14 June 2019: Bicentenary of Philip Parker King and the HMS Mermaid visiting the Townsville Area

This article is the first in a series about the historical maritime mapping and interaction along the North Queensland coastline.

The Mermaid at Cape Cleveland

Phillip Parker King 1816
Lieutenant Philip Parker King RN (1816)

On Sunday 14 June 1819, HMS Mermaid rounded Cape Cleveland in north Queensland and made an unscheduled stop, anchoring off present day Red Rock Bay. In command was Lieutenant Phillip Parker King RN, the Australian-born son of the third New South Wales Governor (Philip Gidley King) who, together with his crew, was on his third voyage surveying the Australian coast.

The Mermaid, an 84-ton cutter constructed of teak, had been built in India and measured 17 metres in length with a draft of just three metres when loaded. It had a complement of about nineteen officers and crew and was an ideal vessel for hydrographic surveys requiring access to inshore areas. It was later to become unseaworthy because of construction issues, and for King’s fifth and final survey voyage, the Mermaid was replaced by the brig Bathurst, a vessel of twice the size.

King's Sectional Drawing of the Mermaid
Philip Parker King’s sectional drawing of the Mermaid

The purpose of the Mermaid’s unscheduled stop was to confirm King’s assumption that potable water and wood fuel (to replenish his vessel’s supplies) could be accessed on the lee of Cape Cleveland. King sent Frederick Bedwell, his first officer and senior master’s mate, ashore to undertake the search. Bedwell was accompanied by Allan Cunningham, a botanist and eager explorer attached to the Mermaid’s crew on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks.

After finding a perennial stream (entering the sea in today’s Bedwell Bay), Bedwell returned to King with a favourable report, and the decision was made to remain at anchor for several days and send watering and wooding parties to restock the vessel. On 17 June 1819, after three days re-stocking, the Mermaid again weighed anchor and continued its hydrographic survey north.

Mermaid Chart Cleveland Bay from King's Narrative 1825
Mermaid Chart Cleveland Bay from King’s Narrative 1825

During the Mermaid’s three-day stay at Cape Cleveland, Frederick Bedwell sounded across Cleveland Bay towards today’s Picnic Bay on Magnetic Island (named Magnetical Isle by Captain James Cook) and then towards the beach at today’s Rowe’s Bay on the mainland. Bedwell established that the depth of Cleveland Bay was suitable for shipping and anchorage.

In the meantime, King, Cunningham and John Septimus Roe, second master’s mate and assistant surveyor, explored parts of Cape Cleveland. They climbed a peak, made sketches and recorded observations in compliance with King’s instructions from the Colonial Secretary. Cunningham collected several botanical ‘novelties’ including the first specimen of the hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) on mainland Australia, and King remarked on the swarms of butterflies, quite probably the blue tiger (Tirumala limniace).

King and Cunningham observed several thatched huts of pandanus palm and the remains of cooking fires, indicating Cape Cleveland was certainly inhabited. King also noted an inconsistency in his compass bearings, remarking that it may have had similarities to James Cook’s observations when passing Magnetic Island. Later, when departing on 17 June, King recorded his first sighting of Aboriginal peoples on Magnetic Island.

An important story, largely untold, unknown and unacknowledged

The Mermaid’s stay at Cape Cleveland two centuries ago marks the first recorded landing by Europeans in the Townsville area. Today, the city of Townsville has grown in importance as Australia’s largest tropical city with a population of almost 190,000, surpassing the size of the Northern Territory capital city, Darwin.

When Frederick Bedwell RN stepped ashore at Red Rock Bay, the establishment of a permanent European settlement near the mouth of Ross Creek was still almost half a century away. It was not until 1864 that settlers arrived by land, rather than by sea, and established the port city of Townsville to serve a developing pastoral hinterland.

Regrettably, the importance of these expeditions in Australia’s maritime history, the achievements of Phillip Parker King and the Mermaid’s crew in surveying the Australian coastline over four remarkable voyages between 1817 and 1820, and a fifth major exploration by the same crew in the sloop Bathurst in 1822, remain largely unknown to the Australian public.

The Mermaid 4 December 1820
Mermaid 4 December 1820

King’s instructions from the colonial office and the third survey

Phillip King’s instructions were to finish the task that Matthew Flinders was unable to fully complete – to conduct a full examination of the ‘New Holland’ coastline. The detailed survey work undertaken between 1817 and 1821 by the Mermaid and its crew (and the following year on the Bathurst) indisputably confirmed that the Australian continent was indeed an island.

In addition, King had been tasked by Colonial Secretary, Lord Bathurst, to record and report on a formidable list of diverse matters including weather conditions, mountains, animals, vegetables, wood, minerals, metals or stones, details of local communities, their languages and way of life. They were also to record any products of use for export to Great Britain, which explains the inclusion of botanist and scientist Allan Cunningham in the Mermaid’s crew.

King’s third survey, which included the interlude at Cape Cleveland, departed Sydney on 8 May 1819. After a few days break at Port Macquarie, the Mermaid sailed further north on 21 May destined for Torres Strait, Coepang Timor and eventually back to Sydney via Bass Strait.

