Read CHAPTER IV: SECTION XXXIV of A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels‚ Vol. 13, free online book, by Robert Kerr, on

The Passage from New South Wales to New Guinea, with an Account of what happened upon landing there.

In the afternoon of Thursday, August the 23d, after leaving Booby Island, we steered WNW with light airs from the SSW till five o’clock, when it fell calm, and the tide of ebb soon after setting to the NE, we came to an anchor in eight fathom water, with a soft sandy bottom. Booby Island bore S 50 E, distant five miles, and the Prince of Wales’s Isles extended from NE by N to S 55 E; between these there appeared to be a clear open passage, extending from N 46 E to E by N

At half an hour after five in the morning of the 24th, as we were purchasing the anchor, the cable parted at about eight or ten fathom from the ring: The ship then began to drive, but I immediately dropped another anchor, which brought her up before she got more than a cable’s length from the buoy; the boats were then sent to sweep for the anchor, but could not succeed. At noon our latitude by observation was 10 deg 30’ S As I was resolved not to leave the anchor behind, while there remained a possibility of recovering it, I sent the boats again after dinner with a small line, to discover where it lay; this being happily effected, we swept for it with a hawser, and by the same hawser hove the ship up to it: We proceeded to weigh it, but just as we were about to ship it, the hawser slipped, and we had all our labour to repeat: By this time it was dark, and we were obliged to suspend our operations till the morning.

As soon as it was light, we sweeped it again, and heaved it to the bows: By eight o’clock we weighed the other anchor, got under sail, and, with a fine breeze at ENE stood to the north-west. At noon, our latitude, by observation, was 10 deg 18’ S, longitude 219 deg 39’ W At this time we had no land in sight, but about two miles to the southward of us lay a large shoal, upon which the sea broke with great violence, and part of which, I believe, is dry at low water. It extends NW and SE, and is about five leagues in circuit. Our depth of water, from the time we weighed till now, was nine fathom, but it soon shallowed to seven fathom; and at half an hour after one, having run eleven miles between noon and that time, the boat which was a-head made the signal for shoal water; we immediately let go an anchor, and brought the ship up with all the sails standing, for the boat, having just been relieved, was at but a little distance: Upon looking out from the ship, we saw shoal water almost all round us, both wind and tide at the same time setting upon it. The ship was in six fathom, but upon sounding round her, at the distance of half a cables length, we found scarcely two. This shoal reached from the east, round by the north and west, as far as the south-west, so that there was no way for us to get clear but that which we came. This was another hairs-breadth escape, for it was near high water, and there run a short cockling sea, which must very soon have bulged the ship if she had struck; and if her direction had been half a cables length more either to the right or left, she must have struck before the signal for the shoal was made. The shoals which, like these, lie a fathom or two under water, are the most dangerous of any, for they do not discover themselves till the vessel is just upon them, and then indeed the water looks brown, as if it reflected a dark cloud. Between three and four oclock the tide of ebb began to make, and I sent the master to sound to the southward and south-westward, and in the mean time, as the ship tended, I weighed anchor, and with a little sail stood first to the southward, and after edging away to the westward, got once more out of danger. At sun-set we anchored in ten fathom, with a sandy bottom, having a fresh gale at ESE

