Inside the Collection

An Australian Explorer’s Sextant

Sextant, used by Phillip Parker King, made by Matthew Berge, London, England, 1805-1819
Sextant, used by Phillip Parker King, made by Matthew Berge, London, England, 1805-1819

Like many early scientific instruments that made their way to Australia this particular sextant is doubly significant. For while it played an important role in Australia’s early colonial history it was also manufactured by one of the foremost instrument makers of the early 19th century.

It was made by Matthew Berge an apprentice of the famed London scientific instrument maker Jesse Ramsden and is signed ‘Berge late Ramsden”. The reason for the two names being that Matthew took over running the shop when Ramsden died in 1800 and the instruments he produced bore both names prior to Berge himself dying in 1819.

One of the secrets to Ramsden’s success was his invention of a dividing machine which allowed makers to cut very fine graduations into their instruments. Berge appears to have used Ramsden’s dividing engine to create the amazingly detailed silver scale on this small instrument. Another feature of this sextant is a foot for the pillar stand on the exterior of its wooden box and the black finish used to lower the reflections. All of which suggest the instrument was made a few years before Berge’s death in 1819.

Philip Parker King, engraving from Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, Vol. 2, Sydney, 1886
Phillip Parker King, engraving from Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, Vol. 2, Sydney, 1886

Another reason this navigating instrument is so significant is because it is one of a number of items acquired by the Museum from relatives of Governor King. We originally believed it belonged to Governor Philip Gidley King but as King had retired as Governor in 1804, and was so ill he had to delay his trip back to England (where he died in 1808), it seems more likely that it was purchased by his son Phillip Parker King in London around 1817 for his surveying expedition of the western coast of Australia. If this is the case then this instrument played a pivotal role in this surveying project and King certainly looked after this little instrument remarkably well considering its many years at sea.

As a native born son P. P. King played as important a role in the development of New South Wales as his father Governor Philip Gidley King. He was born on Norfolk Island in 1791 to Philip Gidley King’s legal wife Anna and after the family returned to England in 1796 joined the Royal Navy in 1897. When his father and mother returned to New South Wales P.P. King stayed in England but fate was to bring him back to Australia when, in 1817, the navy decided to survey the western coast of Australia and perhaps due to his links to the country appointed King, now a lieutenant, to the task.

He arrived in Sydney in September 1817 and by December had embarked on an especially fitted out cutter, the ‘Mermaid’, to the North West Cape where the survey was to begin. Returning to Sydney in 1820 for repairs the ship was completely submerged in attempt to rid the decks of both cockroaches and rats. In 1821, after being promoted to commander, King made a survey of northern Australia in the “Bathurst”. He briefly returned to Sydney in April 1822 before being recalled to England where he became the English representative of the Australian Agricultural Co. and becoming a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

In 1826 he published his ‘Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia’ which was partly illustrated with his own sketches. The wanderlust apparently continued to beckon King as in May of the same year he took command of H.M.S. ‘Adventure’ which sailed with H.M.S. ‘Beagle’ (whose company included Charles Darwin) to chart the coasts of Peru, Chile and Patagonia. He returned in 1830 in poor health but now promoted to captain, and a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council, to which he was appointed in absentia. We are not sure but it is possible that this little sextant survived all King’s journeys, and the fact it is in such good condition may be due in some part to the exquisitely made wooden case which traces the contours of the instrument as well as providing a base once set up.

King returned to New South Wales in 1832 but had to wait until 1839 to get a seat on the Council, ironically he was soon after appointed resident commissioner of the Australian Agricultural Co. (AAC) and had to resign this seat. King continued to do valuable survey work in the colony recording his observations in the Murrumbidgee, visiting New Zealand and Norfolk Island in the Pelorus, and surveying the area around Parramatta, Newcastle and Port Stephens. Over the same period the AAC tried to establish monopolies on coal and sell wool but its main investments were tied up in land grants and these were eventually freed up for sale between 1845 and 1847. King was a well respected figure by this time and when the Parramatta Observatory was scheduled for closure it was done so on the basis of King’s report.

By 1854 sickness had begun to dog King and one evening in February 1856, while walking home after dining on board H. M. S. ‘Juno’, he had a stroke outside the gates of his home ‘Grantham’ at St. Leonard’s. He expired at half-past two in the morning of the Tuesday 27 Of February.

Geoff Barker, 2012

Anita McConnell, At the sign of the Golden Spectacles, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2007Burlington, VT, USA, 2007
P.R. de Clerq, Nineteenth Century Scientific Instruments and Their Makers, CIP-Gegevens Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, Amsterdam, 1985
‘King, Phillip Parker (1791 – 1856)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, Melbourne University Press, 1967, 61-64
The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 February 1856, pp. 4-5

2 responses to “An Australian Explorer’s Sextant

  • Berge was more than an apprentice; heĀ operated Ramsden’s manufactory. Ramsden willed the business to Berge, who marked his instruments “Berge London Late Ramsden” in order to associate himself with Ramsden, the world’s preeminent maker of scientific instruments in the 18th century.

  • Interesting but your comment about King’s expedition to the Magellan Straits in 1826 is incorrect. Charles Darwin was NOT in the ship’s company on that occasion. Darwin embarked on the voyage of HMS Beagle in 1831 – 1836 with Captain Robert Fitzroy and on which PP King’s son was a midshipman. Darwin finally decided to join the voyage after discussions with and assurances from PP King.

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