George Bass

George Bass

George Bass, British naval surgeon and explorer of Australia (30 January 1771 - 1803), was born at Aswarby, a hamlet near Sleaford, Lincolnshire, and was educated at Boston Grammar School. He trained in medicine at the hospital at Boston, Lincolnshire, qualifying in 1789, and in 1794 he joined the Royal Navy as a surgeon. He arrived in Sydney in New South Wales on HMS "Reliance", in which Matthew Flinders had also sailed, in February 1795. The two, accompanied by William Martin, explored Botany Bay near Sydney and the nearby Georges River. In 1796, they discovered and explored Port Hacking.

In 1797, in an open whaleboat with a crew of six, Bass sailed to Cape Howe, the farthest point of south-eastern Australia. From here he went westwards along what is now the coast of the Gippsland region of Victoria, to Westernport Bay, almost as far as the site of present-day Melbourne. His belief that a strait separated the mainland from Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) was backed up by his astute observation of the rapid tide and the long south-western swell at Wilsons Promontory.

In 1798, this theory was confirmed when Bass and Flinders, in the sloop "Norfolk", circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land. In the course of this voyage Bass found and explored the estuary of the Derwent River, where the city of Hobart would be founded, on the strength of his report, in 1803. When the two returned to Sydney, Flinders recommended to Governor John Hunter that the passage between Van Diemen's Land and the mainland be called Bass Strait.

"This was no more than a just tribute to my worthy friend and companion," Flinders wrote, "for the extreme dangers and fatigues he had undergone, in first entering it in a whaleboat, and to the correct judgement he had formed, from various indications, of the existence of a wide opening between Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales."

Bass was an enthusiastic naturalist and botanist, and he forwarded some his botanical discoveries to Sir Joseph Banks in London. "In this voyage of fourteen weeks I collected those few plants upon Van Diemen's Land which had not been familiar to me in New South Wales," he wrote to Banks, "and have done myself the honour of submitting them to your inspection." He was made an honorary member of the Society for Promoting Natural History, which later became the Linnean Society. Some of his observations were published in the second volume of David Collins's "An Account of the English colony in New South Wales." He was one of the first to describe the Australian marsupial, the wombat.

Bass also discovered the Kiama area and made many notes on its botanical complexity and the amazing natural phenomenon, the Kiama Blowhole, noting the volcanic geology around the Blowhole and contributed much to its understanding.

Marriage and trading

Back in England Bass married Elizabeth Waterhouse, sister of Henry Waterhouse, Bass's former shipmate, captain of the "Reliance". But within three months he set sail again, and though he wrote her affectionate letters such was his fate that he did not return.

Bass and a syndicate of friends had invested some £10,000 in the copper-sheathed brig the "Venus", and a cargo of general goods to transport and sell in Port Jackson. Bass was the owner-manager and set sail in early 1801. (Among his influential friends and key business associates in the Antipodes was the principal surgeon of the satellite British colony on Norfolk Island, Thomas Jamison, who was subsequently appointed Surgeon-General of New South Wales.)

On passing through Bass Strait on his 1801 voyage he recorded it simply as Bass Strait, like any other geographical feature. It seems, as Flinders' biographer Ernest Scott observed, that Bass's natural modesty meant he felt no need to say "discovered by me" or "named after me".

On arrival Bass found the colony awash with goods and he was unable to sell his cargo. Governor King was operating on a strict programme of economy and would not take the goods into the government store, even at a 50% discount. What King did though was contract with Bass to ship salt pork from Tahiti. Food was scarce in Sydney at that time [Manning Clark, "A History of Australia", volume 1, reprint 1981, ISBN 0-522-84008-6] and prices were being driven up, yet pigs were plentiful in the Society Islands and King could contract with Bass at 6 pence a pound where he'd been paying a shilling (12 pence) previously. The arrangement suited King's thrift, and was profitable for Bass. With his partner Charles Bishop Bass sailed from Sydney in the Venus for Dusky Sound in New Zealand where they spent 14 days stripping iron from the wreck of Captain Brampton's old ship the Endeavour. This was made into axes which were used to trade for the pork in Tahiti before returning with the latter to Sydney by November 1802. [Rowley Taylor "Straight through from London, the Antipodes and Bounty Islands, New Zealand",Heritage Expeditions New Zealand Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand, 2006, ISBN 0-473-10650-7, pp.37,38 & 40.]

