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Week 43 - settling on Holdfast Bay

[ 11th of December 1836 to 17th of December 1836 ]
[ View related 'school content': Week 43: Kangaroo Island ]

In South Australia

Colonel Light is preparing to leave Port Lincoln to return to Gulf St Vincent after satisfying himself that southern Eyre Peninsula is no place for the initial settlement. Once again he battles unsettled weather and strong contrary winds. Luckily he decides to anchor overnight just off Thistle Island, because the morning reveals a reef directly in his path and not marked on Flinders’ charts. ‘[H]ad we been driven from our anchorage in the night’, he writes, ‘we must [all] have perished’. We are reminded that there are perils everywhere, even so close to the final destination. As it is they are spared to proceed on their way, although once again contrary winds prevent their reaching Rapid Bay directly. They run instead for Nepean Bay and there find the Tam O’Shanter recently arrived from England. After a short side trip to Rapid Bay to remove all their belongings, they proceed with the Tam O’Shanter to Holdfast Bay once again.

Scene: Holdfast Bay

Holdfast Bay, South Australia 1836. by John Michael Skipper. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia 0.1221

Light’s diary for 17 December also includes a long explanation of his reasons for preferring Holdfast Bay to Encounter Bay as the site for the settlement.  They reflect his long experience as a sea captain and his knowledge of harbours and the economics of mercantile trade, all of which lead him to believe that Encounter Bay is simply too exposed to the southern ocean to provide a safe haven for shipping. He confides these thoughts to Dr Woodforde in Rapid Bay, along with the offer of a further period of engagement as ‘shore going Surgeon’. A relieved Woodforde decides to ignore the pleas of his mother and sister to return to England. ‘[A]s I think there is a chance of my bettering myself here, I think it is right to make a trial.’

At Holdfast Bay the little settlement is settling into a domestic routine. Robert Gouger builds himself a spacious hut of local timber and thatch, the whole held together with ‘cords or ropescordage’ and only six nails! Mary Thomas is thankful for her spacious tent, which is large enough to divide into two ‘apartments’. But both complain at length about the plague of insects and other pests that annoy them day and night.  Swarms of flies, fleas and mosquitoes nearly drive them mad, while Mary Thomas battles ineffectually against large rats which venture boldly into the tents even in broad daylight. By the end of the week all are afflicted with the painful eye infection known as opthalmia.

The return of the Emma from Kangaroo Island also brings them the sad news that the two missing men cannot be found. No-one can quite discover why the group separated, but rumours of an argument are prevalent.  Mary Thomas has the ‘painful task’ of advising young Osborne’s father of his fate, and she approaches the task with great sensitivity, arranging for their agent in London to break the news to him in person and ‘by degrees’. It is a melancholy week for all in the settlement.

At sea

As all in the settlement watch eagerly for the long-anticipated arrival of the Governor, the Buffalo continues its stately progress across the ocean. On 11 December it passes Cape Chatham on the coast of Western Australia. George Stevenson is now openly contemptuous of Hindmarsh, as governor and as captain, losing no opportunity to disparage his judgement and his seamanship. Now that they are so close to their destination, Hindmarsh’s slow but steady approach seems to irritate Stevenson even more. He does however have an interesting conversation with a poor Scottish emigrant, whose kindly views on future relations with the Aborigines meet with his approval. In these and other views Stevenson is something of a radical, even while he remains typical of his class in other ways.


Journals from settlers in South Australia:

Sunday 11 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

Having remaind at Anchor all Friday
Night in Rapid Bay, we weighd again early Yestdy
Morng, and arrd at our destination Hold fast Bay
this Eveng, thus making 4 Days Works of a 4 Hours passage
and have every prospect of a heavy Gale of Wind, to keep us
on board a Day or two longer   __________

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Sunday 11 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

11 December First part strong breezes with vivid lightning to the westward; at five a.m. more moderate; got under way; at eight passed the rock off Thistle Island, and we discovered an extensive reef running from Grindall’s Island in a north easterly direction, not laid down in Flinders’ chart, and reaching across the very course I had intended to steer had we been driven from our anchorage in the night; we must all [have] perished had that happened, but Providence kept us safe in Memory Cove.

