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Matthew Flinders (1774–1814)

by H. M. Cooper

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Matthew Flinders (1774-1814), navigator, hydrographer and scientist, was born on 16 March 1774 at Donington, Lincolnshire, England, the son of Matthew Flinders, a surgeon, and his wife Sussannah, née Ward. He was educated at Donington Grammar School and by the vicar of Horbling; then, having developed a longing to go to sea, partly through reading Robinson Crusoe, and determined to embark upon a life of exploration, he entered the navy in 1789. In 1791 he served with diligence under William Bligh as midshipman on a voyage to Tahiti and, returning to England, saw action in H.M.S. Bellerophon at the naval battle of the Glorious First of June 1794. Next year he sailed from England for Port Jackson in H.M.S. Reliance in which George Bass was surgeon. After he arrived there he made two hazardous trips with Bass in small open boats, exploring Botany Bay and George's River on the first, and then, after a brief visit to Norfolk Island, going farther south to Lake Illawarra. He rejoined the Reliance for a voyage to the Cape of Good Hope to bring back livestock.

In 1798 Flinders, now lieutenant, joined the schooner Francis on a visit to the Furneaux Islands and carried out useful hydrographic work. A second visit to Norfolk Island followed, after which, in company with George Bass, he circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land in the sloop Norfolk from 7 October 1798 to 12 January 1799, and thus proved it to be an island. He then examined parts of the Queensland coast, but although he entered Glass House Bay, he did not reach the Brisbane River. In March 1800 he sailed for England in the Reliance, where reports of his outstanding ability had preceded him. While in England in 1801 he published his Observations on the Coasts of Van Diemen's Land, on Bass's Strait and its Islands, and on Part of the Coasts of New South Wales, but he was chiefly concerned with preparation for an expedition whose results were to place him among the foremost navigators of all time.

Promoted commander in February, he was selected to command H.M.S. Investigator, 334 tons, with instructions from the Admiralty to explore in detail, among other places, that part of the south Australian coastline, then referred to as 'the Unknown Coast', which stretched eastwards from the head of the Great Australian Bight to the Victorian border. In April 1801 he had married Ann Chappell of Lincolnshire. He had hoped to take her with him on his voyage, but the Admiralty refused to permit it and thus unknowingly condemned the newly-married pair to separation for nine years.

Flinders sailed on 18 July 1801 and sighted Cape Leeuwin on 6 December, after a passage which demonstrated his ability as a navigator and his attention to the welfare and health of his crew. Sailing eastwards he reached the western extreme of the Unknown Coast on 28 January 1802 and made a landing in Fowler's Bay, which he named after the Investigator's first lieutenant. Flinders continued with his charting of the coast, effecting landings wherever desirable 'in order that the naturalists may have time to range about and collect the produce of the earth'. In February the Investigator entered the mouth of a large inlet stretching northwards (Spencer Gulf); this raised great expectations that it might be the entrance to a strait then believed to stretch upwards to the Gulf of Carpentaria but these hopes soon faded. On 22 March Kangaroo Island was observed, a landing made, and many kangaroos killed for food. Gulf St Vincent was next explored and charted and, after a second brief visit to Kangaroo Island, the Investigator sailed east. On 8 April the corvette Le Géographe, under Captain Nicolas Baudin, was sighted, and Flinders told Baudin of the provisions and water to be obtained on Kangaroo Island. Flinders named the place of meeting Encounter Bay, which defines the eastern limit of his venture upon the Unknown Coast. On 9 May the Investigator dropped anchor in Port Jackson.

After overhauling the ship, Flinders sailed north on 22 July to make a detailed survey of the Queensland coast, at that time incomplete, and thence went to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Soon after passing through Torres Strait, however, the Investigator, leaking badly, was careened for a survey which revealed that she was so rotten that she would founder immediately if caught in a gale and, even if patched up and handled carefully in fine weather, would barely remain afloat for a further six months. Flinders could not effect the necessary repairs, but determined to circumnavigate the continent and return to Port Jackson by way of its western coast. After examining and charting the south and west shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria with exceptional skill, Flinders reluctantly abandoned the survey. Running down the west coast, he rounded Cape Leeuwin and, after navigating the Bight in the depth of winter, brought his ship safely into Port Jackson on 9 June 1803.

Flinders was anxious to complete the surveys as outlined by the Admiralty, and in August 1803 he sailed as a passenger from Port Jackson in H.M.S. Porpoise to secure a suitable ship. Soon after leaving she struck a reef and was lost, but Flinders navigated her cutter more than 700 miles (1127 km) back to Port Jackson, one of his great achievements. Having arranged for the relief and rescue of his wrecked shipmates, Flinders sailed in the schooner Cumberland, 29 tons, planning to proceed to England by way of Torres Strait. The schooner soon proved totally unfit for service, needing almost constant pumping to keep her afloat as well as being very crank. Flinders therefore decided to seek assistance at Mauritius in conformity with his French passport. He arrived there on 17 December 1803, the day after Le Géographe had left for France.

By this time war between Great Britain and France had broken out again. General De Caen, governor of Mauritius, was a faithful and honest servant of Emperor Napoleon, but his attitude to Flinders was overbearing, and he could scarcely have employed a more abusive term than 'impostor' towards a man of Flinders' integrity, when only a little calm reasoning was needed to make clear the obvious cause of his enforced arrival. De Caen must have known of the care given at Port Jackson to the many sick in Le Géographe, and of Flinders' personal help at the friendly meeting in Encounter Bay, for he had received a letter from Baudin asking that assistance be given to any English ship forced to call at Mauritius, in return for the hospitality his expedition had received. For all that De Caen put Flinders under arrest.

