Matthew Flinders

(16 March 1774 – 19 July 1814)

(previous … Discoveries of Bass and Flinders)

Matthew Flinders, Melbourne, AustraliaWhen Flinders eventually returned from Norfolk Island, he obtained leave to join the next vessel that was heading in the direction of the Sydney Cove wreck. Having arrived at Furneaux Island, during the time that the wreckage and remaining cargo was being gathered, he obtained a loan of a boat for five days and in it he made careful surveys of the islands and straits to the north of Van Diemen’s Land. It was on this trip that he made the first discovery of the most unusual of Australian animals, the wombat.

Circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land

In 1798, Governor Hunter gave Flinders and Bass, the two ardent young men, a sloop, the Norfolk, in which to continue their discoveries. They received three months’ leave of absence in which time they proposed to sail around Van Diemen’s Land. On their journey, they discovered the river Tamar and its estuary, Port Dalrymple. And it was not just in discovery alone that they were successful. Flinders made the most beautiful and exact charts of all the coasts, spending sometimes whole days in careful and laborious observations and measurements, in order to have the latitude and longitude in a single place correctly marked.

Nicolas Baudin

As Flinders sailed down towards the Bass Strait, he met with a French expedition, under Nicholas Baudin (February 17, 1754 – September 16, 1803), who had been sent out by Napolean to make discoveries in Australia. He had loitered so long along the coast of Tasmania that Flinders had been able to complete the examination of the southern coast before he even approached it. Yet Baudin sailed into the very bays which had already been mapped out, gave them French names and took it to honour himself with their discoveries. Some months later the two expeditions met one another again at Port Jackson. Flinders showed his charts and the French officers conceded that Flinders had the honour of the discoveries along the south coast. But despite this, Baudin sent home a report home to France claiming he had made the discoveries and made himself out as a hero of Australian discovery (nice one). The colonists at Port Jackson , however, treated the French sailors with much kindness. Many of them were suffering from scurvy and they were transported to the Sydney hospital. The colonists even went so far as to kill the cattle in order to provide fresh meat for the ailing sailors while they ate salt meat. Baudin and his officers were treated well and everything humanly possible was done for them, both by Flinders and the people of Sydney, in order to make them stay tolerable. How Baudin rewarded this kindness will be covered shortly.

Imprisonment of Flinders

Flinders continued his voyage northwards, rounded Cape York and examined the northern coasts, making an excellent chart of Torres Straits. Unfortunately, Flinders vessel was becoming too rotten to be used and he was forced to return to Sydney. Desiring to take his charts and journals back to England, he hitched a ride in an old storeship, but she didn’t get far before striking a coral reef. The crew abandoned ship and were left stranded on a small sandbank for over two months. flinders saved his papers and brought them back to Sydney. A smaller schooner, the Cumberland, was given to him for which he could sail back to England. Unfortunately, she too was leaky (does the man have no luck!) and altogether too miserable a vessel for such a long voyage. To avoid the floundering, Flinders was forced to put into Mauritius, which then belonged to France. He believed his passport from Napolean would be his protection, but Governor De Caen, a low and ignorant fellow, seized him, took his papers from him and threw him into prison.

Baudin the Cad

Some time afterward, Baudin called in at Mauritius but instead of organizing the release of Flinders, he persuaded the Governor to confine him in more harrowing conditions. Then, having taken copies of Flinders’ charts, he sailed for France, where he published a book and received great applause from the French nation, who called him the greatest explorer of the present century, while Flinders the true explorer, was spending the weary hours of confinement on a small island by one of the lakes of Mauritius.

Death of Flinders

Nearly seven years had passed before flinders was released and when he returned to England, he found that people knew all about the places of which he thought he was bringing the first news. Despite this he began to write his great book and worked with the utmost pains to make all the maps scrupulously accurate. After about six years of incessant labour, the three volumes were ready for the press, but he was doomed never to see the final product. So many years of toil, so many nights passed in open boats or on the wet sands, so many shipwrecks and weeks of semi-starvation, together with his long and unjust imprisonment, had utterly destroyed him. On the very day that his book was being published his wife and daughter were spending the last painful hours with him. He was , perhaps, our greatest maritime explorer: a man who worked because his heart was in his work; who sought no reward, and obtained none; who lived laboriously and did honourable service to mankind; yet died, like his friend, Bass, almost unknown to those in his own lifetime, but leaving a name which the world in every year following his death, would appreciate more and more.

(continues … George Bass)