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Sunday 11 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

The last days I have been employed on alternate days shooting and working at my hut, which I had the extreme facility of removing to last night. On one of my shooting excursions I shot aold name for a brolga, so named because they were observed in pairs native companion weighing 14 pounds. This bird much resembles a heron in the shape with the exception of the legs which like the emu’s are armed with three toes. The plumage on the back is speckled, not unlike the guinea-fowl and is white on the breast. The “Emu” called here on Friday on her way up the Gulf, having on board stock etc. brought by the “John Pirie” to Kangaroo Island. She left us yesterday at daybreak. We learnt from the Officers that of the six landed on Kangaroo Island to find their way on foot to Nepean Bay, four only have been found, and they were nearly exhausted by fatigue and famine. The two others, one of whom was a surgeon (Mr. Slater) have in all human probability perished. The weather during the week has been variable, having had two very sultry days with the hot northerly wind.

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Sunday 11 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

DECEMBER 11.-This day, about noon, a report prevailed that a ship was in sight, and that it might be the Tam o’Shanter, the arrival of which we were anxiously awaiting. We sent the boys to the beach to inquire, and they soon returned with the news that the Emma, a vessel that came out before the Africaine, in the service of the South Australian Company, I believe, had returned from Kangaroo Island, whither she had been sent with stores, and that she had on board two of the young men who had been so long wandering on the island, Nantes and Fisher, our printer. This proved to be true, but the latter did not come on shore that day. Four of them at length returned with vague and rather contradictory statements that they had left Slater and Osborne near a lagoon, unable to proceed any further, but that they would do so as soon as they had somewhat recovered from their fatigue; that they had plenty of provisions with them, thus keeping up our hopes of their final safety. They never returned, however, nor could we learn anything with certainty as to their fate, though we made constant inquiry and questioned everyone in the least likely to afford information…

This melancholy affair distressed us all very much, and it was some time before we could settle to our ordinary occupationsavocations

From some casual words spoken by those who returned I began to suspect that some disagreement had occurred while they were on the island, especially as allusions were made to “that hot-headed Irishman.” Mr. Slater was, as far as I could observe, a kind-hearted man of gentlemanly manners, and generally on good terms with his fellow-passengers, but sometimes he showed unmistakable proofs of a fiery temperament, which on one occasion caused me some uneasiness. It so happened that something had occurred, I do not know what, that gave him great offence, and after giving vent to furious passion he shut himself in his cabin with a loaded pistol in his hand, declaring that he would shoot the first man who dared to enter it; but as he was the sole occupant of the cabin, of course no one had the right to enter it without his permission, and under those circumstances few cared even to pass the door. Nor would his irritated humour have given me much concern but that his cabin was situated next to one occupied by my children, and I could not help being apprehensive lest the pistol should go off, perhaps by accident, or otherwise. Either incident would have caused considerable alarm.

Osborne, however, went to him notwithstanding his threats, and not only induced hime to lay aside the pistol, but reasoned him into a calmer mood. This was not the only instance in which he succeeded, by his judicious arguments, in allaying the ruffled temper of Mr. Slater.

Whether anything of the kind had occurred or not during their route across Kangaroo Island I cannot tell, but that some dispute did arise I have reason to believe from hints which were occasionally thrown out by those who returned, and by which it appeared that they could not agree as to the course they should pursue, some of the party wishing to go one way and the rest another. How it was settled, of course, I had no means of ascertaining, except that Osborne, as usual, adhered to his friend, and they parted company with the rest. All my endeavours to obtain a satisfactory explanation for their absence failed, and though I repeatedly questioned all those who returned, and Fisher in particular, I could get no other answer than that they were on their way and would soon arrive.

