BASS, George (1763-1803?)

BASS, George (1763-1803?)
was born at Aswarby, near Sleaford, Lincolnshire, probably in 1763. His father, a farmer, died while he was a child, his mother gave him a good education and apprenticed him to a surgeon at Boston. He entered the navy as a surgeon and was on the Reliance in that capacity when she sailed for Australia in February 1795. Matthew Flinders (q.v.) was also on board and the two became fast friends. It was early determined that if opportunity offered they would endeavour to complete the examination of the east coast of New South Wales. Bass had brought out from England a small boat named the Tom Thumb, of about 8 feet keel and 5 feet beam, a remarkably small vessel in which to sail along an ocean coast. After their arrival at Sydney in September, they went southward in this boat, entered Botany Bay, and explored the George's River for a considerable distance. The report given Governor John Hunter (q.v.) on their return led to the settlement of Bankstown, one of the earliest towns established in Australia. Towards the end of March 1796 the two friends sailed again in their small boat and thoroughly explored Port Hacking after encountering a storm on the way that nearly swamped them. The Reliance was then being repaired and Bass was able to get leave to endeavour to find a way over the mountains to the west of Sydney. He gathered a small party together but after spending 15 days on the work, could not find a pass and returned to Sydney. In June 1797 Bass found further employment in investigating a report that coal had been seen on the coast by a shipwrecked sailor south of Port Hacking. A seam of coal six feet deep was found in the face of a cliff. Towards the end of the year Bass obtained the use of a whaleboat, 28 feet 7 inches long, which was manned with six volunteers from the king's ships. His instructions were to examine the coast south of Sydney, as far as he could go with safety. On 3 December the boat started on its long journey, on 10 December Jervis Bay was reached, and nine days later Twofold Bay was discovered. There was a fair passage to Cape Howe, but gales were then experienced for several days, and it was not until 2 January 1798 that Wilson's Promontory was reached. Meanwhile the whaleboat had begun to leak badly. Next day smoke was discovered on an island near the promontory, which on investigation was found to be occupied by a party of seven escaped convicts. They were nearly starving and Bass, after doing what he could for them, told them he would call at the island on his return. He then went on to Western Port which was reached on 5 January. Twelve days were spent in examining this harbour, but provisions were running short and Bass thought it wise to return. On 18 January 1798 the return journey was begun and, after landing on Wilson's Promontory, Bass visited the island on which he had found the convicts; but it was impossible for him to find room for them in his boat. Two that were very feeble, he took on board, the other five he placed on the mainland, provided them with a musket, fishing lines and a compass, and advised them to endeavour to get back to Sydney along the coast. They were never heard of again. On 2 February Bass continued his voyage and arrived at Sydney on 25 February. He had travelled about 1200 miles in an open boat, often in bad weather, along an unknown coast and had added greatly to the knowledge of the country. He also became satisfied in his own mind that there was a strait between Tasmania and the mainland. Early in September 1798 Governor Hunter wrote to Secretary Nepean to say that he was fitting out a decked boat, and that he proposed sending Flinders and Bass to settle that question and to sail round Tasmania. Their voyage began in the Norfolk, a sloop of 25 tons, on 7 October 1798, and the task was accomplished when the Norfolk entered Port Jackson again on 12 January 1799. The existence of the strait had been settled, Port Dalrymple had been discovered, and a large amount of information had been collected. At the instance of Flinders the strait was named after his companion, Bass Strait.
It is possible that Bass, who was of farming stock, may have considered settling near Sydney, as at about this time 100 acres of land were granted to him at Bankstown. He returned to England in 1799 and in October 1800 was married to Elizabeth Waterhouse, a sister of the captain of the Reliance. Early in 1801 he sailed for Australia again in the Venus, which had been purchased by a company consisting of Bass's mother, wife, and some of his friends. The cargo was to be sold at Sydney. She arrived at Port Jackson on 28 August 1801, and in November Bass contracted with the acting-governor, Philip Gidley King (q.v.), to obtain pork from the Society Islands for the use of the colony. He made several voyages and on 5 February 1803 sailed away for the last time. In May 1803 King, in a dispatch to Lord Hobart, mentioned that Bass had sailed for the coast of Peru to endeavour to get a breed of guanacoes (a kind of wild llama), and that he had given him a certificate to the Spanish government to that effect. Presumably this was to be considered a passport. Bass is occasionally referred to in King's dispatches of this period, and writing in December 1804 he says that he had "been in constant expectation of hearing from thence (Otaheite) by Mr Bass to whom, there is no doubt, some accident has occurred". A Captain Campbell of the Harrington is stated to have brought intelligence on his return from a voyage in January 1804 that Bass had been captured by the Spaniards, that his vessel and crew had been seized, and the captives sent to the mines in South America. (Note on p. 518 H.R. of N.S.W., vol. V.). King does not refer to this story, and there appears to be no evidence as to who received this report. Robert Brown (q.v.) writing to Banks on 21 February 1805 said of Bass—"it is feared he has either fallen a sacrifice to the treachery of the South Sea islanders, or what is fully as probable has exposed himself to be captured on the coast of Peru." A note on pp. 669-71, Vol. iv, ser. i, Historical Records of Australia, discusses some of the various statements and rumours regarding the fate of Bass. He may have gone down with his vessel, and it is also possible that he may have been captured by the Spaniards and sent to the mines. If so he probably died not later than in 1808. A Lieutenant Fitzmaurice, who was in Chile and Peru between September 1808 and April 1809, stated that the whole of the British prisoners in those countries had been repatriated by 1808.
Bass was a tall, handsome man of great courage and resourcefulness, eminently qualified to undertake the remarkable work he carried out, a man "whose ardour for discovery was not to be repressed by any obstacle or deterred by danger". (Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, vol. I, p. XCVII).
Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. II to V; Historical Records of New South Wales, vol. V; Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, vol. I; Sir Ernest Scott, The Life of Matthew Flinders; J. H. Heaton, Australian Dictionary of Dates; David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, chapters XX and XXI.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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