In January 1803 Bass applied to King for a fishing monopoly extending from a line bisecting the lower South Island of New Zealand from Dusky Sound to Otago Harbour - now the site of the city of Dunedin - and including all the lands and seas to the south, notably the Antipodes Islands, probably on the basis of information from his brother-in-law Waterhouse, the discoverer of the Antipodes archipelago. [ McNab, Roberted, "Historical Records of New Zealand" 2 vols, Government Printer, Wellington, 1908 & 1914. ] He expected much from it, but before he heard it had been declined he sailed south from Sydney never to return. Bass and Flinders were both operating out of Sydney during these times, but their stays there didn't coincide.

Final voyage

What became of Bass is unknown. He set sail on his last voyage in the "Venus" on 5 February 1803 and was not seen again. His plan was to go to Tahiti again, and perhaps on to the Spanish colonies on the coast of Chile to buy provisions and bring them back to Sydney.

It's been suspected Bass may also have planned to engage in contraband trade in Chile. Spain reserved the import of goods into her colonies for Spanish ships and Spanish merchants. But the colonists needed more than they could supply and shortages and heavy taxation caused high prices, encouraging an extensive illegal trade with foreign vessels. Port Jackson was a well-known base for such smuggling (Britain had no great friendship with Spain at that time so British authorities were unconcerned).

Bass still had much of the general cargo he'd brought to Sydney in 1801 and he may well have been tempted to take some to Chile. Two of his last letters have hints at a venture which he could not name. But in any case he set off in 1803, with a diplomatic letter from Governor King attesting his bona-fides and that his sole purpose if he were on the West coast of South America would be in procuring provisions.

As many months passed with no word of his arrival Governor King and Bass's friends in Sydney were forced to accept that he'd met some misfortune. In England in January 1806 Bass was listed by the Admiralty as lost at sea and later that year Elizabeth was granted an annuity from the widows' fund, back dated to when Bass's half-pay had ended in June 1803. (Bass had made the usual contributions to the fund from his salary.)

Speculation on Bass's fate

A good deal of speculation has taken place about Bass's fate. One story attributed to William Campbell of the brig "Harrington" has it that Bass was captured by the Spanish in Chile and sent to the silver mines. The "Harrington" was engaged in smuggling and returned to Sydney some three months after Bass's departure. But this story dates only from 1811 in a report by William Fitzmaurice. There are good records of Campbell in 1803, and then in 1805 when he captured a Spanish ship, but Bass is not mentioned at those times. (Three months also seems a little short for Bass to reach Chile and then the "Harrington" to get back to Sydney.)

The suspicion is that other ships called "Venus" have been jumbled up in that story. In June 1806 a brig "Venus" was seized by convicts and mutineers and last seen off New Zealand. Speculative accounts of that ship had her reaching Talcahuano in Chile and the crew imprisoned. Then in 1809 William Campbell recaptured a schooner "Venus" which had been seized by natives in Tahiti. Campbell's connection to the latter might have been projected back onto Bass's "Venus".

Adventurer Jorgen Jorgenson wrote about Bass in his 1835 autobiography, claiming Bass had attempted forced trade (ie. at gunpoint) in Chile and was captured when he let his guard down. Jorgenson probably met Bass, but this account is almost certainly an invention though. Jorgenson's writing was entertaining, but far from always being factual.

A search of Spanish archives in 1903 by scholar Pascual de Gayangos and a search of Peruvian archives in 2003 by historian Jorge Ortiz-Sotelo found no mention of Bass.

See also

Places named after Bass:
* Bass, Victoria (town)
* Bass Highway (Tasmania)
* Bass Highway (Victoria)
* Bass Hill, New South Wales
* Bass Point
* Bass Strait
* Division of Bass, Tasmania (federal)
* Division of Bass, Tasmania (state)
* Bass River
* Bass High


* Miriam Estensen, "The Life of George Bass", Allen and Unwin, 2005, ISBN 1-74114-130-3
* Keith Macrae Bowden: George Bass 1771–1803: His Discoveries, Romantic Life and Tragic Disappearance. – London, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1952

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