When sailing the West Coast, I personally have a feeling of being close to history. Most of it remains little changed since it was first explored and the modern pleasure sailor can easily identify with its discoverers.
The West Coast was the last major part of the Australian coast to be known to Europeans. Although it was one of the first parts of our coast to be visited, detailed exploration had to wait until the 19th century.
First on the scene were the Dutch. In 1627 the Dutch East India Company ship Gulden Zeepard (Golden Seahorse) sailed past Cape Leeuwin and on into South Australian waters. As was the practice at the time, Peter Nuyts, an official of the company, was in charge. The ship's captain was Francis Thijssen (Anglicised spellings).
They reached the vicinity of Ceduna without finding anything likely to be profitable to the company. Before turning to head for Java, they named the islands off Ceduna the Islands of St Peter and St Francis, after their patron saints. Their chart survives but it is not very clear. They possibly thought that parts of the distant mainland were yet more islands.
In 1793 the Frenchman, Antoine D'Entrecasteaux, sailed west almost to Fowlers Bay, but abandoned the coast and headed for Tasmania, due to lack of water.
Early in 1802 HMS Investigator, with a crack volunteer crew commanded by Lieutenant Matthew Flinders, reached the West Coast. Flinders left his mark on the coast in the form of most of the main place names. Some reflect the appearance of the coast or its nautical perils, as in Smoky Bay, Anxious Bay and Avoid Point. Denial Bay refers to the fact that it appeared to offer a way inland, only to deny it on closer inspection. Other names commemorate members of the crew, great and small. Flinders Island was named for Samuel Flinders, Matthew's rather inefficient brother. The botanist Bauer and the artist Westall each got a cape. As Nuyts had named his islands only as a group, Flinders named Nuyts' discoveries the Nuyts Archipelago. He named the largest island St Peter Island and the second largest, St Francis Island.
The bigwigs were not forgotten. Sir Richard Waldegrave was Flinders' local member of Parliament. Coffin Bay honours Sir Isaac Coffin, the navy's Resident Commissioner at Sheerness, who had helped the expedition prepare. Sir Isaac had married a lady called Miss Greenly and in a break with tradition had arranged for her to retain her maiden name. He evidently felt that Lady Greenly sounded more seemly than Lady Coffin. She is remembered at Greenly Island and Mount Greenly.
Flinders' charting of the coast was masterly. Armed with the latest instruments, including a Kendall chronometer, he was limited only by time and by the need to avoid endangering the ship by going too close inshore. He left only the details to be filled in by others, notably in the shallow waters around Ceduna and the inner part of Coffin Bay. He went on to chart the rest of the South Australian coast before circumnavigating Australia. He named nothing for himself but posterity more than made up for that. It is fitting that we sail the coast he charted with the aid of tidal data from Flinders University.
Also in 1802, the Frenchman Nicholas Baudin and his assistant, Louis Freycinet, arrived on the West Coast. With the benefit of information given to him by Flinders during their chance meeting in Encounter Bay, they filled in some of the details, notably at Ceduna. Some of their names remain in places where Flinders had not named a feature. Baudin and Freycinet had to be careful with names, due to the uncertainty of the times. Most which survive are due to Freycinet. Some of Baudin's names were positively bizarre. Though a music lover, I find Music Mania Gulf (Spencer Gulf) hard to take!
Baudin did not live to know that Napoleon's trusted brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, would be shot for treason in 1815. His bay is now the scene of yacht races. Lazare Carnot did better. This shrewd organiser was one of the few members of the notorious Committee for Public Safety to keep his head during the French Revolution. He later served Napoleon as Minister for War and managed to survive his downfall, although exiled. Whether this pioneer of the concept of total war deserved his cape is another thing.
Most of the French names did not become official until 1911, following a visit to S.A. by Comte A. de Fleurieu. In the spirit of the entente cordiale, the S.A. government gave the French explorers their due.
Further official exploration of the West Coast had to wait until South Australia was colonised in 1836. Unofficial exploration began almost as soon as Flinders and Baudin had sailed away. The American whaler Union, under Captain Pendleton, met the French expedition in King Georges Sound. Using information supplied by the French, Pendleton headed east into South Australian waters. It is not impossible that other whalers and sealers had been before him. Certainly between Flinders' departure and official settlement in 1836 South Australian waters were widely explored by a variety of adventurers.
In 1839 two early settlers, David McLaren and Samuel Stephens, were thwarted in their efforts to take up land at Port Lincoln. In the small vessel Nereus they went to Coffin Bay, hoping to find well watered land. There they met one Captain McFarlane, whaling out of Hobart. Using a whaleboat, they joined forces to explore the inner part of Coffin Bay, including Kellidie Bay. They were surprised to find wild dogs and rabbits in the area, evidently left by sealers and whalers.
After colonisation, formal exploration continued, first under the guidance of Captain Thomas Lipson, Port Adelaide's first Harbour Master and later under Captain Bloomfield Douglas. Their names and those of their vessels are remembered on the charts at places including Port Douglas, Yatala Channel and Waterwitch Channel. Even the good ship Venus got a mention! In this era many features were named after colonial identities or their friends. Governor MacDonnell's wife, Blanche, is remembered at Cape Blanche and Blanche Port. In 1857 Captain Douglas published a major set of charts based on the colonial explorers' work. In 1858 he made a detailed survey of the West Coast in the schooner Yatala.
The names in the Elliston area, given in the colonial era, are the subject of local legends. Waterloo Bay, Point Wellington and Point Wellesley were named in 1865 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. They have nothing to do with supposed "battles" with aborigines. The town was named by Governor Jervois in 1878. It was his custom to name places after his friends and relations. It commemorates either a personal friend of the Governor, Sir Samuel Ellis, or possibly Sir Henry Ellis, who died at Waterloo. It is unlikely that there is any connection with a Miss Ellen Liston, who lived in the area for a few years. She had gone elsewhere six years before Governor Jervois arrived in S.A.
The charts of the West Coast remain a little imperfect. Those interested can examine the Zone of Confidence Diagram published on modern charts. Those using GPS should not trust it implicitly, as GPS is more accurate than the charts in some places. Surveying continues, using advanced technology, including the laser echo sounder, which a few years ago discovered an unknown rock close to a shipping channel near Port Lincoln. There may be more surprises awaiting a modern Flinders.