Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

CHAPTER X. — Bass and His Monopoly, 1801 TO 1803

page break

Bass and His Monopoly, 1801 TO 1803.

SOUTHERN New Zealand has associated with its story some of the greatest names in early Australian history. The most renowned of the early Pacific navigators, Cook and Vancouver, explored and benefited by their stay on its shores; the Spanish sailor, Malaspina, gazed upon its rugged fiords; and Raven and Bampton, the most enterprising of early Australian trading sea captains, chronicle its incidents among the most stirring they experienced. Now we come to the most intrepid of Australian coastal navigators, Bass, visiting the country, and following up that visit by drafting a scheme for supplying the young colony of New South Wales with fish, oil, bone and skins from southern New Zealand.

In 1795 George Bass arrived in Sydney as surgeon on board H.M.S. Reliance, and he first appears on the official records through Governor Hunter sending him to examine a coal discovery not far from that city. His report upon the field is dated August, 1797. We know from other sources, however, that with Flinders and a boy, he had already made an expedition along the coast, being absent for eight days, in a little boat eight feet long, braving the storms of the ocean and the savages of the land, with the utmost contempt for danger.1

This commission seems to have fanned into a flame that wild love of exploration and adventure which characterised the remaining years of his life. He was now but thirty-four years old, and is described as “six foot high, dark complexion, wears spectacles, a very penetrating countenance.” Returning from his coalmining explorations he persuaded Hunter to allow him to take six seamen with six page 126 weeks' provisions in a whaleboat, to explore the coast line south of Sydney. As a matter of fact he made the six weeks spin out to twelve, and in that time visited every hole and corner on the coast for something like 600 miles and satisfied himself that Van Diemen's Land was an island, and not part of the mainland. Subsequently Flinders and Bass were sent by Governor Hunter to complete the explorations, and in 1799, sailed round Van Diemen's Land in a sloop of 25 tons called the Norfolk. The separating strait in memory of this achievement received the name of Bass Strait.

An eight days' trip by sea in a boat only eight feet long, followed by a twelve weeks' cruise of 600 miles in a whale-boat, and crowned by circumnavigating unknown Van Diemen's Land in a twenty-five ton sloop, placed Bass in the front rank of Australian navigators.

In 1800 the Reliance, being unfit for service, was ordered Home. Bass presumably went with her; at any rate we know he returned to England at this time. If he sailed in the Reliance he saw the Penantipodes, and perhaps there got his first inspiration for a fishing scheme to include the islands.

Arrived in England, his adventurous spirit suggested a roving trade in the South Sea Islands with the Sydney settlement. He married, and within three months left his young wife at home, never again to see her. He and his father-in-law became members of a company, which purchased the brig Venus, an Indian teak built vessel of 140 tons. Bishop sailed as captain, with Bass as supercargo, and cargo to the total value of £10,890 was purchased with sums invested in the undertaking by a number of their friends.

At Port Jackson the market was found to be glutted, and prospects looked very gloomy indeed; however they secured a charter from Governor King, and the cargo was given a free bond until their return. The Venus was to proceed to the South Sea Islands for salted pork, excluding “head, feet, and flays of the pigs,” all delivered would be page 127 paid for at the rate of sixpence per pound. King was to supply the casks for the cargo, but should he fail to provide sufficient, Bass had permission to utilise the space left vacant by purchasing and selling on his own account.2 When the time came to leave, Governor King could not supply enough casks to fill the vessel, and Bass had to look elsewhere for his complement. To obtain this he, on 21st November, 1801, sailed for Dusky, and reached the Sound on 5th December. The cutting of the necessary timber took fourteen days, and during that time he picked up from the wreck of the Endeavour “some few trifles of ships' stores and unwrought iron” which he hoped to turn to account. From later information received from Bass, it appears he converted the iron into axes and made a considerable profit from this source. From Dusky he sailed for Tahiti, where he arrived on 24th January, 1802.3

One cannot but be struck with the reputation Dusky had for timber, when we consider that to make up his complement of casks Bass should sail from Sydney, from a country so richly endowed with timber as Australia, to the southern part of New Zealand. The good reports given by Cook, Vancouver, Raven, and Bampton, had evidently made it a well advertised centre for ships' accessories.

Bass returned to Sydney in November, 1802, and his venture proved a profitable one, although part of the original cargo was still to be disposed of. December and January were spent in elaborating plans for a trip as bold as it was original. The central object was to get provisions and live stock from the coast of Chili, but there was also included a great fishery scheme embracing the extreme south of New Zealand. The details of the scheme were to be arranged upon his return from the present voyage. The proposal had been more than merely formulated; it had been discussed with the Governor, and it would appear from the correspondence following that the concessions asked for were to have been granted to him on his return from Chili.

page 128
Sydney, New South Wales,
January 30th, 1803.

Your Excellency



“From the dearness of animal food in this country, and the little prospect there is of its price being reduced by killing the live stock for many years yet to come, I have been induced to make some consideration upon the chance of lessening the vast sums expended annually by the Government, in sending out hither supplies of beef and pork for the rations of the convicts, whose numbers, now that peace is established in Europe, we may conclude will every year be very considerably augmented.

“In point of information, it is unnecessary for me to say to your Excellency, that by my late voyage to the South Sea Islands, I have enabled you to issue from the Public Stores, pork at a price much below what the Government could have sent it out from England; but I mention the circumstance to impress upon your Excellency that I have not only undertaken but performed a reduction at the public expense (a). Thus furthering your arduous exertions to the same end, whilst producing to myself a profitable though very moderate return, and on this plan am I desirous of proceeding in the present instance.

“I have every proof, short of actual experiment, that fish may be caught in abundance near the South part of the South Island of New Zealand, or at the neighbouring islands. And that a large quantity might be supplied annually to the Public Stores.

