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The Beginning of the Sea Story of Australia

Part 2

Hunter, the second Governor of New South Wales, and King, the third Governor, both did remarkable surveying work on the coast while serving under Phillip, and both made still more remarkable voyages to England. Hunter was the senior naval officer under Phillip, and was in command of the Sirius when she was lost on Norfolk Island.

This is how the dauntless Hunter got home with the crew of the Sirius, after waiting six months on Norfolk Island for the chance of a passage. The Waaksamheyd, a Dutch snow{*} of 300-tons burden, which had brought supplies to Sydney from Batavia, was engaged to take Hunter and his shipwrecked crew to England. She was thirteen months on the voyage, and here are some extracts from Hunter's letter to the Admiralty, written from Portsmouth on the 23rd of April, 1792:—

"I sailed from Port Jackson on the 27th of March, 1791, victualled for six months and with sixty tons of water. We were one hundred and twenty-three people on board all told" (remember this vessel was of three hundred tons burden). "The master was directed to call at Norfolk Island to receive despatches, but contrary winds prevented us carrying out these orders. We steered to the northward and made New Caledonia, passing to the westward of it, as the master (a Dutchman) did not feel himself qualified to navigate a vessel in these unknown seas. He had, upon leaving Port Jackson, requested my assistance, which I gave him. In sailing to the northward we fell in with several islands and shoals, the situations of which we determined, and it is my intention, if the Navy Board will permit me, to lay a short account of this northern passage before the Board, when the discoveries will be particularly mentioned. No ship that I have heard of having sailed between New Britain and New Ireland since that passage was discovered by Captain Carteret in Her Majesty's sloop Swallow, I was the more desirous to take that route.... We passed through the Straits of Macassar and arrived at Batavia after a tedious and distressing passage of twenty-six weeks."

     * A snow differed somewhat slightly from a brig. It had two
masts similar to the fore and mainmasts of a brig or ship,
and, close abaft the mainmast, a topsail mast.

After burying an officer and two seamen at Batavia, Hunter left that place on October 20th, reached the Cape on the 17th of December, and was driven to sea again after the loss of two anchors, till the 30th. So weak and ill were his men from the effects of their stay in the unhealthy climate of Batavia, that he had to remain at the Cape till the 18th of January, when he again put to sea and sailed for England.

Hunter's brief and precise official account of his voyage discloses little of the great distress of that thirteen months' passage; but it shows how the spirit of discovery was in the man; how, in spite of the care of one hundred and twenty-three people in a 300-ton vessel, and half rations, he had time and energy enough to think of surveying. One result of his voyage was his strongly expressed opinion that the proper route home from Australia was via Cape Horn—now the recognised homeward route for sailing vessels.

The name of King ought never to be forgotten, for the services of father and son in Australian waters were very great. King, the elder, came out with Phillip as second lieutenant of the crazy old Sirius. He had previously served under Phillip in the East Indies, and soon after the arrival of the first fleet in "Botany Bay," as New South Wales was then called, he was sent with a detachment of Marines and a number of convicts to colonise Norfolk Island. His task was a hard one, but he accomplished it in the face of almost heartbreaking difficulties.

Phillip, finding that his despatches failed to awaken the Home Government to a sense of the deplorable situation of the colony he had founded at Port Jackson, determined to send home a man who would represent the true state of affairs. He chose King for the service. Every other officer—both naval and military—was ready to go, and would have eloquently described the miseries of the colonists, and harped on the necessity for an instant abandonment of the settlement—they were writing letters to this effect by every chance they could get to forward them—but this was not what Phillip wanted. He, and he alone, recognised the future possibilities of New South Wales, writing even at the time of his deepest distress: "This will be the greatest acquisition Great Britain has ever made." All he asked was for reasonable help in the way of food and decent settlers who could work. All he got in answer to his requests was the further shipment of the scum of the gaols and the hulks—and some more spades and seeds. King believed in his chief and cordially worked with him—and King was the silent Phillip's one friend.

