Burke & Wills Web
The online digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020

Narrative of a Voyage from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Narrative of a Voyage from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, in search of Burke & Wills
Melbourne: The Herald Office, Bourke-street East. (Ferguson No 11202).


Soon after my return to Melbourne from Sourabaya, I determined to place before the public a brief narrative of my voyage to Carpentaria, and the circumstances connected with the wreck of the Firefly on Sir Charles Hardy Island. I have no desire to cast reflections upon any of the parties engaged in the Expedition, and in these pages have simply stated facts, for the truth of which I can positively vouch.

T. Kirby,
Master of the Ship Firefly.


The ship Firefly, chartered by the Government of Victoria to convey stores, &c., for the Exploration party sent in search of the ill-fated explorers, Burke and Wills, left Melbourne on July 29th, 1861, under orders to proceed to Brisbane, Queensland, to take in the gentlemen who undertook to search for the missing men, as well as the horses required for the Expedition.

The crew consisted of myself (Captain), two mates, a carpenter, cook, and six able seamen. I was under instructions to proceed to Sourabaya, with spirits and other goods, after landing the explorers, horses, and stores, at such point on the Albert River as Captain Norman, of the colonial steamer Victoria, might deem advisable. For the first few days the weather was fine, but when off Mount Direction we encountered very heavy gales, and after twelve days arrived safely at Brisbane, Queensland, on the same day as the Victoria, which had left Melbourne some days before us.

As I have no intention to make a book, I shall not describe Brisbane, and will simply observe, that during the ten days of my stay, I received much kindness and hospitality, and a truly English welcome. Here we took in thirty horses, which were for the most part (so far as my judgment goes) wretched half-starved animals, utterly unsuited for the labours they were about to encounter, some six months forage for these horses, provisions for the parties of Landsborough and Walker, and various stores required for the Expedition, as well as the explorers themselves, and some native blacks engaged as guides.

Brisbane to the Gulf

We left Brisbane in good order, the horses being comfortably housed and every arrangement made for their care and safety, the Victoria keeping us company, and arrived in Torres Straits in eight days, exchanging signals regularly with her. The weather was at first tolerably fine, but within a few days the gale commenced, and became gradually worse.

On Sunday, September 1st, took observations at noon, and compared the ship's position with that of the Victoria; found it agreed to a mile. The gale still increased, and at 2 pm. we reefed topsails, and desired to communicate with the Victoria.

At 4 pm. had an interview with Captain Norman, who recommended me to lower sail, and keep close to the Victoria during the night. Reefed fore and aft canvass, and stood south-east, the gale still increasing, until at last it became such a hurricane that we could no longer keep sail on the vessel. At sundown the Victoria was not in sight, and at 8 pm., the gale becoming furious, we made signals and threw up rockets to attract her attention, but with no effect.

At 12 pm. - the storm being still terrific, the pumps continually working, and an immense volume of water upon deck - every effort was again made to attract the attention of the Victoria, but with no effect whatever. At this time we were in a most critical position, being within fifteen miles of Barrier's Reef, the vessel drifting at the rate of two-and-a-half knots per hour. We all felt our danger, and the complaints of the explorers of the absence of the Victoria at this critical juncture were loud and continuous.

I desire to cast no reflections upon Captain Norman, but firmly believe that if the Victoria had kept near us, she would with her steam power have been able to, save us from all danger.

At 10 am. the weather seemed inclined, to break, and a few glimpses of blue sky led us to believe that the storm had exhausted its fury, and that the worst was over, but the current was so strong that I at once saw that I had no prospect of weathering Barrier's Reef, and therefore determined to make at once for it, and endeavour to reach it before night.

At 11 am. the weather again became so much worse, that I thought it better to wear the ship, and endeavour once more to sight the Victoria. She was, however, (Captain Norman can best say for what reason) many miles away, and indeed had she been near us, the atmosphere was so thick, and the fog so heavy, that we could not have seen her. During this time it was evident that we were in great danger, but my officers and crew did their duty well, and showed no fear the explorers were, however, completely upset, and bewailed their fate to such an extent, that I really pitied them, and endeavoured to keep up their spirit's as far as possible, as I feared their terrors might affect the crew.

