Tobias Furneaux, Plymouth's Most Accomplished Navigator

PUBLISHED: 17:57 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013

Tobias Furneaux ( pic credit Robin Brooks)

Tobias Furneaux ( pic credit Robin Brooks)

Circumnavigation and cannibals were just all in a days work for this adventurer from Plymouth's Devonport as Lawrence McNeela discovered.

Like so many other boys, I was raised on the adventures of Cook, Drake and Nelson, but had never heard of Plymouth's most accomplished navigator, Tobias Furneaux. Born 21 August 1735, he entered the Royal Navy as midshipman aged 20 and served in both the Seven Years War and the War of American Independence, but it was his adventures in between that would accord Tobias Furneaux a place in the annals of naval history.

At 5am on a July morning in 1766, HMS Dolphin weighed anchor and set sail from Plymouth with 30-year-old Tobias Furneaux on board as Second Lieutenant. The Dolphin's mission was 'to discover a continent of great extent never yet explored or seen between the Straits of Magellan and New Zealand'. In other words, they were looking for Australia.

It was to be a long and arduous voyage lasting nearly two years. The small ship was laden with scientific equipment and Furneaux's cabin measured just eight foot by six foot. It took five months to reach the Straits, where the weather was so bad and the waters so difficult to navigate that progress was limited to just one mile per day for nearly two months.

Worse was to follow when the Pacific Ocean was finally reached. Scurvy struck down many of the crew including the Captain and First Lieutenant, and Furneaux was relied upon to take command. Amongst his duties now was the discovery of new lands. In June 1767 he made the discovery of Tahiti and claimed it for the Crown.

The Dolphin failed to discover Australia, and the return to England was extremely difficult; the weather so poor that on one occasion it was impossible to see one end of the ship from the other. An epidemic cut down no fewer than 40 of the 110 men aboard. However, when Furneaux safely reached our shores in May 1768, he had no idea that the hardships faced on his next voyage around the globe would be even greater.

Promoted to Commander of the Adventure, sister ship to Cook's Resolution, Furneaux set sail in July 1772 on a voyage that would last two years. Within six months he became the first man to cross the Antarctic Circle. Conditions on board were harsh, as outlined by the Second Lieutenant who described a vessel where men shared cramped living conditions with large numbers of cattle, sheep and poultry; of frozen sails and ropes cutting the sailors' hands; of men suffering chapped faces, eye troubles and scurvy.

The fabled Great Southern Land was never found during this momentous voyage and terrible weather saw the ships separated more than once. Tragedy struck when a party of seemingly friendly Maori killed and ate no fewer than ten of Furneaux's crew after they were sent ashore to forage for fresh greens at Grass Cove in New Zealand. All the search party found of these men was a single severed hand and shoes, and dogs chewing upon hearts and lungs strewn about a deserted beach.

Sight of the Resolution lost, Furneaux was forced to sail the 8,333 miles home alone. He wrote in his log: "The birds were our only companions in this vast ocean, except now and then we saw a whale or porpoise". No wonder then that he spoke of the great joy of all the sailors when they finally returned home in July 1774. Furneaux had even more reason to feel happy, having achieved the honour of becoming the first man to circumnavigate the world in both directions.

In Plymouth there is not much to commemorate his achievements, merely a rather forlorn-looking grave in Stoke Damerel churchyard. Neglected and uncared for, his final resting place displays rather poignantly his role as a man overlooked by history.

One man determined to change this is maritime artist Robin Brooks. Operating from his studio in Black Dog, near Crediton, Robin has made it his life's work to depict in a series of 47 paintings the hardships and glories Furneaux and Cook experienced during the second circumnavigation.

Each painting begins with close study of the ships' logs, noting wind speed and direction, the positions of the ships to one another and how their sails were set. Models are then built and played with upon a studio floor that begins to resemble a stage set - all this before any actual painting takes place.

Robin explains his fascination with Furneaux: "The most extraordinary things happened on his second voyage, with ships lost and men eaten, the most terrible sufferings and toils experienced. And history has largely forgotten him while everybody knows about Cook. That seems desperately unfair."

He may be long-forgotten in his home town, but the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait, named after him by Captain Cook, will commemorate this great adventurer forever. ?

Swilly House

Furneaux was born in Swilly House, a beautiful Georgian mansion with parts dating back to Tudor times, and set within 50 acres of rolling Devon pastures. It was described in a 19th-century guidebook as 'agreeably situated in a sheltered lawn... set amongst well kept gardens and pleasant sylvan surroundings'.

It boasted nine bedrooms and extensive suites for entertaining and pleasure. There were also five acres of gardens, including a vinery, fruit trees and old-world rose garden. According to Viner, Carew & Co, the auctioneers instructed to sell the property in 1926, these all combined to 'suggest romantic illusions of a bygone age'.

However, the winning bidder was Plymouth Corporation who wasted no time in demolishing the lovely old house to make way for a new council housing estate, the city's response to the Housing Act 1919 requiring it to provide homes fit for the heroes of the Great War.

Well designed with lots of open space and trees, the estate was initially a great success. However, by then filled with poorer families from nearby Devonport, Swilly began to gain a reputation for poverty and crime during the 1950s it has yet fully to shake off.

But even Plymouth City Council has forgotten where this great house once stood despite being responsible for knocking it down! They placed their historic marker indicating the spot half a mile away on a petrol station wall.

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