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Percy Baskerville, Explorer and Midshipman in the Royal Navy, 1820s

Percy Baskerville arrived in Sydney in 1820, where with rank of midshipman he transferred from the Dromedary to the surveying and exploration voyage to North West Australia that was to be undertaken under the command of Captain Phillip Parker King.(1)

Titlepage from King's journal of the expeditions, published in London in 1827

On the 23rd August 1821, a promontory on the western side of the Dampierland Peninsula in Western Australia, about 105 kilometres north of the present town of Broome, was sighted by Captain Phillip Parker King RN on the Bathurst. King named the feature 'Cape Baskerville' after one of his midshipmen (a naval cadet) Perceval Baskerville(2), recording the event in his journal:

The next day we steered along the shore, and passed a sandy projection which was named Cape Baskerville, after one of the midshipmen on the Bathurst. To the southward of Cape Baskerville the coast trends in, and forms Carnot Bay; it then takes a southerly direction. It is here that Tasman landed in 'Hollandia Nova' [in 1626].(3)
Section from map drawn by King, with first-ever inscription of 'Cape Baskerville'
General Chart of the North-west and West Coasts
[King, Vol. I: foldout chart facing p1]

This voyage of exploration was the fourth (and final) undertaken by King, beginning on 26th May 1821 when the 170 ton Bathurst sailed from Sydney with a complement of 33 men and one woman (a stow away). They sailed up the east coast, through the Torres Strait, and on to survey the north-west (Kimberley) coast before sailing on to Mauritius where they refreshed their supplies. The Bathurst then returned to Australia and, beginning at King George's Sound on the south coast resumed surveying around Cape Leeuwin, up the west coast to Shark Bay, then back along the Timor Sea coast before turning southwards again to return to Sydney via Bass Strait in April 1822. King was the first European to see the future site of Darwin (on the 1819 voyage), and he praised his crew for their fine seamanship and courage. Among them were the botanist Allan Cunningham who identified and named many Australian plants, and John Septimus Roe, who later became the first Surveyor-General in Western Australia.

Percy Baskerville was mentioned by King several times in his journal, from which we can get some idea of the character of the man as well as of his duties as a midshipman. In December 1820 Governor Macquarie gave King permission to buy a new vessel, which he renamed the Bathurst, and recruit a crew for the next expedition.

6 December 1820: A further addition was made to our party by the appointment of Mr Perceval Baskerville, one of the Dromedary's midshipmen ... Our establishment now consisted of the following men: Lieutenant and Commander, Phillip Parker King; Surgeon: Andrew Montgomery; Master's mates (Assistant Surveyors): Frederick Bedwell, John S. Roe; Midshipman: Perceval Baskerville; Botanical Collector: Allan Cunningham; [with 21 crewmen and 5 boys]
Three months after leaving Sydney, the Bathurst was anchored in Hanover Bay, on the Kimberley coast, and King decided to make contact with the local Aboriginal people.
7 August 1821: Being curious to communicate with the inhabitants of this part of the coast [Hanover Bay], since we had not seen any since between this and Vansittart Bay [on the northern tip of the Kimberley], a party, consisting of the surgeon, Mr Bedwell, Mr Baskerville, and myself, went on shore to the place where the natives were seated waiting for us. Bundell [their Aboriginal guide], who generally accompanied us on these occasions stood up in the bow of the boat, and, as we approached the shore, made signs of friendship, which the natives returned ... On landing we climbed the rocks on which the two men were standing, when we found that the women had walked away: upon our approach, they retired a few paces, and evidently eyed us in a distrustful manner; but as they had dropped their spears, and repeated the sign of peace that we had made towards them, and we did not hesitate to walk towards them unarmed, desiring the boats crew to be prepared with muskets, if called. ... [An] exchange of presents appeared to establish a mutual confidence between us ... They began to talk to each other, and, at the same time, picked up their spears ... We were at this time about three or four yards from the natives, who were talking to each other in a most animated way, and evidently intent upon some object; and, as it appeared probable that, if we remained any longer, a rupture would ensure, it was proposed that our party should retire to the boat. However, they unexpectedly threw their spears; one of which, striking a rock, broke, but the other wounded Mr Montgomery in the back; the natives then, without waiting to throw their second spears, made off. ... The next morning a native was seen on a catamaran paddling, and another man. a woman and a child, were observed on the rocks, and began to wave and call to us. An opportunity now offered of punishing these wretches. A boat was sent towards the natives, but it was necessary to convince them that we were not so defenceless as they imagined, and, several muskets were fired over their heads. As soon as they were gone we pulled round into the sandy bay. Upon the beach we found two catamarans and secured all their riches, consisting of waterbaskets, tomahawks, spears, throwing-sticks, fire-sticks, fishing lines, and thirty-six spears. We gave up the pursuit and went on board. Upon examining the baskets, what chiefly attracted our attention was a small bundle of bark containing several spear heads ready for fixing, and the careful manner in which they were preserved plainly shewed their value. The punishment they had received will make them respect in future the formidable nature of our arms.
Some of the implements taken by the crew of the Bathurst
Right: Weapons etc. of the Natives of Hanover Bay
Left: Raft [or 'catamaran'] of the Natives of Hanover Bay
[King, Vol II: 68-69]