At six in the morning we weighed again and stood west, having, as usual, first sent a boat a-head to sound. I had intended to steer NW till I had made the south coast of New Guinea, designing, if possible, to touch upon it; but upon meeting with these shoals, I altered my course, in hopes of finding a clearer channel, and deeper water. In this I succeeded, for by noon our depth of water was gradually increased to seventeen fathom. Our latitude was now, by observation, 10 deg 10’ S, and our longitude 220 deg 12’ W No land was in sight. We continued to steer W till sun-set, our depth of water being from twenty-seven to twenty-three fathom: We then shortened sail, and kept upon a wind all night; four hours on one tack and four on another. At day-light we made all the sail we could, and steered WNW till eight o’clock, and then NW At noon our latitude, by observation, was 9 deg 56’ S, longitude 221 deg W; variation 2 deg 30’ E We continued our NW course till sun-set, when we again shortened sail, and hauled close upon a wind to the northward: Our depth of water was twenty-one fathom. At eight, we tacked and stood to the southward till twelve; then stood to the northward, with little sail, till day-light: Our soundings were from twenty-five to seventeen fathom, the water growing gradually shallow as we stood to the northward. At this time we made sail and stood to the north, in order to make the land of New Guinea: From the time of our making sail, till noon, the depth of water gradually decreased from seventeen to twelve fathom, with a stoney and shelly bottom. Our latitude, by observation, was now 8 deg 52’ S, which is in the same parallel as that in which the southern parts of New Guinea are laid down in the charts; but there are only two points so far to the south, and I reckoned that we were a degree to the westward of them both, and therefore did not see the land, which trends more to the northward. We found the sea here to be in many parts covered with a brown scum, such as sailors generally call spawn. When I first saw it, I was alarmed, fearing that we were among shoals; but upon sounding, we found the same depth of water as in other places. This scum was examined both by Mr Banks and Dr Solander, but they could not determine what it was: It was formed of innumerable small particles, not more than half a line in length, each of which in the microscope appeared to consist of thirty or forty tubes; and each tube was divided through its whole length by small partitions into many cells, like the tubes of the conferva: They were supposed to belong to the vegetable kingdom, because, upon burning them, they produced no smell like that of an animal substance. The same appearance had been observed upon the coast of Brazil and New Holland, but never at any considerable distance from the shore. In the evening a small bird hovered about the ship, and at night, settling among the rigging, was taken. It proved to be exactly the same bird which Dampier has described, and of which he has given a rude figure, by the name of a Noddy, from New Holland.

We continued standing to the northward with a fresh gale at E by S and SE, till six in the evening, having very irregular soundings, the depth changing at once from twenty-four fathom to seven. At four we had seen the land from the mast-head, bearing NW by N; it appeared to be very low, and to stretch from WNW to NNE, distant four or five leagues. We now hauled close upon a wind till seven, then tacked and stood to the southward till twelve, at which time we wore and stood to the northward till four in the morning, then laid the head of the vessel off till daylight, when we again saw the land, and stood in NNW, directly for it, with a fresh gale at E by S Our soundings during the night were very irregular, from seven to five fathom, suddenly changing from deep to shallow, and from shallow to deep, without in the least corresponding with our distance from the land. At half an hour after six in the morning, a small low island, which lay at the distance of about a league from the main, bore N by W distant five miles: This island lies in latitude 8 deg 13’ S, longitude 231 deg 25’ W; and I find it laid down in the charts by the names of Bartholomew and Whermoysen. We now steered NW by WWNW, W by NW by S, and SW by W, as we found the land lie, with from five to nine fathom; and though we reckoned we were not more than four leagues from it, yet it was so low and level that we could but just see it from the deck. It appeared, however, to be well covered with wood, and, among other trees, we thought we could distinguish the cocoa-nut. We saw smoke in several places, and therefore knew there were inhabitants. At noon we were about three leagues from the land; the westermost part of which that was in sight bore S 79 deg W Our latitude, by observation, was 8 deg 19’ S, and longitude 221 deg 44’ W The island of St Bartholomew bore N 74 E distant 20 miles.

After steering SW by W six miles, we had shoal water on our starboard bow, which I sent the yawl to sound, and at the same time hauled off upon a wind till four o’clock, and though during that time we had run six miles, we had not deepened our water an inch. I then edged away SW four miles more; but finding it still shoal water, I brought-to and called the boats aboard. At this time, being between three and four leagues from the shore, and the yawl having found only three fathom water in the place to which I had sent her to sound, I hauled off close upon a wind, and weathered the shoal about half a mile.

Between one and two o’clock we passed a bay or inlet, before which lies a small island that seems to shelter it from the southerly winds; but I very much doubt whether there is sufficient depth of water behind it for shipping. I could not attempt to determine the question, because the SE trade-wind blows right into the bay, and we had not as yet had any breeze from the land.

We stretched off to sea till twelve o’clock, when we were about eleven leagues from the land, and had deepened our water to twenty-nine fathom. We now tacked and stood in till five in the morning, when, being in six fathom and a half, we tacked and laid the head of the vessel off till daylight, when we saw the land, bearing NW by W, at about the distance of four leagues. We now made sail, and steered first WSW, then W by S; but coming into five fathom and a half, we hauled off SW till we deepened our water to eight fathom, and then kept away W by S and W, having nine fathom, and the land just in sight from the deck; we judged it to be about four leagues distant, and it was still very low and woody. Great quantities of the brown scum continued to appear upon the water, and the sailors having given up the notion of its being spawn, found a new name for it, and called it sea saw-dust. At noon, our latitude, by observation, was 8 deg 30’ S, our longitude 222 deg 34’ W; and Saint Bartholomew’s Isle bore N 69 E, distant seventy-four miles.

