Category Archives: New Holland

Item of the Day: Vancouver’s Voyage of Discovery (1801)

Full Title: A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World; in which the Coast of North America has been carefully examined and accurately surveyed undertaken by His Majesty’s Command, Principally with a View to ascertain the existence of any Navigable Communication between the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans; and performed in the Years 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1794 and 1795, in the Discovery Sloop of War, and Armed Tender Chatham, under the Command of Captain George Vancouver. Dedicated, by Permission, to His Majesty. A New Edition, with Corrections, Illustrated with Nineteen Views and Charts. In Six Volumes. Vol. I. London: Printed for John Stockdale, Piccadilly, 1801.

[Excerpted from Chapter III. —Remarks on the Country and Productions on Part of the South-west Coast of New Holland—Extraordinary Devastation by Fire—Astronomical and nautical Observations.]

[1791] . . . With the production of the sea, we were not much more acquainted; which is rather to be attributed to our want of skill as fishermen than to its want of bounty. some of the few fish we caught were very excellent, particularly of the larger sort; one much resembling the snook, and another the calipevar of Jamaica, both of high flavor; as was a  kind of fish not unlike, nor inferior in quality to, the English red mullet. These, with the common white mullet, rock fish, makerel, herrings, and a variety of small fish, were those we procured, though not in any abundance.

Whilst on the coast, whales and seals were frequently playing about the ship; of the latter, we saw about a score at one time on Seal island. The little trouble these animals took to avoid us, indicated their not being accustomed to such visitors. The throat and belly of these seals, which were of a large sort, were nearly white; between the head and shoulders, the neck rises in a kind of crest, which, with the back, was of a light brown colour; their hair was exceedingly coarse; the carcase very poor, and afforded little blubber; which, however, may be imputable to the season.

Reptiles and noxious animals seemed by no means to be numerous, as only two or three yellow, and bronze-coloured snakes were seen, which were good eating; these, with a few lizards of the common sort, and some about eight or nine inches long of a thick clumsy make, dark colour, and altogether excessively ugly, were occasionally met with, but not in such numbers as to produce inconvenience.

It would now remain to say something of the human species, the inhabitants of this country; but as we were not so fortunate to procure an interview with any one of them, all that can be advanced on this subject must be founded on conjecture or nearly so, and consequently very liable to error; it may, however, not be unacceptable to state such cricumstances as, on the spot, occurred to our observation.

The natives appeared to be a wandering people, who sometimes made their excursions individually, at other times in considerable parties; this was apparent by their habitiations being found single and alone, as well as composing tolerably large villages.

Besides the village I visited, Mr. Broughton discovered another about two miles distant from it, of nearly the same magnitude; but it appeared to be of a much later date, as all the huts had been recetnly built, and seemed to have been very lately inhabited. It was situated in a swamp, which might probably have been preferred to a higher and firmer land for the convenience of water. One or two huts of a larger size were here also observed; the rest were precisely of the same description with those in our neighbourhood. The larger trees in the vicinity of both villages had been hollowed out by fire, sufficiently to afford the shelter these people seemed to require. Upon stones placed in the inside of these hollow trees fires had been made, which proved that they had been used as habitiations, either for the inferior of the party, which would argue a further degree of subordination amongst them, or for those who were too indolent to build themselves the wattled huts before described. No one species of furniture or utensil was discovered in any of the houses; the only implements seen, were pieces of sticks intended as spears, rudely wrought, and the operation of manual labour upon them but slightly discernible. The bark was stripped off, and the thickest end, after having been burnt in the fire, was scraped and reduced to a blunted point, on one of which some blood was found still adhering.

Destitute (as they seemed) of means, and totally ignorant of every mode of embarkation, it is not likely that they place much dependence on marine productions for their subsistence; yet it was evident from the wears on the shores, and from the mouths of the brooks near the villages being stopped up, that they sometimes resort to the rivulets and to the sea for provisions. On this account, it was considered rather extraordinary, that the bones of the fishes on which they had fed were no where to be found; and this led to a supposition that those which their endeavours enabled them to procure were very small. It appeared still more extraordinary that, since they drew a certain proportion of their food from the sea, they should not have discovered so excellent a part of its produce as oysters and clams; notwithstanding that the latter show themselves on the beaches over which they must frequently walk; and the the former at low water require only wading half-leg deep on the shoals that extend from the main land to gather a few minutes a day’s subsistence. Neither did it appear that they had any knowledge of these, the limpets, nor any other fhell fish found amongst the rocks; or if they had, for some reaosn not easily to be imagined, they certainly made no use of them; otherwise their shells in all human probability would have been seen near the places of their resort. Hence it may naturally be inferred, that the land principally supplies their wants, or hunger would long since have conducted them to such excellent resourse. This opinion is supported by the extreme shyness of the feathered creation, and the wildness of the quadrupeds, whose footing, and the other signs of their being at no great distance without our obtaining any sight of them, suffuicently proved that they were constantly pursued. This circumstance may furnish a probable conjecture on the cause of the very extraordinary devastaion by fire, which the vegetable productions had sufferd thoughout the whole country we had traversed. Fire is frequently resorted to by rude nations, either for the purpose of encouraging a sweeter growth of herbage in their hunting grounds, or as toils for taking the wild animals, of which they are in pursuit. When the forest is set on  fire for such purposes in a dry season, its ravages may become very extensive; and the inflamable quality of the gum plant, which is here in great abunance, may operate to promote that general havock which we observed in the vegetable kindgom. . . .

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Filed under 1790's, Explorations, New Holland, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Travel Literature