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Navigation + science

A feature of the work of the early navigators of the Australian coastline was the way in which they undertook scientific observations as an integral part of their duties.

Commander Tobias Furneaux's brief account of his voyage up the east coast of Van Diemans Land in March 1773 makes numerous cultural and natural notes. He also lamented the fact that the dangerous shallow coastline along the eastern edge of the islands named after him stopped them from landing and exploring further.

This meant that the first on ground recorded account of the Furneaux Islands was made 25 years later when Matthew Flinders visited the locale as part of his work charting the coastlines of Van Diemans Land.

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Extract from 1798 "Observations on the Coasts of Van Diemen's Land" by Matthew Flinders

The western sides of Furneaux’s Islands usually present a rocky shore to the prevailing winds and seas, and as far as we know, are tolerably steep to; but their eastern sides are almost universally a sandy beach, and shelve off gradually. There are soundings to a considerable distance from the islands, and perhaps they run across this part of Bass’s Strait. Except some few spots that may be rocky, there seems to be every where a sandy bottom.

The southernmost of these islands, of which a particular chart is engraved, are by far the best known amongst this large cluster. Preservation Island is one of these, and has its name from having saved the crew of the ship Sidney Cove, in 1797.

She was run aground between this island and Rum Island, and part of the cargo saved. The remains are scattered about the neighbouring shores; and have been seen as far as Wilson’s Promontory and Port Darymple. When coming from the westward to Preservation Island, the island is hid under the higher land of Clarke’s Island.

Lumps of white rock first appear upon it, and upon Night Island. The rocks that lie between these isles must be left on the starboard hand, and the south side of Preservation Island kept as close on board as the state of the wind may make prudent. A reef that lies a short quarter of a mile off Rum Island, will make it necessary not to haul up too close for Hamilton’s Road.

The anchorage is off the sandy beach at the east end of Preservation Island, in from three to five fathoms. This road has hitherto been the place of rendezvous for all vessels that visit these parts, being exceedingly well sheltered against the most prevalent winds; and is tolerably secure against easterly winds, with good ground tackling.

The wind at south, or south-south-east, is the only quarter whence it can do much injury. Not having sounded all the way between Preservation and Cape-Barren Islands, I cannot be certain that Hamilton’s Road is approachable from the northward; but I have no doubt that there is a sufficient channel of eight or more fathoms between these islands.

Cape-Barren Island is, in many parts, high land. The peak, through which the lines of latitude and longitude pass, in the particular chart, may be seen ten leagues; and the mountainous ridge that extends from it almost to the pitch of the cape, is of nearly equal height. A round mountain which stands on the north-western part of this island seems to be still higher than the peak.

There are various places between this island and those south of it, where a vessel might anchor securely when the wind inclined either to the northward or southward of west; but Dent’s Bay seems to be the best anchorage attached to Cape-Barren Island.

To go from Hamilton’s Road towards this bay, no better directions can be given than to keep a good look out for the shoal water, and to compare the chart with the land as you proceed. A vessel may pass very near to Battery Isle, in nine fathoms; and if she has a westerly wind, it will be necessary to haul close around Sloping Point, and keep in with that shore till abreast of the rocks, at the back of which is the anchorage.

My information upon this place is from Mr. Simpson; according to whose survey and surroundings, a ship may be safe here from every wind, and the least depth, at low water, is four fathoms. The Passage Islands are low; and at a distance, will be judged to be but one island.

A little sandy bay in the western island, is well adapted for small vessels to ride in. It is sheltered from all winds, except those between south-south-east and east-south-east. Between the Passage Islands there is a sufficient channel for any ship; and I have no doubt, but that there is a still deeper one between Inner Rocky Point and the eastern island; although nothing larger than a rowing boat has yet passed through it.

Upon one of a small cluster of low islands, subordinate to Furneaux’s Islands, is a mountain, conspicuous for being the only considerable eminence upon them, and remarkable for its uniform roundness. It received the name of Mount Chappelle, in February 1798, and the name is since extended to the isles which lie in its immediate neighbourhood. The passage amongst these isles, through which the track is marked in the the chart, is safe for any ship with a leading wind; being two miles in width, and having more than ten fathoms in it.