As all this coast appears to have been very minutely examined by the Dutch, and as our track will appear by the chart, it is sufficient to say, that we continued our course to the northward with very shallow water, upon a bank of mud, at such a distance from the shore as that it could scarcely be seen from the ship till the third of September. During this time we made many attempts to get near enough to go on shore, but without success; and having now lost six days of fair wind, at a time when we knew the south-east monsoon to be nearly at an end, we began to be impatient of farther delay, and determined to run the ship in as near to the shore as possible, and then land with the pinnace, while she kept plying off and on to examine the produce of the country, and the disposition of the inhabitants. For the two last days we had, early in the morning, a light breeze from the shore, which was strongly impregnated with the fragrance of the trees, shrubs, and herbage that covered it, the smell being something like that of gum Benjamin. On the 3d of September, at day-break, we saw the land extending from N by E to SE, at about four leagues distance, and we then kept standing in for it with a fresh gale at ESE and E by S till nine o’clock, when being within about three or four miles of it, and in three fathom water, we brought-to. The pinnace being hoisted out, I set off from the ship with the boat’s crew, accompanied by Mr Banks, who also took his servants, and Dr Solander, being in all twelve persons, well armed; we rowed directly towards the shore, but the water was so shallow that we could not reach it by about two hundred yards; we waded, however, the rest of the way, having left two of the seamen to take care of the boat. Hitherto we had seen no signs of inhabitants at this place; but as soon as we got ashore we discovered the prints of human feet, which could not long have been impressed upon the sand, as they were below high-water mark: We therefore concluded that the people were at no great distance, and, as a thick wood came down within a hundred yards of the water, we thought it necessary to proceed with caution, lest we should fall into an ambuscade, and our retreat to the boat be cut off. We walked along the skirts of the wood, and at the distance of about two hundred yards from the place where we landed, we came to a grove of cocoa-nut trees, which stood upon the banks of a little brook of brackish water. The trees were of a small growth, but well hung with fruit; and near them was a shed or hut, which had been covered with their leaves, though most of them were now fallen off: About the hut lay a great number of the shells of the fruit, some of which appeared to be just fresh from the tree. We looked at the fruit very wishfully, but not thinking it safe to climb, we were obliged to leave it without tasting a single nut. At a little distance from this place we found plantains, and a bread-fruit tree, but it had nothing upon it; and having now advanced about a quarter of a mile from the boat, three Indians rushed out of the wood with a hideous shout, at about the distance of a hundred yards; and as they ran towards us, the foremost threw something out of his hand, which flew on one side of him, and burnt exactly like gunpowder, but made no report: The other two instantly threw their lances at us; and as no time was now to be lost, we discharged our pieces, which were loaded with small shot. It is probable that they did not feel the shot, for though they halted a moment, they did not retreat; and a third dart was thrown at us. As we thought their farther approach might be prevented with less risk of life than it would cost to defend ourselves against their attack if they should come nearer, we loaded our pieces with ball, and fired a second time: By this discharge it is probable that some of them were wounded; yet we had the satisfaction to see that they all ran away with great agility. As I was not disposed forcibly to invade this country, either to gratify our appetites or our curiosity, and perceived that nothing was to be done upon friendly terms, we improved this interval, in which the destruction of the natives was no longer necessary to our own defence, and with all expedition returned towards our boat. As we were advancing along the shore, we perceived that the two men on board made signals that more Indians were coming down; and before we got into the water we saw several of them coming round a point at the distance of about five hundred yards: It is probable that they had met with the three who first attacked as; for as soon as they saw us they halted, and seemed to wait till their main body should come up. We entered the water and waded towards the boat, and they remained at their station, without giving us any interruption. As soon as we were aboard we rowed abreast of them, and their number then appeared to be between sixty and a hundred. We now took a view of them at our leisure; they made much the same appearance as the New Hollanders, being nearly of the same stature, and having their hair short cropped: Like them also, they were all stark naked, but we thought the colour of their skin was not quite so dark; this however might perhaps be merely the effect of their not being quite so dirty. All this while they were shouting defiance, and letting off their fires by four or five at a time. What these fires were, or for what purpose intended, we could not imagine: Those who discharged them had in their hands a short piece of stick, possibly a hollow cane, which they swung sideways from them, and we immediately saw fire and smoke, exactly resembling those of a musket, and of no longer duration. This wonderful phenomenon was observed from the ship, and the deception was so great that the people on board thought they had fire-arms; and in the boat, if we had not been so near as that we must have heard the report, we should have thought they had been firing volleys. After we had looked at them attentively some time, without taking any notice of their flashing and vociferation, we fired some muskets over their heads: Upon hearing the balls rattle among the trees, they walked leisurely away, and we returned to the ship. Upon examining the weapons they had thrown at us, we found them to be light darts, about four feet long, very ill made, of a reed or bamboo cane, and pointed with hard wood, in which there were many barbs. They were discharged with great force; for though we were at sixty yards distance, they went beyond us, but in what manner we could not exactly see; possibly they might be shot with a bow, but we saw no bows among them when we surveyed them from the boat, and we were in general of opinion that they were thrown, with a stick, in the manner practised by the New Hollanders.

