An exhibition at the University of Wollongong looks at the Illawarra through the eyes of early European explorers, writes JODIE DUFFY.
It was a snug fit, but the three men set sail from Port Jackson in the tiny boat they called the Tom Thumb in 1796.
George Bass was 25 and 6ft tall, Matthew Flinders who had just turned 22 was a bit shorter and there was Bass' servant, William Martin, who at 15, was referred to as "The Boy".
As the small wooden vessel rounded the mouth of Sydney Harbour the towering cliffs dwarfed the trio but couldn't dampen their adventurous spirits.
The intrepid maritime explorers, who couldn't swim, were young and fearless and on the verge of discovering more about their new world eight years into settlement.
‘‘If he had landed at Woonona then the destination of Wollongong could very well have been the capital of NSW.’’
The plan was to sail in search of what is now known as the Port Hacking river but wild weather blew them much further south to Lake Illawarra.
Away for about a week, they spent all but one night in the tiny boat.
As they neared Lake Illawarra, huge waves drenched the Tom Thumb and the explorers had no choice but to head to shore. There had been rumours back at settlement that the indigenous population in this part of NSW were cannibals. So Bass and Flinders were fearful when a few Aboriginal men took them to Lake Illawarra.
About 130 years later, primary school textbooks would recount that meeting and tell how they had devised a masterful ploy to divert the Aborigines' attention.
While Bass dried the gunpowder and repaired a paddle, Flinders gave the men hair cuts and trimmed their beards. Then later that night, when their supplies had dried, they escaped to sea in the cover of darkness. The expedition was not a failure, though, as on their way back to Sydney they discovered Port Hacking.
In 1925 Percy Lindsay's watercolour While the Powder Dried was published in the school textbook Great Events in Australian History. That illustration is part of the Early Illawarra and Explorers exhibition at the University of Wollongong Library, which was opened by retired curator Dr Paul Brunton, formerly of the State Library of NSW.
The illustration, explains Brunton, is a standout because it reflects the fear and misconceptions of Bass and Flinders and how the story was retold a century later in primary school classrooms.
"Bass and Flinders felt isolated and vulnerable," says Brunton. "Their musket was rusty and full of sand, and they thought the Aborigines were cannibals. But in fact when you read the documents it was the Aboriginals who had initiated the hair cuts, not the Europeans.
"That is consistent with friendship and welcome. It was a gesture of goodwill to join in with the white man's customs. They also gave them fish and showed them whre to get fresh water. But Bass and Flinders thought it was a trick, and the meeting was later retold from the point of view of British superiority.
''I think it's a wonderful story to illustrate how simple actions can be misinterpreted across cultural barriers. There is nothing in the records at all to indicate that the Aborigines were hostile."
Brunton says the Illawarra was once known as the Garden of NSW because of its stunning landscape and lush rainforest. The area had a rich history in attracting scientists, botanists, artist and explorers at a time when Europeans were coming to terms with the harsh climate.
He says the attractive, picturesque location even tempted Captain James Cook to land at Woonona on April 28, 1770. However, the explorer was disappointed when strong surf prevented him from doing so.
"If he had landed at Woonona then the destination of Wollongong could very well have been the capital of NSW," Brunton says. "This could have been the site of settlement."
The exhibition, which is open until December 19, was curated, among others, by UOW library archivist Michael Organ.
Many of the items on display are on loan from the Wollongong Art Gallery.
The idea for the exhibition on early explorers came after the university was given a rare First Fleet Journal from 1789 titled the Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay and Norfolk Island.
It took a year to restore the book, which had been badly damaged by water.
"The book is significant in that it is one of the first published about Australia following the arrival of Europeans," says Organ. "It was a whole new world to them. When the First Fleet arrived in Sydney they began recording things, drawing the birds and animals, such as the emu and dingo. It's like an account of Port Jackson but it's also very much a scientific journal."
Also on display is a reproduction of the Tom Thumb boat used by Flinders and Bass to sail down the coast to Lake Illawarra in 1796.
Another display is of the work of naturalist Robert Brown and Austrian artist Ferdinand Bauer, who in 1803 made the first description and drawing of a koala in forest at the base of Hat Hill, which later became known as Mt Kembla.
"Even though the Europeans had been in Sydney for many years, they had never seen a koala," says Organ.
The exhibition also acknowledges the indigenous population as the first explorers of the Illawarra.
University of Wollongong employee Jade Kennedy said that before Europeans visited the area the early Aborigines would have explored every tree of their land from Sydney to the border.
"Aboriginal people had an intimate relationship with their land," says Kennedy. "For example, the escarpment and the islands off Windang are part of their dreaming. Mt Keira is a sacred site for women, while Mt Kembla is known as the grandfather and is important to males. Aboriginal people have consistently explored their environment and did so prior to colonisation and settlement."
Early Illawarra and Explorers exhibition presentations:
- December 3: As part of the exhibition Michael Organ will give a talk on the discovery of the koala with film-maker Georgina Element.
- December 9: Karen Manton will discuss the work of colonial artist Eugene von Guerard.
- December 12: Barbara Schmeizer will talk about the challenges in restoring the rare 1789 book which was donated to the university.