The water is very light coloured, both amongst these isles and several miles to the westward of them, the bottom being a white sand. The largest of Furneaux’s Islands seems to be superior in many respects to those that have been mentioned, but our knowledge of it is very confined.

Mr. Bishop, commander of the snow Nautilus, passed through the strait between it and Cape-Barren Island, in a boat; and from him we learn that there are many rocks and isles in it, whose exact situation and form are not ascertained; but it appears, that there is a safe passage through the strait, and some well-sheltered anchoring places in it.

The great body of the large island is high; but neither on the north-western part or on the east side, does the high land come close to the water side. Sandy beaches, almost uninterrupted, skirt these parts of this large island. The west coast is exceedingly high; and overtopped with peaks and knobs of more varied shape and more bare of vegetation, than even the interior mountains to the west of Port Dalrymple.

It was our fortune also, to see the effect of the gleaming sunshine amongst these mountains, after they had been bathed in rain. The spectacle was magnificent. At the moment, we could not blame the sterility that produced so beautiful a scene. The strait that divides this large island from that of Cape-Barren, was hastily examined by Mr. Bishop, commander of the snow Nautilus.

From him we learn, that there are many rocks and isles in it, whose exact situation and form are not ascertained; but that it also contains a navigable passage, and many well-sheltered anchoring places: one of these anchorages is in a bay on the south end of the large island.

The three-peaked hills on the east side of this island, called the Patriarchs, are not unlike each other, when seen to the north-west; but when seem from the northward, they appear as two pyramids; and the island lying off them makes something like the Lion’s Head and Rump, when sailing into Table Bay. The largest of the isles that lie off the west side of the large island, is hummocky, and moderately high: and three principal hills upon it all slope towards the south.

The other patches of land to the north-eastward of these hummocks are low. The Sisters were very well named by Captain Furneaux, being much alike: they may be seen eight or ten leagues. When the Francis scooner was steering to pass between them and the large island, rippling water suddenly made its appearance under the bows. A strong tide might have occasioned this, but lest it should not be so, and to caution others, a reef is marked in the chart.

The tides run strong in the passages amongst the southernmost of these islands. The flood comes from the eastward, between the Passage Islands and the Inner Rocky Point, and continues its course along the south side of Cape-Barren Island. In the deep channel, and particularly off the projecting points, the tide runs with rapidity.

It is high water here, about an hour before the moon comes to the meridian. The rise of the tide appears to be from three to six feet. The tides are represented as running strong, between Cape-Barren and the large island. The lower parts of the southernmost islands are very thickly covered with brush-wood; and in a few places, as in the head of Kent’s Bay, there is small timber amongst it.

The south end of the largest island is said to afford timber of a fair growth; and also a run of fresh water: but the more southern isles are very ill supplied with this last necessary article; the runs into the head of Kent’s Bay yield it more abundantly than elsewhere.

Under the high land of Cape Barren, there are some swamps and lagoons; but the water which drains into them from above, becomes so tinged in its way, as not to be drinkable. Some of these look like ponds of blood. After continued rains, there is a swampy pond of tolerably good water at the east end of Preservation Island; but a small rill that drains from the higher land, on the south side of this island, was thought to have a deleterious quality, from the deaths that happened amongst the Sidney Cove’s crew. Sand, with a mixture of tin and copper, is found on one of the beaches. No inhabitants have ever been seen, or any marks of them, upon any of these islands.

Kanguroos are found upon Preservation, Clarke’s, and Cape-Barren Islands, of the smaller, red kind; and the large grey kanguroos have been seen in considerable numbers upon the southern part of the largest island.

The new animal, called Womat, by the natives at the back of Port Jackson, is found in no inconsiderable numbers upon Cape-Barren Island, and probably inhabits several other of these islands. This animal has the appearance of a little bear. It eats grass and other vegetable substances, and its flesh resembles tough mutton. The animal is about the size of a turnspit dog; but there is not too much meat upon it for three or four people to eat in a day.

