Matthew Flinders, Circumnavigator of the Australian Continent

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Watercolour miniature portrait of British navigator Matthew Flinders, dated about 1800.

Born in 1774, Matthew Flinders joined the Royal Navy at the age of fifteen. He was a crew member with Captain William Bligh aboard HMS Providence when it passed by Tasmania in 1792, en route to Tahiti to collect a consignment of breadfruit. After seeing action against the French in 1794 Flinders was then posted to HMS Reliance as a midshipman on its voyage to the new colony of New South Wales.

Matthew Flinders’ Early Experience of Australia

Proving himself a talented seaman and navigator and having been promoted to lieutenant, Flinders was given a small boat on which to make short journeys of discovery. Along with George Bass in 1798 he was the first to sail between the mainland of Australia and Tasmania, opening up the passage that would bear Bass’s name and which would save several days on the journey from England to Botany Bay and Port Jackson.

A trip to the Cape of Good Hope followed to purchase livestock for the colony. It was on this voyage that Flinders acquired his famous ship’s cat Trim. Back in Port Jackson, Flinders was assigned a northern expedition that took him as far as Moreton Bay.

Flinders returned to England in 1800. His reputation was by now secure and his star continuing on the rise with the support of Sir Joseph Banks and other leaders of Britain’s science community. When an expedition was launched to chart the complete coastline of the great southern land still known as New Holland, Flinders was given command. This was fashioned as a scientific expedition to lands already discovered but hardly known.

Flinders’ Mission to Chart Australia’s Coast

On 18 July 1801 the 328 tonne sloop Investigator sailed from England. Three months earlier, Flinders had married Ann Chappelle, and his failed efforts to take his new wife on the journey caused him to brush with his superiors. It would be nine years before Matthew and Ann Flinders were reunited.

Five months out, Flinders sighted the promontory on the southwestern corner of Australia that he named Cape Leeuwin after the first vessel to explore the area. Charting the southern coastline of the continent as he sailed on, Flinders reached Port Jackson in early May 1802. It was from here that the first circumnavigation of Australia would begin two months later.

Flinders’ mission resumed when the Investigator sailed from Sydney on 22 July 1802. From Port Jackson Flinders journeyed northward along the New South Wales and Queensland coast, around Cape York and into the Gulf of Carpentaria.

By now the Investigator was in serious disrepair and the threat of unseaworthiness hung over the vessel. Flinders reluctantly made the decision to bear away from the Australian coast, calling at Timor for supplies and then returning to Sydney by best course possible. That meant sailing to the west and south of Australia, thus completing a circumnavigation, but while the coastline from Arnhem Land to Cape Leeuwin remained largely uncharted. Back in Sydney in June 1803, the Investigator was duly condemned as unseaworthy.

Flinders was determined to complete his mission to chart the coast of Australia, but his troubles were to escalate in the attempt. He had to return to England to secure a suitable vessel, and his first effort ended when HMS Porpoise, on which he was a passenger, was wrecked on Great Barrier Reef. Flinders took a leading role in rescuing the ship’s complement, navigating her cutter all the way back to Sydney.

Then in command of the 28 tonne schooner Cumberland and putting into Mauritius en route for repairs, Flinders ran foul of the French administration. Governor Charles Decaen detained the Cumberland and on inspecting her found evidence that appeared to contradict the voyage’s scientific status. With war once more raging between England and France, Flinders was treated with the utmost suspicion, and effectively imprisoned.

Detention in Mauritius

While detained on Mauritius Flinders was able to work on his papers, and to despatch a map of the Australian continent off to England. It was on this document that Flinders first used the name ‘Australia’ to denote the land mass he had charted. This was a refinement on earlier use of the name, when it had been applied in a more general way to describe the region of the globe where explorers had sought out the ‘unknown southern land’.

Finally in June 1809 Flinders became free of Mauritius with Royal Navy intervention. However Trim the cat, which had been with Flinders ever since that visit to Cape of Good Hope in 1799, was no longer around. It had mysteriously disappeared during the internment.

In October 1810, by now a post-captain but a man in poor health, Flinders finally returned to England. He continued the task of documenting his expedition, an account entitled A Voyage to Terra Australis, published on 18 July 1814. The following day Matthew Flinders passed away at just 40 years of age.