These moments of high drama broke the routine of maritime exploration:

11 August 1821: ...to the westward of the point there appeared to be many islands and much broken land. I sent Mr Roe to Point Adieu to get some bearings from the summit of the hill, and in the meantime Mr Baskerville sounded the channel between the point and the islands; which he found to be deep and clear...
Scientific obervations were made of the land and coastline
Sketch of some of the islands...
[King, Vol II: 574]

By Christmas the Bathurst had returned from Mauritius and was anchored in King George's Sound [the town of Albany is now on the shores of the Sound] to undertake some repairs, where the crew were in constant contact with the local Nyungar people, who were used to foreign ships stopping over in the Sound and trading artefacts with them:

25 December 1821: We then conveyed the natives, who had been waiting with great patience in the boat for our return, to the vessel and permitted them to go on board. Whilst they remained with us, Mr Baskerville took a man from each mess to the oyster-bank; here he was joined by an Indian carrying some spears and a throwing stick, but on Mr Baskerville's calling for a musket that was in the boat, (to the use of which they were not strangers) he laid aside his spears, which probably were only carried for the purpose of striking fish, and assisted our people in collecting the oysters.
The sort of implements purchased by Mr Baskerville in 1821
upper left: a meara or spear thrower, upper right: a kaoit or hammer
bottom: a meara with spear
Weapons and implements of the Natives of King George the Third's Sound
[King, Vol. II: 138'

A few days later the Bathurst was preparing top leave King George's Sound and resume its survey work. One of the local Nyungar men, known to the crew as Jack, indicated that he wanted to come with them:

...the breeze freshened and raised a short swell, which, causing a slight motion, effected our friend's head so much, that he came to me, and, touching his tongue and pointing to the shore, intimated his wish to speak to the natives. He was therefore immediately landed, and Mr Baskerville, after purchasing some spears and waiting a few minutes, prepared to return on board: upon getting into the boat he looked at our volunteer, but Jack having had a taste of sea-sickness, shook his head and hung back; he was therefore left on shore.
Even on the relatively peaceful south-western coast King was careful in meetings with the local Aboriginal people, and is here seen talking to them on shore from one of the ship's boats
Entrance of Oyster Harbour, King George III Sound: interview with the natives
[King, Vol. II, frontispiece]

By February, the Bathurst had sailed up the west coast to the Timor Sea, and was exploring the coastline in the dangerous waters of what is today known as King Sound:

8 February 1822: The next day I remained at the anchorage, and despatched Mr Roe to examine the coast around Point Cunningham; Mr Baskerville in the mean time sounded about the bay, between the brig and the western shore, and found very good anchorage in all parts: at about one mile to the westward of our situation, the bottom was of mud, and the depth nine and ten fathoms...
It took Captain King some days to work how best to leave this area "on account of the shoalness of the water", and several surveys had to be made:
9 February 1822: On their first landing, Mr Roe and Mr Baskerville, with one of the boat's crew, ascended the summit, and, whilst employed in looking around, heard the voices of natives among the trees about thirty yards off; but as they could not see them, they very properly descended, and carried on their operations in the vicinity of the boat; they were on shore for two and a half hours, but the natives did not make their appearance. The footmarks of men and boys were evident on the sand below the high-water mark, and the remains of fire-places, and where the natives had been manufacturing spears, were of recent date. The gentlemen bought off a few shells and some insects, among which was a beautiful sphynx ... Of shells there was not a great variety; but at one of the fire-places, they found a large voluta, that seemed to have served the purpose of a water-vessel: it was fifteen inches long, and ten inches in diameter [36cms x 25cms]
A voluta shell similar to that collected by Mr Baskerville and Mr Roe
[University of Dundee Museum Collection]

Several days later, troubled by sea mirages and the "loss and perplexity we met with", in an area abounding in place-names such as Foul Point, Disaster Bay and Repulse Point, King continued the survey work:

