The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> Australia >> History
George Bass

explorer of the Australian coast who proved that Tasmania is an island

George Bass

George Bass was born at Aswarby, Lincolnshire, England, on January 30, 1771, the only child of George Bass, a tenant farmer, and his wife Sarah Newman Bass. When his father died in 1777, George moved with his mother to Boston. For five years he was apprenticed to the local surgeon-apothecary Patrick Francis, and at 18 he was accepted after examination in London as a member of the Company of Surgeons. By age 19 he was a "surgeon second-rate" in the Royal Navy, and he subsequently spent about three years in brief postings on several ships, becoming proficient in navigation, seamanship, and Spanish along the way. In 1794, Bass obtained a transfer to the HMS Reliance, which was scheduled to ferry John Hunter to his posting as Governor of New South Wales (Australia). Bass was accompanied on the voyage by William Martin, his personal servant. Along the way he became good friends with Matthew Flinders, a member of the Reliance crew. The ship arrived at Port Jackson on September 7, 1795.

Finding that very little of the New South Wales coast had been explored, Bass, Martin, and Flinders fitted a mast to a small rowing boat dubbed Tom Thumb that Bass had brought with him, and about two months after their arrival examined George's River, which empties into Botany Bay. Their report on the area induced Governor Hunter to commission further examination and establish a settlement at Banks Town. In March 1796, the men set out in another Tom Thumb to find a river said to enter the sea south of Botany Bay. Although they failed to find the reported river, they did become the first Europeans to explore the area around Lake Illawarra.

In September 1796, Bass sailed with the Reliance on a voyage to South Africa to buy livestock for the government; Bass bought a cow and nineteen sheep for himself. After returning to Port Jackson (on June 26, 1797), Bass heard a report that coal had been found on the coast south of Sydney by survivors of a wrecked ship. On August 5, 1797, he and two of the survivors set out in Governor Hunter's whale-boat on an expedition to locate the coal deposit. They returned eight days later with specimens of the coal and a report of its abundance around Coalcliff.

Bass's search for the coal deposit sparked a desire in him to locate a reported passage between New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). He and six volunteers set out from Port Jackson aboard an open whale-boat on December 3, 1797. In the next eleven weeks, despite boisterous weather, he travelled some 1,200 miles, found the Shoalhaven River, Twofold Bay, Wilson's Promontory, and Western Port, and deduced from the great swell and the direction of the tides that a strait did indeed separate the mainland from Van Diemen's Land. On October 7, 1798, he and Flinders set out in the Norfolk, a 25-ton sloop, with orders to pass through the strait and return by the south of Van Diemen's Land. By the time the men returned to Port Jackson on January 12, 1799, they had found the Tamar estuary, examined the Derwent estuary, and proven that Van Diemen's Land is indeed an island. Bass also prepared papers on the Aboriginals, plants, animals, and geographic features he encountered, and those papers got him elected to the Linnean Society, London.

map of Bass's two Australian voyages

By May 1799 Bass had grown tired of the low pay and limited prospects available to him as a ship's surgeon and decided to join Charles Bishop on a voyage to China, where Bishop hoped to sell a cargo of seal skins and oil. In July they found the little-known group of Bass Islands, some of which Bass charted and named. After Bishop sold his cargo at Macao, the men set sail for Bombay. Along the way, Bass charted the port of Rhio on Bintang Island and the Straits of Singapore. This chart, the first of any accuracy, was published in London in 1805.

Upon returning to England in late-July 1800, Bass was given twelve months leave by the Medical Board, leaving him free to work with Bishop in organizing a commercial venture. The two men raised enough money to buy a ship and load her with goods to sell in New South Wales. Bass also found time to fall in love with Elizabeth, the eldest sister of his former Captain, Henry Waterhouse. The two were married on October 8, 1800, and for the next ten weeks they were constantly together. She did not, however, sail with her husband when he and Bishop departed for New South Wales on January 9, 1801.

Finding the New South Wales market already overflowing with goods, Bass and Bishop contracted with Governor Philip Gidley King to make a voyage to the south sea islands for pork for the government. On that voyage, they discovered near Cape West some large sounds which they named the Inlets of Venus (after their ship), and further north an island which they named after Bishop's friend, Lord Bolton.

The pork and salt Bass and Bishop returned to New South Wales with netted them a small profit but they still had debts to pay and a crew to pay, so Bass decided to take their shipload of cargo to South America (Bishop had fallen ill and was unable to leave New South Wales). He sailed into the Pacific on February 5, 1803, and was never heard from again. In January 1806, the Admiralty listed him as missing at sea, and his wife began receiving a widow's pension a few months later.

See Also

Matthew Flinders

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Australia >> History

This page was last updated on January 30, 2019.