- Hordern, Marsden
- History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1992 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In May 1841 she was off again north under Stokes working in Endeavour Strait, the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the north-west coast around Bedout Island, and in the south-west at Koombanah Bay near the present site of Bunbury.
From March 1842 to January 1843 she completed the ‘Tasmanian Connection’, the chart of Bass Strait, with Port Dalrymple, the Tamar River right up to Launceston, and Geelong Harbour thrown in for good measure.
As soon as the charts, tide tables and sailing directions were ready, they were sent to Beaufort and the charts were engraved in London for distribution to the men who would be navigating Australian seas.
It is hard for us to comprehend the conditions under which this staggering amount of work was completed in such a short time by one small sailing ship, lacking today’s technology. Nowadays, helicopters, echo sounders, satellite navigation, power winches, air conditioning, deep freezes and instant communication are part of everyday life at sea. But for them, in temperatures so fierce that to touch a gun or anchor lying in the sun was to sear the flesh, there was not even a cool drink. Salted meat their fare, and the ship’s biscuits, some might joke, would crawl to the table when called. A quarter pint of rum a day and sometimes the lash were their lot, and if they were lucky they might receive a reply from home to a letter they had written a year before.
On the departure of BEAGLE for England in 1843 Captain Phillip Parker King wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald:
”Her voyage has been of the greatest importance to the navigation of the coasts., particularly that of Bass Straits … “2
For nearly six years BEAGLE had worked in Australia creating charts which saved unnumbered lives. Australia’s debt to the ship and her men is enormous. They deserve our salute. But what of Stokes the man?
In character he was sober, industrious, inventive and adventurous. He had no doubt that the most powerful nation on earth had a duty to set a lofty example. In 1838 the twenty seven year old Lieutenant saw Australia as a rising star in the east, prophesied a bright future for her, and praised her English pioneers, and he lived long enough to see many of his hopes fulfilled.
The early Dutchmen recoiled from our hostile shore, claiming that ‘it was for the greatest part desert, but in some places inhabited by wild, cruel and black savages’3, and that ‘He who would know this country must first walk over it’4. Stokes was the first Naval Survey to undertake considerable inland journeys here as extensions of his maritime work, and he was the last to hold a roving commission in Australia to probe her unknown shores from the Arafura Sea in the north to the South West Cape in the Southern Ocean, from Houtman’s Abrolhos in the west to the Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific.
In common with us all Stokes had flaws in his character and there were some lessons he would never learn. Lessons about the power of huge tides, the big salt water crocodiles and the accuracy of a black man’s spear. Time and again these almost claimed his life, but Stokes was a great survivor. BEAGLE’s work finally buried lingering dreams of great rivers flowing from inland seas, and gave our forefathers a more profound knowledge of their continent. For as professor Sir Earnest Scott wrote on the occasion of our sesqui-centenary in 1938, ‘the key to (Australia’s) economic and political history for the greater part of the nineteenth century is to be found in the achievements of her explorers’.
Whatever remains to be told in the exciting story of navigation and exploration, in mariners such as Cook, La Perouse, D’Entrecastaux, Flinders, King and Stokes, we observe men, masters of their profession, working in the high summer of their lives and in the golden age of hydrography. For Stokes, Australia was a special place. In Sydney in 1841, he courted Fanny Marlay and married her in St. James’ Church King Street. After her early and tragic death on board his ship he returned to Australia to leave his daughter with the King family and continued to render signal service in charting New Zealand and Australia.