This place lies in the latitude of 6 deg 15’ S, and about sixty-five leagues to the NE of Port Saint Augustine, or Walche Cape, and is near what is called in the charts C. de la Colta de St Bonaventura. The land here, like that in every other part of the coast, is very low, but covered with a luxuriance of wood and herbage that can scarcely be conceived. We saw the cocoa-nut, the bread-fruit, and the plantain tree, all flourishing in a state of the highest perfection, though the cocoa-nuts were green, and the bread-fruit not in season; besides most of the trees, shrubs, and plants that are common to the South-Sea islands, New Zealand, and New Holland.

Soon after our return to the ship, we hoisted in the boat, and made sail to the westward, being resolved to spend no more time upon this coast, to the great satisfaction of a very considerable majority of the ship’s company. But I am sorry to say that I was strongly urged by some of the officers to send a party of men ashore and cut down the cocoa-nut trees for the sake of the fruit. This I peremptorily refused, as equally unjust and cruel. The natives had attacked us merely for landing upon their coast, when we attempted to take nothing away, and it was therefore morally certain that they would have made a vigorous effort to defend their property if it had been invaded, in which case many of them must have fallen a sacrifice to our attempt, and perhaps also some of our own people. I should have regretted the necessity of such a measure, if I had been in want of the necessaries of life, and certainly it would have been highly criminal when nothing was to be obtained but two or three hundred of green cocoa-nuts, which would at most have procured us a mere transient gratification. I might indeed have proceeded farther along the coast to the northward and westward, in search of a place where the ship might have lain so near the shore as to cover the people with her guns when they landed; but this would have obviated only part of the mischief, and though it might have secured us, would probably in the very act have been fatal to the natives. Besides, we had reason to think that before such a place would have been found, we should have been carried so far to the westward as to have been obliged to go to Batavia, on the north side of Java, which I did not think so safe a passage as to the south of Java, through the Streights of Sunday: The ship also was so leaky, that I doubted whether it would not be necessary to heave her down at Batavia, which was another reason for making the best of our way to that place, especially as no discovery could be expected in seas which had already been navigated, and where every coast had been laid down by the Dutch geographers. The Spaniards, indeed, as well as the Dutch, seem to have circumnavigated all the islands in New Guinea, as almost every place that is distinguished in the chart has a name in both languages. The charts with which I compared such part of the coast as I visited, are bound up with a French work, entitled, “Histoire des Navigationes aux Terres Australes,” which was published in 1756, and I found them tolerably exact; yet I know not by whom, or when they were taken: And though New Holland and New Guinea are in them represented as two distinct countries, the very history in which they are bound up, leaves it in doubt. I pretend, however, to no more merit in this part of the voyage than to have established the fact beyond all controversy.

As the two countries lie very near each other, and the intermediate space is full of islands, it is reasonable to suppose that they were both peopled from one common stock; yet no intercourse appears to have been kept up between them; for if there had, the cocoa-nuts, bread-fruit, plantains, and other fruits of New Guinea, which are equally necessary for the support of life, would certainly have been transplanted to New Holland, where no traces of them are to be found. The author of the “Histoire des Navigationes aux Terres Australes,” in his account of La Maire’s voyage, has given a vocabulary of the language that is spoken in an island near New Britain, and we find, by comparing that vocabulary with the words which we learnt in New Holland, that the languages are not the same. If therefore it should appear that the languages of New Britain and New Guinea are the same, there will be reason to suppose that New Britain and New Guinea were peopled from a common stock, but that the inhabitants of New Holland had a different origin, notwithstanding the proximity of the countries.