As I said before, we never saw them again, and when all hope was gone the painful task devolved on me to convey the melancholy tidings to Osborne’s father. As the best means of doing so, I wrote to our agent in London, Mr. Leonard Baugh, and gave him a full account, as far as I was able, of the whole affair, requesting him to go to Mr. Osborne and break the sad news to him by degrees, and likewise to get it published in “The Spectator,” lest the people of England should think that the two unfortunate young men had been murdered by the natives. There was none on Kangaroo Island at that time, except a few women, and they were employed by the white residents.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Sunday 11 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

Decr 11th Prayers were read to-day in Mr Kingston’s tent by Mr Gilbert, & a sermon was to have been read also, but information arrived that a large ship was sailing into the Bay, & the anxiety was so great that the greater part of the congregation separated and went to the beach, expecting it might be the Governor. It proved, however, to be the “Emma” from Kangaroo Island bringing the Company’s livestock, etc etc I returned to my dinner (consisting of a fine cockatoo, which proved good) and we had hardly finished when 2 gentlemen made their appearance. They proved to be the Capt of the “Emma” & Capt Nelson of the “John Pirie” who brought us letters from England. Our first enquiry was of the fate of the 6 poor fellows, who it will be remembered landed on the Western Shore of Kangaroo Island intending to walk across it by “Capt Sutherland’s Track”. Of these only 4 have been found (Mr Nantes, a clerk in the office of the Colonial Secretary, & 3 labourers). Mr Slater (a surgeon) & Mr Osborne (printer) are it is feared lost. Mr Nantes states that after being out 9 days, Osborne was unable to proceed, & that Slater with his characteristic generosity, said he would stay with him, while the rest of the party pushed on, in the hope of sending relief to the two left behind. Two days after this Nantes & his party were found by a fishing boat, & were conveyed to the settlement, not having tasted food for 4 days, but are now recovering & are in tolerably good health. Parties sent in search of Slater & Osborne say they have the tracks of but one person, & as he appears to walk in circles, or backwards & forwards, they fear he is out of his mind. This doubtless was Slater – Osborne most probably has perished. Search parties were however still out when the “Emma” left, though no hope remains of finding either alive. Thus to Capt Sutherland’s very erroneous account of the Interior of the Island, it is to be feared 2 gallant & educated young men have fallen victims!

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Monday 12 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

12 December-Blowing very fresh; at half past four a.m. the wind increasing and weather looking bad, I did not like running for Rapid Bay, therefore made sail for Nepean Bay. At six, being off the end of the sand, hauled the wind, and began working in, and after hard beating, anchored off Kingscote at thirty minutes p.m. Found here the John Pirie and the Tam O’Shanter, the latter lately from England. At one, Mr Finke came on board, and brought us letters.

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Tuesday 13 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

DECEMBER 13.-This evening another tent, not far from our encampment, was accidentally burnt down, but, I believe, without any material damage otherwise. A similar accident had also occurred at Kangaroo Island, where some property was destroyed.

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Wednesday 14 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

14 December-At eight a.m. got under way, the Tam O’Shanter in company; at six a.m., the Tam O’Shanter shaped her course for Holdfast Bay, and we stood in for Rapid Bay, to embark all things previous to running over to the western side.

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Wednesday 14 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

