Matthew Flinders, explorer

Words by:
Dave Welbourne Bed, BSc, MA, FRSA, ARHistS
Featured in:
January 2014

One of Lincolnshire’s famous sons is Matthew Flinders, the explorer. In 2014 we commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death.
Matthew Flinders was born in Donington on 16th March 1774. He lived in the Market Square in the village where his father was the doctor. As his grandfather had also been a doctor in Spalding, it was probably expected that he would follow the family tradition. However, he had other ideas.

He had an adventurous spirit and a desire to explore. His uncle John had been a sailor and the young Matthew had a yearning to follow in his footsteps. This was reinforced by the reading of Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’. But his father was opposed to the idea, and he became impatient at his son’s nautical obsession. At this time he was attending Donington Free School, which was founded and endowed by Thomas Cowley in 1718 (now Thomas Cowley High School), where he was outstanding in mathematics. Hoping to change his mind about the sea, his father moved him to Horbling Grammar School at the age of twelve, in 1786, where he would receive a good grounding in Latin – considered useful for an aspiring doctor – from the Rev John Shinglar. However, this was to prove a fruitless task. Matthew excelled in trigonometry and continued to dream of going to sea. Reluctantly, after discussions with Shinglar, Dr Flinders agreed to allow his fifteen-year-old son to join the navy.

At the time, conditions in the navy were brutally tough. Cabins were cramped and infested with lice and cockroaches; meat was often rotten; ships’ biscuits were crawling with insects; the butter was rancid; and the cheese was inhabited by red, wriggling worms. Crews were likely to be struck down with scurvy and dysentery. An ordinary seaman might earn 19 shillings a month, and an able-bodied seaman, 24 shillings. Lieutenants and ships’ surgeons were often reputed to be drunk. It was almost impossible to become a captain without influence.

However, Flinders embarked on what was to become an illustrious career, when in October 1789 he was appointed as a lieutenant’s servant on board the training ship HMS Alert in Chatham. He was then transferred to the Scorpio, and after one voyage he joined the HMS Bellerophon as midshipman. Later, he was to sail with the infamous Captain Bligh, not long after he had been at the centre of the mutiny on the Bounty. Rumours had gone round all the sea ports that Bligh’s crews were in danger of being flogged or starved to death, or being hung from the yardarm. If Flinders heard these, they did not deter him from going to the Pacific as timekeeper midshipman on the Providence. On the journey he kept a very methodical journal, and made maps and sketches of animals, birds and plants. He also made observations of the indigenous people. At Adventure Bay he witnessed a human sacrifice when a native was clubbed to death and his severed head was offered to one of their gods. He was in danger himself when a party he was in was attacked.

After returning to England he was ordered to join the Bellerophon again. Britain was at war with France, and he was to see action at the ‘Battle of the Glorious First of June’ (the Battle of Brest, 1st June 1794). In his journal he described the battle which the British won under Admiral Howe. The Bellorophon suffered damage and had to be taken in tow after a topmast and sails had been shot away, but as Flinders proudly commented, this was after she had inflicted considerable damage on the enemy. The Commander of Flinders’ ship, Rear Admiral Pasley, had one of his legs blown off by an eighteen-pound shot. Shortly after his war experiences, he returned to Donington where no doubt his family and friends were eager to hear about his adventures.

In 1795 Flinders left for Terra Australis, as Australia was then known, under Captain Hunter aboard the Reliance. Little was known about this far off land but after Captain Cook’s expedition in the Endeavour, in which he claimed the eastern coast of Australia for Britain, it was decided in 1786 to use it as a penal colony. The American colonies had been used previously for this purpose until their independence in 1783. Botony Bay had been chosen as the location, but the Governor, Captain Philip soon realised it was unsuitable and decided to move north to Port Jackson.

Around 1800 some 200 crimes were punishable by death, including stealing sheep, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, and pickpocketing a handkerchief from a gentleman’s coat. Men, women and children were publicly hanged. Transportation to Australia was for lesser offences, such as stealing turnips from a farmer’s field, or killing a rabbit. Flinders witnessed these miserable half-starved wretches, some falling dead in the chain gangs, and the floggings and hangings.
Much of the country had not been seen by white men, but on this voyage, Flinders and his friend and ship’s surgeon, George Bass from Boston, explored the coast and had a number of adventures. They sailed in a little boat called Tom Thumb, and over three months Flinders had drawn a number of maps and charts. On one occasion they were surrounded by hostile natives with matted hair and beards, who were intrigued by the clean shaven white men. Boldly, Flinders offered to shave them while Bass made ready their boat and possessions for a quick getaway.

