Eleven years after the first European settlers arrived on our shores, with the First Fleet, the Governor had a problem. The area of settlement was becoming overcrowded and was not as productive as it had been.
Governor Hunter needed to find other areas to settle. He sent explorers out by land and by sea. One was Matthew Flinders.
Matthew Flinders. Unknown artist, 1801. Miniature watercolour on a locket kept by Ann Flinders. Copy of original Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales (ZML MIN 52)
“In 1799, Governor Hunter, commissioned Matthew Flinders, of the Government sloop, Norfolk, of 25 tons, to sail northwards and examine the coast” with as much accuracy as the limited time of six weeks would permit”. Flinders with a crew of nine, including his brother, Samuel, a Midshipman on the Reliance and Bongaree, a Port Jackson aborigine as a native interpreter, left Sydney on 8 July and sailed northwards. Flinder’s Journal recorded the following- “The small projections that opened out as we sailed along, often presented the delusive appearance of openings behind them; and we were the more inclined to entertain these hopes, as Capt. Cook passed along this part of the coast at night. At half-past two, a small island opened off from a low rocky point, behind which there is a small river running to the S.W. but the breakers seem to extend mostly across the entrance. If there is any passage it lies to the south side of the island.
At half-past three, a peaked hill standing four or five miles inland and more conspicuous than usual bore true west. Before five, we stood in for what appeared to be an opening, and about dusk were in the entrance of a wide shoal bay. Our soundings were from five to three and a half fathoms on the south side of the entrance, and the breakers extending from the low north point more than halfway across showed that it was the deepest side. In standing inward the water shoaled to ten feet; upon which we wore, and on hauling close to the South head, deepened to four fathoms. Soon after we anchored in two and a half fathoms, on a hard, sandy bottom; the extreme of the south head bearing E.by.N. and the breakers from the north side N.E.; between these, we were exposed to the sea winds.”
Flinders gave his reasons for entering the bay- “The objects that induced me to come into this bay were that we might have daylight to run along the remaining part of the coast which Captain Cook had passed in the night, and to ascertain a place of safety to run for, should the wind come dead on the coast, on our return. The leak was also a part of the inducement; for if this place turns out to be a place of consequence enough to be worth expending a few days in its examination and a convenient place offer itself for laying the Sloop on shore, I intended to get it stopped in the meantime. During the night the ebb tide ran near two knots past the Sloop.
FRIDAY, 12th At daylight in the morning I went up on the South Head of the entrance and took bearings of the few remarkable objects that presented themselves.”
Flinders was very precise in his descriptions – “The Bay appeared from thence to be a large extent of shoal water, with channels somewhat deeper in different parts of it. The principal one seemed to be that in which the Sloop lay, which ran West along the Southside of the Bay till it turned round the west end of the middle shoal. This shoal is mostly dry at low water. We afterward went up this channel in the boat, and round the shoal; but although the tide ran very rapidly, there were scarcely three fathoms anywhere; and in going towards some branches in the north part of the bay, were obliged to get out and drag the little boat over the sands into another channel. The north point of the entrance into this bay is only a projecting spit of sandy ground; for the water turns sharp round the point and runs to the Northward nearly parallel with the coastline. Along this shore is a deeper channel, but the swell from the sea seems to prevent the tide from making a clear passage out, for the channel becomes shoaled as it approaches the entrance. The tide having fallen so much as to preclude our return by the way we came, we were obliged to try this passage thro’ it was at the risk of swamping the boat; for the ebb tide ran with increasing rapidity in this shoal water and meeting the sea swell and southerly wind, the water broke at times all across the north point to the middle shoal and made such a jumble that the oar could scarcely be used. In one minute, however, the danger was past; for the velocity of the tide was such, as to carry the boat windward against the obstacles. It was only necessary for us to keep the boat end on to sea, to prevent from filling.”
