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Voyager Rare Books Maps & Prints

Charting of Port Curtis – Captain Owen Stanley RN – November 1847

Under instructions dated 1st December 1846, Captain Owen Stanley of HMS Rattlesnake sailed on the 11th December from Portsmouth to Australia with a mission, amongst other things, to improve the marine charts associated with the East Coast of Australia and specifically, under separate instructions from the official Hydrographer (Beaufort) to chart the In-shore Passage, between the coast and the Barrier Reefs. Sadly, Captain Owen Stanley died before the account of the voyage could be completed, and it was left to John MacGillivray Naturalist on the voyage to write it up. The following extract from his narrative refers to their time at Port Curtis in November 1847.

…..  November 4th (1847).

Sailed from Moreton Bay for Port Curtis in company with the Bramble. The wind being at north, we had to beat out through the narrow channel leading between the banks of the north entrance, probably never before attempted by a square-rigged vessel.


On November 7th, we rounded Breaksea Spit, and passed Lady Elliot’s Island–low, of coral formation, and one of the great breeding places of the seabirds of this portion of the coast. Next day we anchored five miles off the south entrance of Port Curtis, and sent in two boats to sound. On their return with a favourable report, the ship was got underweigh, and ran in under the headsails to round Gatcombe Head, by the channel laid down in Flinders’ chart; but, while following a boat ahead in charge of the master, the signal to anchor immediately was made, and we brought up as required, being then about the middle of the north channel.

We remained here until the boats had sounded the remainder of the approach to the port sufficiently to enable Captain Stanley to move the vessel without risk to a safe anchorage inside, at a spot convenient for landing at all times to obtain the requisite observations for determining an astronomical position, and sufficiently central as a starting point for boat operations. This was effected on the 10th of November, when we anchored in 5 fathoms, mud, at three cables lengths distance from the shore.


In January, 1847, the recently proposed colony of North Australia was established by a party from Sydney, under Lieutenant-Colonel Barney, R.E., with a suitable staff of public functionaries. The colonists encountered more than usual difficulties and hardships even at the commencement. The transport conveying the first portion of the party, consisting of eighty-eight persons, struck on the shoal off Gatcombe Head, and required to be hove down, a fit spot for which purpose was fortunately found in a narrow but deep mangrove creek further up the harbour, at a place indicated upon the Rattlesnake’s chart. The party were at first encamped upon the south end of Facing Island, but afterwards removed to the mainland, upon a site for the new township of Gladstone having been chosen there. The settlement, however, was abandoned, after a short-lived existence of five months, in obedience to orders received from home, consequent upon a change in the plans of Government regarding the disposal of convicts, for North Australia had been originally intended to be a penal settlement, or one for the reception of exiles. The expenses incurred by this experiment amounted to upwards of 15,000 pounds.


The survey of the harbour and its approaches occupied a period of three weeks. Although this work had ceased to be one of immediate importance, yet it will eventually be of considerable benefit to the colony of New South Wales, as the gradual extension of the squatting stations to the northward from the Wide Bay district must, ere long, call Port Curtis into requisition as a harbour, and thus enable the settlers to obviate the necessity of a long and expensive land carriage to Wide Bay, the nearest place resorted to by the small coasting vessels, communicating with Brisbane and Sydney.

In illustration of this important subject, I cannot do better than quote portions of a despatch from Colonel Barney to Sir Charles Fitzroy, dated Sydney, 20th July, 1847, published in a return ordered by the House of Commons:

“The extent of land fit for agriculture, within a few miles of the coast, far exceeds the expectations I had formed on my first visit. Timber for dwelling-houses and for shipbuilding is abundant, and of the best description, and within five miles of South Shore Head (the best site for a settlement) there is to be found pipeclay, brick-earth, ironstone, freestone, granite, trap, slate, indications of coal; and independent of a great supply of shells for lime on the immediate site, there is at the head of one of the navigable salt creeks a fine freshwater stream running over a bed of limestone; a second creek, in which the Lord Auckland of 600 tons, is hove down, also navigable for ten or twelve miles, terminates in extensive waterholes; indeed within the port there are four inlets or creeks, navigable from ten to fifteen miles for vessels drawing eight or nine feet of water, each terminating in fresh water.

