CHAPTER 9. CIRCUMNAVIGATION OF TASMANIA.
Flinders arrived in Sydney in the Francis about a fortnight after Bass returned in the whaleboat. It was, we may be certain, with delight that he heard from the lips of his friend the story of his adventurous voyage. The eye-sketch of the coastline traversed by Bass was, by the Governor's direction, used by him for the preparation of a chart to be sent to England. He was able to compare notes and discuss the probability of the existence of a strait, and it was but natural that the two men who had so recently been exploring, the one on the north the other on the south side of the possible strait, should be eager to pursue enquiry to the point of proof. Flinders acknowledged, in relating these events, his anxiety to gratify his desire of positively sailing through the strait and round Van Diemen's Land, and he chafed under the routine duties which postponed the effort. The opportunity did not occur till September.
In the meantime, Flinders had to sail in the Reliance to Norfolk Island to take over the surgeon, D'Arcy Wentworth, father of that William Wentworth whose name has already figured in these pages, and who was then a boy of seven. This trip took place in May to July.
In August he sat as a member of the Vice-Admiralty Court of New South Wales to try a case of mutiny on the high seas. Certain members of the New South Wales Corps were accused of plotting to seize the convict ship Barwell, on her voyage between the Cape and Australia, and of drinking the toast "damnation to the King and country." The Court considered the evidence insufficient, and the men were acquitted, after a trial lasting six days.
At last Flinders had an interview with the Governor about completing the exploration of the seas to the southward, and offered his services. Hunter, too, was anxious to have a test made of Bass's contention, which Flinders' own observations supported. On September 3rd he wrote to the Secretary of State that he was endeavouring to fit out a vessel "in which I propose to send the two officers I have mentioned," Bass and Flinders. Later in the month the Governor entrusted the latter with the command of the Norfolk, a sloop of twenty-five tons burthen, built at Norfolk Island from local pine. She was merely a small decked boat, put together under the direction of Captain Townson of Norfolk Island for establishing communication with Sydney. She leaked; her timbers were poor material for a seaboat in quarters where heavy weather was to be expected; and the accommodation she offered for a fairly extended cruise was cramped and uncomfortable. But she was the best craft the Governor had to offer, and Flinders was too keen for the quest to quarrel with the means. In those days fine seamanship and endurance often had to make up for deficiencies in equipment.
There were not two happier men in the King's service than these fast friends, when they received the Governor's commission directing them to sail "beyond Furneaux' Islands, and, should a strait be found, to pass through it, and return by the south end of Van Diemen's Land." The affection that existed between them is manifest in every reference which Flinders made to Bass in his book, A Voyage to Terra Australis. "I had the happiness to associate my friend Bass in this new expedition," he wrote of the Norfolk's voyage; and it was a happiness based not only on personal regard, but on kindred feeling for research work, and a similarity in active, keen and ardent temperament.
The sloop was provisioned for twelve weeks, and "the rest of the equipment was completed by the friendly care of Captain Waterhouse of the Reliance." A crew of eight volunteers was chosen by Flinders from the King's ships in port. It is likely that some of them were amongst the six who had accompanied Bass to Westernport, and Flinders to the Furneaux and Kent Islands, but their names have not been preserved.
The Norfolk sailed on October 7, 1798, in company with a sealing boat, the Nautilus.* (* There are three accounts of the voyage: (1) that of Flinders in diary form, printed in the Historical Records of New South Wales Volume 3 appendix B; (2) that of Flinders in his Voyage to Terra Australis Volume 1 page 138; and (3) that of Bass, embodied in Collins' Account of New South Wales. It is probable that Bass's diary was lent to Collins for the purpose of writing his narrative. The original is not known to exist.) The plan was to make the Furneaux Group, then steer westward through the strait till the open ocean was reached on the further side; and, that accomplished, and the fact of strait's existence conclusively demonstrated, to turn down the western coast of Van Diemen's Land, round the southern extremity, and sail back to Port Jackson up the east coast. This programme was successfully carried out.
An amusing incident, related by Flinders with dry humour, occurred in Twofold Bay, which was entered "in order to make some profit of a foul wind," Bass undertaking an inland excursion, and Flinders occupying himself in making a survey of the port. An aboriginal made his appearance.
"He was of middle age, unarmed, except with a whaddie or wooden scimitar, and came up to us seemingly with careless confidence. We made much of him, and gave him some biscuit; and he in return presented us with a piece of gristly fat, probably of whale. This I tasted; but, watching an opportunity to spit it out when he should not be looking, I perceived him doing precisely the same thing with our biscuit, whose taste was probably no more agreeable to him, than his whale was to me." The native watched the commencement of Flinders' trigonometrical operations, "with indifference, if not contempt," and after a little while left the party, "apparently satisfied that from people who could thus occupy themselves seriously there was nothing to be apprehended."