Charles Robbins (1782-1805) was a British Royal Navy officer and navigator in the early nineteenth century. He was involved in the early exploration of Bass Strait and Port Phillip in southern Australia. Robbins held the rank of Midshipman aboard the Buffalo on its voyage to New South Wales at the start of 1802. He was appointed acting Lieutenant in command of Cumberland when Charles Grimes used her to survey King Island and Port Phillip in early 1803.
In 1801, amid rumours that the French were sending a fleet of ship to New Holland to establish a colony, Governor King dispatched the acting chief surveyor of New South Wales, Charles Grimes, to King's Island, Port King (Port Phillip Bay as it was then known) and Storm Bay (the bay into which the Derwent River flows to the south of Hobart) to claim for Britain the southern section of the eastern side of the continent south of latitude 38 degrees S, and to investigate the possibility of setting up settlements to forestall any moves by the French to lay claim to sections of the continent of Australia already annexed by Britain. Other motives were to establish a base for the fishing and sealing industry and to provide timber and flax to the Royal Navy which had been depleted by the Napoleonic Wars.
Replica of the Lady Nelson
They set sail from Sydney on 29 November 1801 in the Lady Nelson. They surveyed several islands in Bass Strait and spent some time on a larger one which had been named King Island after the Governor of New South Wales. On completion of the survey, Murray headed back to the mainland to explore Port Phillip, which was known but had not been entered or explored. After the entrance to the bay was found on 2 February, the Lady Nelson entered it and a survey of the bay was commenced. They went ashore at Point King, 2 km west of present-day Sorrento on Port Phillip Bay to claim the land for Britain. John Murray, master of the survey vessel, Lady Nelson, named the harbour Port King, though this was later changed to Port Phillip Bay by Governor King. His journal records "the Port was taken possession of in the name of his Sacred Majesty George The Third of Great Britain and Ireland ...". Three days later they left the bay, returning to Sydney Cove on 24 March.
Six weeks after Murray returned from his trip to the Port Phillip Bay area, Governor King's fears that the French has sent an expedition to check out the coast of New Holland were realised when Matthew Flinders, who had been charting the south coast of Australia, returned to Sydney with the news that he had met the French exploration party of Nicolas Baudin at Encounter Bay. Shortly after Flinders' arrival, Baudin's ships limped into port, his crew in a poor state of health and in desparate need of supplies.
Baudin spent his five month stay in Sydney on good terms with Governor King, however Lieut. Colonel Patterson had chatted over wine and dessert with French officers, who casually mentioned they might establish a base at Storm Bay. King's response was swift. In a letter dated 9 May 1803, to Sir Evan Nepean, Secretary of the Admiralty, King wrote; "It was reported to me after the French ships sailed that a principal object of their voyage was to fix on a place at Van Diemens Land for a settlement, and that the French officers who had talked of it had pointed out a particular place, what they called Baie du Nord (North West Bay) in Storm Bay Passage (D'Entrecasteaux Channel). "Under these circumstances I judged it expedient to form a settlement at Risdon Cove in the River Derwent".
Immediately after the French had left, acting under private instructions from Governor King, acting Lt Robbins was hastily sent south from the Colony of Port Jackson (Sydney) with the schooner Cumberland and a party of 16 men to examine Bass Strait and to thwart any colonising attempts by the French. On 13 December 1802, Robbins entered Sea Elephant Bay, King Island to find Baudin's ships at anchor off shore near the present site of Naracoopa. Panic struck, Robbins launched a long boat with a party of men and made a dash for the shore, Union Jack in hand so as to beat the Frenchman in claming the island. This was the first occasion the newly-created Union Jack was flown in Australia and Robbins made a shambles of it. After hoisting it in a large gum tree and firing three volleys in salute low over the nearby French tents (Robbins had to borrow the gunpowder for the salute from the French as he had not brought any with him), he made a garbled proclamation of possession, and then realised that in his haste he had raised the flag upside down.
Luckily, the French, who numbered nearly one hundred, compared to the 17 of Robbins and his crew from the Cumberland, treated the incident with ridicule and not with force. Baudin tartly remarked to Robbins that he had 'no intention of annexing a country already inhabited by savages'. He then sent Pierre Faure, his hydrographer, on a circumnavigation of the island, naming various places whilst Grimes made an extensive survey of it. Commenting later in a private letter to Governor King, Baudin said, "That childish ceremony was ridiculous, and has become more so from the manner in which the flag was placed, the head being downwards and the attitude not very majestic. I thought at first it might have been a flag which had served to strain water and then hung out to dry". The British expedition completed their survey of the island, then headed back to the mainland to complete further exploration of the Port Phillip area before returning to Sydney.
Sullivan Bay settlement memorial
The first attempt at settlement of Victoria was undertaken in 1803 when a party on board the small schooner, Cumberland, reached Port Phillip Bay (Port King as it was then termed) for the purpose of making detailed examinations of the Southern Coasts of Australia. The command of this schooner was given to Lieut Robbins of the H.M.S. "Buffalo". The leader of the expedition was Charles Grimes, Surveyor General of New South Wales. With the party was an emancipated convict named James Flemming who reported on the quality of the soil and other agricultural matters. This party mainly leaned on the Eastern side of the Port Phillip Bay and got no further than what is now known as Arthur's Seat. By the12th February 1803 they had victualled the boat with four days' provisions and sailed for the western shores of the port. After exploring the bay, they left it and followed the coast eastwards to Western port, when Grimes embarked on extensive overland treks.
Gov. King was so worried the French would beat them in the race to settle Port Phillip and Van Diemen's Land, he persuaded the British Government established a colony there. Lieut. John Bowen was dispatched to settle the Derwent, landing at Risdon Cove in September 1803. Lieut-Colonel David Collins and an expeditionary party in two ships were despatched from England on 27 April 1803. They established the bay's first white settlement at Sullivan Bay, near what is now Sorrento in October 1803. Water was scarce, the narrow bay entrance was treacherous, timber was in short supply and they were vulnerable to attack. Collins received permission to abandon the camp and move it to Van Diemen's Land and establish Hobart. The Lady Nelson arrived on 21 January and together with the Ocean, it took the first shipload of people and sailed out of the heads at the end of the month for Tasmania.
Gov. Philip Gidley King was still concerned that the British needed to establish a settlement on mainland Australia's southern shores and to this end late in 1804, he sent Lieut Robbins and John Oxley, in the cutter Integrity to examine Western Port with a view to settlement. They returned some weeks later and gave an unfavourable report. In June 1805, Governor King sent Robbins, then age 23, in command of Integrity, to Valparaiso in Chile with letters to the Governor of Chile. The ship with its commander, two mates and eight seamen was never heard from or sighted again. Robbins Island, off the Northwest coast of Tasmania, is named after him.
There is a memorial to Charles Robbins at a hotel named in his honour - The Charles Robbins - at George Town in northern Tasmania.
Model of the Lady Nelson at The Charles Robbins hotel, George Town