A few straggling swans have been seen about Preservation Island, and the lagoons of Cape-Barren Island. In the sandy bay at the south end of the large island, they are represented as being numerous. A kind of brent goose frequents all the islands that have yet been visited.

About the southern islands they are shy, having been frequently disturbed; but on the first visit they usually allow themselves to be knocked down with sticks. These birds are tolerable numerous, and are excellent food. The sooty petterel, called Mount-Pitt bird, is amongst these islands in great numbers. Wherever the tufts of wiry grass are seen, these birds will usually be found.

They burrow in the ground under these tufts, but the length of a man’s arm is sufficient to reach them. The Mount-Pitt birds, can be taken in any numbers during the summer months, at Preservation Island, the Passage Isles, and many other places.

They come in from sea in the evening, in numbers that surprise a person unaccustomed to them. Where Mount-Pitt birds are found, penguins will generally be met with. There holes, however, are not in the same places; the penguin chusing ground to burrow in which is covered with a different vegetation. They are of a small, blue and white kind, and are very indifferent eating. Gannets, shags, gulls, and red-bills, are found amongst these islands; but whilst the swans, geese, and Mount-Pitt birds are in numbers, the former will not be much molested.

Seals inhabit most of the rock points and isles. They are both of the hair and fur kind. Some of the latter are of a good fur, but there seems to be every graduation. The seals were most numerous upon the south-eastern points of Cape-Barren Island, but they are now mostly destroyed. Rock fish are caught at the west end of Preservation Island; but from the various kind of fresh provisions which these islands produce, few attempts were made to catch fish.

The stone, of which the base of Furneaux’s Islands is composed, appears to be of a quartzy nature; and it is only in small pieces that any other kind of stone has been met with.

As far as my particular knowledge of these islands extends, there surface is bare rock, in part; or sand which is covered with brush wood; or swamps, in which small trees grow.

The brush is very often impenetrable; sometimes growing to a considerable height, and sometimes creeping a long the ground: the tall brush-wood is found in the inner and eastern parts of the islands, and the scrub on the western outskirts: a proof of the strength and prevalence of westerly winds. The southern part of Furneaux’s largest island is, it seems, of a different description.

Large timber trees are produced there, and the soil is said to be of sufficient depth and quality to grow corn. In the remarks of my fellow-traveller, Mr. Bass, upon Cape-Barren Island, is the following paragraph: “In point of animated life, nature seems to have acted so oddly with this and the neighbouring islands, that if their rich stores were thoroughly ransacked, I doubt not, but the departments of natural history would be enlarged by more new and valuable specimens, than they ever before acquired from any land of many times their extent.”

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the H.M.S. Beagle

In the summer of 1841/42, the Furneaux Group of islands was visited by a famous ship of science under the command of Capt Stokes.

Having returned Charles Darwin safely to Cornwall in October 1836 the H.M.S. Beagle was given a new assignment the following year to chart key sections of the Australian coastline.

In the course of its work around Bass Strait, the ship was joined by the renowned Polish scientist Pawel Strzelecki. When he climbed Flinders Island's highest rock outcrop on 13 January 1842, Capt Stokes recorded the event by naming the granite peak after him on the detailed chart he was then in the process of compiling.

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Selected observations of Capt Stokes in relation to the Furneaux Islands. 1846


It may be rendering a service to our nautical readers, as well as affording general information, to include in our notices of Captain Stokes's volume, a brief account of his labours in that high road of Australian commerce, Bass's Strait, in the survey of which, the latter part of the Beagle's services in this part of the world was employed.

We will consider at present only the eastern entrance.

The subject of light-houses in Bass's Strait has engaged a good deal of Captain Stokes's attention, and on the chart he has marked two spots, viz., on Cape Otway and Kent's Group, as very desirable localities.

He will be glad to learn, that one of the two is likely, to be shortly completed.

