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Discoveries in Australia/Volume 1/Chapter 4




The solemnities of Christmas, and the festal celebration of the New Year, beneath a cloudless sky, and with the thermometer at 90, concluded our first visit to Swan River. We left our anchorage in Gage's Road on Thursday, January 4th, devoting several hours to sounding between Rottnest and the main. We bore away at 4, search for a bank said to exist about fifteen miles north from the middle of Rottnest Island, having from twenty to twenty-two fathoms over it. Near the position assigned we certainly shoaled our water from twenty-eight to twenty-four fathoms, but no other indication of a bank was to be found.

Satisfied that we had now no further reason for delay, we kept away N.W. with a fresh southerly wind, and the glad omen of a brilliant sunset.

January 5.—We were rather surprised to find by our observation at noon, no indication of a northerly current, though yesterday when becalmed between Rottnest and the main we were drifted to the northward at the rate of nearly two knots per hour. We sounded regularly every four hours, but found no bottom at 200 fathoms: the wind during the morning was light from S.S.W. but during the night we had it fresh from S.E.

January 6.—We passed, at midnight, within 60 miles of the position assigned in the chart to the low coral group known as Houtman's Abrolhos,* and again sounded unsuccessfully with 200 fathoms.

* Subsequent observations placed these islands 30 miles more to the eastward than the position there assigned them. Our track, therefore, was really 90 miles from them.

We continued steering a northerly course up to the 9th, keeping within from 60 to 80 miles distance of the coast, and repeating our deep-sea soundings every six hours without success. The wind during each day was moderate from the S.S.W. and S. by W., freshening during the night from S., and S. by E.; a heavy swell was its constant companion, and the barometer fell to 29.75. On the morning of the 9th, being in the parallel of North-west Cape, our course was altered to N.E. by E.; it blew hard during the night, and we had a disagreeable sea; but, as usual, it moderated again towards the morning.

We had shaped a course to make a reef in lat. 20° 17', and named after its discoverer, Lieutenant Ritchie, R.N.; but owing to its being situated, as we afterwards found, half a degree to the eastward of its assigned position in the charts, we did not see it.

At 4, a.m., and with 195 fathoms, we reached a bottom of sand, broken shells, and coral, being then about 80 miles N.N.E. from Tremouille Island, the nearest land. Steering E. by N. ½ N. for 31 miles, brought us to our noon position in lat. 19° 20' S., long. 116° 16' E., and into a depth of 120 fathoms, with the same kind of bottoms. S.S.W., 17 miles from our morning position, Captain King had 83 and 85 fathoms; from this we may suppose the edge of the bank of soundings, extending off this part of the coast, to be very steep. These soundings, together with those of Captain King, as above, may give some idea of the nature and extent of this bank, which seems to be a continuation of the flat extending N.N.E. 40 miles, connecting Barrow and Tremouille Islands with the main: its outer edge being kept heaped up thus steeply by the constant action of the current sweeping round the North-west Cape.

We continued steering E. and by N. ½ N., and at sunset, 14 miles from our noon position, the water had deepened to 145 fathoms, bottom a fine white sand and powdered shells. Before we were 50 miles from our noon position, we could find no bottom with 200 fathoms.

January 12.—We made but slow progress during the night, and felt delay the more tedious from the eager anxiety with which we desired sight of the land where our duties were to begin in earnest. We were not successful with our soundings till 6 p.m., when we had the same kind of bottom as before described, with 117 fathoms: 15 miles E. by N. ½ N. from our noon position, which was 220 miles W. by S. from Roebuck Bay: 30 miles in the same direction from our noon position, we shoaled our water to 85 fathoms, the ground retaining the same distinctive character. We had the wind from S.W. to S.E. during the afternoon, but at 6 p.m. it chopped round to N.N.W., when, too, for the first time, we perceived lightning to the S.E.—Barometer 29.92; thermometer 85.

January 13.—The preceding indications of the coming squall, which had given us full time for preparation, were realized about one o'clock this morning, when it reached us, though only moderately, from S.E. It was preceded by the rise and rapid advance of a black cloud in that quarter, just as Captain King has described.

