Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Adventures of George Bass and Matthew Flinders

"See! girt with tempest and wing'd with thunder,

And clad with lightning and shod with sleet,

The strong waves treading the swift waves, sunder

The flying rollers with frothy feet.

One gleam like a blood-shot sword swims on

The skyline, staining the green gulf crimson,

A death stroke fiercely dealt by a dim sun,

That strikes through his stormy winding-sheet.

Oh! brave white horses! you gather and gallop,

The storm sprite loosens the gusty reins;

Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop

In your hollow backs, on your high arched manes."

A. Lindsay Gordon.

It was not until the town of Sydney had been founded for some years that anything was known of the great island upon which it was built. But at last people became curious to know more about their new home.

When Captain John Hunter came out from home as Governor of New South Wales, there came with him two daring young men. The one was George Bass, the ship's doctor, and the other Matthew Flinders, a midshipman. Flinders was only twenty-one, and Bass a few years older.

These two soon became fast friends. They both were eager to know more of the land to which they had come, and about a month after they arrived in Sydney, they set out on a voyage of discovery in a little boat of eight feet long. They called it the Tom Thumb,  and the whole crew was themselves and a boy.


"Natives gathered round them."

In this tiny boat they sailed out into the great Pacific, and made for Botany Bay. Here they cruised in and out of all the creeks and bays, making maps of everything, and after an adventurous time they got safely back to Sydney. But they were not long content to remain there. Soon they started out again, and again had many adventures.

Once they got into such a storm that their little boat was nearly swamped. They themselves were soaked to the skin, their drinking water was all spoiled, and, worst of all, their gunpowder was wet and useless.

So they rowed to shore, meaning to land and dry their things, and look for fresh water. As they landed, several natives gathered round them. Bass and Flinders hardly knew what to do. The natives about were said to be very fierce, if not cannibals. There were about fifty of them, armed with spears and boomerangs, against two white men and a boy, who had no weapons, for their guns were rusty and full of sand, and their gunpowder wet.

A boomerang is a native Australian weapon made of hard wood. It is made in peculiar shape, and the black fellows throw it in such a wonderful way that it hits the object it is aimed at, and returns to the hand of the thrower.

Although very uncertain what would happen to them, Bass and Flinders put a bold face on matters. They spread out their gunpowder to dry on the rocks while the natives looked on. They next began to clean their guns, but at this the black fellows became so angry and afraid that they were obliged to stop.

As neither could understand the other's language, talking was rather difficult. But the white men made the savages understand that they wanted water, and they were shown a stream not far off where they filled their cask. They would now have been glad to get away, but their gunpowder was not dry.

Then Flinders thought of something to keep the savages interested. A few days before he had cut the hair and trimmed the beard of a savage, much to his delight. So now he produced a large pair of scissors and persuaded some of those round to let him play barber.

Flinders did not make a very good barber, but that did not matter as the savages were easily pleased. They were very proud of themselves when the cutting and snipping was done, but some of them were very much afraid as the large scissors were nourished so near their noses. Their eyes stared in wild fear, yet all the time they tried to smile as if they liked it, and they looked so funny that Flinders was almost tempted to give a little snip to their ears just to see what would happen. But the situation was too dangerous for such tricks.

At last the powder was dry. Everything was gathered and put into the boat, and the three got safely away, well pleased to have escaped while the savages were still in good humour.

A few nights after this they were nearly wrecked. They had anchored for the night when a terrible storm arose. The waves dashed high over their tiny boat, there were cliffs on one hand, reefs on the other. They hauled up their anchor as quickly as they could and ran before the gale. Bass managed the sail, Flinders steered with an oar, and the boy bailed. "A single wrong movement, a moment's inattention, would have sent us to the bottom," says Flinders.

It was an anxious time, and the darkness of the night added to their danger. But suddenly, when things were so bad that they thought they had not ten minutes more to live, the boat got through the breakers, and in three minutes the adventurers found themselves in the calm waters of a little cove. In thankfulness for their escape they called it Providential Cove. A few days later, having explored thirty or forty miles of coast, they reached Sydney in safety.

It was not long before Bass set out exploring again. This time Flinders could not go, as he had to attend to his duties on board ship. Alone Bass discovered more of the coast, but the greatest thing that he did was to make sure that Tasmania was not joined to Australia, but was a separate island. And the strait between Tasmania and Australia is called Bass Strait after him.

It would take too long to tell of all that Bass and Flinders did, and of all the adventures they had. After a little. Bass sailed away to South America on a trading expedition, and was never heard of more. It is thought that he was captured by the Spaniards, and made to work as a slave in the silver mines. If that is so, it was a terrible end for this brave sailor who loved the free life upon the ocean waves. It is pitiful to think that he, who had felt the sting of the salt spray upon his cheek, and the taste of it upon his lips, had henceforth to toil in a dark, close mine, a broken-hearted captive.