The position and extent of Port Curtis, which I take to be the third harbour in importance in these seas, inferior only to Port Jackson and Hobart Town, must shortly lead to an establishment on its shore, offering security to numerous whaling vessels, which are now compelled to proceed to Sydney for repairs and supplies; it must also become an important depot for supplying steamers on passage to India with coal, which I have reason to believe will be found in abundance within a few miles of the coast. I have no doubt also that this port will become celebrated for shipbuilding, possessing, as it does, timber of the highest quality for such purposes, and favourable positions for building, as well as for the construction of docks.

The country is capable of affording all the tropical, as well as a considerable portion of European produce, and will be found highly favourable for the breeding of stock; indeed, I believe I am correct in stating that numerous parties, with stock to a very large amount, are now within a short distance of Port Curtis, taking up stations, not only with a view to the supply of the projected settlement, but also to the shipment of wool, tallow, etc. direct to England.”


A few days after our arrival at Port Curtis, the Asp, as our decked boat had been named, joined us, having made an important addition to the surveys of this portion of the coast. On his passage up from Brisbane, Lieutenant Dayman, under the unexpected circumstances of finding that the Rattlesnake had sailed, instead of coasting along the eastern side of Great Sandy Island, thus involving the necessity of rounding Breaksea Spit, determined upon trying the passage between that island and the mainland leading into Hervey Bay; this he fortunately succeeded in accomplishing, although under difficulties which his sketch (since published by the Admiralty) will lessen to those who may require to use the same previously little known channel.

Port Curtis, comprising a space of about ten miles in length, is enclosed between Facing Island on the east, or to seaward, Curtis Island on the north, and the shores of the mainland on the western side, leaving to the southward a wide entrance partially blocked up by shoals. Besides the narrow channel described by Flinders as leading between the south end of Facing Island and the large bank of shoal water extending about six miles to the south-east, a second, and much safer one, the least width of which is upwards of a mile, was discovered between the large bank and others of less extent towards the mainland.


We landed almost daily upon Facing Island, which was traversed in every direction, but nowhere could we find a practicable watering place for the ship; in fact, during our excursions, it was found necessary to carry a supply of water with us, not being able to depend upon obtaining any on shore. The island is 8 1/2 miles long and 2 3/4 in greatest width; it is generally low, the most elevated part, Signal Hill, situated at its south end, measuring only 275 feet in height. Its aspect is various; the shores, as well as those of the adjacent mainland, are often muddy, and covered with mangroves, fringing creeks, and occupying swamps more or less extensive, while the remainder of the country is either covered with the usual monotonous gum-trees, or, as over a large portion of the sea face, covered with coarse sedgy grass and small bushes, on sandy ground, which rises into a series of low sandhills extending along the coast. During winter there must be much water, judging from several nearly dried up lagoons and swamps, and some empty watercourses.


In company with Mr. Huxley, I made an excursion of two days’ duration, with the double view of seeing the country and adding to my collection. We started heavily laden with provisions, water, arms and ammunition, besides boxes, botanical paper and boards, and other collecting gear; and although taking it very easily, the fatigue of walking in a sultry day, with the thermometer at 90 degrees in the shade, afforded a sample of what we had afterwards so often to experience during our rambles in tropical Australia. Towards the northern end of the island we found several creeks and lagoons of salt and brackish water, occasionally communicating with the sea, probably under the conjoined influences of spring tides and a strong easterly wind. Towards evening, finding among the contents of our game-bags several ducks, of two species–Anas superciliosa, the black duck of the colonists, the richest and best flavoured of all the Australian waterfowl, and A. punctata, or teal, we had them cooked bush fashion, for supper. The night being fine, we enjoyed our bivouac upon the top of a sandhill, near the sea, by the side of a dead Pandanus, which served as firewood–although it was judged expedient to keep watch by turns, and go the rounds occasionally, especially after the setting of the moon and before daybreak. We saw no recent signs of natives, however, during our absence from the ship; but former experience upon this coast had taught me how necessary it is to be ever on one’s guard, even in apparently uninhabited places; and such watchfulness soon becomes habitual, and at length ceases to be irksome. Next day we returned to the ship, more than ever convinced of the comparative uselessness of the country which we had gone over for agricultural or even pastoral purposes, except on a very small scale. On our way back we met with two horses, both in good condition, which had been left by Colonel Barney’s party.