At noon we were in lat. 18° 26' S., long. 119° 18' E., and in soundings of 75 fathoms, fine white sand, broken shells, and fragments of dead coral. There was only a slight variation in the atmospheric temperature of two degrees during the twenty-four hours, the highest in the day being 85, and the lowest at night 83. The water was very smooth, but as night approached it thundered and lightened heavily and vividly, and most of us noticed and suffered from a particularly oppressive and overpowering state of the atmosphere, which the heat indicated by the thermometer was by no means sufficiently intense to account for.

January 14.—During the last twenty-four hours we had made but 51 miles progress in the direction of Roebuck Bay; our noon observations placed us in lat. 18° 25' S., long. 120° 13' E., being about 80 miles from the nearest land. We obtained soundings at 72 fathoms, yellow sand and broken shells. During the afternoon, it being nearly a calm, we found ourselves surrounded by quantities of fish, about the size of the mackerel, and apparently in pursuit of a number of small and almost transparent members of the finny tribe, not larger than the minnow.

We sounded at sunset, and found bottom at 52 fathoms, which shoaled by half-past ten to 39. The circumstance, however, occasioned no surprise, as we had run S.S.E. 25 miles, in a direct line for that low portion of the coast from which the flat we were running over extends.

The first part of the night we had the wind at N.N.E., the breeze steady, and the water as smooth as glass; but as the watch wore on, quick flashes of forked lightning, and the suspicious appearance of gathering clouds in the S.E., gave warning of the unwelcome approach of a heavy squall.

At eleven we lay becalmed for ten minutes between two contending winds; that from the S., however, presently prevailed, and shifting to the S.E., blew hard: meantime, a dark mass of clouds in the E.S.E. appeared suddenly to assume the form of a deep-caverned archway, and moved rapidly towards us; in a few minutes, the ship was heeling majestically to the passing gust, the lightning flashed vividly and rapidly around us, alternately concealing and revealing the troubled surface of the foam-covered sea, while the thunder rolled heavily over our heads.

The squall was heavy while it lasted, commencing at E.S.E. and ending at E.N.E. It was accompanied by heavy rain. Towards the end of the middle watch, the weather began to assume a more settled appearance, and we had a moderate breeze from the north; but between five and six o'clock a.m., it shifted suddenly by the W. to S.S.E., and became light. We sounded repeatedly during the night in from 32 to 35 fathoms, the same kind of bottom as before; which we found agree very well with those reported in the account of the French expedition under Captain Baudin.

From the specimens of the squalls we experienced the last two nights, and which appear to be pretty regular in their visitation, I am inclined to believe they do not extend any considerable distance from the land. They give the seaman ample warning of their approach; yet, since they always come on in the night, when their violence cannot be properly estimated, the ship's head should (if circumstances permit) be kept to the westward (W.N.W.) until the short-lived fury of the storm has exhausted itself.

January 15.—We progressed with light and variable airs through the day, gradually shoaling our water till nine p.m., when the anchor was dropped in 14 fathoms, having previously passed over a rocky ledge of apparently coral formation, in 13 ½ fathoms. The land over the south point of Roebuck Bay bore E.S.E., about 17 miles distant; but we did not see it till the following morning.

The evening wore a threatening aspect, though not apparently so much to be dreaded as that of yesterday; however, we were disagreeably out in our anticipations, for about three o'clock a.m. (January 16) a heavy squall burst on us, veering from E.S.E. to E.N.E., broke our best bower anchor, and drove us half a mile out to sea, when the remaining fluke hooked a rock and brought us up. It rained and blew till daylight, then we were again favoured with fine weather, and light westerly winds. The land was now in sight, Cape Villaret being the most northerly point, and bearing E.S.E. some 16 or 17 miles. The hillock upon this cape, and two other hummocks, lying to the southward, formed the only prominent features of the low land in sight.

At this anchorage the flood-tide set E. and by N., from one to one and a half knots per hour. Before weighing I procured a specimen of live coral from the depth of 11 fathoms.