Even after his friend had gone, Flinders did a great deal of exploring. He sailed all round the coasts of Australia in a rotten, little boat called the Investigator.  "A more deplorable, crazy vessel than the Investigator  is perhaps not to be seen," said the captain who later, with great difficulty, brought her home to England. When Flinders reached Sydney he found that some of the planking was so soft that a stick could be poked through it. It was in such ships that those brave sailors dared the stormy seas! But Flinders was anxious to reach home, for he had made many maps of the coast, and had filled many note-books, and he wanted to have them published. So he left the Investigator,  and sailed home as a passenger in another ship.

They had not gone far, however, when one dark and stormy night they were wrecked upon a coral reef. All night the storm raged, the winds blew, and the waves dashed over the wretched, weary men. But when morning came they saw a sandbank near, and upon this they managed to land, only three men being lost in the storm.

Luckily they were able to save most of the food and water out of the wrecked vessel, and were soon settled on their sandbank. They made tents of sails and spars, planted a flagstaff, and ran up a blue ensign with the Union Jack upside down as a signal of distress. And so they prepared to wait until some passing ship should find them and take them off. But it was by no means a likely place for ships to pass, and after a few days Flinders decided to take one of the ship's boats which had been saved from the wreck, and sail back to Sydney to bring help.

They named the little boat the Hope,  and one fine morning Flinders, with thirteen other men, set sail. As they launched out they were followed by the cheers and good wishes of their shipwrecked comrades, and one of them, having asked leave of the captain, ran to the flagstaff, tore down the flag, and ran it up again with the Union Jack uppermost. This he did to show how sure they were that the voyage would be a success, and that Flinders would bring help.

So it was with cheerful hearts that Flinders and his brave followers began their long journey of two hundred and fifty leagues in an open boat. And like heroes they bore every hardship which came upon them. The weather became rainy and cold, and they were often drenched to the skin and had no means of drying or warming themselves. Tossed about on the huge, hollow waves like a cockle shell, in danger from sharks and whales, they yet escaped every peril, and after ten days of hardship and toil they arrived safely at Sydney.

Flinders at once went to Government House. Captain King was by this time governor, and he was a good friend to Flinders, who now found him sitting at dinner. The governor stared in astonishment at the wild, unshorn, ragged man with lean, brown face and bright eyes, who walked into the room. It was some minutes before he knew him to be his friend Matthew Flinders, who he thought was many hundreds of miles on his way to England. But when he realised who it was, and listened to the tale of disaster, his eyes filled with tears.

At once the governor agreed to send help to the ship-wrecked men, but it was some days before ships could be got ready, and every day seemed to Flinders a week. He was so afraid that if he did not get back quickly the men on the sandbank would grow tired of waiting, give up hope, and try to save themselves in an open boat, and so perhaps all be drowned before help came.

But at length everything was ready. Three ships set sail and safely reached the narrow, sea-swept sandbank, and all the shipwrecked men were rescued.

Flinders then went on his way to England with his precious maps and plans, a few only of which had been lost in the wreck. But the ship in which he went was so small and so leaky that it could not carry enough food and water for so long a voyage. Flinders was therefore obliged to stop at every port he came to for fresh supplies. The French and British were again at war, and at Mauritius, which then belonged to France, he was taken prisoner, in spite of the fact that he had a passport from Napoleon.

Flinders was treated as a spy, and all his journals and maps were taken from him. And now his fate was little better than that of his friend Bass. For seven long years he was kept a prisoner, eating his heart out with desire for freedom. At last he was set free, and after some more adventures he reached home.

But his troubles were not at an end. He now discovered that a French sailor had stolen his maps and journal, and that he had published them in France as his own, having changed all the names which Flinders had given the places into French names. The name Australis, which Flinders had been among the first to use, he had changed to Terre de Napoleon—that is, land of Napoleon. And for many a long day Australia was marked in French atlases as Terre de Napoleon.

It was a bitter blow. But broken in health and worn with long hardships and imprisonments though he was, Flinders was not yet beaten. He gave up the rest of his life to writing an account of his travels, which he called A Voyage to Terra Australis.  But, sad to say, upon the very day that it was published, he died. To the end he was a sailor and adventurer. Almost his last words were, "I know that in future days of exploration my spirit will rise from the dead and follow the exploring ships."

It was by such men of daring, by such deeds of valour and of long endurance, that the outlines of Australia were traced upon our maps.

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