George Bass

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George Bass

Engraving of Bass from The Naval Pioneers of Australia by Louis Becke and Walter Jeffery, 1899
Born 30 January 1771(1771-01-30)
Aswarby, Lincolnshire
Disappeared 5 February 1803 (aged 32)
Last seen before leaving Port Jackson, New South Wales, Australia
Nationality British
Education Boston Grammar School
Occupation Surgeon
Years active 1794-1803
Home town Boston
Parents George Bass; Sarah Newman

Early life and family

George Bass (30 January 1771 – after 5 February 1803) was baptised in the church at Aswarby, five miles south of Sleaford, in February 1771.

His mother Sarah (née Newman) was born at Frampton, and when his father – a tenant farmer – died when George was six, they moved to Boston. His uncle, a warden at St Botolph's, knew Joseph Banks of Revesby, the naturalist who sailed with Captain Cook on the Endeavour.

Although his mother wanted him to become a doctor, and he was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to Dr Patrick Francis, surgeon and apothecary of Strait Bargate, George always longed to go to sea. While a pupil at Boston Grammar School he had read Captain Cook's Voyage round the World and other seafaring books, and his uncle's connection with Joseph Banks influenced him.


At the age of 18, he was accepted in London as a member of the Company of Surgeons, and in 1794 he joined the Royal Navy as a surgeon. In 1794, at the age of twenty-three, he was made surgeon aboard HMS Reliance. Also on the voyage were Matthew Flinders from Donington served as master's mate, John Hunter, Bennelong, and his surgeon's assistant William Martin.

He arrived in Port Jackson, a colony at Sydney Cove where 3,000 convicts lived in dreadful conditions, on HMS Reliance on 7 September 1795. Bass had brought with him on the Reliance a small boat with an 8-foot (2.4 m) keel and 5-foot (1.5 m) beam, which he called the Tom Thumb on account of its size. In October 1795 Bass and Flinders, accompanied by William Martin sailed the Tom Thumb out of Port Jackson to Botany Bay and explored the Georges River further upstream than had been done previously by the colonists. Their reports on their return led to the settlement of Banks' Town.

In March 1796 the same party embarked on a second voyage in a larger small boat, which they called the Tom Thumb II. During this trip they travelled as far down the coast as Lake Illawarra, which they called Tom Thumb Lagoon. They explored Port Hacking.

Later that year Bass discovered good land near Prospect Hill, found lost cattle brought out with the First Fleet. He attempted to cross the Blue Mountains as though he was about to scale Everest even though their nature is quite different, taking with him hooks and ropes and scaling irons. He too soon gave up, erecting a pile of rocks to mark the furthest point of his expedition and declaring "the impossibility of going beyond those extraordinary ramparts".

In 1797, without Flinders, in an open whaleboat with a crew of six, Bass sailed to Cape Howe, the farthest point of south-eastern Australia. From here he went westwards along what is now the coast of the Gippsland region of Victoria, to Western Port, almost as far as the entrance to Port Phillip, on the north shore of which is the site of present-day Melbourne. His belief that a strait separated the mainland from Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) was backed up by his astute observation of the rapid tide and the long south-western swell at Wilson's Promontory. This channel became known as the Bass Strait, and his name is also commemorated by Mount Bass, the Bass River, and Bass Town.

Bass visited the Kiama area and made many notes on its botanical complexity and the amazing natural phenomenon, the Kiama Blowhole, noting the volcanic geology around the Blowhole and contributed much to its understanding.

In 1798, this theory was confirmed when Bass and Flinders, in the sloop Norfolk, circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land. In the course of this voyage Bass visited the estuary of the Derwent River, found and named by Captain John Hayes in 1793, where the city of Hobart would be founded on the strength of his report in 1803. When the two returned to Sydney, Flinders recommended to Governor John Hunter that the passage between Van Diemen's Land and the mainland be called Bass Strait.

"This was no more than a just tribute to my worthy friend and companion," Flinders wrote, "for the extreme dangers and fatigues he had undergone, in first entering it in a whaleboat, and to the correct judgement he had formed, from various indications, of the existence of a wide opening between Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales."

Bass was an enthusiastic naturalist and botanist, and he forwarded some of his botanical discoveries to ir Joseph Banks in London. "In this voyage of fourteen weeks I collected those few plants upon Van Diemen's Land which had not been familiar to me in New South Wales," he wrote to Banks, "and have done myself the honour of submitting them to your inspection." He was made an honorary member of the Society for Promoting Natural History, which later became the Linnean Society. Some of his observations were published in the second volume of David Collins's An Account of the English colony in New South Wales. He was one of the first to describe the Australian marsupial, the wombat.

Bass was given sick leave and returned to his mother who was then living in Lincoln.

On 8 October 1800, George married Elizabeth Waterhouse at St James's Church, Westminster. She was the sister of Henry Waterhouse, Bass's former shipmate, and captain of the Reliance.

