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George Bass (1771–1803)

by Keith Macrae Bowden

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George Bass (1771-1803), surgeon and sailor, was born on 30 January 1771 at Aswarby in Lincolnshire, England, the only child of George Bass, a tenant farmer, and his wife Sarah, née Newman. When his father died in 1777 George moved with his mother to Boston. For five years he was apprenticed to the local surgeon-apothecary Patrick Francis, and at 18 he was accepted after examination in London as a member of the Company of Surgeons. Two months later he was again examined and certified as 'a surgeon's mate any rate'. Within a week he was in the navy, at sea in H.M.S. Flirt. Late in 1789 he was transferred to the Gorgon and, while it was fitting out at Portsmouth, went to London for another examination which won him promotion to 'surgeon second-rate'. He had brief postings in several ships, became proficient in navigation and seamanship and fluent in Spanish. He possessed some ninety books on many subjects, and through print and spoken word he had learnt much of the Pacific explorers. When he heard that the Reliance was fitting out for New South Wales, he obtained a transfer to her in April 1794, taking with him as personal servant a boy named William Martin. Henry Waterhouse was in command and Matthew Flinders master's mate when the Reliance sailed with Governor John Hunter. They arrived at Port Jackson on 7 September 1795.

Finding that little of the coast had been explored, Bass, Flinders and young Martin fitted a mast to a small rowing boat of about 8-foot (2.4 m) keel that Bass had brought with him, and seven weeks after arrival they examined the George's River which entered Botany Bay. Their favourable report induced Hunter to examine the country and establish a settlement at Banks Town. A voyage to Norfolk Island in the Reliance interrupted their exploration, but in March 1796 they set out again in another Tom Thumb to find a river supposed to enter the sea south of Botany Bay. Flinders' log described their perilous adventures: the Aboriginals who guided them to Lake Illawarra, the islands named after Martin who baled for dear life in a storm, and the providential shelter found at Watta Mowla (Wattamolla), whence they explored Port Hacking. Bass also made land excursions and searched for natural history specimens. On one trip to the Cowpastures he found cattle brought out in the First Fleet and good land near Prospect Hill. On another he attempted to cross the Blue Mountains, tackling the precipices with scaling irons and ropes, until after fourteen days his party was driven back by thirst, hunger and fatigue.

In September 1796 the Reliance and Supply were sent by way of Norfolk Island and Cape Horn to South Africa to buy livestock for the government. At Cape Town some officers also bought stock for themselves, Bass buying a cow and nineteen sheep. Like a Noah's ark, the Reliance returned to Port Jackson on 26 June 1797. There Bass heard a report that coal had been found on the coast south of Sydney by survivors of the wrecked Sydney Cove. He promptly offered to search for it and, with two of the survivors, he left Port Jackson on 5 August 1797 in Governor Hunter's whale-boat. He was back in eight days with specimens of the coal and a report of its abundance around Coalcliff.

The wreck of the Sydney Cove on Preservation Island also revived discussion on the possibility of a strait between New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, a subject dear to Bass's heart. He was granted permission to explore the southern coast and given a well fitted whale-boat, 28 feet 7 inches long (8.7 m), built in Sydney of native banksia timber. In this open boat with six volunteers and six weeks provisions he left Port Jackson on 3 December 1797. In the next eleven weeks, despite boisterous weather, he travelled some 1200 miles (1931 km), past the Shoalhaven River, Twofold Bay, Wilson's Promontory and Western Port and deduced from the great swell and the direction of the tides that a strait separated the mainland from Van Diemen's Land. On 7 October 1798 he set out again to make sure.