We had now been here a month, and certainly enjoyed the freedom of the open air and our spacious tent, which was oblong and large enough to divide into two apartments, in preference to the confinement inseparable from a ship’s cabin. But we were not destined to have these conveniences without alloy. Fleas, flies, and mosquitoes were innumerable. One or the other annoyed us incessantly, the first both day and night, which, perhaps, may partly be accounted for by our being so near a sandhill. The flies tormented us to such a degree that when I wrote my letters to England I was obliged to be constantly fighting with one hand while I wrote with the other, and no sooner had these retired from the contest than in the evening the mosquitoes came in such swarms as sometimes literally to cover the inside of the tent. We were obliged to have recourse to burning them out by burning some dry grass in a baking-pot; but this was not all, for the place was also infested with rats, whether native or imported I cannot say. They certainly were there before we arrived, for we frequently found their holes. They were different from the native kangaroo rat, were generally of a large size, and so bold that they seemed disposed to cultivate our acquaintance with rather more freedom than was desirable, often appearing in open daylight. They would scarcely be driven away. I had sufficient proof that they paid us nightly visits as well, for once I felt one run over my face. Having no means of keeping them out of the tent, I endeavoured to keep out other intruders (at least, at night) by pinning the canvas door to opposite sides and then placing a pail of water near it, so that if anyone attempted to enter they might have a chance of falling over it. Though this never happened, not infrequently in the morning I found a drowned rat in the pail. On one occasion, also, when I awoke, two of these animals were quietly seated on a chest of drawers, which stood at the foot of my bed, apparently watching me, and without attempting to move till I drove them away.

About this time our eyes became affected with An infectious inflammation of the eye. Also called Trachoma or Egyptian Ophthalmia. ophthalmia, which was then so prevalent that I believe very few of the settlers entirely escaped it. Many of the natives had it, and even the dogs suffered. My son William became totally blind one Sunday while attending Divine Service in the open air, and was led back to the tent by his brother. For myself I was nearly so for three days, and could scarcely find my way about. We had a skilful physician, however, in Doctor Wright, who came out with his wife and family in the Cygnet, and was at that time the only medical practitioner in the colony. Excepting this disease, which was extremely painful while it lasted, we were generally in good health.

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Wednesday 14 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

Decr 14th The last fortnight has been devoted to the building of my hut, which nearly adjoins the tent, & is 12 ft wide by 21 ft long. Only 6 nails were used in its construction; the uprights, crosspieces, beams & joists being all tied together with cordage. The wood was cut in a copse about a mile distant, & the thatch, which consists of a kind of reed 10 ft long with long wide leaves, was drawn by the portable truck before alluded to. I look forward to the hut when finished as being cooler & far more agreeable during the heat of the day than the tent. I have also built a shed for my goats to sleep in; in the upper part of which the fowls have taken up their abode. The latter reward my care by laying eggs plentifully. The Cashmere goats thrive admirably, but my two kids from the Cape have died. We originally supplied ourselves with 5 servants (male & female) before leaving England, but of this Alfred Young is the only one who preserves his loyalty, though assailed by Evil Advisers. I have however been fortunate in securing the services of Coltman & his wife till the site of the chief town shall be fixed upon. We, together with most of our fellow Colonists have suffered from quite a plague of flies and other insects. The inflammation caused by their attacking the eye became so serious as closely resembling the An infectious inflammation of the eye. Also called Trachoma or Ophthalmia. Egyptian opthalmia. Fortunately Dr Wright’s arrival reduced our sufferings in this respect. Mr Brown’s selection of a sand-hill for a residence fulfilled my predictions for they have suffered more than many.

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Thursday 15 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

The “Rapid” arrived last night from Kangaroo Island and Port Lincoln, but it being late nobody landed till this morning. The “Buffalo” is not yet arrived with the governor, but Captain Light gives a most unfavourable report on Port Lincoln. The harbour when once gained is very fine, but it is extremely difficult of access and the land has a most forbidding aspect consisting of little else than stones and totally unfit for agriculture. They searched unsuccessfully for the Tablet in Memory’s Cove raised by Flinders to the memory of the Boat’s Crew lost there. Holdfast Bay is at length fixed upon for the seat of the Capital and a more advantageous spot it is impossible to select, both from its vicinity to a beautiful harbour and the fineness of the soil, with abundance of fresh water. Captain Light makes a start tomorrow for the settlement, but as he intends stretching over to the Western side of this Gulf he will probably be some days on the way. On the return of the “Africaine” which he has sent to Hobart Town for stock etc., it is Captain Light’s intention to remove us all to the Town where he has offered to renew my Engagement as a shore going Surgeon. My former one on board the “Rapid” being ended on the 31st. inst. of the present month (Dec. 1836). I was delighted to find that Captain Light had letters for me brought by the “Tam O’Shanter”. One from my Mother, another from Harriet and the third from my good friend – Major – the latter enclosing one to Mr. Neale which I have given to Captain Light to deliver to him at Holdfast Bay. My dear Mother and Sister wish me to return, but as I think there is a chance of my bettering myself here, I think it is right to make a trial.

