The Track Chart of HMS HYACINTH 1836. Original Chart From An Early Surveying Voyage to Australia.

Map. ‘The Track Chart of HMS HYACINTH; Original Chart From An Early Surveying Voyage to Australia’, by Francis Price Blackwood.

Original manuscript map from the voyage of HMS HYACINTH to Australia and the Pacific, a surveying voyage that visited Swan River in 1834 and examined the dangerous inner route of the Great Barrier Reef the following year.

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The HYACINTH was the first command of the marine surveyor Francis Price Blackwood (1809-1854), and was notable for the substantial, “hydrographical remarks on the north-eastern coast” of Australia he made during the course of the voyage (Ingleton, ‘Charting a Continent’, p. 63). It was here that Blackwood first encountered the Reef, almost a decade before he returned to the treacherous waters to complete his seminal surveying voyage of 1842 on HMS FLY.

The Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty was founded in 1795 and among its many achievements was charging Matthew Flinders with his circumnavigation of Australia. Over the following decades, many further contributions were made, so that by 1825 the Office had published a series of maps which showed the entire Australian coastline. It was the end of what Ingleton characterised as the “pioneering period” of charting Australian waters, but only the beginning of the next phase, which would be dominated by the Surveying Service of the Royal Navy, as famous names like Phillip Parker King, John Lort Stokes and Robert FitzRoy engaged in arduous and detailed surveys. During the early 1830s however, much of the work was continued on a more ad hoc basis by vessels dispatched from the East India Station (at a time when Australia fell within its ambit). As Ingleton comments, in this period, “the Hydrographer was indebted for much hydrographical information and, on occasions, small sketch surveys.”

These vessels corrected much information which had been erroneous, and often reconciled the conflicting statements of previous navigators. HYACINTH was precisely one of these vessels, and Blackwood, a colleague of other great figures such as Owen Stanley and John Septimus Roe, showed such skill and tenacity at the task that he was later appointed to the FLY voyage. Very few such original materials survive from any of the great series of hydrographic voyages that completed the surveying of Australia, and consequently such maps, deriving from actual voyages of exploration and discovery, are nowadays great rarities. Those that have survived tend to have been held by major institutions for many decades, often from the time the vessels returned. Having said that, the voyage of the HYACINTH, which provided substantial contributions to Australian hydrography but which was not officially commissioned in this capacity, is markedly absent from the great collections, no doubt because of her de facto status. No charts from the voyage, for example, are held in the Admiralty Library in Taunton.

Blackwood was awarded the commission while serving on the East India station, and his subsequent voyage was no small feat, not least because he took the HYACINTH the entire length of the east coast of Australia. Here, the track not only documents his two early visits to Port Jackson and his long loop through the Pacific to Tahiti, it also confirms that the HYACINTH visited the recently founded Swan River settlement in late 1834; Governor Stirling was a friend and old comrade of Blackwood’s father, Sir Henry, at the remote community.

Blackwood’s scientific disposition, in combination with his interest in navigation, meteorology and astronomy, meant that this voyage contributed valuable hydrographic data on the north-eastern coast. They also briefly had a famous passenger in Conrad Martens, who sailed part of the way to New South Wales with Blackwood before continuing in other vessels including the BEAGLE (see his manuscript ‘Journal of a Voyage’, recently made available online by the State Library of New South Wales). The map was evidently prepared on a day to day basis by one of the officers of the HYACINTH. It runs from Madras in the west to Tahiti in the east, meaning that it encompasses all of mainland Australia and Tasmania, as well as the western Pacific and south-east Asian waters.

The HYACINTH’s track in these Australasian waters is marked, beginning at Madras, before sailing via the Cocos Islands to Swan River and King Georges Sound. From thence she sailed to the Derwent River and Port Jackson, before charting and naming “Capels Bank” in June 1835 en route to Tahiti (named after Rear Admiral Thomas Bladen Capel, then commander of the Far East Squadron). The HYACINTH returned via the Bay of Islands and North Cape in New Zealand, reaching the Australian coast off Twofold Bay before again visiting Port Jackson. The track then shows her sailing north along the Queensland coast to Cape York, thence to Madras via Timor and the straits of Sunda and Malacca. Significantly, another track is also shown, recording the similar voyage of HMS VICTOR in 1836. The VICTOR sailed to the south of Australia, but went through Bass Strait to Port Jackson. From New South Wales, the vessel sailed for Tahiti, departing on 14 September 1836. Captain Crozier of the VICTOR is remembered for his charting of Victor Harbour in Encounter Bay, South Australia, which he visited as part of his examination of Australian ports.

The track chart of the VICTOR ends abruptly at the Island of Vavaoo (that is, Vava’u, part of the Tongan group), which has been added in secondary manuscript. This second track has been more fully annotated, not only with dates of sailing, but also with occasional observations and additions of smaller islands to the chart. The voyage of the VICTOR was of some significance in the region, and it is tempting to believe that the abrupt truncation may provide some clue to authorship of this track – perhaps even to the whole chart.

Manuscripts relating to any of Blackwood’s voyages are very scarce, especially any relating to his early command of the HYACINTH; such a fine map, detailing the voyage of his earliest major command, is a conspicuously rare survival. Nothing relating to this voyage appears to be held in any Australian collection, although the National Library of Australia does hold a file of biographical cuttings relating to Blackwood.

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Francis Price Blackwood


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