CHAPTER 20. TO ILE-DE-FRANCE IN THE CUMBERLAND.
Governor King received the news of the wreck of the Porpoise immediately after the arrival of the Hope in Port Jackson, on the evening of September 8th. King and his family were at dinner when to his great amazement Flinders was announced. "A razor had not passed over our faces from the time of the shipwreck," he records, "and the surprise of the Governor was not little at seeing two persons thus appear whom he supposed to be many hundred leagues on their way to England; but so soon as he was convinced of the truth of the vision before him, and learned the melancholy cause, an involuntary tear started from the eye of friendship and compassion, and we were received in the most affectionate manner."
King in an official letter confessed that he could not "sufficiently commend your voluntary services, and those who came with you, in undertaking a voyage of 700 miles in an open boat to procure relief for our friends now on the reef." It was, indeed, an achievement of no small quality in itself.
Plans for the relief of the wrecked people were immediately formed. Captain Cumming of the Rolla, a 438-ton merchant ship, China-bound, agreed to call at the reef, take some of them on board, and carry them to Canton, whilst the Francis, which was to sail in company, was to bring the remainder back to Sydney. Flinders himself was to take command of the Cumberland, a 29-ton schooner, and was to sail in her to England with his charts and papers as rapidly as possible.
The Cumberland was a wretchedly small vessel in which to traverse fifteen thousand miles of ocean. She was "something less than a Gravesend passage boat" and hardly better suited for the effort than a canal barge. But, given anything made of wood that would float and steer, inconvenience and difficulty never baffled Matthew Flinders when there was service to perform. She was the first vessel that had been built in Australia. Moore, the Government boat-builder, had put her together for colonial service, and she was reputed to be strong, tight, and well behaved in a sea; but of course she was never designed for long ocean voyages. However, she was the only boat available; and though Flinders regretted that the meagre accommodation she afforded would prevent him from working at his charts while making the passage, he was too eager to accomplish his purpose to hesitate about accepting the means. "Fortuna audaces juvat" might at any time have been his motto; fortune helpeth them that dare. An unavoidable delay of thirteen days caused some anxiety. "Every day seemed a week," until he could get on his way towards the reef. But, at length, on September 21st, the Cumberland in company with the Rolla and Francis sailed out of Port Jackson. The crew consisted of a boatswain and ten men.
On Friday, October 7th, exactly six weeks after the Hope had left Wreck Reef, the ensign on the flagstaff was sighted from the mast-head of the Rolla. At about the same time a seaman who was out with Lieutenant Fowler, in a new boat that had been constructed from the wreckage, saw a white object in the distance against the blue of the sky. At first he took it for a sea-bird; but, looking at it more steadfastly, he suddenly jumped up, exclaiming, "damn my blood, what's that?" It was, in truth, the top-gallant sail of the Rolla. Everybody looked at it; a sail indeed it was; Flinders had not failed them, and rescue was imminent. A shout of delight went up, and the boat scurried back to the reef to announce the news.
At about two o'clock in the afternoon, Flinders anchored under the lee of the bank. The shell of the Porpoise still lay on her beam side high up on the reef, but, her carronades having been landed, the happy people welcomed their deliverers with a salute of eleven guns. "Every heart was overjoyed at this unexpected delivery," as seaman Smith's narrative records; and when Flinders stepped ashore, he was long and loudly cheered. Men pressed around him to shake his hands and thank him, and tears of joy rolled down the hard, weather-worn faces of men not over-given to a display of feeling. For his own part "the pleasure of rejoining my companions so amply provided with the means of relieving their distress made this one of the happiest moments of my life."
In singular contrast with the pleasure of everyone else was the cool demeanour of Samuel Flinders. A letter previously cited contains a reference to him, which suggests that he was not always quite brotherly or generally satisfactory. On this occasion he was oddly stiff and uncordial. Flinders relates the incident: "Lieutenant Flinders, then commanding officer on the bank, was in his tent calculating some lunar distances, when one of the young gentlemen ran to him calling, 'Sir, sir, a ship and two schooners in sight.' After a little consideration, Mr. Flinders said he supposed it was his brother come back, and asked if the vessels were near. He was answered, not yet; upon which he desired to be informed when they should reach the anchorage, and very calmly resumed his calculations. Such are the varied effects produced by the same circumstances upon different minds. When the desired report was made, he ordered the salute to be fired, and took part in the general satisfaction."
After the welcoming was over, Flinders assembled all the people and informed them what his plans were. Those who chose might go to Sydney in the Francis; the others, with the exception of ten, would sail in the Rolla to Canton and others take ship for England. To accompany him in the Cumberland he chose John Aken, who had been master of the Investigator, Edward Charrington, the boatswain, his own servant, John Elder, and seven seamen. Their names are contained in the logbook which General Decaen detained at Ile-de-France. They were George Elder, who had been carpenter on the Porpoise, John Woods, Henry Lewis, Francis Smith, N. Smith, James Carter, and Jacob Tibbet, all picked men.