At midnight, as a last resource, the gale being still most furious, we set the main trisail and foretopmast staysail, and by burning brilliant lights made a last but ineffectual attempt to attract the Victoria.

On Tuesday, September 3rd, I told Mr Landsborough that we were in much peril, and explained to him that, as a last resource, I thought it advisable to run for Reine Island Beacon. I did so, and at half-past 9 am. sighted it, the distance from the ship being about three miles, the explorers losing heart more and more, and wishing that they were back in Brisbane. The weather was still very bad and the current very strong; we were running almost with bare poles, and could carry but little canvas, topsails close reefed, steering south-south-west; saw outer detached Barrier Reef, bearing south-south-east, giving ship's position.

At half-past nine entered Reine Island Beacon, topsail and foresail close reefed, weathered the White Patches and made Ashmore Banks; made more sail, wishing to weather Middle Bank, and as the weather was still thick, with heavy rains, steered for Sir Charles Hardy's Islands. While running for them, sighted the wreck of the Lady Kinnaird I , bound from Melbourne to Calcutta with horses and copper; she was under the lee of the island, sunk in about four to five fathoms water. I at first (the weather being extremely thick) took her to be the Victoria, and said as much to Mr Landsborough, but soon after, when the weather cleared a little, found out what she was; anchored soon after under South Island, in five fathoms water, but as the bottom was a bed of coral, the anchor would not hold.

At this time the current ran fully five knots an hour, and the ship kept drifting to the lee island with her stern close to the reef. We remained all night in this position, and, to add to our horrors, had heavy squalls, and some of the most vivid lightning I have ever seen.

On Wednesday, September 4th, the port-chain parted, and at 8 am. while in the act of sending down topgallant masts and yards; the starboard chain parted. We at once set the jib and trisail, and loosed the two topsails; but before we could get steerage way on the vessel, she struck on the reef and bumped heavily. The sea was at this time running mountains high, breaking clean over the decks and smothering everything. The masts and yards bent like twigs, and the elements presented a frightful appearance. I saw at this time that there was no hope of saving the ship, and as I feared the masts would come down by the run, and endanger the lives of the passengers and sailors, I ordered the carpenter to cut them down; and being anxious to land the explorers as soon as possible, lowered the quarter boat; but as the sea was very heavy; she was stove in in a few moments, fortunately, however, before either passengers or stores had been placed in her.

At 3 pm. succeeded in lowering the long boat, and landed Mr Landsborough and party safely. (Mr Campbell, a volunteer, kindly remaining on board to assist in, getting stores ready).

At 5 pm. the tide had fallen considerably, and the men who had conveyed Landsborough and party on shore had to wade to the ship up to their waists in water. We succeeded, with some difficulty, and after much hard work, in getting the camp equipage and provisions on shore, and proceeded to make all snug for the night as we best could.

At this time the horses were up to their middle in water, in the hold of the vessel. I walked, or rather waded on shore, leaving Mr Scott, my chief officer, in charge; found the explorers, who seemed to know nothing about rigging tents or lighting tires, although drift-wood was abundant, in a most deplorable and comfortless condition, but, with the assistance of the sailors, soon got things in shape.

During the night one of the seamen swam on board the vessel to obtain liquor; he came on shore very drunk; and whatever may have been said to the contrary, I can conscientiously declare that this was, daring all these trying scenes, the only case of drunkenness among the crew of the Firefly. Amid all our misfortunes we had reason to be thankful, for we had, as I have observed, fuel in abundance and two beautiful springs of pure water, and when we had rigged our tents and got our provisions on shore, we found ourselves as comfortable as we could, under the circumstances, have expected. When we had a little leisure and were able to walk about the Island, we found grass in abundance, but few trees, and these of small size. The Island on which we were encamped is from three to four miles in circumference, and would not seem to have been inhabited, if we except the occasional compulsory visits of ship-wrecked Mariners.