On another occasion Mr. Huxley and myself landed at the site of the settlement of Gladstone, and were picked up in the evening by Captain Stanley in one of the surveying boats, on his return to the ship. It is difficult to conceive a more dreary spot, and yet I saw no more eligible place for a settlement on the shores of the harbour. A few piles of bricks, the sites of the tents, some posts, indicating the remains of a provisional Government-house, wheel-ruts in the hardened clay, the stumps of felled trees, together with a goodly store of empty bottles strewed about everywhere, remained as characteristics of the first stage of Australian colonisation. Within 200 yards of the township we came upon a great expanse of several hundred acres of bare mud, glistening with crystals of salt, bordered on one side by a deep muddy creek, and separated from the shore by thickets of mangroves. The country for several miles around is barren in the extreme, consisting for the most part of undulating, stony, forest land. I have heard, however, that there is much good pastoral country at the back. We found no fresh water during our walk; of two wells which had been dug by the settlers, through stiff clay, one was dry, and the other contained a puddle of brackish water, not fit to drink. We met with few birds, but saw many tracks of emus and kangaroos.


During our stay at Port Curtis, we had no intercourse whatever with the natives, although anxious to establish friendly communication. With the aid of the spyglass, we could occasionally make out a few, chiefly women, collecting shellfish on the mudflats of the mainland, and their fires were daily seen in every direction. The employment of firearms against them on several occasions by the crew of the Lord Auckland (under, apparently, justifiable circumstances however) which left the harbour, after repairing her damages, only a few months before our arrival, had probably taught the natives to look with distrust upon white men; and they cautiously avoided our parties.

On Facing Island, our sportsmen found little inland to recompense them for their trouble, except blue mountain parrots and quail; but along the shore, curlews, oystercatchers, and godwits, were plentiful. One day I killed a bustard (Otis australasiana) weighing 22 1/2 pounds; the goodness of its flesh was duly appreciated by my messmates. Several small flocks of this noblest of the Australian gamebirds were seen; but, from their frequenting the open country, and being very wary, it is only by stratagem or accident that they can be approached within gunshot. No land snakes were seen, but sea snakes seem to be frequent in the harbour.


Sharks of enormous size appeared to be common; one day we caught two, and while the first taken was hanging under the ship’s stern, others made repeated attacks upon it, raising their heads partially out of the water, and tearing off long strips of the flesh before the creature was dead. Another swam off apparently as active as ever, although a musket ball had been fired through its head. On several occasions a party was sent to haul the seine upon a neighbouring mudflat covered at high-water, and generally made good captures, especially of mullet and bream (Chrysophrys); in addition, many other more curious fishes were caught, and several rare and new crustacea–Squilla, Lupea thalamita, and a new genus allied to Gonoplax, which will be found described in the Appendix. Of landshells, only two kinds, a Helix and a Succinea, were found upon Facing Island. Of marine species, 41 were added to the collection; the most important in a non-zoological point of view is a kind of rock oyster of delicious flavour and large size.


November 29th.

Sailed from Port Curtis for the northward, in company with the Asp, the Bramble being sent to Moreton Bay in order to communicate the results of the survey to the Colonial Government, and rejoin us at Cape Upstart. For the next two days light northerly winds prevailed, after which we had the wind from about East-South-East.

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