De Caen soon relaxed the strictness of Flinders' detention a little and later, after the prisoner had given his parole, allowed him to live with friends outside the town. Here Flinders enjoyed the kindness of the entire population, both official and civil, and made many close friendships. He worked assiduously on his journals, log books and papers, while both in England and France many attempts were made to secure his release.

The reason why Flinders was detained so long is difficult to define because of the apparent loss of official papers and the confusion of wartime administration. It has been said that De Caen considered Flinders to be a spy. Certainly the French passport was for the Investigator and not for the Cumberland, and she was carrying dispatches from Port Jackson, but these were trivial pretexts for denying the commander of a sinking ship his freedom for more than six years. In Paris the Council of State recommended the release of Flinders and his ship, and on 11 March 1806 Napoleon gave his approval. This instruction was acknowledged by De Caen but on 30 August 1807 he reported to the minister of marine and colonies that he did not intend to follow the emperor's order. He claimed that Flinders was very dangerous. He said that the order had been approved when a rapprochement with England appeared likely, but this had not eventuated. He added, probably influenced by François Péron's report to him on the defences of Port Jackson, that England appeared to be planning to extend her influence from there as far west as Mauritius itself, implying that Flinders' arrival was part of this project. On 25 March 1809 the Bureau of Political Economy in the Department of Marine and Colonies reported to the minister that no further dispatch had been received from De Caen justifying his delay in liberating Flinders; but De Caen must have realized that the weakness of the island in the face of the English blockade would have become obvious to Flinders after his confinement had been relaxed. De Caen therefore may have decided to continue the detention until the capitulation of the island was imminent.

On 14 June 1810 Flinders sailed for England. He arrived on 23 October and received belated promotion to post captain. In failing health he prepared his monumental work A Voyage to Terra Australis; it was published on 18 July 1814, the day before he died. He was buried at St James's, Hampstead Road. Later alterations to the churchyard obliterated his grave, so he was 'pursued by disaster after death as in life'. But in January 2019 his remains were unearthed during an archaeological excavation preceding a major new railway development, clearly identified by a lead plate bearing his name.

Matthew Flinders was among the world's most accomplished navigators and hydrographers, though his exploration was mostly made in unsuitable, leaky or rotten ships. To ensure that his observations were as accurate as possible and that nothing important was overlooked, his constant practice was to stand his ship off shore at dusk and run back each morning to where the previous day's work had ended. Each bearing and angle in his charting was taken by himself either from the deck or the mast-head and the results worked up by him each night. Flinders is remembered not only for his achievements but also for great improvements in the science of navigation, for his research on the action of the tides, and the affinity between the height of the barometer and the direction of the wind, and for his practical investigations into the deviation of the compass through the presence of iron in ships, since controlled by compensating devices such as the bar named after him. Some of his observations were published by the Royal Society in 'Concerning the Differences in the magnetic needle …' Transactions, 1805, pt 2.

A Voyage to Terra Australis, written by an intellectual man, is an enlightening and fascinating story of brilliant navigation and discovery, achievement and tragedy, self-sacrifice and devotion. He pays noble tribute to his comrades suddenly swept away off the Unknown Coast; expresses spontaneous gratitude to the people of Mauritius who befriended him in the hour of need, and expressed sympathy and some understanding towards the Aboriginal people he encountered. His moral character and devotion to duty were based on high ideals. At Mauritius he had many opportunities to escape but resolutely refused to break his parole, even when his health was shattered and his hope destroyed. His considerate and just treatment of the men who served with him won their confidence and respect. In his brief but brilliant career he surmounted difficulties and adversity, and his voyage in the Investigator endures as an imperishable monument to his undaunted spirit and outstanding ability. Memorials to his work abound in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia and there are statues of him in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, where a suburb and university also bear his name. In 1812 his wife gave birth to a daughter Ann, who in due course, as Mrs Petrie, was the mother of the famous Egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 3-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 2-5, 8-9
  • E. Scott, Terre Napoléon (Lond, 1910)
  • E. Scott, The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders (Syd, 1914)
  • E. Hill, My Love Must Wait (Syd, 1941)
  • H. M. Cooper, The Unknown Coast (Adel, 1955)
  • K. A. Austin, The Voyage of the Investigator (Adel, 1964)
  • ‘Biographical Memoir of Captain Matthew Flinders R.N.’, Naval Chronicle (London), vol 32, 1814, pp 177-191
  • B. S. Baldwin, ‘The Flinders Dossier at the Archives Nationales’, South Australiana, vol 3, no 2, Sept 1964, pp 135-47
  • Matthew Flinders, Narrative of Expedition to Furneaux Islands (State Library of Victoria)
  • Matthew Flinders, logs, diaries and letter-books (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

H. M. Cooper, 'Flinders, Matthew (1774–1814)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Matthew Flinders, 1814

Matthew Flinders, 1814

National Library of Australia, 9455829

Life Summary [details]


16 March, 1774
Donington, Lincolnshire, England


18 July, 1814 (aged 40)
London, Middlesex, England

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