On the day of the wreck we cut a hole in the ship's side, extricated the horses, from their perilous position in the hold, and landed them in safety; we then made preparations to raise upon the long boat, and proceed to Brisbane; but while our preparations were in progress, the Victoria hove in sight, and soon after Captain Norman made his appearance on the scene. Had he been with us all through, I believe we need never have run for Sir Charles Hardy's Island. Of the thirty horses shipped at Brisbane, which, as I have observed, were in bad condition and unfit for rough work, one died at the entrance of the Straits, and three of the others were all but dead when the wreck took place, as they had suffered much from the length of the voyage and continued confinement in the hold of the vessel, and were knocked about a good deal when the ship struck on the reef. Twenty-five were landed safely, and one who swam five miles against wind and tide to South Island, in a place abounding in ravenous sharks of the largest size, was afterwards recovered. The horses were on the whole, in better condition than when shipped at Brisbane, and, with the excellent feed at Sir Charles Hardy's Island, soon got up in flesh.

During all these events the officers and crew, on the whole, behaved well. It is true that a case of boots was opened after the wreck took place, but they were urgently required by the men, who were barefooted, and whose feet were lacerated. They were, however, returned to Mr Landsborough in good condition; some slops, too, which had been left in the cabin tied up in a canvas bag, after Mr Landsborough had made an issue to his men, were used by the sailors; but although much stress has been laid upon this, they could hardly be blamed, and, to my knowledge, the slops were returned.

On the arrival of the Victoria, boats were sent to run out an anchor, with the view of keeping the Firefly from getting further on the reef, but I regret to say that the sailors of the Victoria behaved badly while performing this duty; they broke into the hold of the Firefly, got spirits, and were drunk for day, and while in that condition plundered the ship's stores to a considerable extent. As it was, under the circumstances, impossible to prevent them from getting at the grog, it was determined, at Captain Norman's suggestion to destroy all the spirits on board the vessel, which was accordingly done.

During the greater, portion of this time, the sailors of the Firefly were laid up with wounds and bruises received in landing from the wreck, and after they were partially restored, a survey was held on the vessel, when she was declared by officers of the Victoria to be worthless, and it was agreed that she should be abandoned.

From that time the crew of the Firefly ceased to be under my charge and were placed under that of Captain Norman. We remained on the Island for fourteen days, and were busily employed in getting up stores from the wreck and making other arrangements, when another difficulty arose: the horses were indispensably required for the prosecution of the Exploring Expedition, there was no room for them in the Victoria, and the Firefly was a wreck. The question was, what was to be done under the circumstances, and there seemed to be but one of two alternatives - either to abandon the horses, and thus virtually abandon the Expedition, or reship them in the Firefly and tow her astern of the Victoria.

The latter course was decided upon, the horses were again returned to their old quarters, and all arrangements made for a start. From the date of the wreck we (the captain and crew of the Firefly) were continually at work, receiving from the time of Captain Norman's arrival but ships' rations, and for these services we have to this day received no remuneration whatever. On the completion of the repairs to the Firefly, we embarked in the Victoria en route for the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Firefly conveying horses towed by the Victoria.

We touched at Booby Island, where we left letters, and also found some on account of Native Lass, we then proceeded up the Gulf to Bountiful Island, which is some six miles in circumference, and in some places one hundred and fifty feet in height. This Island ought to have a corporation and aldermen of the old school, as the finest turtles I have ever seen were to be had in the greatest abundance for the trouble of catching them; to people who had been on salt provisions for months, they proved a most acceptable treat. We saw no animals on this Island, if we except snakes of a large size, which were most disagreeably abundant; in fact, it was impossible to walk twenty yards in any direction without meeting with some of those reptiles; birds were, however, abundant, more especially cockatoos and buzzards, which were to be seen in all directions. Bountiful land does not seem at adapted for settlement, and is merely a place for ships to touch to obtain to turtles.

