Stokes was an explorer and hydrographer, was the son of Henry Stokes. He entered the navy in the Prince Regent in 1824 and was soon transferred to the brig Beagle, in which he served for eighteen years, becoming midshipman in 1825, mate and assistant surveyor in 1831, lieutenant in 1837 and commander in 1841.
After marine surveys of South America in 1826-32 and the voyage around the world described by Charles Darwin in 1833-36, the Beagle was sent under Commander John Wickham to survey Australian waters, arriving in December 1837. During the survey of the Timor Sea in 1839 Stokes was several times entrusted with the closer examination of what is now the Northern Territory coast. He was the first to discover and name the Victoria River and Port Darwin, commemorating his old shipmate. While examining Point Pearce in December 1839 Stokes was speared in the shoulder by Aboriginals, but recovered from his wound and in March 1841 succeeded Wickham in command of the Beagle. Between June and August of that year he surveyed part of the Gulf of Carpentaria, indulging whenever possible ‘the exquisite enjoyment of discovery’ by making excursions inland. He named the Flinders and Albert Rivers, and between them the Plains of Promise, whose pleasing appearance prompted him to foretell the spread of ‘many christian hamlets’ throughout the area. Stokes had not allowed for the fluctuation in northern seasons, and 120 years later the area was still largely unoccupied but for cattle stations. A later piece of prophecy was no more fortunate. In December 1841, while the Beagle was off the coast of Western Australia, Stokes was requested to inspect Port Grey, a site proposed for the Australind settlement on the basis of enthusiastic reports by Captain (Sir) George Grey. Arriving in midsummer, Stokes was not impressed, and the Western Australian Co. accordingly decided to retain the site near Bunbury originally proposed for its settlement. Within ten years the Port Grey-Champion Bay area was settled and later became one of the earliest successful wheat-growing areas in Western Australia. Stokes’s doubtful judgment as a land explorer could not obscure his merits as a marine surveyor. Many of the hydrographic maps prepared by Wickham and Stokes during their North Australian cruises, and later while Stokes was examining Bass Strait in 1842, were still in use during World War II.
After returning to England he published in two volumes Discoveries in Australia (London, 1846). He rose high in the service of the Admiralty, ending as admiral on the retired list in 1877. He spent his retirement on an estate at Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, and died on 11 June 1885.
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