John Byron by Joshua Reynolds, 1759, National Maritime Museum Greenwich
Byron and Dolphin June 1764 to May 1766
On the 21st June 1764 Commodore John Byron sailed HMS Dolphin from the Downs, sent by the British Admiralty, who had been persuaded by George III, to search for the great southern continent, believed to lie in the South Pacific. With Dolphin were HMS Tamar captained by Patrick Mouat and the supply ship Florida.
Byron was accompanied on Dolphin by midshipman Charles Clerke later to sail on all three of Cook’s voyages and, following Cook’s death in 1779, took over command of Resolution. Also sailing with Byron was master's mate John Gore who would sail on Dolphin’s second circumnavigation and on Cook’s first and third voyages. When Clerke died (on his thirty-eighth birthday) from tuberculosis en route to Kamchatka in August 1779 Gore commanded the Resolution and Discovery expedition back to England. Starting out on the Tamar before being promoted to First Lieutenant on the Dolphin was Philip Carteret, of whom more later.
Late 1764 and early 1765 were spent surveying Patagonia, the Straits of Magellan and the Falkland Islands., from where Florida returned to England with a message recommending that the islands be colonised. This was nearly the cause of war between Great Britain and Spain, both countries having armed fleets ready to contest the sovereignty of the barren islands.
Byron had previously been in the area as a midshipman on HMS Wager, part of George Anson’s ill-fated 1740 to1744 expedition. In May 1741 Wager was wrecked on the coast of Patagonia and it wasn’t until February 1746 that he was able to return to England.
Getting through the Straits of Magellan and into the Pacific took six frustrating weeks and by the time the ships came to what is now French Polynesia, the crew were suffering quite badly from scurvy, and this had a major influence on the conduct of the voyage through the Pacific. They were desperate to restock with fresh supplies, in particular coconuts and fresh vegetables for the sick. However, the local inhabitants opposed any landings with shows of arms, and coupled with the difficulty of anchoring near to the coral atolls, prompted Byron to name the first of them the Islands of Disappointment. The ships went on to the Cook Islands, the Gilbert Islands and the Marianas, before heading back to Britain via the Philippines, Batavia, the Cape of Good Hope and St. Helena, which they passed on Sunday March 16th 1766 without stopping.
On April 1st after sustaining damage to her rudder, Tamar was diverted to Antigua to be fitted with a new one. One of Byron's last official acts before entering port was to confiscate the journals kept by his crew members, a matter of routine on Navy voyages that was intended to guard against security leaks and guarantee that only the official, government-sanctioned version of the voyage would reach the public. Dolphin reached the Downs on the 9th May, Tamar a month later, the journey having taken just over 22 months which at the time was the fastest ever circumnavigation of the globe, but the discoveries made were very limited and the Admiralty made rapid plans to send the Dolphin back to the Pacific.
Samuel Wallis by Henry Stubble, ca 1785, National Library of Australia
Wallis and Dolphin August 1766 to May 1768
Losing no time, on the 19th August the Admiralty recalled Captain Samuel Wallis to active service and gave him sailing orders to take HMS Dolphin back to the Pacific for a second expedition. Accompanying him was HMS Swallow under the command of Philip Carteret, (who had only been back in England three months), and the store-ship Prince Frederick. Wallis kept his orders secret from Carteret until they were three weeks out at sea. Carteret thought that the fleet was going to re-provision the settlement at Port Egmont in the Falkland Islands but the real objective of the fleet was to sail for Magellan Straits where the Prince Frederick would head back to the Falklands and the Dolphin and the Swallow were to sail west for further exploration in the Pacific. After struggling through the Magellan Straits for 115 days, they reached the Pacific Ocean where on 11th April 1767 the Swallow, in no fit state to undertake the journey in the first place, was separated from the Dolphin. On 23rd June Dolphin arrived at Tahiti and Wallis sent Tobias Furneaux, the second lieutenant, ashore to claim it for England naming it King George Island. Furneaux would return to Tahiti in 1773 as Captain of Adventure accompanying Resolution on Cook's second voyage.
Wallis and his crew had communication and cultural difficulties and sailed from Tahiti on 27th July after having refitted the Dolphin and loaded up with water and fresh food. They sailed to the islands to the west of Samoa that now bear his name, to Tinian and on to Batavia where Wallis lost forty men to smallpox and most of his crew were unfit for duty on the crossing of the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope.
The Dolphin had to spend a month in South Africa so that the crew could recover their health. On the 17th March 1768 Dolphin arrived at Jamestown but left at noon the following day.
“At six o’ clock in the evening of Wednesday the 16th we saw the Island of St. Helena, at the distance of about four leagues and at one the next morning brought to. At break of day we made sail for the island and at nine anchored in the bay. The fort saluted us with thirteen guns and we returned the same number. We found riding here the Northumberland Indiaman, Captain Milford, who saluted us with eleven guns and we returned nine. We got out all the boats as soon as possible and sent the empty casks to be filled with water; at the same time several of the people were employed to gather purslain (purslane) which grows here in great plenty. About two o’ clock I went on shore myself and was saluted by the fort with thirteen guns, which I returned. The Governor and the principal gentlemen of the island did me the honour to meet me at the water-side, and having conducted me to the fort, told me, that it was expected that I should make it my home during my stay. By noon the next day our water was completed and the ship was made ready for sea; soon after she was unmoored to take advantage of the first breeze, and at five in the afternoon I returned on board. Upon my leaving the shore I was saluted with thirteen guns, and soon after upon getting under way I was saluted with thirteen more, both of which I returned; the Northumberland Indiaman then saluted me with thirteen guns, so did the Ollery, which arrived her the evening before I made sail, and I returned the compliment with the same number.”
