CHAPTER 8. THE VOYAGE OF THE FRANCIS.
During the absence of Bass in the whaleboat, the repairing of the Reliance was finished, and in February, 1798, Flinders was able to carry out a bit of exploration on his own account. The making of charts was employment for which he had equipped himself by study and practice, and he was glad to secure an opportunity of applying his abilities in a field where there was original work to do. The schooner Francis (a small vessel sent out in frame from England for the use of the colonial government, but now badly decayed) was about to be despatched to the Furneaux Islands - north-east of Van Diemen's Land, and about 480 miles from Sydney - to bring to Sydney what remained of the cargo of the wrecked Sydney Cove, and to rescue a few of the crew who had been left in charge. Flinders obtained permission from the Governor to embark in the schooner, "in order to make such observations serviceable to geography and navigation as circumstances might afford," and instructions were given to the officer in command to forward this purpose as far as possible.
The circumstances of the wreck that occasioned the cruise of the Francis were these: -
The Sydney Cove, Captain Guy Hamilton, left Bengal on November 10th, 1796, with a speculative cargo of merchandise for Sydney. Serious leakages became apparent on the voyage, but the ship made the coast of New Holland, rounded the southern extremity of Van Diemen's Land, and stood to the northward on February 1st, 1797. She encountered furious gales which increased to a perfect hurricane, with a sea described in a contemporary account as "dreadful." The condition of the hull was so bad that the pumps could not keep the inrush of water under control, and the vessel became waterlogged. On February 8th she had five feet of water in the well, and by midnight the water was up to the lower deck hatches. She was at daybreak in imminent peril of going to the bottom, so the Captain headed for Preservation Island (one of the Furneaux Group), sent the longboat ashore with some rice, ammunition and firearms, and ran her in until she struck on a sandy bottom in nineteen feet of water. The whole ship's company was landed safely, tents were rigged up, and as much of the cargo as could be secured was taken ashore.
It was necessary to communicate with Sydney to procure assistance. The long-boat was launched, and under the direction of the first mate, Mr. Hugh Thompson, sixteen of the crew started north on February 28th. But fresh misfortunes, as cruel as shipwreck and for most of these men more disastrous, were heaped upon them. They were smitten by a violent storm, terrific seas broke over the boat, and on the morning of March 2nd she suddenly shipped enough water to swamp her. The crew with difficulty ran her through the surf that beat on the coast off which they had been struggling, and she went to pieces immediately. The seventeen were cast ashore on the coast of New South Wales, hundreds of miles from the only settlement, which could only be reached by the crossing of a wild, rough, and trackless country, inhabited by tribes of savages. They were without food, their clothing was drenched, and their sole means of defence consisted of a rusty musket, with very little ammunition, a couple of useless pistols, and two small swords.
The wretched band commenced their march along the coast northwards on March 25th. They had to improvise rafts to cross some rivers; once a party of kindly aboriginals helped them over a stream in canoes; at another time they encountered blacks who hurled spears at them. They lived chiefly on small shell-fish. Hunger and exposure brought their strength very low. On April 16th, after over a month of weary tramping, nine of the party dropped from fatigue and had to be left behind by their companions, whose only hope was to push on while sufficient energy lasted. Two days later, three of the remainder were wounded by blacks. At last, in May, three only of the seventeen who started on this heart-breaking struggle for life against distance, starvation and exhaustion, were rescued, "scarcely alive," by a fishing boat, and taken to Sydney. The others perished by the way.
Captain Hamilton, who had stayed by his wrecked ship, was rescued in July, 1797; and, as already stated, in January of the following year, Governor Hunter fitted out the schooner Francis to bring away a few Lascar sailors and as much of the remaining cargo as could be saved. "I sent in the schooner," wrote the Governor in a despatch, "Lieutenant Flinders of the Reliance, a young man well-qualified, in order to give him an opportunity of making what observations he could among those islands." The Francis sailed on February 1st.
The black shadow of the catastrophe that had overtaken the Sydney Cove crossed the path of the salvage party. The Francis was accompanied by the ten-ton sloop Eliza, Captain Armstrong. But shortly after reaching the Furneaux Islands the two vessels were separated in a storm, and the Eliza went down with all hands. Neither the boat nor any soul of her company were ever seen or heard of again.
Flinders had only twelve days available for his own work, from February 16th till the 28th, but he made full and valuable use of that time in exploring, observing and charting. The fruits of his researches were embodied in a drawing sent to the British Government by Hunter, when he announced the discovery of Bass Strait later on in 1798. The principal geographical result was the discovery of the Kent group of islands, which Flinders named "in honour of my friend" the brave and accomplished sailor, William Kent, who commanded the Supply.