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Friday 16 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

On Monday last, the Wind blew so very strong
that not an Article could be landed, but during Tuesday it
abated considerably when part of our Stores were landed
and have got every thing on Shore this Day, except 2 Pork
Barrels, that are either lost, or have not been put on board
at Kingscote as we can only get two instead of four
which are mention’d in the Invoice   _____
While bringing the Sheep ashore on Wednesday last
one of the Wedders unfortunately got his leg broken
& was therefore kill’d and sold by Capt Martin —
The grey Mare was deliver’d up to Mr Gilbert, who
will take charge of her, untill Mr Morfit arrives

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Friday 16 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

16 December-At eleven a.m., having embarked everything, we got under way and stood over to the western side of the Gulf. At six, made the land out distinctly ahead, and on the The old term for the left hand side of a ship looking forward. The right hand side is starboard. To avoid mis-hearing an order, it is now referred to as ‘port’. larboard beam; but an opening between gave me hopes that some harbour might exist there, although all the information I had before collected from my man Cooper and others was contrary to any such thing, and very soon after we saw low barren-looking land connecting the two points before observed.

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Friday 16 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

Decr 16th The Tam O’Shanter has to-day worked into the Bay, & will discharge her cargo at the harbour 8 miles from us. We now find that no doubt remains as to the fate of Slater & Osborne, the Islanders having given up their search as hopeless. Their loss is much regretted by all who witnessed their quiet, unassuming demeanour on board. We have been fortunate in obtaining other servants from this ship.

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Saturday 17 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

17 December-At daylight, Mount Lofty and the range of hills seen, fine weather, made all sail for Holdfast Bay, and at ten came to an anchor and went on shore to see our party, and hear from Mr Kingston if he had made any interesting discovery during my absence. That I may not appear to wish to conceal any part of my operations or my reasons for them, I here again insert a short extract from my letter to the Commissioners, dated this day:

The time now lost in much extra labour, and the arrival of many people from England, makes me anxious to find some place to locate the land purchasers and others; and from every answer to my enquiries of the sealers, as well as the practical view of the coast I had to the westward, I felt convinced I should never find anything more eligible than the neighbourhood of Holdfast Bay, I therefore steered at once for it, and at ten a.m. came to an anchor.

As for Encounter Bay I resolved on leaving that to a future period for the following reason. As much as Encounter Bay and Lake Alexandrina had been talked of in England, I never could fancy for one moment that any navigable entrance from the sea into the Lake could possibly exist, on looking at Flinders’ chart, and considering the exposed situation of that coast, open to the whole southern ocean, great danger must always attend the approaching it with fresh breezes; moreover the very circumstance of so large a Lake being there was a convincing proof to me that the Murray could not have a passage sufficiently deep or wide to discharge its waters into the sea. These ideas I mentioned in England, and often during our passage, but when I saw the sandy shore to the eastward of Encounter Bay from the Rapid as we stood over, beating against strong northerly winds, and seeing that this shore of sand was open to several thousand miles of the southern ocean, where S.W. winds prevailed during eight or nine months of the year, I was more than before convinced that no good and accessible harbour could exist, contrary to the general laws of nature. Deep and fine harbours, with good entrances on the sea coast, are only found where the shore is high, hard, or rocky; in other cases such harbours must be in large rivers or gulfs; sand alone can never preserve a clear channel against the scud of the sea, and particularly such as must inevitably be thrown on the coast about Encounter Bay. I was quite certain that even should such a thing as a harbour be there, contrary (as I said before) to the general laws of nature, yet no ship could make it exactly, and if she missed it there is no trifling on such a coast, and with a strong breeze from the southward or westward no one would dare to approach it. What then must ships do? They must go to Nepean Bay and wait for favourable weather to enter this harbour, in doing which a ship may lose two months of her time. I was also sure that on a low, sandy shore like that, there must be a bar and tremendous surf. When I reached Nepean Bay this idea was fully confirmed by the reports of the sealers, and some said there was no such thing as a harbour along the coast; I therefore thought I should be throwing away valuable time in examining there, and besides this, had I wished it, the frequent westerly winds would have prevented me.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Saturday 17 December 1836

