1774 - 1814
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Mathew Flinders was born on the 16th of March 1774 in Donington, Lincolnshire to Mathew Flinders Sr. (a surgeon) and Susannah Ward.
His parents did not encourage him to go to sea but Flinders had been inspired by reading Defoe's book Robinson Crusoe. The book appears to have remained important to him as he ordered a copy of a new edition only 2 weeks before he died.
Mathew's uncle (John Flinders) was in the Royal Navy and Mathew wrote to him asking about what sort of life it was. The reply was hardly inspiring as his uncle told him that promotions were rare, influential friends were the best way to get ahead and the navy was rife with favouritism. Mathew was not put off and began studying navigation.
In the end it was a family connection that put Mathew in touch with Captain (later Admiral) Thomas Pasley.
Mathew joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman aboard the Bellerophon (2) in October 1789 and then transferred as Captain Bligh's (Mutiny on the Bounty fame) lieutenant aboard the ship Providence in 1791. This voyage took him to New Guinea and Torres Strait of which he wrote:
'No space of three and a half degrees in length presents more dangers than Torres Strait.'
Bligh was very pleased with the work done by Flinders and on the ship's return to England in 1793, a strong recommendation from Bligh, enabled Mathew to re-join the Bellerophon under (now) Rear Admiral Pasley.
France and England were now at war and during action on what became known as 'The glorious first of June.' (1794), Flinders opened fire on a French ship before orders were given and he received a tongue in cheek rebuff from his commander. Soon afterward Pasley lost his leg to a French cannon ball and had to be taken below.
The battle was a British victory but not a thoroughly convincing one. Pasley survived his wound but would never again put to sea. Flinders was later to remember his commander with affection and named Cape Pasley (sometimes incorrectly spelled Paisley) in his honour.
In 1795 Mathew came out to Port Jackson aboard the Reliance with George Bass (also from Lincolnshire). While the two men were at the port they used two small boats (both christened Tom Thumb due to their small size) to explore part of the coast with one other crew member. On the second trip the boat was caught in a gale in the open sea and the three men were very lucky to find shelter at what was later named Wattamolla Bay.
The Reliance was leaking badly and needed repairs so while Flinders attended to that duty, Bass was to sail in a small open boat and explore the coast of what is now the state of Victoria. He got to within a day's sail of Port Phillip Bay (at the head of which Melbourne now stands) before turning back but he was now convinced that Tasmania was a separate island. Although this first trip did not provide conclusive proof, during the following voyage Bass and Flinders circumnavigated Tasmania and finally any argument on the subject was put to rest. The discovery of Bass Strait cut the journey from England to Sydney by a week.
Bass returned to England and despite re-visiting Port Jackson on and off, he was never to meet his friend Flinders again. Bass sailed from Sydney for the last time in February 1803 and was never seen again. (It is believed that Bass was captured by the Spanish when he was involved in smuggling goods from South America and may have ended his days as a slave in a Spanish silver mine.)
In 1798 Mathew was officially promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and was given command of the sloop Norfolk. (He had for some time been an acting Lieutenant.) In 1800 he returned to England aboard the Reliance.
At the age of 27 he was given command of the Investigator. He married his childhood sweetheart (Ann Campbell - quoted as Ann Chappelle or Chappell in other sources) and soon afterward was sent on a mission to explore the Australian coastline. He asked for permission to take his new bride with him and even tried to smuggle her aboard, but permission was denied. He was not to see her again for ten long years.
As France and England were once again at war, Flinders needed a passport of safe passage from the French so that he would not be attacked. As The French already had an expedition headed for Australia, they deliberately held up issuing the passport and Flinders was 9 months behind the French explorer Baudin when he set sail.
While still in British waters, the Investigator ran aground on a sand bar that was not marked on the chart provided by the Admiralty. Mathew saw it as his duty to report the incident to prevent other such accidents but despite the fact that no damage had occurred and Flinders was in no way responsible for the mishap, he was roundly criticized by the Admiralty.
Flinders had to kick his heels and wait for the French to issue the passport. This they finally did and he received it on the 20th of July 1801.
Shortly after leaving the English Channel the Investigator developed a series of leaks and Flinders stopped at Madeira for repairs and again at Cape Town but still the leaking persisted.
Flinders (without the supply problems encountered by Baudin) had made good time and had gained ground on the French expedition. Averaging 140 milers a day the Investigator arrived off Cape Leeuwin on December 6th 1801. He had gained a full 3 months on the French.
Mathew Flinders sailed east and spent some time refitting his ship while resting at anchor in Princess Royal Harbour. With him on the voyage was Mr. Brown, a Botanist. Strangely his name is almost forgotten but he was responsible for collecting some 4,000 specimens of flora (representing about a third of the flora found in Australia). He was also the first to make contact with the local Aborigines giving them various gifts.