The Gulf of Carpentaria

From Bountiful Island we proceeded to Sweer's Island, where we arrived in about twelve hours. I was rejoiced at last to find a spot admirably suited for European settlement; the harbour is excellent and affords shelter at all seasons, and from all winds; the Island is about twelve miles in length by about six miles in width; it is for the most part composed of flat land, with trifling undulations; there is an abundant and never failing supply of good water from springs; and, indeed, the pure element can be obtained by sinking a few feet on any part of it. The temperature when we were there was from 90° to 100°, and the climate seemed to be remarkably salubrious. There are no large trees, those we saw being stunted in their growth, and of small size; we saw neither plants nor fruits. The soil is a dark loam of considerable depth, and, except on the beach, there is little or no sand; no animals were seen, but birds of the cockatoo, pheasant, and parrot tribe are abundant. There can be no doubt but that tropical fruits would grow most luxuriantly; and if the Albert River become ere long an important settlement, Sweer's Island must also be a place of much consequence. Fish are to be had in the greatest abundance, more especially cod fish weighing from seven to twenty pounds, and I see no good reason why a fishery of a remunerative character might not be established there. The natives are not numerous; they are mere Australian blacks and are disposed, so far as I can judge, to be on friendly terms with Europeans. I could not ascertain that they belong to any tribe, neither would they appear to have either king or government. I have crossed the Island and seen most of the natives, and do not believe that they would be any serious obstacle to settlement. There is no appearance of volcanic action, neither would it deem to have ever, been subject to earthquakes. It is but twenty miles distant from the mouth of the Albert River, and must ere long become an important place. Parties fit for the business, with moderate capital, who would occupy Sweer's Island, would eventually do well. Bentnick's Island is within three miles of Sweer's Island. This is a very fine place being about thirty miles in length by twenty in width. The soil is much the same as at Sweer's Island, but the trees are much larger: and of better description. Bentnick's Island swarms with natives who would seem to have been pitchforked there from the mainland ; we, however, saw but little of them, as they did not care to come too near white men, after an occurrence between them and one of the officers of the Grecian.

It would seem that some casks were landed on Bentnick's Island, with the view of obtaining water, and when the poor ignorant natives saw the casks standing by their water holes, which were diminished in quantity, they fancied that the casks drank the water, and were proceeding to destroy them, when the sailors came up, and one of the officers of the Grecian fired at a native and wounded him seriously. The act was generally condemned as being indiscreet, and has proved a, very great obstacle to intercourse with the natives since.

Bentnick's Island is admirably suited for settlement and cultivation; the climate, as at Sweer's Island, is excellent, and the land all seemingly fit for the plough. During the day the heat is sometimes unpleasant, but the evenings are so cool that blankets and a fire are by no means to be despised.

During the period of our stay the men enjoyed excellent health, and this locality seems to suit the European constitution very well. For my part, I only wish I were one of a well-equipped party bound for these Islands; believe they offer a most favourable prospect for intending settlers. In all probability they would for years to come be left in undisturbed possession of their ocean homes, and as civilization came near them, they would be the pioneers of the new settlement, and there locality a place of call for those bound for the plains of promise, and other splendid lands opened up for the first time by the honoured and never dying exertions of Burke, Wills, and the other explorers whose names will ever be inseparably blended with the embryos of future empires.

To the many emigrants daily leaving their fatherland for these colonies, I would suggest these Islands as presenting most favourable opportunities of settlement and cultivation at a small cost; such persons must, unless the fault be their own, be successful - good harbours, fruitful fields, fine timber, and abundant water, with every prospect of these Islands being the centre of a large traffic, should be strong inducements, coupled with a fine climate, so admirably suited. for European constitutions. At Sweer's Island we found the brig Grecian and schooner Native Lass, chartered by the Government of Victoria to convey coals and stores for use of the Government steamer. We soon after formed a camp on the island and Mr Woods, one of the officers of the Victoria, started in a boat with Mr Landsborough for the Albert River.

Carpentaria to Sourabaya

Here my connection with the Expedition may be said to have ended, and I am happy to say the objects were fully accomplished. Of thirty horses shipped at Brisbane, twenty-five were, under unprecedented difficulties, safely brought to their destination, and the exploring party, fully equipped with all necessaries, started from Sweer's Island in good health and spirits for the scene of their labours. I regret that feelings of duty to the owners of the Firefly prevented me from accompanying the explorers to the Albert River; but I had no discretion, as by the regulations of the mercantile marine it was imperative upon me to proceed, with the least possible delay, to the port to which the vessel was bound, in order, to report her loss to the proper authorities, I believed at this time that she was insured, but have since learned that such was not the case. It will for the remainder of my life be a source of the deepest regret to me that I was unable to accompany Mr Landsborough and party to the end, but, under the circumstances, I had no discretion whatever. The Firefly, abandoned on survey, was taken by Captain Norman, and despatched to the Albert River, while we (myself and crew) went on board the Grecian to proceed to Sourabaya.

