil our promise to the reader, of laying before him Captain Stanley's interesting cruise to the islands we have just alluded to, which will occupy the remaining portion of the present volume.