King was for some years the only Australian-born man elevated to prominence outside the Australian colonies. King was a distinguished navigator and a marine surveyor, and towards the end of his life was promoted to rear admiral. Between 1817 and 1822 he undertook four major voyages, surveying Australia’s waters and coastline. In 1826-1830 he conducted the major marine survey of South America.
This South American survey reads like a prelude to the famous voyage during which young Charles Darwin was inspired to modernise the theory of evolution. The Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego was charted and named after HMS Beagle, then under the command of Captain Pringle Stokes, who killed himself, afflicted by depression. Subsequently, Robert Fitzroy became the captain of the Beagle. Stokes’ suicide later persuaded Fitzroy to consider Darwin as a companion for his long journey around the world, to moderate his own predisposition for depression. During the same survey Captain Fitzroy abducted Orundellico (Jeremy Button) along with three other indigenous Fuegians, who were later returned to their homeland by Fitzroy and Darwin. The expedition made an extensive collection of biological and geological specimens (see A Rock from Cape Horn).
King, a prolific writer, produced extensive accounts of his explorations, published in several volumes, some with his own illustrations. He ventured into colonial politics, big business, agriculture, and had one of the largest land holdings in Sydney. In his busy life he also found time to sit on the first Board of Trustees of the Australian Museum.
King was associated with prominent people of his time, such as Captain Matthew Flinders, botanist Allan Cunningham, and even Charles Darwin himself, whom he entertained at his residence in Sydney in early 1836. In June the same year he was on his way to Torres Strait, again, with Commander Morgan Lewis in search for the survivors of the Charles Eaton shipwreck.
This expedition to Torres Strait resulted in one of the earliest collections of anthropology materials acquired by the Australian Museum, as well as one of the first extensive English descriptions of Torres Strait Islanders and their culture.
Australian Museum Catalogue 1837; A Voyage to Torres Strait 1837;