The View From Mount Clarence

A look back at settlement along Western Australia's South Coast

King Georges Sound, Oyster Harbour and John Septimus Roe – Part 2

Originally published: 2 April 2014

A word about those early navigators …

When relating Roe’s maritime experience it’s important to talk a little about the great French and British pelagic explorers, the great navigators and cartographers of the 1700’s who charted most of the south seas and are remembered in a thousand-and-one local histories around it for ‘first sighting’, ‘first charting’, or ‘first setting foot on’, etc, etc..

Vancouver's Publication: First Release, 1798
Vancouver’s Publication:
First Release, 1798

One of the things you learn when you begin to discover early Australian history is that those who undertook to make it also undertook to make sure they were remembered. This applies to land based as well as maritime discoverers. They didn’t just carry out, they carried out with a note book, the relevant content of which was transferred to a day journal from which, if the expedition was a success (or even just noteworthy in a general regard), they edited into manuscript form for general publication.

There was an obvious purpose for the day journal and their pay masters demanded it. Expedition diaries and ship’s logs were extremely valuable to subsequent travellers. The information needed to be detailed and accurate in order to progress knowledge and the general exploration process, as well as to save future lives, equipment and money.

George Vancouver first charted King George’s Sound for the British late in September 1791 and Matthew Flinders, ten years later, used those charts to find his way there before commencing his own surveys which, incidentally, because of their detail and accuracy, were still in use well over a hundred years later.

But these great men of the sea also published their stories independently of the authority which commissioned them. Through their books, their voyages and journals of discovery, historians have been able to look into what happened and to make judgements about them. Over time they’ve been able to revise and consider, which is what I’ve set out to do with the South Coast’s local history through this blog and my own collection of stories.

The French explored the South Coast under Nicholas Baudin more or less at the same time as Matthew Flinders. In fact, Baudin, armed with a copy of Vancouver’s, ‘A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World,’ first published in 1798 complete with fragmented charts of the South Coast, should have been at King George’s Sound some months earlier than Flinders, but turned left at Cape Leeuwin after their Indian Ocean approach and began his circumnavigation of Australia in a clockwise direction instead.

Naturaliste and Investigator at Encounter Bay Early 1803
Naturaliste and Investigator at Encounter Bay
Early 1803

Baudin had three ships. He and Flinders met at Encounter Bay (Victor Harbour, about 100 kilometres south of Adelaide) where they exchanged charts. The point here being the co-operation. While Albany’s history played out very much on a local scale it was influenced by the then global political scene.  There had been almost continual military sparring between Britain and France since the Indian Wars over the colonisation of North America in the 1750’s. In 1803, post French Revolution, there was something of a lull but the Napoleonic Wars were about to erupt. Later, I’ll point out an interesting connection between the French, British and Americans which impacted to a surprising degree on the peopling of the South Coast.

To complete the French story, Baudin fell ill and sailed back to France in the Naturaliste, but the Geographe and Casurina, continuing west from Encounter Bay, made a significant stop at King George’s Sound in February of that year.

By the time King arrived on the Mermaid with John Septimus Roe on board fifteen years later, he not only had the benefit of Vancouver’s  book but Flinders, ‘Voyage to Terra Australis’, published in 1814, and  ‘Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes’ otherwise known as  ‘Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Lands’  by Francois Peron and Louis Freycinet of the Geographe and Casurina, published in 1807, too.

Now, a lot of the journals contain what is known in writing terms as author intrusion. That is, the scripts show repeated examples where the writer is unable to restrain himself from stepping in on the narrative in order to provide his own personal view. Consider the following excerpt from Vancouver in which he is talking about Oyster Harbour. . .

In the northern corner . . . we landed near a rivulet navigable only by small boats and canoes. . .  on the sides of this stream, as well as on the shores in Oyster Harbour, were seen the remains of several fish weirs, about  eight or nine inches high, (here comes the intrusion) evidently the sorry contrivance of the wretched inhabitants of the country;”

This is what I mean about revision. In hindsight, with today’s social values, we can plainly see the attitudes of the social elite toward the indigenous, inserted (and asserted) as a matter of forthright opinion. In Time and Place I’m not addressing the issue but I am conscious of it.

Vancouver, Flinders and the French all made contact with the Noongars at King George’s Sound but King’s first visit, for some strange reason, didn’t. Vancouver spent two weeks there, Flinders almost a month and the French two weeks as well. Between all they recorded enough knowledge of the local environment and its native inhabitants to provide King and Roe with a confidence they enjoyed but didn’t end up needing.