While we were on board the Victoria, I received the utmost kindness and courtesy from the captain and officers, and shall ever gratefully remember their attention. After the Grecian had discharged her cargo, we weighed anchor, and again touched at Bountiful Island; Our provisions being scarce and those on board being in bad condition, obtained an abundant supply of turtles, and from thence, with light and variable winds, proceeded down the gulf to Copang, where we remained for two days to obtain water and provisions; while there I did myself the honour of waiting upon the Governor, who received me with much courtesy. The town is clean and well-built; containing about five thousand inhabitants - a motley mixture, Dutch, Chinese, and Malays. There is a handsome fort erected to protect the harbour. The houses are for the most part of Chinese architecture; the climate is temperate and salubrious, fruit, fowls, and vegetables being cheap and abundant. There are neither hotels nor lodging-houses, but hospitality is universal. Arrack, the spirit chiefly used, can be had for four shillings, a gallon. There is but little beef and no mutton. The Governor lives in a fine house built of bricks, and some of the soldiers on guard wear the European dress. Copang is a good place for ships to water, and if it be true that copper has latterly been found in great abundance, it will become a place of very considerable importance The authorities at Copang have requested me to state, which I take this opportunity of doing, that from and after the 1st May, 1862, the port would be free to vessels of all nations. This will probably have the effect of very considerably increasing the trade.

Left Copang, after a very pleasant visit, and sailed for Sourabaya; the passage was tedious, the winds being light and variable. On 20th December arrived at Sourabaya, and reported the loss of the Firefly to Messrs P Carvill and Co., the agents, and also to the British Consul at the port; placed the crew in his hands, and paid them their wages.

Spent Christmas-day at Sourabaya, and enjoyed the town and scenery much; remained there nine days, and embarked in the ship Reine des Anges for Sydney, she being the only vessel in Sourabaya bound for the Australasian colonies. On the 1st January, 1862, left the Ballay Straits, the eastern end of Java, weather very bad steering southward; on the 10th, perceived strong indications of the near approach of a cyclone; pointed out the danger to the captain, but he seemed to know nothing of Peddington's theory, and, indeed, appeared to be ignorant upon the matter.

I deeply regretted leaving Sourabaya, as the captain was unfit for his duty, and the sailors were, for the most part, laid up with illness. At Midnight we encountered a fearful thunderstorm, the lightning being most terrific ; the rain came down in torrents, and the wind blew at once from every point, in the compass with fearful violence. Captain Gilliard was young and inexperienced, and knew little of the danger of his position; the ship was under close-reefed topsails, taking in volumes of water. I advised him to break the bulwarks, and let the water out, but he refused to do so. At 10 am. the hurricane struck her on her beam ends, and but little assistance could be obtained from the crew, who were nearly all laid up with fever. At 3 pm. the foretopgallant mast and royals broke, and hung in the rigging, taking the flying boom with them; and. to make matters worse, a heavy sea struck the after part, carried quarter boats and all on deck away with it, including all our live stock and fresh water. At 10 pm. the hurricane still increased, the ship crossing the centre of the cyclone in a north-westerly direction.

During this time we were shipping fearful seas, and at 10 pm. stove in the cabin bulkhead, and had several baskets of sugar washed out. I was at this time on the poop, and on going into the cabin saw the water going down the hatch in great quantities; jumped upon the hatch and kept it close, to prevent it from washing away. During all this time the crew of the French ship were useless, some of them being laid up with fever, while the others were so much frightened that they would not leave the forecastle. At daylight the appearance of the sea was awful in the extreme. The waves were mountains high, breaking fore and aft over the ship, which was running with bare poles in a northerly direction. She now seemed to get heavy; we were in the centre of the cyclone, when a heavy sea burst the cabin open, started the poop deck on the starboard side, washing away provisions, chronometers, and everything belonging to the passengers. The captain, mates, and some of the crew, were washed out of the cabin. My former chief-officer, Mr Scott, was at the wheel, and in order to save the captain from certain death, we lashed him to the mizen mast. At this time the captain (being utterly incompetent to manage the vessel) placed me in command. I ordered the pumps to be sounded, and found eight-and-a-half feet of water in the hold, and she seemed to be settling down fast; our position was most desperate; we could not work the ship, which lay like a log on the waters, and to make matters worse, we had hardly two days full supply of provisions or water that could be come at. We succeeded, however, in getting up some damaged bread from the hold, and with that and some arrack, made the best of our position, which was indeed a deplorable one. At midnight on the 12th, the jib-boom went, all the spars being adrift, and the vessel was a total wreck. We were at the pumps the greater part of the night, but received no assistance from the Frenchmen, who were now convalescent, and well able to work, but were skulking.

