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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bishop, Charles (1765–1810)

by Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Charles Bishop (1765?-1810), trader, appears to have descended from a lower middle-class family of Hampshire, England. He joined the navy in his teens, and reached midshipman's rank. Soon after entering the employ of Sidenham Teast, a Bristol merchant, he served from 1792 to 1794 in a Teast ship gathering produce from west Africa; he then received command of the Ruby to sail to north-west America in quest of furs for the Canton trade. Teast's instructions also included Japan and Korea as possible places for commerce. The merchant must have been an intelligent reader of the journals of James Cook and his followers, who advanced British expansion into the Indian and Pacific Oceans and thereby opened an important passage in world history.

Bishop sailed in September 1794 and reached the Columbia River next May. His trade did not prosper, Teast's plans being too sanguine, and the Ruby's arrival too late in the year. At the season's end Bishop decided to make for Hawaii for supplies and to ensure return as the first ship on the coast next spring. On the way, however, the Ruby suffered great damage in January and February. Hawaii could not provide materials for repair, and so Bishop sailed for Macao and Canton where he became involved in extremely complex business negotiations. In one attempt to overcome his difficulties Bishop sailed to Amboina, where he sold the Ruby and bought the Nautilus. Back in Canton, refitting took many more weeks, and not until June 1797 did Bishop sail again for America. His supercargo was Roger Simpson, henceforward an active figure in Pacific commerce. Bishop's plans continued to go awry. Fierce and prolonged storms drove the Nautilus to Formosa, Kamchatka and Hawaii before she reached Tahiti in March 1798, the first ship to anchor since the London Missionary Society pioneers had settled there precisely a year earlier. The missionaries were unhappy, fearing attack from hostile natives, and a majority, including Rowland Hassall, William Henry and Francis Oakes, contracted with Bishop to carry them to Sydney. There the Nautilus arrived on 14 May 1798.

Bishop then heard from the survivors of the Sydney Cove, which had been wrecked in Bass Strait, of the rich seal fisheries there. In October the Nautilus set off to exploit them. She returned to Sydney in December, then went back to the fisheries. Back in Sydney again, Bishop carried a cargo to Norfolk Island for William Campbell. In May he set off for Canton, having taken out letters of marque (probably the first issued by the local Vice-Admiralty Court) to validate any attacks he might make on Spanish shipping. The voyage saw some original exploration among the Marshall and Gilbert Islands. At Canton Bishop sold his sealskins and the Nautilus, and thence sailed for England. A pioneer in the industry, he had tasted the pleasure of skimming the cream of Pacific wealth.

George Bass had become friendly with Bishop in Sydney, and sailed in the Nautilus to Canton. In England the two planned a commercial expedition to the south seas in their ship Venus, in which they reached Sydney again in August 1801. Their cargo sold poorly, but Governor King engaged the Venus and her crew to collect pork from Tahiti. Thither Bass and Bishop sailed, exploring some islands southward of New Zealand on the way. At Tahiti, Bishop again was involved in native politics, becoming commander of the forces of 'King' Pomare, defender of European interests in the area. Under Bishop's leadership, Pomare's forces vanquished their enemies in 1802. Meanwhile the gathering of pork had prospered, while Bishop trafficked in firearms when he thought it desirable.

On returning to Sydney, Bass prepared for his fatal voyage towards South America and Bishop stayed behind through ill health. He established a farm outside Prospect; his friends ranged from government officers to seditious gentlemen convicts, especially John Grant. But Bishop's mind began to crack in 1804, and in October 1805 King made a constitutional innovation by calling a jury to consider his sanity. It confirmed his committal as a lunatic, and Bishop entered confinement. In April 1809 he moved to private lodgings but did not improve, and William Paterson returned him to England in October. He appears to have died in 1810.

Bishop was an interesting representative of the current British concern for eastern commerce. His personal Odyssey has intrinsic significance: few before him could have exploited the wealth of Africa, America, Australia, and Oceania. Bishop's journal and letters relating the Ruby and Nautilus voyages add significantly to Pacific literature. The degeneration of his intelligent and affectionate disposition set his life in a tragic key, and marked the excruciating strain which he had to endure.

Select Bibliography

  • K. M. Bowden, George Bass, 1771-1803 (Melb, 1952)
  • W. S. Hill-Reid, John Grant's Journey: A Convict's Story: 1803-1811 (Lond, 1957)
  • M. Roe, ‘Charles Bishop, Pioneer of Pacific Commerce’, Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), vol 10, no 1, July 1962, pp 6-15.

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Bishop, Charles (1765–1810)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 30 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

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