Light airs, and the aid of the flood-tide, carried us into the centre of Roebuck Bay, where we came to an anchor in 7 fathoms, Cape Villaret bearing S. by W. ½ W. about 10 miles. The fall of the tide here was no less than 18 feet.

As we closed with the land, I had a good opportunity of speculating upon its appearance, and the probability of our investigation confirming or contradicting the opinion entertained by Captains King and Dampier, that a channel would be found to connect Roebuck Bay with an opening behind Buccaneers Archipelago, thus making Dampier's Land an island. I confess, my own impressions at first sight differed from that of those high authorities, nor did a nearer examination shake my opinion. Cape Villaret, a short ridge lying E. and W., and about 150 feet high, was still the most remarkable object; the sand on its side having a curious red appearance. From the masthead the land was not visible to the eastward for the space of one point of the compass; yet its level character, and the shoalness of the water, led alike to the opinion that no such communication as supposed would be found to exist.

January 17.—Collecting materials for the chart was the chief occupation of the day. Mr. Usborne discovered a high-water inlet in the south shore of the bay, five miles east of Cape Villaret, having a dry bank of sand before it at low-water.

While the party were on shore, they were visited by six of the natives, a larger race of men than those on the south coast, naked, with the exception of a grass mat round the waist, and the hair straight and tied up behind, seemingly ignorant of the use of the throwing stick, but carrying spears ill-shapen and unbarbed. One of them had a kiley, or boomerang, and each carried a rude hatchet of stone. None of them had suffered the loss of the front tooth, which, with some tribes, is a distinction of manhood. When asked by signs for fresh water, of which our party saw no traces, they pointed to the S.E.; a circumstance which I record, as it may possibly be of some service to future explorers. As the boat was leaving, one of them, supposing, I presume, that they were out of our reach, and might therefore attack us with impunity, threw a stone at the boat, which luckily did no harm, though hurled with great dexterity and force. Upon this, a pistol was discharged over their heads, when they retired with far greater rapidity than they had advanced.

Mr. Usborne mentions, in an account of this interview (published in the Nautical Magazine for 1840, page 576) that one of the party differed in several physical characteristics from the rest. After describing them in general terms as being from five feet six, to five feet nine inches tall, broad shoulders, long and slight legs, large heads, and overhanging brows—he continues, "There was an exception in the youngest, who appeared of an entirely different race: his skin was a copper colour, while the others were black; his head was not so large, and more rounded; the overhanging brow was lost; the shoulders more of a European turn; and the body and legs much better proportioned; in fact, he might be considered a well-made man, at our standard of figure." A similar instance of meeting with one of a tribe, not apparently belonging to the same subdivision of the human family as those by whom he was surrounded, is recorded by Captain Grey, who speaks indeed of the existence of a distinct race, totally different (i.e. from the other aborigines) and almost white. I cannot say that I have myself encountered any of these almost white men, whose existence, as a distinct race, Captain Grey appears to have rather hastily admitted; such variation in form and colour as Mr. Usborne alludes to, may, however, be accounted for by the intercourse which the natives on the north coast hold from time to time with the Malays.

Several very large black martins, with white or grey heads, were hovering over the ship this morning; and many flights of small white tern, and a bird, commonly called the razor-bill, passed and re-passed the ship every morning and evening, flying from the bay to seaward, and returning at sunset. Two water snakes were shot alongside the ship during the day; the largest measured four feet, and was of a dirty yellow colour. A good-sized fish was taken from the stomach of one of them. Their fangs were particularly long, and very much flattened, having no cutting edge whatever.

Some turtle also passed the ship to-day, and a day or two afterwards we were fortunate enough to shoot one which weighed 160 pounds: he had ample justice done to his merits. It was high-water at 1.50 p.m., and the stream changed at the same time, a circumstance conclusively demonstrating that we were not anchored in a strait.

January 18.—We got underweigh in the morning, but from the shallowness of the water anchored within a mile east of our former position.

