Phillip Parker King …

The Poms began to arrive in Australia, to stay, in 1788. They were particularly concerned at that time about the intentions of the French regarding this newly available continent.

Naturally the early explorers were from Britain and Europe, the first generation of Australian Europeans had to be born and grow up for a while. Phillip Parker King was born in the penal colony on Norfolk Island in 1791. His father, Philip Gidley King was the commandant of the settlement and would later be the Governor of New South Wales. Young Phillip was sent back to England for his education and looked forward to a career in the Royal Navy.

In many respects his timing was abysmal. King entered the Navy in 1807, the war with France was at its height, he served with distinction and was commissioned lieutenant in 1814. The following year it was all over, Napoleon once a rooster was now a feather duster, Britain had an enormous navy and no one to fight. Naval officers were put out to grass.

Fortunately for young Phillip his talent for meticulous surveying and draughtsmanship had been noticed. He was sent out to Australia to fill in the gaps in the coastal charting. A number of Explorers had grazed the coast of Oz. Dampier and Cook perhaps the most famous and Mathew Flinders had completed the first circumnavigation by 1803 (although he was somewhat slow getting the results out due to his imprisonment in Mauritius on his way home … for six years. Those bloody French).

The notable gaps were the Kimberley coast, the northern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef and Bass Strait. Between 1817 and 1822 King meticulously filled in the gaps. And when he’d finished that he went to South America and sorted out the southern tip. He deserves to be right up there with Flinders but he is hardly known, a neglected native son.

Montgomery Reef was discovered by King in 1821 and named for the ship’s surgeon. It’s out in a bay about 22 km from the nearest point on the mainland. On a high tide you might pass right over it but as the tide falls it emerges and looks rather splendid.

Montgomery Reef

It’s home to turtles and sharks and at low tide numerous Eastern Reef Egrets and wading birds that have to make alternative arrangements when the water rushes back to cover it all again. The reef is about 80 km long and covers an area of about 400 km². Small sand islands, called the High Cliffy Islands, were home to the Jaudibaia people, excavations reveal their presence as long ago as 6,700 years. They spoke a distinct dialect. They are unique among Australian aboriginals in living on such small islands but fish and turtles were stranded on the adjacent reef twice a day and provided handsomely. The Jaudibaia were reputed to be of impressive stature many reaching 7 feet in height. A film crew for Pathe News visited in 1929 when they found about 300 people. The next time anyone thought to look there were none. No trace and no explanation.

Our visit was graced by a flock of White-winged Terns in full breeding plumage, a stranded turtle and many in the water, close looks at Eastern Reef Egrets and other shore birds such as this Beach Stone-curlew …

Beach Stone-curlew

King’s ship was His Majesty’s Cutter Mermaid. It had been cobbled together with iron not copper nails. As time passed and the nails rusted out it began to leak furiously. During 1820 King selected a suitable beach with easy access to fresh water and careened her. The work took six weeks, numerous holes being plugged with locally cut wooden bungs. The Mermaid still leaked when she was refloated.

Whilst at Careening Bay a memento was carved in a Boab tree.

HMC Mermaid 1820
HMC Mermaid 1820

Admiral Phillip Parker King, FRS, RN died at his home in North Sydney on 26 February 1856.

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