After three weeks Flinders started heading east again charting the coast as he did so. When passing through the Recherche Archipelago he was surrounded by islands and reefs. With the light fading he made the decision to head for the mainland in the hopes of finding safe anchorage and this he did, naming the place Lucky Bay.
While near the Eyre Peninsula, Flinders lost 8 men who drowned when the ship's boat overturned while they were searching for fresh water. Flinders named the place Cape Catastrophe.
In the hope of finding a passage north to the Gulf of Carpenteria, Flinders followed the coast into what turned out to be just a large inlet. He named it the Spencer Gulf. From the head of the gulf the expedition turned south east and sailed along the shore to discover Kangaroo Island. At this stage the English and French expeditions were only about 600 miles away from each other and getting closer by the day.
In March 1802 Flinders met Nicolas Baudin with the ships Geographe and Naturaliste. (The other captains were Hamelin and De Freycinet. )
Baudin had arrived off the West Australian coast before Flinders had even left
England, but upon reaching Cape Leeuwin, Baudin sailed north
and spent time in Timor before re-tracing his route down the
west coast and heading east across the Bight.
Baudin met Flinders at what was then named Encounter Bay. The two explorers swapped charts and Baudin was incautious enough to belittle the work done by both Vancouver and Flinders to Flinders' face before he realised that the man he was talking to was the one who had drawn the chart he was criticising. Both captains were unaware that there were not many miles away from the mouth of the greatest river in Australia, the Murray. The discovery of this would have overshadowed almost everything else they had seen.
‘On going on board I requested to see their passport which was shown to me and I offered mine for inspection, but Captain Baudin put it back without looking at it . . . Captain Baudin . . . finding that we had examined the south coast of New Holland thus far, I thought he appeared to be somewhat mortified.’
Flinders' Log Book, 9 April 1802
Flinders then sailed to Port Jackson (Sydney) to refit and re-supply but not before almost being wrecked in a storm and discovering what we know today as Port Phillip Bay. (It turned out that Port Phillip had already been discovered but Flinders didn't know this at the time.) Baudin now went to Kangaroo Island before turning back to winter at Port Jackson at Flinders' invitation. Despite the fact that the British and French were technically at war at the time, Baudin was treated with all courtesy and not detained.
Flinders had orders to focus his attention on the south coast of Australia but as the winter gales had set in and he was not inclined to waste time sitting in port he had the Investigator repaired (yet again) and set sail to the north. This time Finders was accompanied by the ship Lady Nelson. (1)
Sailing north close to the coast he found himself becoming more and more surrounded by reefs. The Lady Nelson lost her anchors and was sent back to Port Jackson while the Investigator went on alone to try and find a passage through the reefs into open water.
Eventually Flinders found a way out of the reef (The Great Barrier Reef) and sailed further north but time was running out as the monsoon season approached.
The ever leaky Investigator was now almost ready to fall apart and Flinders had to abandon hopes of charting the north west coast. He made for Timor to re-supply and while he was in port he replenished his water supply from the source that had had such disastrous results for the French expedition. It was not long before members of the crew began to die from dysentery. With the ship rotting away beneath him it was all Flinders could do to get back to Port Jackson.
On June 10th 1803 the Investigator finally limped back into port. The ship was in such a bad state that she was condemned and was never again to set sail. Flinders is often quoted as being the first to complete a circumnavigation of Australia close to the coast but in reality he was too far from both the northern coast and the west coast to be given this distinction. The first man to complete a close circumnavigation of the Australian coast was in fact P.P. King.
Flinders could do no more so he arranged passage back to England aboard the Porpoise. The Porpoise, Cato and Bridgewater sailed north along the east coast and had gone a little over 740 nautical miles when disaster struck.
First the Porpoise and then the Cato struck reefs at night and a desperate effort was made to save not only lives but the precious maps and journals Flinders had made.
The following day saw 108 survivors in two boats make it to a sand bank that lay just above high water. Some supplies had been salvaged and Flinders had managed to retrieve his documents. The Bridgewater had been seen making away from the reefs but come daylight she stayed out to sea and finally in a shameful act, sailed away without rendering assistance. The Third Mate (Williams) of the Bridgewater was later sent ashore by Captain Palmer with a written report indicating that there had been no survivors. Williams verbally contradicted this report and in disgust walked off the ship (forfeiting his pay and some possessions in doing so). He made the right decision as it turned out as the Bridgewater vanished after leaving Bombay and was never seen again.