This sketch of the entrance to Oyster Harbour was made by P.P. King on his second visit to King George's Sound in 1821/22. Unlike the first landing in 1818, Roe and King's second encounter involved plenty of contact with the local 'Menang' Noongars.
This sketch of the entrance to Oyster Harbour was made by P.P. King on his
second visit to King George’s Sound in 1821/22. Unlike the first landing in 1818,
Roe and King’s second encounter involved plenty of contact with the local
‘Menang’ Noongars.

Okay, so the journals and ship’s logs are all published and much over the ages has been written about those great voyages. Not so much about the less vaunted, more task oriented King and Roe however. Below is a diagrammatic summary of the NSW Surveying Service operations under King between 1817 and 1822, during which time Roe was a constant presence.


Roe seems to have been lucky to survive his time with the New South Wales Surveying Service between 1818 and 1822.
Roe seems to have been lucky to survive his time with the
New South Wales Surveying Service between 1818 and 1822.

Effectively, they circumnavigated the island continent three times and as any sailor of old will tell you, the sea is a dangerous place. In one of the summary accounts of Roe’s contribution to Australian history I saw that he had not only almost drowned in that boating accident in Sydney but nearly drowned at Oyster Harbour as well.  Who would have filled his shoes if almost had become did? King’s account of that, in his own publication,  “Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia”, reads as follows;

21-31 January, 1818
During our stay in Oyster Harbour many parts of the neighbourhood were visited by us; and on one occasion, Mr. Roe walked round its shores; in doing which he got into great danger. Upon leaving the vessel, his intention was only to go to a projecting head on the western side, for the purpose of taking a sketch; but being tempted to extend his walk, he had half traversed the shore of the harbour before he thought of returning. He had already waded over the river that falls into the North-West corner of the port, which was not more than four feet deep; and to avoid crossing it again, he preferred returning to the tent, by making the circuit of the harbour: but after proceeding some distance further, he unexpectedly met with another river, deeper and wider than that which he had previously passed; this proved to be the Riviere de Francois of Captain Baudin; it falls into Oyster Harbour at its North-East corner, about two miles to the eastward of the Western River. In attempting to ford this, finding the water deeper than he expected, he was obliged to swim about two hundred yards; and, from being burdened with his clothes, narrowly escaped with his life.”

As if that weren’t enough, Roe and the entire crew came close to perishing during storm conditions along the East Coast when the Mermaid, which was leaking badly, came close to running on some rocks just outside of Sydney a couple of years later.  Here is the excerpt from King’s log regarding that . . .

December 4th 1820

We were now obliged to veer as a last resource, and the sails being manoeuvred so as to perform this operation as quickly as possible, we fortunately succeeded in the attempt and the cutter’s head was brought to the wind upon the other tack without her striking the rocks: we were now obliged to steer as close to the wind as possible in order to weather the reef on which the sea was breaking, within five yards to leeward of the vessel: our escape appeared to be next to impossible: the night was of a pitchy darkness and we were only aware of our situation from time to time as the lightning flashed: the interval therefore between the flashes, which were so vivid as to illumine the horizon round, was of a most awful and appalling nature, and the momentary succession of our hopes and fears which crowded rapidly upon each other, may be better imagined than described. We were evidently passing the line of breakers very quickly; but our escape appeared to be only possible through the interposition of a Divine Providence, for, by the glare of a vivid stream of forked lightning, the extremity of the reef was seen within ten yards from our lee bow; and the wave which floated the vessel the next moment broke upon the rocks with a surf as high as the vessel’s masthead: at this dreadful moment the swell left the cutter, and she struck upon a rock with such force that the rudder was nearly lifted out of the gudgeons: fortunately we had a brave man and a good seaman at the helm, for instantly recovering the tiller, by a blow from which he had been knocked down when the vessel struck, he obeyed my orders with such attention and alacrity that the sails were kept full; so that by her not losing way, she cleared the rock before the succeeding wave flowed from under her, and the next moment a flash of lightning showed to our almost unbelieving eyes that we had passed the extremity of the rocks and were in safety! This sudden deliverance from the brink of destruction was quite unexpected by all on board our little vessel and drew from us a spontaneous acknowledgement of gratitude to the only source from whence our providential escape could be attributed.

It’s easy to see in these published journals how the writers intruded where they wanted to make personal comment. King shows here how they also honed their sense of the dramatic to a pretty fine degree.

King’s Surveying Service transferred their operations to HMS Bathurst after that as the little cutter was taken for extensive repairs. It took them over six months to reorganise before they set off to carry out further surveys of the north-west of Western Australia. The Bathurst was accompanied on that voyage by none other than the Dick, the same ship King and Roe had sailed out to Australia on. Now under merchant command it was on its way to Batavia and requested the company of the Bathurst as security through the northern waters, to which King agreed.  They left on May 26th   heading north, through Torres Straight then west along the North Coast. On June 30th after being laid up for a few days with bad weather, they were at Sunday Island, on outer King Sound, in the area now known as the Kimberly.  Here, Roe very nearly lost his life for the fourth time. Another entry from P.P. King. . .