So King went home, his voyage thither being one of the most singular ever made by naval officer. He left Sydney Cove in April, 1790, and after a tedious passage reached Batavia. Here he engaged a small Dutch vessel to take him to the Cape of Good Hope, sailing for that port in August Before the ship had been a week at sea, save four men, the whole crew, including the master, were stricken with the hideous "putrid fever"—a common disease in "country" ships at that time. King, a quick and masterful man, took command, and with his four well men lived on deck in a tent to escape contagion. The rest of the ship's company, which included a surgeon, lay below delirious, and one after another of them dying—seventeen of them died in a fortnight.

King tells how, when handling the bodies to throw them overboard, he and his men covered their mouths with sponges soaked in vinegar to prevent contagion. In this short-handed condition he navigated the vessel to the Mauritius, where, "having heard of the misunderstanding with the French" the gallant officer refused to take passage in a French frigate; but procuring a new crew worked his way to the Cape, where he arrived in September, reaching England in December, after a passage which altogether occupied eight months—a letter from England to Australia and a reply to it now occupies about ten weeks.

In England King was well received, being confirmed in his appointment as Commandant of Norfolk Island, and he succeeded in getting some help for his fellow-colonists. Upon his return to his island command the little colony proved a great worry. The military guard mutinied, and King armed the convict settlers to suppress the mutiny! This act of his gave great offence in some quarters. Phillip had resigned the command at Sydney, and the Lieutenant-Governor of the colony, who was in charge, was the commanding officer of the New South Wales Regiment—more celebrated in the records for its mutinies than its services—and the degradation of the Norfolk Island detachment by King was never forgiven by the soldiers, but the Home Government quite approved his conduct.

But King made one very serious mistake. He had sent a vessel to New Zealand, and from thence had imported certain Maori chiefs to instruct the settlers on Norfolk Island in flax cultivation.

King had pledged his word to these noble savages to return them to their native country, and in order to do so, and make sure of their getting there, he himself embarked in a vessel, leaving his command for a few days to the charge of his subordinate, while he sailed the thirteen hundred miles to New Zealand and back. For this he was censured, but was notwithstanding afterwards appointed the third Governor of New South Wales, succeeding Hunter.

King's son, who was born at Norfolk Island in 1791, entered the Navy in 1807, and saw any amount of fighting in the French war; then went to Australia in 1817, and surveyed its eastern coast in such a manner that, when he returned to England in 1823 there was little but detail work left for those who followed him. Then he was appointed to the Adventure, which, in conjunction with the Beagle, surveyed the South American coast. In 1830 he retired and settled in Australia, dying there in 1856. His son in turn entered the service, but early followed his father's example, and turned farmer in Australia. He still lives, and is a member of the Legislative Council or Upper House of the New South Wales Parliament.

Here is a family record! Three generations, all naval officers, and all men who have taken an active share in the founding and growth of Greater Britain; and yet not one man in a thousand in Australia, much less in England, has probably the remotest idea of the services rendered to the Empire by this family.

The fourth and last naval Governor, Bligh, is more often remembered in connection with the Bounty mutiny than for his governorship of New South Wales. He was deposed by the military in 1808, for his action in endeavouring to suppress the improper traffic in rum which was being carried on by the officers of the New South Wales Regiment. This second mutiny, of which he was the victim, certainly cannot be blamed against the honesty of his administration; and the assertion, so often repeated, that he hid himself under his bed when the mutinous soldiers—who had been well primed with rum by their officers—marched to Government House, can best be answered by the statement that Nelson publicly thanked him for his skill and gallantry at Copenhagen, and by the heroism which he showed in the most remarkable boat voyage in history. He may have been the most tyrannical and overbearing naval officer that ever entered the service, but he was not the man to hide himself under a bed.

There were other naval officers of the early Australian days whose services were no less valuable to the infant colony. Think of the men associated with this time, and of the names famous in history, which are in some way linked with Australia. Dampier, Cook, La Pérouse, Bligh, Edwards and the Pandora, Vancouver, Flinders, Bass—all these are familiar to the world, and there are others in plenty; for example, Grant, who in his vessel, the brig Lady Nelson, did such work in Australian waters as, if performed nowadays say in Africa, would have been recorded in hundreds of newspaper interviews, many process-work pictures and a 21s. book with cheap editions!


The Beginning of the Sea Story of Australia
The Beginning of the Sea Story of Australia Part 3
Australia - History
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