Furneaux Group


Curzona Allport, 'Flinders Island', undated (ALMFA, SLT)

The Furneaux Group contains more than fifty islands, and is situated in eastern Bass Strait through latitude 40 to Tasmania's north-east. Isolation, a turbulent history and a free-spirited independence add a unique flavour to the group's largely unspoiled natural beauty. The Group contains 1992 square kilometres with a population in 2003 of 934, and the three largest islands are Flinders, Cape Barren and Clarke. Major industries are fishing, stock rearing and tourism. Access is by air and sea. Flinders has two main towns: Whitemark, the administrative and commercial centre, and Lady Barron, its fishing centre and main port.

The Furneaux have a maritime climate but are subject to strong winds the Roaring Forties. Mountainous granite backbones support extensive lowlands. There is a wide variety of wildlife and over 150 bird species, including the muttonbird and Cape Barren goose. For many species of flora and fauna Flinders Island is the southernmost habitat of Australia, for others the northernmost habitat.

There is evidence of Aboriginal occupation over 4000 years ago, but the Group was named for Captain Tobias Furneaux who sighted some of the islands in 1773 and thought they were part of mainland Australia. Early European-based events greatly influenced the history of Australia. The first shipwreck of a merchant vessel in 1797 and subsequent rescue of the survivors of the Sydney Cove from Preservation Island led to the establishment of the first permanent settlement south of Sydney in 1798 at Kent Bay, Cape Barren Island, by sealers who provided Australia's first export industry of sealskins and oil. Matthew Flinders was involved in the rescue and this fired his interest. Further exploration with George Bass confirmed the existence of Bass Strait, which greatly shortened voyages to New South Wales. The survival of Tasmania's Aboriginal people was assisted by enforced participation in the sealers' (later called Straitsmen) society by Aboriginal women from mainland Tasmania and Australia.

From 1831 to 1847, Wybalenna on Flinders Island operated as a base for survivors of Tasmanian Aboriginal tribes. Gradually European pioneers came to the Furneaux, George Boyes being the first official settler on Flinders Island in 1889. By the 1920s, rural industries included fishing, muttonbirding, dairying and sheep. The Land Settlement Scheme from 1951 into the 1960s saw a large population increase and the opening up of Flinders Island's eastern side with a population shift from the Outer Islands.

Further reading: S Murray-Smith (ed), Bass Strait, Sydney, 1987; S Bayley, Draft Furneaux natural resource management strategy, Whitemark, 1999; J Edgecombe, Flinders Island and eastern Bass Strait, Melbourne, 1986.

Kayleen Mort