Maritime Exploration of Australia: The British

Replica of HMS Endeavour in its home town of Whitby, England

Britain's involvement with the Australian continent began in 1622 with the wreck of a trading ship on its inhospitable shores. John Brookes was the Captain of the English ship Trial which became Australia's first recorded shipwreck when it ran onto reefs near the Montebello Islands on 24th May, 1622. Brookes and 45 crew managed to sail 2 boats to Batavia leaving 93 behind to perish. The first ended up in Java on 8th June, and arrived in Batavia on 25th June. The second boat had set sail for the Montebello Islands, searched for water on arrival, then turned north for Batavia.

Wreck of the Trial. Photo: WA Museum

After the two vessels reached Batavia, allegations arose that Brookes had stolen items form the Company, and had been negligent. Brookes had also seemed to put false entries in his Journal indicating that he had not gone further east of where he had been instructed to go. Brookes false entries placed the Trial wreck many kilometers west of the true wreck site and the Trial Rocks were not discovered until some 300 years later. In 1934 Ritchie's Reef was discovered to be the true site where the ship went down.

The Australian territory of Christmas Island was the first part of Australia to be named by British sailors. Captain William Mynors of the East India Company vessel Royal Mary named the island when he arrived on Christmas Day, 25th December, 1643 on the occasion of that sighting. He was unable to land, however, and it was not until 1688, when explorer and buccaneer William Dampier of the British ship Cygnet, landed at the Dales and two of his crewmen obtaining water and timber were the first recorded people to set foot on Christmas Island and Australian soil.

William Dampier memorial, Derby, WA

Captain Read/William Dampier (Cygnet) 1688
The first recorded Englishman to encounter the mainland of Australia was the same William Dampier. Dampier visited the west coast with his ship Cygnet in 1688, remaining for 3 months at King Sound for ship repairs. The Cygnet was actually under the command of Captain Read but it was Dampier who, upon his return to England, published "A New Voyage Round the World" and thus was incorrectly credited as leading the expedition which anchored in Cygnet Bay and sailed around King Sound. Eleven years after his first voyage to New Holland Dampier was back in the Roebuck. He studied the land around Shark Bay, which he named, then sailed north to Dampier Archipelago and on towards Timor and beyond. He reported that he was not impressed with New Holland.

William Dampier

Exploration in the Pacific
During the 1760s, eminent British scientist Alexander Dalrymple had become recognised as one of the leading scientific minds of Europe. Dalrymple, a leading voice in Britain's Royal Society, was a firm believer in the theory that there existed a large continent, hitherto unknown to Europeans located somewhere in the region of the South Pacific. The collective of his thinking, experience and research pointed to an inbalance of the known oceanic mass with the known land mass in the southern regions by a ration of about 8 to 1, which indicated a large continent must exist and was waiting to be found. Dalrymple supported his theory with the Dieppe maps along with a copy of Marco Polo's journals, all of which pointed to the extistence of a rich country to the south of Java which appeared on the charts of the day as Java le Grande.

Supporting this was a map drawn by a Portuguese cosmopolitan, Manuoel Godhino de Eredia, to show the course of the Spanish navigator Luis Vaez de Torres, which included passage through Torres Strait in 1606. New Guinea was named by a Spaniard, de Retez in 1545, who saw in its coast a resemblance to the Guinea coast of Africa. On this voyage Torres passed through the strait now named for him and skirted the southern shores of New Guinea, proving it to be an island and not part of the still unsighted Southern Continent of Australia. Dalrymple was a correspondent of de Brosses and the great French cartographers. In Madras he saw a Spanish manuscript account of the Voyage of Torres and he secured a copy of the memorial of Juan Luis Arias printed in 1640 and became certain there was a strait south of New Guinea.

Dalrymple's 'An account of the Discoveries made in the South Pacifick Ocean previous to 1764' was printed in 1767 but not published until 1769. It contained a map with Torres' approximate course and he gave a copy to his friend Joseph Banks, which would be later passed on to James Cook. Torres Map was actually held in the Philippines. Cook thus had the Vaugasidy Chart from de Brosses' Histoires des Voyages aux Terres Australes, Dalrymple's book and the Vagne chart and had a lot of reason to believe he would find a passage when he approached Cape York. Endeavour Straight, the passage Cook sailed through, was south of that used by Torres.

As astronomers had determined the planet Venus was to pass between the earth and the sun on 3rd June 1769, upon Dalrymple's suggestion, the Royal Society determined to make a world observation of the event, and use it as a means of offsetting the expense of an expedition into the South Pacific after the observation had been completed, so as to prove Dalrymple's theories correct. One viewing station was to be Tahiti (Otaheite), an island in the South Pacific. Dalrymple put forward himself as leader of the expedition, and requested the Admiralty provide a ship. They agreed, however when Dalrymple insisted that he have command and control of the vessel, the Navy said "No, we cannot have a civilian in charge of a naval vessel" and appointed a 40 year old officer by the name of James Cook to the task. Dalrymple declined to participate in the expedition under the circumstances, a decision that was no doubt influenced by Cook's belief that there was no south land and that the expedition would prove it so.

