Matthew Flinders: His achievements and tragedy [by Professor Ernest Scott, 20 May 1939]

[Editor: This is part one of the “Men who made Australia” series written by Professor Ernest Scott.]

Men who made Australia

By Professor Ernest Scott

No. 1

Matthew Flinders

His achievements and tragedy

The series of articles of which “The Advertiser” begins publication today has been specially written for it by Professor Ernest Scott, one of the greatest living authorities on early Australian history. The series, as the title implies, deals with great figures in Australia’s past, and appropriately enough the first subject is Captain Matthew Flinders, whose voyages were intimately concerned with South Australia’s beginnings. The second article, which will be published next Saturday, will deal with John Macarthur.

Matthew Flinders is the only man distinguished in Australian history to whom there is a monument in more than one capital city. Sydney has a fine bronze statue of him in Macquarie street; in Melbourne the last important work of the sculptor Web Gilbert stands in a commanding position against the background of St. Paul’s Cathedral; and in Adelaide a bronze statue erected by public subscription adorns North terrace. These three are notable works of art as well as testimonials to the importance of Flinders and his worth as a man. In addition, there is a memorial cairn at Flinders’s landing place on Kangaroo Island; the Flinders column on Mount Lofty: the tablet erected at the expense of St. John Franklin “to the perpetual memory of the illustrious navigator, his honored commander,” at Port Lincoln; the obelisk at Dromana, Victoria: the bronze plaque on the summit of Station Peak, in the You Yangs: and the cairn to the memory of Flinders and his associate George Bass at the Commonwealth Naval Base, Westernport.

These memorials signify as eloquently as bronze and stone can do, a just appreciation of Flinders’s eminence as explorer and navigator, touched also, surely, with sympathetic remembrance of the misfortunes which hastened his death when he was still ripe for further achievement; since he was only 40 when he died, on the day after his “Voyage to Terra Australis” came from the press.

Read Robinson Crusoe

Matthew Flinders as a lad of 15 determined to go to sea “from reading Robinson Crusoe,” as he related in after years. His father, a Lincolnshire doctor, wished him to study medicine, but yielded to the strongly expressed wish of his son. The lad saw some naval warfare in Howe’s victorious fleet. But from the beginning of his naval career he was possessed of a “passion for exploring new countries;” and he rejoiced when the opportunity was offered of accompanying Captain John Hunter, who in 1795 sailed in the Reliance to assume the Governorship of New South Wales.

The surgeon in that ship was George Bass, who had brought with him the timbers of a boat in which he hoped to do a little exploring along unknown coasts. In that boat, the Tom Thumb, the two friends made their first voyage after they reached Sydney, a little later, during the absence of Flinders, whose duty sent him to South Africa to buy livestock for the young settlement, Bass, given the use of a whale boat by the Governor, made his famous discovery of Westernport. Upon the return of Flinders, he and Bass, in the sloop Norfolk, circumnavigated Tasmania, thus proving it to be an island and not part or the mainland, as had been represented on previous charts. Returning to England in 1800, Flinders was commissioned by the Admiralty to command H.M.S. Investigator on a voyage of discovery along the previously unknown coasts of New Holland, as the country was then called.

Between 1801, when Cape Leeuwin was reached, and May, 1802, Flinders discovered and charted Spencer’s and St. Vincent’s Gulfs, Kangaroo Island and Encounter Bay, as well as the coastline from the head of the Great Australian Bight to Port Lincoln. He brought the Investigator into Port Phillip, and congratulated himself with the thought that this was another “new and useful discovery;” but upon his arrival at Sydney he learnt that Lieutenant John Murray, commanding the Lady Nelson, had discovered this harbor ten weeks before, and “had given i; the name of Port Phillip.”

From July 1802 to June 1803, Flinders circumnavigated the continent, thoroughly exploring the Gulf of Carpentaria and discovering Ports Curtis and Bowen. The real shape of Australia and the fact that it was a continent and not a cluster of islands, as geographers up to this time had believed, were now for the first time clearly demonstrated. The west coast, for the most part mapped by the Dutch, was shown to have unbroken connection with the south and east; a wide strait was proved to separate the continent from Tasmania; and the two great gulfs opened the way to the fertile regions of South Australia.