Map of the Mermaid's Third Voyage
Map of the Mermaid’s third voyage

The Mermaid’s crew and their legacy

In retrospect, it is difficult to underestimate the courage, skill and ingenuity displayed, as well as the hardship endured, by the Mermaid’s crew in their pioneering and unassisted survey work in remote areas. The men were young: Lieutenant King was 27 years old and both master’s mates, Bedwell and Roe, just 22 years old; botanist Cunningham was 28 years old. All went on to achieve further positions of respect in the Australian colonies.

Phillip Parker King has the distinction of being the first Australian-born Rear Admiral and, apart from his expertise as a mariner and naval hydrographer, he later achieved great respect and admiration as an administrator and pastoralist and served on the New South Wales Legislative Council.

Allan Cunningham was acknowledged in later life as a resolute explorer, botanist and writer. Many places in both Queensland and New South Wales, including a federal electoral division in New South Wales, are named in his honour.

John Septimus Roe, a skilled hydrographer and prolific writer who was King’s assistant surveyor from 1817, later achieved fame as an explorer and was, for forty years, Western Australia’s Surveyor-General as well as holding other important public positions in the service of the colony.

John Septimus Roe 1823
John Septimus Roe (1823)

My forbearer, Frederick Bedwell (1796 – 1857), joined the Royal Navy shortly before his fourteenth birthday, entering service on 8 September 1810. From 1811, he served with Sir George Cockburn in Cadiz during the Napoleonic Wars and again at Chesapeake in the north American campaign. He also served as master’s mate with Cockburn on the Northumberland, escorting Napoleon Bonaparte to exile on St. Helens, and he later trained in hydrography before his appointment as second in command of the Mermaid, a position he retained on all of the voyages of the Mermaid and the Bathurst.

In later life, following several years in England, Frederick Bedwell returned to New South Wales and captained ships for the NSW colonial administration. He married Susannah Matilda Ward in 1832 and became a pioneer landholder in the Paterson area of New South Wales’ Hunter Valley in 1837 on their property ‘Valentia’. There he is credited with introducing the willow tree to Australia.

 

Velentia
Valentia at Paterson circa 1840

The Bedwells had twelve children, and their third child, daughter Zorayda Anne Bedwell (1836 – 1924), married Charles Allan Dun (1823 – 1908), the third child and eldest son of neighbouring Paterson landholders, William Dun and Maria Dun nee´Burdett, in 1857. Frederick Bedwell had also fathered a daughter Eliza (born at the end of 1820) to Louisa Calcott of Sydney.

Charles Dun and Zorayda (Bedwell) moved north and were among the first landholders in the Lake Cootharabra area of south-east Queensland. Dun’s Beach on the lake is named after them. Their son, Percy Vivian Dun, married Elizabeth Ann Cork who, with her family, moved to the township of Ayr, south of Townsville, in the very early years of the twentieth century following the incapacitation of Percy in a mining accident. They were my great grandparents.

Today, it is likely that there are thousands of living descendants of Frederick Bedwell, and many of them are probably unaware of their forbearer’s contribution to the development of modern Australia. It follows that Australians, at large, are also unaware of the importance of the work of the Mermaid and the Bathurst and their officers and crew in the story of modern Australian. The unscheduled landing and interlude at Cape Cleveland are part of the overall substance of King’s five hydrographic surveys, although the significance of that first visit clearly needs to be shared with today’s residents of Townsville.

Map of Newly Named Bedwell Bay 2010
Map of newly named Bedwell Bay (2010)

 

Written by Ken Dun. Compiled by Dr Maddy McAllister, Senior Curator Maritime Archaeology

Sources

King, Phillip Parker 1826, Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia: Performed between the Years 1818 and 1822, Volumes One and Two. John Murray, London.
Volume 1 – http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00027.html
Volume 2 – http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/e00028.html

Dun, Antje, 2018, Wonders, wishes and waves, Smashwords.
https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/wonders-wishes-and-waves-diary-of-an-accidental-explorer
(A children’s interpretation of Phillip Parker King’s Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia: Performed between the years 1818 and 1822 written by one of Frederick Bedwell’s descendants).

Phillip Parker King – album of drawings and engravings, 1802-1902
http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110326801

Further reading

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2009-01-07/mermaid-hunters-confirm-ships-discovery/259780

https://theconversation.com/the-murujuga-mermaid-how-rock-art-in-wa-sheds-light-on-historic-encounters-of-australian-exploration-116815

https://www.nla.gov.au/blogs/behind-the-scenes/2016/09/28/swallowed-by-the-sea-the-mermaid

http://www.news.uwa.edu.au/2019051611392/regional/pilbara-ship-engraving-may-depict-british-ship-mermaid-1818

https://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/10/06/3333836.htm

https://www.modelerscentral.com/ship-model-kits/modellers-shipyard/hm-cutter-mermaid-1817/

https://www.sea.museum/2009/12/21/a-model-tale

 

 

 

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