St Helena, Jamestown, Dolphin Postal Stone 1645
The postal stone outside the Castle in Jamestown refers to a much earlier ship. Dolphin finally reached England on the 18th May 1768 after a twenty-one month circumnavigation becoming the first ship to sail twice around the world. It was presumed by Wallis that the Swallow had been lost; it was reported as such when they reached Britain and James Cook believed this to be the case when he left Plymouth for Tahiti in the Endeavour with Joseph Banks in August of that year.
Why Tahiti? Dr Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal and fellow of the Royal Society, had calculated that the best possible vantage point south of the equator to observe the 1769 Transit of Venus was between the Marquesas Islands and Tonga. The preferred site within this large area had not yet been determined when Wallis returned to England having “discovered” Tahiti, located almost at the centre of the area identified by Maskelyne. Tahiti’s longitude had been established by the Dolphin’s purser, John Harrison, (not the John Harrison of Longitude fame) using Maskelyne’s astronomical tables to perform the mathematically complicated but effective method of calculating lunar distances. Thus it was that the Royal Society informed the Admiralty that Tahiti was its desired site for the Pacific observation of the transit, and Cook set sail accompanied by John Gore who knew more about the Pacific than anyone else on the ship and three other Dolphin seamen, Molyneaux, Pickersgill and Wilkinson.
Carteret and Swallow April 1767 to March 1769
But Swallow was not lost, just abandoned and Carteret felt bitter and angry about having been left with a slug of a ship and an inadequate crew. He sailed for Juan Fernandez Island intending to refit but it was occupied by Spanish colonists and he was forced to sail to the island of Mas Afuera where there was no safe anchorage and they had trouble getting water. (Mas Afuera is one of a group of islands about 600km from the coast of Chile and, since they are mainly known for having been the home to the sailor Alexander Selkirk for four years, which may have inspired the novel Robinson Crusoe, have been renamed Alejandro Selkirk Island, Santa Clara Island and Robinson Crusoe Island). They left on the 31st May with only half a supply of food and water and sailed north in order to pick up the trade winds to get them across the Pacific.
Sailing west just south of the tropics Carteret describes in his log the discovery for which this expedition is best remembered:
“We continued our course westward till the evening of Thursday the 2nd of July, when we discovered land to the northward of us. Upon approaching it the next day, it appeared like a great rock rising out of the sea. It was not more than five miles in circumference, and seemed to be uninhabited. It was however covered with trees, and we saw a small stream of fresh water running down one side of it. I would have landed upon it, but the surf, which at this season broke upon it with great violence, rendered it impossible. I got soundings on the west side of it, at somewhat less than a mile from shore, in twenty five fathoms, with a bottom of coral and sand, and it is probable that in fine summer weather, landing here may not only be practicable, but very easy. We saw a great number of sea birds hovering about it, at somewhat less than a mile from the shore, and the sea here seemed to have fish. It lies in latitude 25°, 2′ south, longitude 133°, 21′ west, and about a thousand leagues to the westward of the continent of America. It is so high that we saw it at the distance of more than fifteen leagues; and it having been discovered by a young gentleman, son to Major Pitcairn of the marines, who was unfortunately lost in the Aurora, we called it PITCAIRN'S ISLAND."
Carteret, sailing without a chronometer was unable to precisely determine longitude so his recorded position of 133.21 W placed Pitcairn over 200 miles from its true position of 130.06 W. That twenty-three years later Pitcairn was able to provide a refuge for the mutineers from HMS Bounty, not finally being discovered until 1808 is undoubtedly due in part to the fact that nobody in the Royal Navy knew precisely where the island was. The error was also compounded in the first edition of Hawkesworth where the latitude in the text disagreed with the map position by an additional 350 miles. Following the Mutiny on April 28th 1789 Fletcher Christian not only took over Bligh's cabin but his library. Thus the mutineers of the Bounty were able to seek Pitcairn Island as their refuge in January 1790 because they had on board Hawkesworth's volumes and read therein the report of Carteret's discovery in 1767. That they found the island despite the errors is remarkable but of such errors are legends born.
Carteret turned north and sailed west of the Society Islands and east of Samoa. At about 10 00 S 167.00 W Dolphin veered to the west, looking for the Solomon Islands. He found Santa Cruz, but had to sail away without all the supplies they needed. Leaving New Ireland on 9th September 1767 they made for Mindanao in the southern Philippines where the natives fired guns to signal them not to land so Carteret moved on and sailed between Sulawesi and Borneo to Batavia where the Swallow was repaired and re-provisioned for the voyage home. Carteret could not wait to get away from Batavia because of the sickness and left on 15th September with many of his crew sick with malaria or dysentery. The Swallow took two months to cross the Indian Ocean to Cape Town. Leaving in the new year of 1769, from the 20th to 24th January they were at St Helena some ten months after Wallis.
Following closely behind Carteret, passing St. Helena on 29th January, was Bougainville in the Boudeuse returning to France from his own 1766 to 1769 circumnavigation.
Bougainville had received news of Carteret at Batavia and at the Cape and reaching the (then) uninhabited Ascension on the 4th February he read a note left in a bottle informing him that the Swallow had departed on 1st February. After collecting turtles, as Carteret had done, on the 19th February Swallow was sighted and Bougainville offered Carteret assistance, which was politely declined. Bougainville described Swallow as being in poor condition and wondered how it had sailed so far and how miserable it must have been on the ship. In any event Carteret finally arrived back in England on 20th March.
Which brings us to the philatelic licence of Swallow and Dolphin together at St Helena.