As hours turned into days it became obvious that no rescue was coming so Flinders and 13 men took one of the boats and sailed south in the hope of reaching Port Jackson.
The survivors busied themselves making two more craft from the remains of the ships. With three months supply of food and water they had no immediate danger but the time spent on a sand bank just 200 by 300 yards and just above high water mark could not have been pleasant.
In just 12 days Flinders sailed the small boat almost 1100 kilometres and reached Port Jackson safely. In the rush to return for survivors he selected the Cumberland (a ship that was to turn out to have even more leaks than the Investigator) and accompanied by the Ralla (Rolla?) and Francis he returned to a hero's welcome on the sandy atoll just 19 days later.
The survivors were taken to safety, some continuing with the Ralla to Canton and others returning to Port Jackson. The Cumberland (the very small 29 ton leaky Cumberland with unreliable pumps) sailed for England. During this voyage Flinders charted a new route through the Torres Straits which is today known as the Cumberland Strait. Some of the charts Flinders drew during this trip were still in use as late as 1969.
After calling in to Timor again and being unable to repair his pumps, Flinders continued west toward the east coast of Africa. Although Flinders had not originally intended to go to Mauritius, the condition of the boat and the weather compelled him to do so.
The Cumberland arrived off the south end of Mauritius on the same day the Geographe sailed for France. Unknown to Flinders, Britain and France were once again at war and he had arrived on French territory with a passport for a scientific mission in a ship called the Investigator but he was now without a single scientist and in a different ship. To make matters worse the trouble maker Peron had told the French Governor that Flinders was a spy. This was an interesting charge considering the little sneak Peron, had been engaged in espionage while he was a guest at Port Jackson.
After being detained and questioned, Flinders lost his temper (just when the Governor seemed to be offering him an olive branch) and refused an invitation to dinner. The French Commander (General Decaen) now detained Flinders while he sent for orders from France.
Flinders was now a prisoner of war and for some time was kept in very uncomfortable conditions. He did manage to smuggle some of his maps back to England but it was to be a very long time before he would get there himself. In a letter to Joseph Banks, Flinders suggested the name Australia be applied to the continent he had circumnavigated but it was not a popular choice in London.
Although his conditions were vastly improved after giving his word not to attempt to escape, Flinders had to kick his heels once more and wait for the French Government to act on his imprisonment. This it finally did in March 1806, but on receiving the release order, Decaen refused to act on it. It was not until a British invasion of Mauritius was imminent that the French Commander finally gave in and consented to Mathew's release.
On June 13th 1810 Mathew Flinders was finally released. By October 24th he was home with his long suffering wife Ann.
Flinders was greatly disappointed to find that although the Admiralty would publish his charts there was no interest in a written account of the voyage and by now he had become aware of the lies Peron and Freycinet had published. So with little money to spare he set about financing the book himself.
For the final years of his life Mathew worked tirelessly on the manuscripts. By 1813 an introduction had been published but Flinders was now a very sick man and his family was always short of cash.
On July 19th 1814 just one day after his book was first published, Mathew Flinders died aged only 40. The first copies were rushed round to his home but he was not well enough to see them and all Ann could do was to place a copy on his bed so his hand could rest upon it.
Unfortunately for Ann the book did not sell well and she and her daughter were to face a very frugal existence. An appeal to the Admiralty for a widow's pension was rejected and finally the New South Wales and Victorian governments heard of her difficulties and approved a pension of 100 pounds a year. Sadly the first payment only arrived a year after she had passed away.
Today Mathew Flinders is remembered in the country he sailed around, with his name gracing some 90 features (none of which he named himself it must be pointed out). He is largely forgotten in England but his greatest legacy lives in the the name Australia. The name may not have been popular in London but it caught on in New South Wales and P.P. King's charts were all sent back to England with the title 'Australia' upon them. Finally the Hydrographic Office published the name on a map in 1830 and it was at long last official.
Like Nicolas Baudin, Mathew Flinders' grave has also been lost to the passage of time.
Despite the claims, Flinders was not actually the first to circumnavigate Australia (Lt. Henry Lidgbird Ball aboard HMS Supply was possibly the first) but the real title belongs to P.P. King who was the first to do a detailed examination of the whole coastline.
An Aborigine (Bongaree) who travelled on the Investigator with Flinders was almost certainly the first Aborigine to sail round Australia.
Flinders was apparently the first to notice that a ship had an effect on compass readings and he came up with a way of counteracting this that was to become known as the 'Flinders Bar'. It became an essential part of a ship's navigational equipment for the next 150 years.
Flinders' grandson was the famous Egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie.
Only Queen Victoria has more statues dedicated to her in Australia than Mathew Flinders.