Australia in the 1790s

Bass and Flinders

The navigator Matthew Flinders (1774–1814), an officer of the Royal Navy, and ship's surgeon George Bass (1771–1803?), met on the HMS Reliance on their way to New South Wales. They discovered that they shared a love of sea and land exploration. After they arrived in Sydney, they explored the southern coastline around Sydney, Botany Bay and George's River in a tiny 2.5-metre whaleboat called Tom Thumb in 1796.

Flinders and Bass believed that Van Diemen's Land was separated from the mainland by a strait. In 1798, they left Sydney to explore Van Diemen's Land in the colonial sloop Norfolk, which had been built by convicts on Norfolk Island. The explorers circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land proving that it was an island. This would take one week of the journey back to England. Governor John Hunter (1737–1821) named Bass Strait in honour of George Bass. During his explorations, Bass came upon a large harbour that he named Western Port.

Flinders filled in the gaps on the original maps charted by Captain James Cook (1728–1779). In particular, he charted the southern coastline, the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Torres Strait. In 1799, on the colonial sloop Norfolk, Flinders mapped Moreton Bay and Hervey Bay. A Wangal man from Broken Bay called Bungaree accompanied him to mediate with the local Aboriginal clans. Despite the diverse languages across the country, Bungaree was able to negotiate with other language groups. At Shoal Bay, he found Aboriginal shelters that demonstrated the sophisticated Indigenous technologies of local groups. The shelters were made with a framework of woven vines and a bark covering that provided protection from the weather and reflected their intricate knowledge of the raw materials available in the local area.

Bass and Flinders_1790

A snapshot of 1798

  • January
    • The first public clock was installed in a tower at Church Hill in Sydney.
    • George Bass sighted Wilsons Promontory and Phillip Island.

  • February
    • Matthew Flinders explored the Furneaux Islands in the Bass Strait.
    • Governor John Hunter named Bass Strait in honour of George Bass.

  • May
    • The ship Nautilus arrived at Port Jackson carrying missionaries from the London Missionary Society.

  • June
    • The colonial sloop Norfolk, built on Norfolk Island by convicts, arrived at Port Jackson.

  • October
    • George Bass and Matthew Flinders left Sydney to explore Van Diemen's Land.


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