The French are wretched sailors, and are very easily unmanned by difficulties; and in all our troubles we could not avoid comparing them with our own British tars, who are always ready to meet difficulties half-way, and to conquer them too, and my men often jeered them, and said it was no wonder that Nelson licked them. These remarks were badly received by the Frenchmen, who retorted with many and loud sacres. At midnight on the 13th, the gale at length abated, and Mr Martin (son of the owner of the Firefly), Mr Scott, and myself, made sail and stood in a northerly direction.

I had been in these seas before, and knew that wherever we met with land I should find myself at home. We soon succeeded in getting things to rights a little, and my first care was to see what provisions we had on board. We found that our supply for eighteen men was about one hundred and seventy pounds damaged bread, fifty gallons water, fifty pounds of pork, a sack of flour, and a cask of arrack. We placed the water and arrack on the poop, and doled them out carefully. Mr Scott volunteered to act as cook. Soon after we sighted breakers all round the ship, and I informed the captain that we were close to Hibernia Reef; some four days after, sighted Rotti Island, and immediately knew the ship's exact position.

The vessel being still in my charge, I told Captain Gilliard that there were no means at Copang available for taking the ship to the Australian colonies. He said, "Take the ship to Sourabaya." I did so, and soon after, sighted Sandalwood Island, and re-entered Ballay Straits about the middle of February. The captain of the French ship learning his position, now took, charge, and, with my assistance, navigated the ship to Sourabaya. For a considerable time during this dismal voyage we had no provisions, and supported existence, as we best could, upon scalded peas. When we arrived at the pilot station some fifty miles from Sourabaya, we were, what with hunger and weakness, in a fearful condition. Procured a pilot, and returned to Sourabaya.

After having been almost starved, and having experienced most fearful weather, being out since leaving Souribaya, fifty-eight days. For all these services, although I can conscientiously declare that but for the exertions of myself and crew, the French vessel would never have entered a port, we have never received a single shilling, and the English Consul, Mr McLean, although we were English subjects in great distress, gave us no assistance. I placed the matter in the hands of Mr P Carvill, agent for the Firefly, who laid it before the. French Consul; that official was pleased to say, that the whole affair should be most carefully considered, and that justice should be rendered to all parties concerned; but to this day I have received no remuneration, and even my passage-money has never been returned. £1000 would (considering the value of the cargo) have been but a moderate remuneration for the services rendered.

Remained at Sourabaya for six days, and had to pay my own expenses, as well as the cost of medical attendance, and again embarked in the Woodlark of Aberdeen, Captain Taylor, commander, having to pay 200 rupees for my passage. We were most kindly treated on board the Wooklark (sic); and without desiring to disparage the French as a nation, I must say I prefer an English to a French bottom.

Off Cape Liptrap we fell in with a vessel bound for Melbourne, the Norman, and Captain Taylor kindly placed us on board her. Here our troubles ended, we had a pleasant passage to Melbourne, and arrived in safety after, an absence of about nine months.

I was not at the Albert River, and cannot, therefore, speak of the country on and about it, of my own knowledge, but from all I have seen of the Islands of its vicinity, and have heard from others, I believe it to be the land of promise.

Here ends my narrative; it is brief and unadorned, but it contains the truth, and those who peruse it will see the difficulties and dangers encountered by all those who visit new and unexplored places. The names of Burke and Wills will live in the grateful memories of the colonists, while those engaged in subordinate capacities in connection with the Exploring Expedition, however great their labours or endurance, will be forgotten and disregarded.

The above pages are now sent forth for what they are worth, and it is for the public to peruse them and decide as to their merits.

www.burkeandwills.net.au Burke & Wills Web The digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020, Dave Phoenix