14 February 1822: In the afternoon, as there was every appearance of fine weather and no likelihood of a breeze, Mr Baskerville and Mr Cunningham set off in a boat to visit Repulse Point, in order to make what observations they could upon the further trend of the land; but no sooner had they left the vessel than a breeze sprang up and freshened to a gale in which our cable parted; and, as there was no chance of dropping another anchor with a prospect of recovering it, we were obliged to return to our former anchorage in Goodenough Bay [west side of King Sound]; but, owing to the tide being contrary, the brig did not reach it until nearly sunset. Our alarm and anxieties were now raised to a great pitch for the safety of Mr Baskerville and his companions: signals of recal had been hoisted, and several guns fired before the cable parted, but the boat was to far off to notice either: as soon as it was dark, signal guns were fired and port fires burnt every ten minutes, to guide its return. Happily these signals at last had the desired effect, for at ten o'clock the boat came alongside. Mr Baskerville had failed in reaching repulse point, but obtained some useful information as to the trend of the land around the point, which still appeared to extend to the southward; they had not been able to land, but had encountered much danger from the small size of the boat, which shipped a great deal of water, so that by the time it arrived they were completely drenched with the spray of the sea. They had only observed our signals for a few minutes before their arrival; for the flashes of the guns and the lights of the port-fires were so confused with lightening and the fires of the natives on the shore, that they could not be distinguished from each other. Soon after they arrived on board, heavy rain commenced, and fell during the greater part of the night
The rugged coastline of King Sound is near the entrance to Prince Regent River
View of the Cascade in Prince Regent's River
[King, Vol. II: 46]

The adventure of the exploration is captured by Alan Powell when he writes of the voyages:

The shores were low, to low to be seen from a ship's deck at night, backed by mangrove swamp or desert sand and barerock, fringed by a nightmarish maze of shoals, islands, reefs and coral where vast tides race at speeds beyond the power of sail to stem. King used them with skill and kept his head when they sent his ship out of control. "The vessel was at times unmanageable, from the violent whirlpools through which we passed, and was more than once completely whirled round upon her keel", he wrote of the Bathurst, "but our former experience of a similar event prepared us to expect it, and the yards were as quickly braced around". Shipwreck meant almost certain death, speedily by drowning or Aboriginal spear, slowly by hunger and thirst. King and his crew came close many times: Great Seamanship - and a dash of luck - preserved them.
(Powell 1980: 222-223)

The moments of high drama, however, relieved the relentless work of surveying. Again, Powell describes the task:

King was chief surveyor, responsible for both field survey and the resultant chartwork. Field work was normally done by "running survey", plotting the shoreline by compass and dead reckoning as the ship or ship's boat moved along, checking the accuracy of the work at intervals by carefully observing the latitude and longitude of prominent coastal features. This was Flinder's method and King used it too. He was not entirely happy with the results. He found errors in the work of his predecessor and feared that his own might have suffered through the inaccuracy of his chronometers. But he carried with him a theodolite, one of the range of scientific instruments then undergoing a period of rapid development. Useless on the ship (since theodolites must have a level, stable base) the instrument enabled King to fix his precise position wherever he chose to land, and to plot the shoreline of a bay or the height of a hill by triangulation. In this way he brought new standards of accuracy to the Australian survey.
(Powell 1980: 225)

The Bathurst arrived back in Sydney on the 25th April 1822 after a voyage of 344 days during which they had entirely circumnavigated the Australian continent, as well as visited Koepang in West Timor and Mauritius. King continued on to London via Cape Town where he wrote and published his journals of the voyages.

Further research is needed to determine whether Percy Baskerville remained in Sydney, or continued with King back to England.

References and reading

  1. State Records NSW, Reel 6034, SZ8p170.
  2. ltr, Nomenclature Advisory Committee, Dept of Lands & Surveys, Perth to author, 13 November 1973, ref. 2913/62 RS:SL.
  3. King, Captain Philip P., Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia performed between the years 1818 and 1821, John Murray, London 1827: Vol. II, 93.
  • Powell, A., "King, Phillip Parker (1791-1856)', in Carment, D., et al (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography: Volume One: to 1945, NTU Press, Darwin 1990: 168 -170.
  • Powell, A., 'Explorers-Surveyors of Australia's North Coast: P.P. King and the Men of 'Mermaid' & 'Bathurst'', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 65, Pt. 4., March 1980: 217-22.
  • The Times Handy Atlas, Third Edition, John Bartholemew & Son Ltd., Edinburgh & London 1941
  • 'Carnot, WA', Topographic Survey, 1:100 000, Sheet 3363 (Edition 1), Series R611, Royal Australian Survey Corps, Canberra 1971

Map of the Dampierland Peninsula published a little over 100 years after King's map above
[Times Atlas: 138-139]