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Tobias Furneaux (1735–1781)

by Dan Sprod

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Tobias Furneaux (1735-1781), navigator, was born on 21 August 1735 at the family estate, Swilly, near Plymouth, Devon, England, son of William Furneaux—believed to have been descended from a progenitor who accompanied William of Normandy in 1066—and his wife Susanna, née Willcocks. Tobias was christened at St Andrew's Church, Stoke Damerel, Devonport. Joining the Royal Navy, in February 1755 he became a midshipman in H.M.S. Marlborough. He was stationed for a time in the West Indies in the Seven Years War and was promoted lieutenant in November 1759 for good behaviour in action. In 1760 he returned to England.

Serving in the frigate Melampe from October 1762, Furneaux was second lieutenant in H.M.S. Dolphin, under Samuel Wallis, which sailed from the Nore in July 1766, under Admiralty instructions 'to discover and obtain a complete knowledge of the Land or Islands supposed to be situated in the Southern Hemisphere'. Passing through the Strait of Magellan, Wallis reached Otaheite (Tahiti) on 19 June 1767. During the protracted Pacific voyage, when Wallis and his first lieutenant suffered sickness Furneaux often assumed command. Thus, on 25 June, he took possession of Tahiti, declaring it to be 'King George's Island'. After one month the Dolphin continued westwards, reaching the Thames estuary in March 1768. Furneaux was paid off on 24 June.

Furneaux was third lieutenant in H.M.S. Trident in December 1770 and, from 30 December, in H.M.S. Torbay, later becoming second lieutenant. On 29 November next year he was promoted commander and appointed captain of H.M.S. Adventure under James Cook's overall command in H.M.S. Resolution. The expedition sailed from Plymouth in July 1772, called at Cape Town in November, and headed south and east. On 8 February 1773 the ships were separated in fog and Adventure made for the agreed rendezvous, Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand. En route Furneaux directed his course for Van Diemen's Land, sighting South West Cape on 9 March, becoming the first English vessel to retrace Tasman's 1642 sightings. Adventure lay off Bruny Island from 11 March 1773 'wooding and watering' in this haven, which Furneaux called Adventure Bay. Other features in the region he named were the Mewstone, the Friars, Fluted Cape and Penguin Island.

Sailing north on 15 March, Furneaux named St Patrick's Head, St Helen's Point, Bay of Fires and Eddystone Point, all on 17 March. Next day he noted 'the land trenches away to the westward, which I believe forms a deep bay'; it was, in fact, the entrance to Banks Strait. On this day islands were sighted, the land high and rocky, and the south-eastern point was named Cape Barren. He considered investigating whether a strait lay westward but decided to rejoin his commander and on 19 March the vessel 'haul'd up for New Zealand'. Furneaux later declared that 'it is my opinion that there is no strait between New Holland and Van Diemen's Land', a view he persuaded Cook to accept. Adventure and Resolution were united in New Zealand in May 1773 and in August Furneaux re-visited Tahiti where the Tahitian Omai was taken on board. The vessels were again separated in October and Furneaux returned to England, arriving at Spithead in July 1774.

During the American War of Independence, in August 1775, he took command of the 28-gun frigate Syren. The ship was sunk in Narragansett Bay in November 1777 and her crew imprisoned. Released next April, Furneaux was acquitted by court martial of any misconduct. He acted as a volunteer in H.M.S. Isis in July 1778, but had no further naval service, being resident at Swilly in September 1779 when he applied to be entered on the half-pay list. He died, unmarried, on 18 September 1781, and was interred in Stoke Damerel church.

An experienced, if somewhat unimaginative, navigator, who twice circumnavigated the globe, Furneaux had solid achievements in two lengthy Pacific voyages. George Robertson, master of the Dolphin, described him as 'a Gentele Agreeable well behaved Good man and very humain to all the Ships company'. The Furneaux islands in Bass Strait, named by Cook, commemorate him. His portrait in oils by James Northcote was held until 2014 by the late Lady Juliet Townsend of Banbury, England, and a copy is in Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol 1 (Lond, 1928)
  • G. Robertson, The Discovery of Tahiti (Lond, 1948)
  • J. C. Beaglehole (ed), The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery (Cambridge, UK, 1955-74)
  • R. Furneaux, Tobias Furneaux, Circumnavigator (Lond, 1960)
  • A. David (ed), The Charts and Coastal Views of Captain Cook’s Voyages (Lond, 1992)
  • Captains’ Logs, Adventure, T. Furneaux 1772-74 (AJCP reels 1550-1)
  • Captains’ letters, T. Furneaux 1768-77 (AJCP reel 3270)
  • Furneaux’s Narrative (British Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Dan Sprod, 'Furneaux, Tobias (1735–1781)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 August, 1735
Plymouth, Devon, England


18 September, 1781 (aged 46)