James Cook, HMS Endeavour

Nootka Sound, Canada

The Nootka Sound Convention
The significance of Dalrymple's interest becomes even clearer in the light of events that were unfolding simultaneously on the other side of the Pacific at Nootka Sound, the inlet on the western coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in Canada. Just 10 years before Cook set sail on his first voyage into the Pacific, Britain had defeated the French and Spanish in the Seven Year War, fought over territrorial rights in Canada. Cook visited the Sound in 1778, and traded for some sea otter pelts. Once his journals were published in 1784, the fur trade took off, much to the displeasure of Spain which believed it had sole trading rights in the area as it was in Spanish territory.

This came to a head in 1789 when the Spaniards seized four British trading vessels that were caught trading in the sound. The Spaniards claimed possession of the whole northwestern coast of America on the basis of the papal grant of 1494, and confirmed when their explorers had formally taken possession. Britain, however, contended that rights of sovereignty could be established only by actual occupation of the land, something it had already done by claiming Spanish Australia for Britain in 1770 (Britain had said nothing, hoping Spain wouldn't notice).

The British seized upon Spain's action and talked about going to war over it to force the issue. Because of Spain's military weakness and Prussian diplomatic support on behalf of Great Britain, Spain yielded to the British demands. The Nootka Sound Convention (signed in 1790, amended in 1794) resolved the controversy between the two countries. The convention acknowledged that each nation was free to navigate and fish the Pacific and to trade and establish settlements on unoccupied land. In so doing, it gave the international nod of approval to Britain's right to establish the colony of New South Wales and annexe the continent of Australia as a British colony. For full details on the incident, see The Canadian Connection.

William Bligh
Born at St. Tudy, near Plymouth, on 9th Sep 1754, William Bligh first appears on Naval roles at the age of 9. After a number of years of naval service, he received what was to be his first opportunity to visit the South Seas, when he was appointed Master of HMS Resolution, commanded by James Cook, just prior to Cook's third voyage in March 1776. At 22, to be appointed sailing master on a major research vessel was a great tribute to his skill and connections. The Resolution and Discovery included a visit to Adventure Bay, Tasmania. Cook was killed in Hawaii later in the expedition and it was left to Bligh to brings the ships home. The voyage ended in late 1780, and Bligh took a 12-month leave from active duty, during which time he was married.

It was on the voyage of HMS Bounty to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti, that Bligh was cut adrift in the ship's longboat by Christian in the finamous mutiny on the Bounty of 28th April 1789. After the Bounty voyage, Bligh commanded a number of scientific voyages. Late in 1796, he was appointed commander of HMS Director. It is also interesting that in 1797, Bligh was involved in another serious mutiny, known as the Mutiny at the Nore. Brave in battle, he was line astern of Nelson at Copenhagen in 1801. The wartime period ended in 1802, and Bligh again commanded a scientific voyage, this time a hydrological expedition.

  • Australian Dictionary of Briography: William Bligh
    • William Bligh and the Rum Rebellion
      • Mutiny on The Bounty

      • Tobias Furneaux
        Furneaux was born in Swilly near Plymouth, Devon, England, on 21st August 1735. He entered the royal navy, and was employed on the French and African coasts and in the West Indies during the latter part of the Seven Years War (1760-1763). He served as second lieutenant of the Dolphin under Captain Samuel Wallis on the latter's voyage round the globe, in fact he was the first British naval officer and explorer who was first to circumnavigate the globe in both directions and among the first Europeans to reach Tahiti. Furneaux was made a commander in November 1771; and commanded the Adventure which accompanied Cook in Cooks second voyage. Furneaux was made a captain in 1775, and commanded the Syren in the British attack of the 28 June 1776 at Charleston, South Carolina. His was successful in his efforts to introduce domestic animals and potatoes into the South Sea Islands. Furneaux died at Swilly on I9 September 1781.

        Furneaux was the commander of Adventure during James Cook's second voyage to the Pacific. Near Van Diemen's Land his vessel became separated from Cook in a fog. Whilst Cook sailed on to New Zealand, Furneaux travelled further north and sighted a group of islands off the south west cape of Tasmania on 9 March 1773. James Cook was to later name the islands after Furneaux. On a for four day trek following the path taken by Dutchman Abel Tasman 130 years before, Furneaux then visited a number of locations including Adventure Bay and Bruny Island, charting the coast as he went. On reaching Bass Strait, had he not mistaken it for a large bay, he would have sailed north-west and discovered the coast of Victoria. Instead he turned east and met up with Cook at Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand. They were separated again in a storm after leaving New Zealand in October 1772, and the Adventure headed home, arriving in july 1774. Seeds and some specimens of Leptospermum lanigerum and seeds of Eucalyptus obliqua were collected during the Tasmanian sojourn, and the specimens (the earliest extant ones from Tasmania) are now in the British Museum. Both species were grown in England from these seeds.


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