A Watercolour of Sesostris

Watercolour of Sesostris and Morley piloted through the Torres Straits 
        by the little Britomart, Captn Stanley
"Sesostris and Morley piloted through the Torres Straits by the little Britomart, Captn Stanley."

Thus reads the title written in ink, in 19th century hand according to the National Library of Australia (NLA). There is also a note written in pencil, in 20th century hand according to NLA, "Sunset May 22/41 off Mt Cook".

The original painting in the National Library of Australia is reproduced here with their kind permission.

An auction catalogue states that "HMS Britomart, 237 tons, was a 10-gun brig sloop built at Portsmouth in 1820. Between December 1837 and April 1843 Britomart was commanded by Captain Owen Stanley R.N.".

"The barque "Sesostris", 488 tons, was built at Hull in 1818 whilst the fully-rigged ship "Morley", 492 tons, was launched on the Thames in 1811. In the early 1840s, both vessels were engaged in the Australian trade and sailed out of Sydney and other Australian ports".

HMS Britomart leads the group and is sailing into the sunset; Sesostris is bringing up the rear.

A contemporary account of the voyage depicted

The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany, Volume 37

A correspondent has favoured us with the following narrative of a passage from Sydney to Port Essington, north coast of New Holland, through Torres Straits :-

"The Britomart, brig of war, in convoy of the Morley, Captain Evans, and Sesostris, Captain Row, sailed from Sydney on the 4th of May, experiencing more bad weather than is usual at this period of the year. At the Bird Islands, they fell in with the ships Dullus and Samuel Winter, which, in proceeding by the outer passage, had well nigh gone on the barrier reef, being saved by a glimpse of moonlight which enabled them to see the hull and bowsprit of a wreck, supposed to be the Fergusson. These ships imagined themselves fully fifteen miles from the reef. The captain of the Fergusson was very positive as to the superiority of the outer passage, but it must now be apparent that the inner is the safer one, if not so quick - at all events until the outer reefs shall be more correctly surveyed. So palpable to the eye are the dangers of this passage, that any soldier, even, if taught to march 'upon a point,' might, with King's Chart before him, and his instructions at hand, almost take a ship through. What a pity it is that Captain King did not margin his charts with the outlines of a few of the leading points and headlands! one sketch is worth a dozen descriptions, close and correct as his for the most part are. Two things seem pretty plain — that a merchant ship should allow of no unnecessary delay in the passage, and that not more than two should proceed together. In clear weather, under easy sail, and with a good look out, there seems nothing to prevent a ship from getting on to Cape Cleveland, or Brooke's Island, before anchoring. The latter is better than Goold Island, in the course towards which is a reef, where the brig had 3½ fathoms on one side, and 10 on the other. The reef is, however, very limited in extent as shewn by Capt. Stanley, being unable to find it again, although he employed half a day in the search. The following is a brief summary of the passage :-

"May 10th, off Cape Capricorn, a high volcanic looking peak; coast low and barren, course along singularly broken land, islands, and rocks. The coast chiefly of sand hills; inland some very high peaks. Next day, many islands, mostly mere rocks, rising very abruptly from the sea, varying in size from a circumference of a few yards to an extent of some miles. The range of main land very wild, and unlike any coast I ever saw. Anchored at the Percy or Pine Islands.

12th, all the boats on shore for spars. The pines apparently the same as those at Moreton Bay. The island seemed about 10 miles in length, and very undulating, without being particularly high. Some good soil here and there, but much of rock and sand. Much wooded, but the trees generally small, and with occasional open patches of a long and course grass. The only trees not common to New South Wales were the pine, and a sort of palm, having a leaf like that of the sugar cane, and a fruit in shape and appearance resembling a pine, but not eatable. Several natives came to the top of a small hill above us, playing all manner of antics.

14th, Cape Cleveland, Magnetical Island behind us - very high, and forming a narrow ridge, having a remarkably undulating and strongly defined outline; main land in a great bend, forming with the island, a large bay ; and very high and bold; coast barren, save in patches ; numerous native fires.

15th, brought up under Brooke's Isle. Captain King describes these as "three rocky islets" — a strange mistake, as they are chiefly of coral formation, intermixed with some singular groupings of loose masses of granite. The main island may be nearly three miles long, upon which a rich soil is fast accumulating, producing already a surprisingly rich vegetation, so dense, too, that it was no easy matter to penetrate to any distance. A few of the Illawarra shrubs were there, but the trees were generally altogether new to me, particularly a singular and rather elegant variety of the banyan. Nothing could surpass the extreme beauty of the vines — white, pink, and yellow, with which many of the trees were festooned. Altogether, indeed, I do not know that I ever met a richer scene, in this extent of ground. We saw a couple of huts, shewing tbe occasional visits of natives from the main land, some seven or eight miles distant; and close to them a mound, which I supposed a place of burial, but which I have since found to be a nest of birds, similar in their habit with those of the native turkey of IIlawarra; they are about the size of a pheasant, of a dark brown color with a reddish tint; the beak is very strong, and legs most powerful for a bird of the size, with exceedingly long and sharp claws. The nest is an accumulation of fine coral, sand and earth, six or eight feet in height, and from eight lo twelve across the top; circular in form, but the upper part flat. At a depth of four or five feet within this mound, each bird lays its eggs, though how many birds agree to join, or how many eggs are laid by each, is not known, but it is a remarkable fact that the egg is larger than that of a goose. The natives say that, at the hatching time, the birds return to take charge of the young. It is evident that birds forming nests so easily discovered, and returning time after time lo the same, must ultimately become extinct, the natives being on the continual look out for them. The island abounded with butterflies of most brilliant hues, but not to be caught in such a thicket.