June 30, 1821 
When, with some slight appearance of improvement, and tired of losing so much time, we weighed and proceeded on our course. After passing the Bird Isles, thick weather again set in, with constant rain, and a strong breeze from South-East. Upon reaching Cairncross Island, under which it was my intention to anchor, the sails were reduced; and, as we were in the act of letting go the anchor, Mr. Roe, who was at the masthead holding thoughtlessly by the fore-topmast staysail-halyards, whilst the sail was being hauled down, was precipitated from a height of fifty feet, and fell senseless on the deck. We were now close to the reef; and, in the hurry and confusion attending the accident, and the Dick at the same time luffing up under our stern, the anchor was dropped, without my ascertaining the quality of the bottom, which was afterwards found to be of a very questionable nature. 

The Dick, having dropped her anchor within forty yards of us, was lying so close as to prevent our veering more cable than sixty fathoms, but as we appeared to ride tolerably easy with a sheer to starboard, while the Dick rode on the opposite sheer, we remained as we were: to prevent accident, the yards were braced so that we should cast clear of the Dick if we parted, a precaution which was most happily taken.

As soon as the distressing accident that had occurred was known on board the Dick, Dr. Armstrong, a surgeon of the navy and a passenger in that ship, hastened on board to assist Mr. Montgomery in dressing Mr. Roe’s hurt, which I found, to my inexpressible satisfaction, was not so grievous as might have been expected: his fall was, most providentially, broken twice; first by the spritsail brace, and secondly by some planks from the Frederick’s wreck, which had fortunately been placed across the forecastle bulwark over the cat-heads: his head struck the edge of the plank and broke his fall, but it cut a very deep wound over the right temple. This unfortunate event threatened to deprive me of his very valuable assistance for some time, a loss I could but very ill spare, particularly when upon the point of returning to the examination of so intricate a coast as that part where we last left off.

An aerial view of the channel entering Oyster Harbour
An aerial view of the channel entering Oyster Harbour

After reading all this I got the feeling Roe, as a young man, was perhaps impetuous. That he maybe made hasty decisions.  I kept thinking of him making that mistake trying to swim across the deep water where the Kalgan flows into Oyster Harbour when he was twenty. It reminded me of the time my sister drifted out into the channel at Emu Point (Oyster Harbour) in a little canoe someone put her in. This was a hundred and fifty odd years later during the summer of 1970 when we were little kids. My father couldn’t swim and though he was there and we were all watching, nobody could do anything about it. It was scary, mostly for my sister, because the channel is deep and the water flows quickly through it. In no time  she was pulled away from us and in a very dangerous situation. Fortunately, there were a lot of other people there and someone swam out to make the rescue.


The Oyster Harbour shallows Roe was trying to swim to when he was caught in deep water exiting the Kalgan River.
The Oyster Harbour shallows Roe was trying to swim to when
he was caught in deep water exiting the Kalgan River.

There were other times I was reminded of too. At Middleton Beach it felt like I nearly drowned a couple of times myself. Once in the waves at the surfing end of the beach and once when I got caught in an undertow off the jetty at Ellen Cove.  Those situations where you know you are vulnerable, where you know unless something happens to get you out of there quickly you might not get out at all, stay with you and I wondered what Roe’s experience -utterly out of sight and utterly out of earshot in that strange foreign place at that critical instance in time- was like.

He clamoured for the surface but was heavy like stone. The water stirred, frothed at his struggle, but the open harbour looked on with indifference. He went under again, short of breath, liquid pressing at his nose and lips and sounding in his ears. Blood rushed, surged in his veins, roared. His eyes reached through the tawny smudge to the distant, gripless skin of the surface. 

He tore at the satchel and it came away, somehow allowing his face to break the surface where, like a top feeding fish, his lips sucked at its faint sustenance. Wild eyed, he caught a glimpse of the four o’clock sun, thirty degrees from the horizon, and as he sank again it occurred to him that this time and this place were both lousy, God-forsaken points at which to lose everything.”

We know that Roe survived and went on to become the man that he was but I thought his experience at Oyster Harbour was a good place to start my investigations and to begin figuring out what exactly it was I had to say. Without knowing it, Oyster Harbour was to feature far more significantly as the history I discovered began to unfold.

Writing historical stories is a complex thing, it’s based on the real and the actual, according to what’s known, but necessarily draws on one’s imagination, a thing influenced by the writer’s own personal world of experience.

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