The native Miago, who had accompanied us from Swan River, was most earnest in his inquiries about the savages, as soon as he understood that some of them had been seen. He appeared delighted that these blackfellows, as he calls them, have no throwing sticks; for though at times exceedingly valiant in conversation, and very anxious to kill one of the men, and carry off one of their 'gins', or wives—the great end, aim, and ambition of all Australian force or policy—he yet evidently holds these northmen in great dread. They are, according to his account, "Bad men—eat men—Perth men tell me so: Perth men say, Miago, you go on shore very little, plenty Quibra men* go, you go." These instructions appear to have been very carefully pressed upon him by his associates, and certainly they had succeeded in inspiring him with the utmost dread of this division of his fellow countrymen, which all his boasting about killing some of them and taking one of their women as proof of his prowess, back to Perth, failed to concern.

* i.e. Men of the ship.

He gave me this evening a new reason to account for the appearance of the two small clouds called after the celebrated Magellan, in the following words: "You see," said he, pointing up to the sky, "little smoke." I assented at once; for certainly the clouds have very much the appearance of that to which he compared them: he then continued: "Perth man tell me, long, long time back, he make fire, smoke go far away up, far away, stop and never go away more." Miago evidently believed that his friend at Perth had really lighted the fire, the smoke of which had thus gone up "far away, far away," to "stop and never go away more." I can easily enough comprehend why the assertion might be made, and possibly without any intention to deceive upon the part of the asserter, who may first have seen the clouds after watching the ascent of his own fire smoke through the still air, in the same direction; but that it should be implicitly believed, as it evidently was by Miago, upon the mere word of his fellow countryman, did, I own, astonish me; and seems to indicate that, in their social intercourse with each other, they may have more regard for truth than I was at first inclined to give them credit for.

Mr. Usborne was away to-day in one of the boats, seeking a berth for the ship higher up the bay: upon his return he reported that he had been over the banks before mentioned, upon which he found the water very shoal: the face of the country he described as exceedingly low, with mud lumps not unlike ant-hills,* scattered here and there over the face of it, and several clusters of small trees. Natives also had been seen, though no opportunity of approaching them had occurred, as the moment their restless eyes, or quick ears, detected our approach, they most rapidly retreated.

* Subsequent experience literally verified this opinion.

January 19.—Two boats were despatched this morning, under Mr. Usborne's command, to examine the eastern part of what I think may be named very properly Useless Bay. This would have been my duty, had I not unfortunately been taken ill in the evening of the preceding day: the symptoms were violent headache, and a disordered state of the stomach, caused, the surgeon says, by the oppressive and overpowering heat which we have experienced for the last few days, and the general effects of which seem more distressing to the ship's company than is often experienced under a higher range of the thermometer; the deprivation of all power, or energy, is one of its most unpleasant consequences. I am inclined to think that one reason for its great and wearying effect upon most of us—indeed, more or less, all are suffering from it—is that there is hardly any variation in temperature during the whole twenty-four hours: it sometimes does not amount to more than two or three degrees. Captain Wickham and the surgeon visited an inlet near the ship to-day, which had indeed been looked into, but not explored before. They proceeded to the south-west for about three miles, through a very tortuous channel, dry in many parts at low-water, thickly studded with mangrove bushes, over and through which the tide made its way at high-water, giving to that part of the country the appearance of an extensive morass. A slightly elevated table-topped range of land was seen from time to time, some eight or nine miles to the south-east, but in its highest elevation did not reach 200 feet. The apparent width of the inlet in no way diminished so far as the exploring party examined it; and this fact, coupled with the general character of the country hereabouts, induces me to suppose that the periodical return of the spring tide, floods the greater part of the coast between the sea shore and the base of the range I have alluded to. Vampires of a very large kind were here met with, the furthest south we had seen them. Miago had accompanied this party on shore, though he evidently showed no great devotion to the deed. They said he watched everything, aye, every bush, with the most scrutinizing gaze: his head appeared to turn upon a pivot, so constantly was it in motion, with all that restless watchfulness for which the savage is ever remarkable. The heat to-day either exceeded an average, or else perhaps, as an invalid, I noticed it more closely:

In the shade, on shore,it was 98
Do. on board 90
Pulling off in the boats 118
During the day, it fluctuated, between 88 & 94

A breeze from seaward blew the greater part of each night from W.S.W., hauling round to south in the morning.