Bass and a syndicate of friends formed a trading company to export goods to New South Wales. They invested some £10,000 in the copper-sheathed brig Venus, and a cargo of general goods to transport and sell in Port Jackson. Bass was the owner-manager and set sail in early 1801. (Among his influential friends and key business associates in the Antipodes was the principal surgeon of the satellite British colony on Norfolk Island, Thomas Jamison, who was subsequently appointed Surgeon-General of New South Wales.)

In January 1801 Bass set sail again for Port Jackson, leaving Elizabeth behind, and though the couple wrote to each other, they did not meet again, as Bass never returned from this journey.

On passing through Bass Strait on his 1801 voyage he recorded it simply as Bass Strait, like any other geographical feature. It seems, as Flinders' biographer Ernest Scott observed, that Bass's natural modesty meant he felt no need to say "discovered by me" or "named after me".

On arrival Bass found the colony awash with goods and he was unable to sell his cargo. Governor King was operating on a strict programme of economy and would not take the goods into the government store, even at a 50% discount. What King did though was contract with Bass to ship salt pork from Tahiti. Food was scarce in Sydney at that time and prices were being driven up, yet pigs were plentiful in the Society Islands and King could contract with Bass at 6 pence a pound where he'd been paying a shilling (12 pence) previously. The arrangement suited King's thrift, and was profitable for Bass. With his partner Charles Bishop, Bass sailed from Sydney in the Venus for Dusky Sound in New Zealand where they spent 14 days stripping iron from the wreck of Captain Brampton's old ship the Endeavour. This was made into axes which were used to trade for the pork in Tahiti before returning with the latter to Sydney by November 1802.

In January 1803 Bass applied to King for a fishing monopoly extending from a line bisecting the lower South Island of New Zealand from Dusky Sound to Otago Harbour – now the site of the city of Dunedin – and including all the lands and seas to the south, notably the Antipodes Islands, probably on the basis of information from his brother-in-law Waterhouse, the discoverer of the Antipodes archipelago. He expected much from it, but before he heard it had been declined he sailed south from Sydney never to return. Bass and Flinders were both operating out of Sydney during these times, but their stays there did not coincide.

Final voyage

What became of Bass is unknown. He set sail on his last voyage in the Venus on 5 February 1803 and he and his crew were never seen again. His plan was to go to Tahiti and perhaps on to the Spanish colonies on the coast of Wikipedia:Chile to buy provisions and bring them back to Sydney.

It has been suspected Bass may also have planned to engage in contraband trade in Chile. Spain reserved the import of goods into her colonies for Spanish ships and Spanish merchants. But the colonists needed more than they could supply and shortages and heavy taxation caused high prices, encouraging an extensive illegal trade with foreign vessels. Port Jackson was described by some 19th-century historians as a base for such smuggling Britain's strained relationship with Spain at that time meant British authorities were unconcerned.

Bass still had much of the general cargo he had brought to Sydney in 1801 and he may well have been tempted to take some to Chile. Two of his last letters have hints at a venture which he could not name. But in any case he set off in 1803, with a diplomatic letter from Governor King attesting his bona-fides and that his sole purpose if he were on the West coast of South America would be in procuring provisions.

As many months passed with no word of his arrival Governor King and Bass's friends in Sydney were forced to accept that he had met some misfortune. In England in January 1806 Bass was listed by the Admiralty as lost at sea and later that year Elizabeth was granted an annuity from the widows' fund, back dated to when Bass's half-pay had ended in June 1803. Bass had made the usual contributions to the fund from his salary.

Speculation on Bass' fate

A good deal of speculation has taken place about Bass' fate. One story, attributed to William Campbell of the brig Harrington, has it that Bass was captured by the Spanish in Chile and sent to the silver mines. The Harrington was engaged in smuggling and returned to Sydney some three months after Bass's departure. However, this story dates from 1811 in a report by William Fitzmaurice. There are good records of Campbell in 1803, and then in 1805 when he captured a Spanish ship, but Bass is not mentioned at those times. Three months is also too short a time for Bass to reach Chile and then the Harrington to get back to Sydney.

Another factor against the South American story is that all British prisoners held by the Spanish in Chile and Peru were freed in 1808 and returned to Europe. If the crew of the Venus had indeed been captured then none of the 25 survived.

Adventurer Jørgen Jørgensen wrote about Bass in his 1835 autobiography, claiming Bass had attempted forced trade at gunpoint in Chile, and was captured when he let his guard down. Jørgensen probably met Bass, but this account is almost certainly an invention. Jørgensen's writing, though entertaining, was often far from factual.

A search of Spanish archives in 1903 by scholar Pascual de Gayangos and a search of Peruvian archives in 2003 by historian Jorge Ortiz-Sotelo found no mention of Bass. His ultimate fate remains a mystery.


  • (1802) David Collins - "An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol. 2" - Published by T Cadell Jun and W Davies - ISBN 9781406827286 - Project Gutenberg EBook
  • (1952) Keith Macrae Bowden - "George Bass, 1771-1803: His discoveries, romantic life and tragic disappearance" - Published by Oxford University Press - ASIN B0000CIHJ1

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