Having returned to the Sloop, I took the sextant and artificial horizon onshore to the South Head to observe for the latitude. The sun being more than half an hour distant from the meridian … gave me time to examine three Native’s huts that stood at a little distance; they were of a circular form about eight feet in diameter. The frame were made of the stronger tendrils of vine, crossing each other in all directions and bound together with strong wiry grass at the principal intersections. The covering was of bark of soft texture resembling the bark what is called Tea Tree at Port Jackson, and so completely laid on as to keep out both wind and rain; the entrance is by a small avenue projecting from the periphery of the circle and does not go directly into the hut, but turns sufficiently to prevent the rain from beating in. The height of the under of the roof is about four and a half to five feet and those I entered had collected a coat of soot from the fires that had been made in the middle of the huts. Those who have been in an oven will have a tolerable exact idea of these habitations, but the sides of these were nearer to the perpendicular than those of ovens usually are. One of the three huts was a double one, the form containing two recesses with but one entrance, intended most probably for kindred families. This hut contained room for ten or fifteen people”. Bongaree, who was with me, admitted that they were much superior to any native houses that he had seen before. He brought away a small hand basket made from some kind of leaf which would contain five or six pints of water and was nearly such as I have seen used at Coupang in the island Timor for carrying the toddy about in.
The meridian altitude of the Sun gave the latitude of the entrance into the bay, 29º 26’28” South.
Having given the most important details Flinders then mentions several of his observations. “There were many white Cockatoos and Parroquets about this bay, as also crows, whose notes were much more short and hasty than any ever heard. Numbers of Pelicans frequent the shoals and some Gulls and Red bills. The Palm-nut tree grows here, which is the third kind of palm mentioned by Capt. Cook as being produced in New South Wales…
As this bay seemed to deserve but a little examination, I did not think it worth staying any longer in it and therefore got under weigh at one o’clock, the tide being then rising by the shore, altho’ the stream was still running out.
There was but ten feet in some parts of the entrance, and the wind dying away, we were obliged to get the sweeps out to prevent the S.E. swell from setting the Sloop amongst the breakers that lay off from the north side. At four o’clock the South head bore S.W.by.W. and W.by.N., behind which there may be another entrance into the shoal behind one or other of these heads.
I can give no particular mark that will point out the situation of Shoal Bay, but its latitude and the somewhat remarkably peaked hill that lays about four leagues to the southward of it. Was any vessel ever likely to visit it, it would be necessary to remark that either of the two heads above mentioned might be mistaken for the South head of the bay.
Saturday 13th -We had a moderate breeze all night from the S.W. and at ten o’clock… Cape Byron bore N 67º W. three miles, and at the same time…, the peak of Mouth Warning was just topping over it. Captain Cook observes that it bears N.W.by.W. from the Cape; the bearings, therefore, given in his voyage, are reduced from the magnetic to the true bearings.
At noon the latitude was 28º 32′ 12″ south, being but 4′ south of the Log. Mount Warning bore W 8º N and Cape Byron S 16 º W 7 or 8 miles. Towards the evening, as we brought the Mount to bear more to the Southward, it put on a cockscomb like appearance. We had hauled more off the shore soon afternoon, to pass without the reef laying off Point Danger; the wind being from the eastward. At ten in the evening the meridian altitude ….gave our situation to the northward of the reef, and finding no bottom either at eight o’clock or at ten with forty-five fathoms, we edged more away towards the land, and at daylight kept well in, finding the land to be at a considerable distance, and so Flinders moved on northward.”
Many years later in 1822, Governor Brisbane commissioned Captain John Bingle of the colonial cutter, Sally to survey the coast of New South Wales to the northward of Sydney, so far as latitude 25 degrees south The voyage took from 31 December to 24 March 1822. Although the Log Book of the Sally has been found in recent years, in private hands it would appear Bingle followed in the footsteps of Flinders and made no new discoveries. There is no mention of Shoal Bay or the rivers to the north.
Extracts from “ European Settlement in the Clarence River District before 1850″, by Nola Mackey, 2001, Grafton, published by author. This publication is fully referenced and indexed.