18th — Along the land, outline truly magnificent. In the foreground, many small islands, generally thickly wooded. Passed inside the Frankland Isles, upon one of which lay part of an old wreck. Anchored, at Cape Grafton.

19th Intended to bring to in Weary Bay, but the Britomart, coming suddenly upon a reef not laid down in the chart, put about and went lo windward of the Hope Islands, and anchored (Morley, not knowing what the matter was, tried to follow the commodore, but missed stays ; Sesostris, unable to weather a sand bank, bore up, and, followed by Morley, went on to a sand bank opposite Cook's Mount, and there anchored. Owing to the weather, we did not reach Lizard Island until the 24th, passing in our way some large sand banks and precipitous rocky islands.

"This is as dreary a spot as can well be; apparently all granite together, excepting perhaps close upon the anchorage, where are some coarse grass and a few wretched looking withered trees. Upon landing, we were met by four natives, who came towards us with the greatest confidence, playing the most absurd and fantastic antics; and although clutching any thing we put into their hands, they did not for a moment take their eyes from off our faces. That they had before seen a gun, was shewn by their pointing to a bird, and then to the gun. Our party having separated and the gun being at a distance, two of the natives, an old man and a boy, slipped quietly off; a third kept an officer of the brig in play by his shouting and dancing:, while the fourth laid hold of a hatchet from under the very elbow of the captain of the Sesostris, who was lighting a segar, and the two then made off at a rate baffling pursuit. We saw neither animals nor birds, save hawks, at this island, which rises rather abruptly to a height of 1,200 feet. It is well watered with small rivulets, forming a passable stream to the beach.

27th, having completed our water, and the commander his surveys, we again weighed, and passed many low isles and sand banks ; much of the main land low ; anchored off Cape Melville.

28th, passed through a channel hardly a quarter of a mile wide; a chain of low islands and reefs on both sides. Cape Flinders very high, and altogether rock. Brought up at Pelican Isle — a mere sand bank, with a few bushes and coarse grass; many quail there, also sea birds, not pelicans.

29th, a little more clear of shoals. Anchored at Sherrard's Isles - mere accumulations of sand and coral.

30th, along the land, chiefly of sand hills; reels few but low. Passed within 5 miles of Forbes Islands; an extensive reef close on our right, between Piper's Isles and a long low reef, Sunday Isle.

31st, Left Cairncross Isle a couple of miles to the right; main land apparently all in barren sand hills for a long way back. Run on to Cape York, having good anchorage in 8 fathoms. The land of Cape York is not particularly high, but undulates much in abrupt points. What its capabilities may be I know not, but the locality seems to be a very fit station for ships in the inner route. Assuredly there should be some spot hereabouts as a place of refuge, for boats from shipwreck. Very much of the north coast is low, and apparently all sand, but at Cape York, judging from the number of natives, it may be presumed there is some good soil and water.

We arrived at Booby Island on the 1st June. We here parted company; the Morley for Bombay, the other two for Port Essington. And thus ended one of the most delightful trips possible to conceive; nor in all my travels have I met with any thing more truly beautiful and unique in the sailing way ; innumerable islands in endless variety of form; huge isolated rocks rising almost perpendicularly in pinnacles of great height; the fine outline of the main land, which, wild and barren enough in part, is at other times magnificent, and altogether different from any land I have seen. Of snakes, we saw many after leaving Booby Isle; they were generally coiled up as if asleep, and apparently four or five feet in length ; that they are poisonous, is well established.

The distance run from Breaksea Spit, where the passage may be said to commence, to Booby isle, was between eleven and twelve hundred miles; the south-east trade wind was with us throughout. Torres Straits are open from April to September, a point which visitors to Sydney from India should bear in mind, thereby, to avoid, if possible, the generally bad weather and westerly gales in Bass' Straits during the winter months; so also they should endeavour to leave India before April or after August. From Booby Isle to Port Essington is about six hundred miles; ships will do well to keep at least twelve or fifteen miles from Cape Croker, from which a dangerous shoal extends. This new settlement, colony, or military post (for hitherto nothing seems decided upon respecting it), is situate at the bend of a fine bay, some seven miles across from Cape Smith, lat. 11° 10' N., long. 132° 2' E., and Vashan Head, between which is an ugly shoal. The bay is about eighteen miles in depth, broken into an interminable series of smaller bays, with very shoal water; as a whole, it is a splendid sheet of water, but the shore has a most tame and wretched aspect, very sandy, with red clay and ironstone. I had looked for a few tropical trees and shrubs, of which there are almost none, the abominable gum of New South Wales prevailing throughout. …

[The article does continue, but without much of interest relating to the Sesostris. – SK]

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