Babel Islet on the east side of Flinders' Island is described as having a singular dome-like appearance; and the latter island as intersected by a heathy valley.

On the eastern side the island has numerous pyramidal hills, and is cut up by lagoons ; on the western, occur high ranges which in Strzelecki's Peak attain 2550 feet of elevation above the sea.

The depth of water along Flinders' Island is from' 11 to 12 fathoms, deepening to 17 near the Sisters, and to 29 between them and Craggy Inland.

Captain Stokes was in imminent danger at the entrance of Murray's Pass, between Deal and Erith, the chief islands of Kent's Group. The violence of the current between these lofty masses, was so great as to whirl the Beagle onwards with nearly fatal consequences ; he found, providentially, safe anchorage in East Cove, and was detained by easterly gales (in May) for a fortnight.

A hill, 310 feet high, near the south-eastern corner, quite precipitous, is mentioned as eligible for a light-house, and is, therefore denominated Light-house Hill.

The Murray Pass is but half-a-mile in width. The rocks are granite, with limestone, in one place 200 feet above the level of the sea ; Captain Stokes calls it "calcareous limestone," which it must be of necessity, but he does not mention whether it is of old or tertiary formation. An impervious scrub clothes some of the peaks, others are bare. On Deal are a few charred stumps of large eucalypts, the greater part are , small trees ; a few casuarinas overhang. On Erith there is said to be vesicular lava.

A sand ridge, over which there are not more than thirty fathoms water, connects this group with Flinders ; " but the islets and rocks between would appear," says Captain Stokes, " from the evidence of upheaval we have just cited " (alluding to the calcareous limestone) to be elevated portions of a submerged piece of land about to disclose itself," Strzelecki, who has explored, and has well described the whole Australian Cordillera [from New England to the extremity of Tasmania], thus speaks of the same circumstances as Stokes alludes to.

" These islands, whether high and crowned with peaks, or low and crested only by the white sparkling foam of the sea, appear, in their winding and lengthened array, like the glittering snow-capped domes of the Andes, when seen above the region of the dense clouds which bathe their lower region."

There can be no doubt that Bass's Strait is but a series of breaks in the Cordillera, which in that part of the chain has sunk, and is now again appearing through the gradual elevation of the country, of which raised sea beaches and the dried interior are proofs.

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Scientific honour roll ...

By the early 1840s, the Furneaux Group and its surrounds had come to present an honour roll of scientific endeavour.

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Matthew Flinders had started this ball rolling in his 1798 chart of Bass's Strait. This labelled the crucial waterway between the Furneaux Group and Tasmania "Banks's Strait" after Sir Joseph Banks – the greatest scientific patron of the age.

Interestingly this chart also records Cape Franklin – a landmark that was later renamed Cape Sir John on Stokes 1845 charts. John Franklin served as a midshipman on Matthew Flinders' charting voyage around Australia in 1801-03. Flinders was Franklin's uncle by marriage. Franklin was later to become Governor of Tasmania from 1836-45.

Sir John Franklin was an active patron of science as well as being an explorer in his own right. As governor he did much to support the geological work of Pawel Strzelecki across Tasmania from 1841-42.

His significant scientific legacy has been recognised in many ways and places including the CSIRO naming its oceanic and hydrographic vessel the RV Franklin in 1985. Capt Stokes acknowledged both Franklin and Strzelecki on his new charts of the Furneaux Group.

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Additionally, Stokes' charts settled permanently the name of the Furneaux Group's "Great Island" as being Flinders Island. Like many navigators influenced by Sir Joseph Banks, Matthew Flinders mixed support for scientific research and map making as integral parts of his survey work.

Finally there is the grand old lady of science herself – the H.M.S. Beagle. Stokes gave the ship he commanded a small cameo in the island's honour roll when he named the shallow shoal off Flinders Island's north east coast "Beagle Spit".

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In the decades leading on from the 1870s a number of significant papers and maps relating to the geology of the Furneaux Group have been published. Click on the links here to read the detail of these accounts.