January 20.—Our noon observation to-day enabled us to fix the latitude of Cape Villaret 18° 18' 50", which precisely agrees with that assigned to it by Captain King.

In the afternoon the boats returned with Mr. Usborne, who had been unfortunately very severely wounded by the accidental discharge of a musket. It appeared that after a careful examination of the bay, which ended as I had anticipated, in proving that no opening to the interior would be found in it, the party were returning to the boats, when, from the accidental explosion of a musket in the hand of one of the party, a ball entered Mr. Usborne's right side, near the spine, between the lower rib and hip bone, making an exit in a line with the navel. This truly unfortunate circumstance—which for some weeks deprived the expedition of the services of a most valuable officer—occurred about 10 o'clock a.m., but the time and trouble of carrying the sufferer through the mud to the boats, and then pulling some 15 miles, made it near 6 o'clock before he was on board and under the charge of Mr. Bynoe: we were all shocked to see our companion lifted apparently lifeless into the vessel he had so recently quitted full of health, and animated by an anxious desire to do all in his power to conduce to the general success; but were ere long assured by Mr. Bynoe, whose personal or professional merits need no eulogium from me—and who immediately and most carefully attended our wounded messmate—that the best results might be reasonably hoped for: a prediction shortly afterwards happily verified. At the time this unlucky accident occurred, some twenty natives rushed from the concealment whence they had been doubtless watching all the proceedings of the party, as though they designed to bear a part in what probably seemed to them, as poor Usborne went down, an approaching fray: however, the sight of the two boats in the distance, which upon deploying they had full in view, deterred them from acting upon any hostile intentions, supposing such to have existed in their minds.

The accident, however, and their sudden appearance, could only serve additionally to flurry the little party who had to convey their disabled officer to a place of safety, and Mr. Helpman, who may well be pardoned the want of his usual self-possession at such a moment, left behind a pair of loaded pistols. They would puzzle the savages greatly of course, but I hope no ill consequences ensued: if they began pulling them about, or put them in the fire, the better to separate the wood and iron, two or three poor wretches might be killed or maimed for life, and their first recollections of the Quibra men, as Miago calls us, would naturally be anything but favourable.

Thus disastrously terminated our examination of Roebuck Bay, in which the cheering reports of former navigators, no less than the tenor of our hydrographical instructions had induced us to anticipate the discovery of some great water-communication with the interior of this vast Continent. A most thorough and careful search—in which everyone seemed animated by one common and universal sentiment, prompting all to a zealous discharge of duty—had clearly demonstrated that the hoped-for river must be sought elsewhere: and that very fact which at first seemed to lessen the probabilities of ultimate success, served rather to inspire than to daunt; since while it could not shake our reliance upon the opinions of those best qualified to decide, that such a river must ultimately be discovered, it only narrowed the ground upon which energy, knowledge, and perseverance had yet to undergo their probation, ere they enjoyed their reward!

Our intercourse with the natives had been necessarily of the most limited character, hardly amounting to anything beyond indulging them with the sight of a new people, whose very existence, notwithstanding the apathetic indifference with which they regarded us, must have appeared a prodigy. What tradition may serve to hand down the memory of our visit to the third generation, should no newer arrival correct its gathering errors, and again restore some vestige of the truth, it is hardly possible to imagine; but should any misfortune follow their possession of Mr. Helpman's pistols, that in particular will be narrated as the motive for the visit of those white men who came flying upon the water, and left some of the secret fire upon the peaceful coast: and when again the white sails of the explorer glisten in the distant horizon, all the imaginary terrors of the Boyl-yas,* will be invoked to avert the coming of those who bring with them the unspeakable blessings of Christian civilization.

* The natives in the neighbourhood of Swan River give this name to their Sorcerers.