“Government aiding me in the project, I will make the experiment.

“The aid I ask of Government is an exclusive privilege or lease of the South part of New Zealand, or that South of Dusky Bay, drawing the line in the same parallel of latitude across to the East side of the Island, as also of the Bounty Isles, Penantipode Isle, and the Snares, all being English discoveries, together with ten leagues of sea around their coasts (b). The lease to continue for seven years yet page 129 to come; renewable to twenty-one years, if the fishery within the first seven, is judged likely to succeed. Capability of affording to the Public Stores once every week a ration of good salt fish at one penny per pound less cost than a meat ration, calculated at the prime cost in England with freight, to be deemed good and sufficient proof of success, and ground for claiming the renewal of the lease to its utmost limit of 21 years.

“And, since the several different places above specified, are only asked for to give greater scope to the experiment, they shall all upon application for renewal of lease, be given up, that only excepted which experience shall have proved to be the best adapted for the purpose of view, which purpose is no other than that of a fishery.

“Until after the expiration of seven years I cannot consent to supply annually any specific quantity of fish to the Public Stores, such term being to be considered as a period of probation only. Nor do I wish that Government shall be bound to take any specific quantity of fish annually, supposing that quantity to be ready. Government may, within the above space of time become purchasers, or not, as is found convenient (c).

“And should any failure happen in the Stores, and times of exigency again be seen in the land, I will ready come forward, and supply one half of the fish I may have in my own private stores during such exigency at 25 per cent. less cost than the then market price of that article in this colony.

“If your Excellency thinks the above proposal worthy of notice, I request of you at once to have the privilege, that I may begin to set matters in motion.

“If I can draw up food from the sea in places which are lying useless to the world, I surely am entitled to make an exclusive property of the fruits of my ingenuity, as much as the man who obtains Letters Patent for a corkscrew or a cake of blacking.”—Sir, I am, etc.,

George Bass.

To his Excellency, Governor King.
page 130

Notes by Governor King.

(a). The quantity of pork purchased from Mr. Bass at 6d. per lb. was very acceptable at the time it came before the supplies arrived from England—and as far as my information goes, at least 6d. per lb. less than it could be sent from England. But it is to be supposed that if the peace continue salt pork sent from England will not exceed sixpence a lb. and we have now 3 years meat in store. May 9th, 1803.

(b.) As Mr. Bass limits the time of his first essay to seven years, his success may warrant the term being extended. But it remains to be ascertained how far the fish thus salted will answer, and whether the oyla potatoes expended with the fish may not be adequate to the saving proposed. But as it is at his own risque that he undertakes this enterprise, every encouragement, I presume, should be allowed him—which at present depends on the progress he may make, when he makes the trial which will not be done until his return from his present voyage.

(c.) This is by no means binding on the Government to take the fish unless wanted.”

Before leaving Sydney, Bass penned a letter to Captain Waterhouse, formerly of the Reliance, stating his programme. “From this place I go to New Zealand to pick up something more from the wreck of the old Endeavour in Dusky Bay, then visit some of the islands lying south of it in search of seals and fish. The former, should they be found, are intended to furnish a cargo to England immediately on my return from this trip. The fish are to answer a proposal I have made to Government to establish a fishery on condition of receiving an exclusive privilege of the south part of New Zealand and of its neighbouring isles, which privilege is at once to be granted to me. The fishery is not to be set in motion till after my return to old England. …”

“We have, I assure you, great plans in our heads, but like the basket of eggs, all depends upon the success of the voyage I am now upon.”4

page 131

In an earlier letter to Waterhouse, Bass had gone more fully into details. “I shall go to Dusky Bay again this voyage for the purpose of picking up two anchors and breaking the iron fastenings out of an old Indiaman (the Endeavour) that lies there deserted, with the intention of selling the former to the Spaniards, and of working up the other to purchase pork in the Islands. Of the little iron we took out last voyage, converted by our smith into axes, we made a good thing. Now we shall be prepared for breaking her up.”5

The Venus sailed on this voyage to Dusky on 5th February, 1803, but beyond stray stories of navigators, such as always surround the romantic incidents of the sea, nothing has since been heard of her or of her intrepid commander. This voyage suggests some speculations in connection with the discovery of Foveaux Strait. The recorded discovery was 1809, but the more southern history is perused, the more probable does it appear that the strait was known at an earlier date. Bass was the man who first established the existence of a strait between Australia and Van Diemen's Land. His plan during this voyage was to examine the south of New Zealand for fish and seals. It is more than probable that after getting what he wanted from the old Endeavour in Dusky, he skirted the southern part of the mainland to perfect his knowledge of the coastline of his intended monopoly, and following it along, he could not escape passing through what is now known as Foveaux Strait. This, of course, is only conjecture.

However wild the scheme of a southern fishery at that date may have looked, history shows us that the very area he indicated, was afterwards proved to have the richest sealing grounds, the most productive shore whaling coast, the finest deep sea fishing waters, and the most extensive oyster beds in Australasia.

Of the stories told by navigators of the fate of this intrepid man, the one which gained the greatest credence was that of Captain Campbell. Campbell traded between Port Jackson and Chili. One voyage was performed from page 132 June, 1803, to January, 1804. It is alleged, that on his return from this voyage he reported that Bass had been captured by the Spaniards when landing at one of the ports, his vessel seized, and the prisoners sent inland to the mines. The knowledge however that the English prisoners in these Spanish settlements were released in 1808, and sent to England, introduces an element of doubt as to the correctness of Campbell's statement. Had Bass been among these unfortunates, he would certainly have been restored to his people. There was also a story that Bass had been afterwards seen in South America. His career ended in mystery, and this is all that can be said. Probably his intrepidity brought about his destruction.