In the Norfolk, a 25-ton sloop built at Norfolk Island, he sailed with Flinders and twelve weeks provisions, under orders to pass through the strait and return by the south of Van Diemen's Land. His journal of the voyage, quoted in David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, abounds in observations on Aboriginals, plants, birds and animals, and on the geographical and geological features of the islands that were visited. On 1 November they reached the Tamar estuary and three weeks later rounded North West Cape to breast the westerly swell of the southern Indian Ocean. They also examined the Derwent estuary and on Christmas day Bass climbed Mount Wellington. They returned to Port Jackson on 12 January 1799; in April Bass was elected a member of the Linnean Society, London, and his scientific works on the anatomy of the wombat, the feeding habits of the swan, and the nesting behaviour of the white-capped albatross were published.

By this time Bass was tiring of poor pay, small prospects and comparative inactivity as a surgeon. He was impressed by the fortunes awaiting trading shipowners in the south Pacific, and particularly by Charles Bishop whose venturesome projects had brought him to Port Jackson in the Nautilus with a cargo of seal skins and oil which he proposed to sell in China. Rather than wait for the Reliance to return to England, and described in the ship's muster book as medically unfit, Bass decided to sail with Bishop in May 1799. In July they arrived at the little-known group of Bass Islands, some of which he charted and named, his work being noted in the charts dedicated to him in 1802 by Alexander Dalrymple. At Macao Bishop sold his cargo and the Nautilus at good profit and they sailed for Bombay. On the way Bass charted the port of Rhio on Bintang Island and the Straits of Singapore. This chart, the first of any accuracy, was published in London in 1805. He reached England in the Woodford at the end of July 1800. There he was given twelve months leave by the Medical Board and became free to work with Bishop in organizing a commercial venture. They soon raised £10,000, bought the Venus and began loading her with goods expected to sell well in New South Wales. Bass also fell in love with Elizabeth, the eldest sister of his former captain, Henry Waterhouse, and on 8 October 1800 they were married at St James's Church, Piccadilly. For the next ten weeks they were constantly together and she went with him in the Venus to Portsmouth. They parted sadly when the Venus sailed on 9 January 1801.

Unfortunately other speculators were ahead of them. Bishop and Bass arrived at Port Jackson to find the market glutted and their goods unsaleable. Hoping to clear their debts, Bass contracted with Governor Philip Gidley King to make a voyage to the south sea islands for pork for the government. The London cargo was left in Sydney and they sailed for New Zealand; after leaving Dusky Bay, they reached near Cape West some large sounds which they named the Inlets of Venus, and further north an island which they named after Bishop's friend, Lord Bolton. At Matavai Bay, Otaheite, Bishop went ashore to set up a trading post, while Bass took the brig to buy pork and salt from the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. They returned to Port Jackson with a profitable cargo that brought some £3000, part of it being sold to Captain Nicolas Baudin for his French expedition.

With creditors still to be satisfied and his crew to be paid, Bass prepared for a whaling and sealing voyage to New Zealand, but Bishop had fallen ill and an opportunity arose to run a cargo to South America, perhaps some of his unsold London goods. Although Bass knew the danger of infringing in trade restricted to Spanish merchants, he was attracted by the handsome profits that might unite him with his wife. He sailed into the Pacific on 5 February 1803 in command of the Venus. After that time nothing authentic was heard of him, every rumour being exploded by patient research. His wife waited in vain. She received a pension from the Admiralty from 18 October 1805, and died on 23 June 1824. His mother lived to 92 and died in 1828 at Lincoln. His name lives on in the seas that he explored and his meticulous care had lasting effects on the work of Matthew Flinders.

Select Bibliography

  • K. M. Bowden, George Bass, 1771-1803 (Melb, 1952), and for bibliography
  • K. M. Bowden, ‘George Bass, 1771-1803, Surgeon and Sailor’, Bulletin of the Post-Graduate Committee in Medicine, University of Sydney, vol 17, no 2, May 1961, pp 33-56.

Citation details

Keith Macrae Bowden, 'Bass, George (1771–1803)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Bass, n.d.

George Bass, n.d.

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L24699

Life Summary [details]


30 January, 1771
Aswarby, Lincolnshire, England


1803 (aged ~ 31)
at sea

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