The Mercury – Wednesday, April 10, 2002


The adventures of Matthew Flinders

As part of an on-going series for schools titled Voyages of Discovery - Then and Now, The Mercury's Learning page looks at the voyages of Matthew Flinders, through an article written by Hobart based historian and contributing writer Brendon Bowes.


AT the start of the 19th century, one of Britain’s greatest maritime adventurers prepared to sail into uncharted waters – and into the history books.

In 1801, Matthew Flinders wrote on the eve of his impending voyage to Terra Australis: "My greatest ambition is to make such a minute investigation of this extensive and interesting country that no person shall have occasion to come after me to make further discoveries". This determined and single-minded ambition would subsequently be fulfilled. Yet in his lifetime Flinders suffered tragedies that overshadowed his triumphs. Shipwrecked on two occasions, imprisoned by the French for six and a half years, he was also separated for nine and a half years from his wife after only three months of marriage.

Born at Donnington in Lincolnshire in 1774, Flinders was educated with a curriculum of English, Latin and Greek to prepare him to study medicine. However, after reading Robinson Crusoe and with childhood dreams of exploring the unknown South Seas, he decided on a naval career. After a year studying geometry and navigation at home, in 1790 aged 16 he joined the training ship Alert, later volunteering to go on an expedition with Captain Bligh. On an earlier expedition to deliver breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica, Bligh suffered the mutiny and the loss of the Bounty, but this second voyage ended uneventfully in 1793.

On Flinders’ return, war had been declared with France and he served with distinction in a sea battle, The Glorious First of June. Still dreaming of voyages of discovery, Flinders accompanied Captain Hunter, appointed Governor of New South Wales. As senior midshipman on HMS Reliance his cabin mate was surgeon George Bass. One of the things they discussed on the voyage was whether New South Wales and New Holland (the western portion of the continent named by the Dutch) was one large land mass or two islands. Bass and Flinders made two epic voyages of discovery in small boats. Their rowboat Tom Thumb explored southern coasts of NSW, and the sloop Norfolk circumnavigated Van Diemens Land in 1798-99, discovering Bass Strait.

Lieutenant Flinders returned to England in 1800 and proposed to complete investigation of the coasts of New Holland, a plan approved by the British Admiralty. In 1801 he took command of the 334 ton Investigator, the hull recently sheathed with copper, with a choice of 250 volunteers to fill crew vacancies. Flinders was instructed to make a complete circumnavigation to survey the whole coast of Terra Australis, with special attention to finding a supposed strait dividing the land mass running north - south.

Of Flinders the man, his one great passion was a love of discovery and for adventurous service. His private character appears exemplary, described by contemporaries as a man of integrity with principled intentions, and an agreeable and lively person to converse with. His other love was for Anne Chappelle. They married in April 1801 only three months before he sailed, Anne enduring nearly a decade of separation.

Investigator sighted Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia, on December 6, 1801. After exploring King George Sound, they headed east along the Great Australian Bight. At its eastern extremity the crew began to search for a strait to an inland sea, or a route to the Gulf of Carpentaria. A number of deep gulfs excited their attention, naming Spencer Gulf (after First Lord of the Admiralty) and a port Flinders called Port Lincoln, after his native province. The ship's scientific staff walked inland to a range of hills they named the Flinders Ranges. But by March 9, 1802, Flinders decided that no great channel existed to separate New Holland from New South Wales. Near Spencer Gulf an island was discovered inhabited with kangaroos. After four months without fresh provisions they gratefully named this place Kangaroo Island, the whole crew killing and eating kangaroos. On April 8 the Investigator was cleared for action after a sail was sighted in what is now Encounter Bay, South Australia. It was the Le Geographe, part of a French expedition led by Captain Nicolas Baudin, also exploring unknown parts of Terra Australis. Although England and France had been at war the meeting by the two explorers was cordial.

Again heading east the Investigator explored Port Phillip Bay, Flinders commenting that the country was superior to any seen on the south coast, with deep soil, good grass and a fertile appearance. Emus, kangaroos, black swans abounded, the aborigines better fed than at Port Jackson. Investigator reached Sydney on May 9, after surveying 3700 km of unknown coast. Strict attention to cleanliness and fresh circulation of air meant her crew were in better health and sprits than when they left England.

In stark contrast, when Baudin arrived in Le Geographe on June 20, his men were so sick with disease only 12 out of 170 were fit for duty. Flinders was saddened by the suffering of the French, and Flinders and Baudin exchanged charts.

In July 1802 Investigator and Lady Nelson sailed north to complete Cook's chart of the east coast of Australia. Flinders had also been asked to examine the north-west coast between Trial Rocks and Timor for a passage for use by East India Company ships to open new trade routes. While in the Gulf of Carpentaria the ship’s carpenter was asked to report on the condition of the Investigator. To his dismay Flinders was told it was already unfit to encounter much bad weather and within 12 months there was little sound timber in the hull. Facing a dilemma Flinders decided to speed up his exploration rather than turn back.

Evidence was found for the first time in northern Australia of Malay traders visiting our shores, Investigator meeting a canoe of Macassar Island men.

Timor was reached in March 1803, but crew sickness made completing the circumnavigation an urgent matter. Again they visited Cape Leeuwin and southern waters, arriving at Port Jackson on July 9, 1803. Flinders' triumph was that he had proved that NSW and New Holland were one continent, Terra Australis. With his valuable charts Flinders departed Port Jackson as passenger on the Porpoise in August, 1803, was shipwrecked, and sailed again in September in the Cumberland. The leaking ship meant he made a fateful decision to call at Mauritius, unaware of the resumption of hostilities with France. Accused of spying, Flinders was a prisoner of the cruel General De Caen for six and a half years, his health destroyed by malaria and confinement. Flinders worked on his charts while in detention but in Paris an atlas published with a narrative of the Baudin expedition gave French names to the continental coastline and part of it had been named Terre Napoleon. Released in June 1810, Flinders wrote of his joy and relief: "After captivity for six years, five months and 27 days, I at length had the inexpressible pleasure of being out of reach of General De Caen".

He returned to England to complete an epic book, based on his reports and charts. He wished to use the simple title "Australia" for the continent, but the Admiralty would not agree, and it was published as "A Voyage to Terra Australis" in 1814. When the first copy came from the printer he was already unconscious and he died the following day. However the Lords of the Admiralty had left his widow pensionless. "He died if ever a man did, a martyr to his zeal for his country's service", Anne Flinders wrote sadly of her husband. Flinders' charts of NSW, Van Diemens Land and New Holland, his conclusive proof that no strait separated New Holland from New South Wales, and his suggestion that the entire country be called Australia, have earned him a permanent place in Australian history.