[, who arrived in South Australia on board the wrote.]

After breakfast I went off in the whale-boat left by Captain Light, to catch fish, but not knowing the ground we were unsuccessful, catching only three snappers and one rock-fish. After dinner I started with my gun, but was equally unsuccessful. So we stand a good chance of having Slang, meaning salted beef or pork. salt junk for Sunday’s dinner.

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Journals from passengers at sea:

Sunday 11 December 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

Turned out at 8 bells in vulgar English 4 o’clock in
the morning; & had the satisfaction to be the first in the ship to make
out the coast of New Holland; it was Cape Chatham; & our chronometers
were found to be right by observation to less than a mile – so all the
fears & fuss about St. Paul’s & the probable errors of these instruments
received a just though silent commentary. A vast number of porpoises
about the ship frolicking & leaping in all directions….

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Wednesday 14 December 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

Wednesday Decr 14. To make Cape Chatham we have come out of our
way nearly 300 miles; & all to find what every man in the ship
believed, that our watches were right. It has been calm yesterday &
to-day – rather annoying now when within 700 miles of our haven,
& when we consider that had ordinary advantage been taken of the
winds we have been favored with we should have been on shore three
weeks ago. Margaret had a conversation with a settler from Fife
on board; the same individual whose attention to the education of
his children has been so praiseworthy about Australia. “He had
just been devouring a’ the buiks he could get on the subject of
Australia; & he was vera happy to hear frae Maister Stevenson
that a gentleman was to be appointed to tak care o’ the natives.
Puir things! he was like rather to see gude done to them than harm,
& he thocht they might be brought to other & better things, especially as
their powers o’ mimicry were sae extraordinar – & then, ye ken, if they
can mimic fules, they can mimic better things”. Sound reasoning & delivered
with a feeling rarely indeed to be heard from an English peasant of the same
class.

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Thursday 15 December 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

During the last three days we had royals displayed
for the first time for many weeks. It was calm which accounts for it, but a
favorable breeze springing up they were instantly lowered & a double-
reef taken in on the top sails. The murmurs on board are loud as well
as deep. Reason good that they should be so.

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Saturday 17 December 1836

[, on board the wrote.]

Saturday, Decr 17. Fresh breezes with rain. Head East. Wind N.N.E.
Made sail. Noon. Light winds. Miles run, 116 +
15427 = 15543. Latitude is the distance of a point north or south of the equator as measured in degrees. The poles are at 90 degrees north and south. Lat. 38E15′ So. Longitude is the distance, measured in degrees, of the meridian on which a point lies to the meridian of Greenwich. On the other side of the earth to Greenwich is a point with a longitude of both 180 degrees east and 180 degrees west. Longe 127E20′ Et. Thermr 61E.
P.M. Moderate & fine. Trimmed sails. Wind S.W. Midt. Do Wr.

[ Read the full journal extract ]


Next week

Colonel Light declares his sea duties at an end and prepares to concentrate in earnest on land surveys, while the Buffalo finally sails into Port Lincoln.

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