Flinders’ coastal discoveries [chapter 9 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 9 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 12 August 1934.]

The story of Australia— IX.

Flinders’ coastal discoveries

Circumnavigation of Australia

Adventurous voyages in the “Investigator”

The crowning event of the work of Flinders and Bass was the discovery in 1798 that Tasmania was an island. It marked an epoch both in the history of discovery and the progress of commerce. The south of Tasmania could now be avoided, and in our day Bass Strait has become the ordinary highway for the Australian trade. This was the last voyage the two young men took together.

Matthew Flinders was sent northwards in 1799 to explore Glass House Bay and Hervey Bay, discovered by Cook. He named Moreton Island, but he failed to find the Brisbane River, which flowed into what is now called Moreton Bay.

In 1800 Flinders rejoined the Reliance, and sailed for England. He was now 26 years of age, and his great ambition was to be given a command of a ship for the purpose of making a complete exploration of the Australian coast. Before his time various parts of the coast had been discovered by different nations, but as there was no continuous line of exploration it was not definitely known whether these discoveries were part of the same continent.

The first voyage

Flinders was anxious to settle this question, and fortunately he found an enthusiastic friend in Sir Joseph Banks, who had the interests of Australia at heart. Chiefly through his influence, Flinders, in 1801, was promoted to the rank of commander, and appointed to the Investigator, an old ship of 334 tons, for the purpose of exploring the shores of Australia. The ship’s company mustered 88 men, and included Midshipman John Franklin, who subsequently became the great Arctic explorer, and who was lost with all his men in 1846 while attempting to discover the North-west Passage. Flinders sailed on July 12, 1801, resolved as he wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, “That no man shall have occasion to come after me to make further discoveries.”

The continent was first sighted on December 6, 1801, at the old landmark of Leeuwin, which had before been believed to be an island, but was now found to be connected with the mainland, and renamed Cape Leeuwin. He entered King George Sound on December 8, and remained there till January 5, 1802. He coasted the Australian Bight — first seen by Peter Nuyts in 1672 — to Fowler’s Bay, the then known limits of former exploration. All the knowledge gained in the next stage had the merit of original discoveries.

Sailors drowned

By February 20 he had reached Cape Catastrophe, and here the first tragedy of the voyage occurred. On the following night John Thistle, master of the ship, and six sailors set out in a boat to obtain fresh water for the ship. While returning the boat was upset and the whole party was drowned. Flinders felt the loss of his men very keenly. To-day the island at the entrance to the Gulf bears the name of the master, who had served with Flinders since the year 1794.

Port Lincoln, which is just inside Spencer’s Gulf, was entered on February 26. Flinders had decided to make a thorough examination of Spencer’s Gulf, as there was a belief that there was a passage of water running from the Southern Ocean to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north. For five days he conducted a survey, only to find that the waters of the Gulf narrowed to such an extent that his progress was barred at the present site of Port Augusta.

Site of Adelaide

Resuming his voyage, he entered Investigator Channel, and discovered Kangaroo Island. A landing was made on the island and a number of kangaroos were shot to provide fresh meat for the crew. St. Vincent’s Gulf was entered on March 27, and a survey made of the opening. Flinders described the country as “well clothed with forest timber” and “having a fertile appearance.” To-day the city of Adelaide, with its broad streets and gardens, covers the woodland scene described by Flinders.

On April 7 he sailed through Backstairs Passage, and on the following day he met with Commodore Baudin, in the Geographe, at the place now called Encounter Bay. Baudin had been separated from his consort naturaliste in a gale, after examining Tasmania. He erroneously stated that he had explored the southern coast from Western Port to the place of meeting. As a matter of fact, he only explored 150 miles of the coast line. He had actually passed Port Phillip without noticing its entrance.

Parting from Baudin, Flinders continued his voyage, and on April 27 entered an inlet which he supposed to be Western Port. He soon found out his mistake, and concluded that he had discovered a bay of great importance. Subsequently he ascertained that the inlet had been visited by Lieutenant Murray, who had given it the name of Port Phillip.

At Port Phillip

Flinders surveyed the bay and explored the immediate neighbourhood. He put on record his opinion that “a settlement would probably be made at Port Phillip sometime later.” His prophecy came true, and the locality in question is the site on which the great city of Melbourne now stands. On May 9, 1802, Flinders entered Port Jackson and reported to Governor King.

The Investigator vas refitted, and on July 22, 1802, Flinders left Port Jackson and sailed northwards with the intention of making a thorough examination of the coastline Cook had charted, and to survey Torres Strait and the western side of Cape York Peninsula. He discovered Port Curtis (Gladstone) and Port Bowen, which is now called Port Denison, and on which stands the town of Bowen.

But his most valuable services in this quarter were his observations on the Great Barrier Reef, which had been viewed with terror by navigation. To get into the open sea through this reef was to them an impossibility.

The Barrier Reef

Flinders persevered till he discovered a safe gap, and showed succeeding navigators an easy escape from a grave difficulty. Through this opening, which is now called Flinder’s Passage, the Investigator passed to the open sea, and on October 28 was at the entrance of Torres Strait. After doubling Cape York Flinders commenced a survey of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Four months was spent on the work, during which period he examined the whole coast from end to end, including Arnheim Bay.

The Investigator began to show signs of decay, and Flinders proceeded into Timor for repairs. He had explored the three seaboards of Australia, south, east, and north, and the west was still to be surveyed. But the condition of the ship compelled Flinders to abandon the work, and a rapid run was made for Port Jackson by the western coast, but out of sight of land. Cape Leeuwin, the point from which the circumnavigation had started, was reached on May 13, 1803, and on June 9 the Investigator entered Port Jackson, after a voyage taking 10 months and 19 days.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 12 August 1934, p. 29

[Editor: Corrected: “Febraury 20” to “February 20”.]

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