His own charting

The whole of the charting was done by Flinders himself, sometimes from the masthead when rough seas prevented a near approach to the coast; for it was his method, as he wrote, “to see and lay down everything myself.” “Constant attention and much labor” were entailed, but these were “absolutely necessary to obtaining that accuracy of which I was desirous.” By this work the young lieutenant wrote his name large upon the map and enrolled himself in the company of the world’s most famous navigators.

The Investigator was an old ship when the Admiralty bought her, changed her name from Xenophon, which she had borne in the mercantile marine, and equipped her for exploratory service. She was dangerously unseaworthy during the circumnavigation of Australia, and upon arrival in Port Jackson was found to be worn out, “decayed both in skin and bone.” Flinders, then in bad health, was eager to return to England, to publish his charts and a narrative of his discoveries, and to persuade the Admiralty to give him a better ship in which to continue his researches in Australasian seas.

The best course available was to sail as a passenger in the Porpoise, under the command of Lieutenant Fowler. That ship was wrecked on the Barrier Reef. Flinders set forth in a six-oar cutter, appropriately named the Hope, to secure help from Sydney for the shipwrecked party camped on the reef. The Hope reached the harbor in 14 days, and the assistance was immediately dispatched.

For the voyage to England, Flinders could now obtain no better vessel than a 29-ton schooner, the Cumberland. His plan was to sail in company with other ships to Timor, then cross the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope, and thence make for home — a venturesome enterprise in so small a craft. The Cumberland leaked badly, one of her pumps proved worthless, and when she was 23 days out from Timor heavy seas created a grave risk of foundering. Flinders then determined to run for safety to the French colony, Ile-de-France (now called Mauritius), where his broken pump could probably be repaired.

When Flinders left Sydney on September 21, 1803, news had not been received that war between Great Britain and France had broken out. He, therefore, believed that he was safe in entering a French port and asking for assistance. The Governor of Ile-de-France was General Charles Decaen, an experienced soldier whom Napoleon chose for this post with the intention, if his military plans worked out satisfactorily, of launching an attack upon British India.

Ile-de-France was well placed as a base for plundering the vessels of the East India Company; but in the event of British sea power driving French ships out of the Indian Ocean, General Decaen and his garrison would be unable to hold the island. That insecure situation had not yet been reached when the leaky little Cumberland staggered into Baye de Cap, but she was naturally viewed with suspicion.

Flinders was provided with a passport by the Government of France, as a navigator engaged upon exploratory work, just as the French expedition commanded by Baudin was provided with a British passport. He produced the document to the officer who interviewed him, who at once pointed out that the ship named in it was not the Cumberland but the Investigator. The explanation given appeared to be satisfactory, but the officer considered that the matter should be dealt with by the Governor, not by a subordinate.

Under arrest

In due course, Flinders was brought before General Decaen, and examined as to his reasons for putting in at Ile-de-France. He gave perfectly frank answers to the questions and produced his log-book, with the passages which corroborated his statements marked. But he was under arrest at this time, and was irritated by this indignity, and also by the doubt which seemed to be cast upon his explanations. As he said to himself later, he felt that he had been insulted both as an officer and as a man.

While Flinders was in that mood, an officer came to him from the Governor conveying an invitation from Madam Decaen to dine with them. He bluntly refused to accept it, adding, however that if the general would first set him at liberty he would accept the invitation with pleasure. The reply was regarded by Decaen as an affront to his wife as well as to himself, and he sent an aide-de-camp to say that he would renew the invitation when Captain Flinders was at liberty. That was a threat; and indeed liberty did not come to him for six and a half years.

Decaeu, in the Memoirs which he wrote about his very interesting career, said that if Madame Decaen’s invitation had been politely received it “would have brought about a change favorable to his position through the conversation which would have taken place.”

That is probably true. The present writer has had the opportunity of studying not only the book by Prentout on the administration of Ile-de-France by Decaen, but also those parts of the General’s manuscripts which are relevant to the Flinders episode, in the Public Library of the ancient Norman city of Caen, where he was born. The impression given is that he was a somewhat peppery soldier, often hasty in his decisions, stern, but essentially a just man, and a most efficient administrator. Looking at the case from his point of view, Flinders appeared to have been rude; looking at it from Flinders’ point of view, he ought never to have been put under arrest, and should have been released before courtesies were offered to him.

The unfortunate result was that Decaen, instead of dealing with the case himself, sent a report about it to Paris and awaited instructions from the French Government. But a great war was raging and communications between France and the island in the Indian Ocean were made difficult, and ultimately impossible, by the vigilance of British cruisers. There is good reason to believe that Decaen expected that Flinders would be detained about a year but that period was lengthened through events beyond his control.

Scientific men, especially Sir Joseph Banks in England and Bougainville in France, interested themselves in the case. It was through their intervention that the fate of Flinders was at length, in 1806, brought before Napoleon and his Council of State, and an order was dispatched to Decaen, in a British ship under a flag of truce, that he should restore to Captain Flinders his liberty and his ship.

Order disobeyed

Decaen, however, refused to give effect to the order. Why? The reason is plain. Flinders had now been living in the island more than four years. During a large part of this period he resided with a friendly family in pleasant country surroundings, and made a number of friends there. He was in all probability quite well informed as to the true state of the defences. It was Decaen’s duty to hold on as long as he could. No reinforcements had come to him, nor were any likely to be sent. Napoleon needed all the troops he could get for his European campaigns. The military situation was such that the British could, if they knew the truth, capture Ile-de-France easily, as indeed they did when they made an effort. If Flinders had been released immediately after the receipt of Napoleon’s order, he would have communicated all he knew to the Admiralty, so he was detained till 1810, when Decaen realised that the game was up, a few months before Ile-de-France was captured by assault.

It has been alleged in several books that during Flinders’s captivity his charts and journals were sent to Paris and used by the French officers who came to Australia with Baudin’s expedition in 1802, to enable them to claim credit for discoveries which they did not make. There is no truth in that charge. Flinders’s papers were taken up in a trunk when they were taken from him. From time to time he desired to take some of them from the trunk to enable him to continue writing his book and making his charts. On each of these occasions the seals were broken in his presence; and after he had taken out what he wanted the trunk was again sealed. He did not charge anyone with taking away any of his papers, nor is there any reason for supposing that any-were taken.

But he was a broken man when he regained his liberty. During the last months of his life he worked sedulously at his book — that book in which he gave the name Australia to this country, though he was compelled by authority to use the old name “Terra Australis” on his title page. He died in July, 1814. Flinders ranks next to Cook in respect to the extent of his discoveries in Australian waters, but second to none in regard to the scientific thoroughness of his work, his diligence in exploration, and happily in his ultimate success in abolishing the old names “New Holland” and “Terra Australis,” and giving to this continent the name which it is proud to possess. His great example, too, encouraged his grandson, a veteran who still lives, Professor Sir Matthew Flinders Petrie, to devote his life to the exploration of the history and archaeology of the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Syria.

Alert, rich mind

Flinders lived before photography was invented, and to judge of him as he appeared in his lifetime we have to depend upon weak sources. The two painted portraits by amateur artists, and the engraving made from one of them, convey an imperfect impression of the man as his friends knew him. Though short in stature, he was noted for his alert, lively, and commanding expression. With this went a vigorous disposition and a keen mind. Socially he was a delightful talker, illustrating his comments from a rich store of memories of a life crowded with adventure and incident. He was widely read, especially in the literature of the sea, and both from professional training and natural instinct was a sharp and exact observer. Critical of his own work and that of those serving under him, he was also extremely careful of the comfort and welfare of his subordinates. There are several instances of men who voyaged with him seeking to come again under his command.

In a period when promotion came rapidly to competent naval officers who showed initiative and high intelligence, Flinders deliberately chose a career in which the rewards were unlikely to be so liberal. Like La Perouse, whom he greatly admired, he had “drunk delight of battle,” but from the beginning of his naval career he wanted to devote himself to exploration. “I chose a branch,” he wrote in a letter, “which, though less rewarded by rank and fortune, is yet little less in celebrity; if adverse fortune does not oppose me, I will succeed.” His success was in that field where, in his day, there was the greatest scope for the work he loved, and the map of Australia bears witness to its scope and value.

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 20 May 1939, page 22

[Editor: The editorial introduction to this article has been italicized, so as to distinguish it from the text written by Professor Scott.]

Speak Your Mind