In 1797, Bass further explored the coast, and was convinced that Van Dieman’s Land was an island, contrary to belief at the time. If this was the case it would cut two weeks off the journey from England. With this in mind Hunter sent Flinders and Bass to investigate in the Norfolk. They proved that the theory was correct. They sailed around Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania), making charts as they went, and discovered a strait which Flinders named Bass Strait.

As the weeks went by Flinders’ passion for exploring the Australian coastline increased. On his return to England he couldn’t wait to deliver his reports. He knew the potential of the country and had a burning desire to make a full-scale exploration before any other foreign explorer.

In the early part of 1801, two French ships, the Geographe and the Naturaliste, had set sail to explore Australia, which was still open to anyone who claimed it. With the support of Sir Joseph Banks, the squire of Revesby, who had been on Cook’s voyage, Flinders managed to persuade the Admiralty to finance a scientific expedition which he would lead. He was given a 334-ton sloop, the Xenophon, which was renamed the Investigator.

Whilst waiting for the ship to be fitted out, he married his childhood sweetheart, Ann Chappell of Partney, near Spilsby. His intention was to take her with him but the Admiralty refused permission, and so she had to stay behind and await his return, the loneliness broken only by the occasional letter. Ann understood his passion for the sea and what the voyage meant to him, so she could not stand in his way. Her own father had been a ship’s captain who had drowned in the Baltic.

Meanwhile, George Bass had gone his own way as a part owner in a ship called Venus. After leaving Sydney in February 1803, he was never seen again. It is not certain what happened to him. Two theories are that he was either captured by the Spaniards and forced to work in silver mines in South America, or he was drowned when his ship went down. Whatever the reason, his death was tragic.

Flinders chose the crew which was to explore Australia with him, and Banks selected the scientists and completed the details of the expedition. It says a great deal for Flinders’ reputation when far more men volunteered than were needed, and this at the time when the press-gang method was used frequently to persuade men to go to sea. Although only twenty-seven years old, he was to display outstanding qualities of leadership, and throughout the voyage he enjoyed loyalty and obedience from the crew, in whom he showed interest and concern.

This very youthful crew included his brother Samuel as second lieutenant. From Matthew’s journals and letters, one can see that their relations were often strained, and Samuel was not always reliable. John Franklin, Matthew’s nephew from Spilsby, was also on board. He was an outstanding junior whose qualities later earned him a knighthood and the Governorship of Tasmania. Sadly, he died in 1847 whilst attempting to find the North-West Passage in the Arctic regions.

Another Lincolnshire man on the expedition was the first lieutenant, Robert Fowler from Horncastle. Matthew Flinders and John Franklin, along with two other members – Robert Brown, the naturalist, and William Westall, the landscape artist – were to become famous in their own lifetime.

On 18th July 1801 the Investigator set sail with eighty-eight men. As a result of the efficiency of the crew and the skill of the scientists, the overall impact on exploration and botanical science was greater than any achieved before by a single expedition. But it was not without serious incidents.

The Investigator had to be refitted at Port Jackson, after which the second stage of the voyage resumed around the middle of 1802. Flinders went up the Eastern coast, which Cook had explored earlier, and he broke through the Barrier Reef by what became known as Flinders’ Passage. New South Wales and the Queensland coast were then explored, and Flinders was able to fill in some of the gaps left by Cook, and, indeed, correct some of his findings.

As he surveyed the Gulf of Carpentaria, the condition of his ship deteriorated, and members of his crew began to die of dysentery. He, therefore, decided to return to Port Jackson around the western and southern coasts. On his arrival many of the planks were so rotten it was possible to poke a stick through them, so in June 1803 the Investigator was pronounced unfit for further service. However, much important work had been achieved by this stage, despite problems with the ship, Aboriginal attacks, and dysentery. Flinders had managed to reduce the incidents of dysentery and scurvy by learning lessons from Cook about the relevance of hygienic conditions and the intake of vitamin C. Despite these precautions, Flinders was also ill for a time.

The major achievement was that Australia had been circumnavigated for the first time, and the area around south Australia had been discovered. By consulting the map of Australia we can recognise a number of places named after Lincolnshire villages and towns (Cape Donington, Kirton, Spilsby Island, Boston Bay, Port Lincoln). Other newly discovered places were also named after Flinders (Flinders Island, Flinders Loch), his wife and crew.

Flinders was impatient to return to England to report his findings even though he was ill. He also had no ship, so on 10th August 1803 he left Sydney as a passenger on board the Porpoise, accompanied by the Cato and the Bridgewater. Before long, disaster struck. The Porpoise and the Cato hit a coral reef, but the Bridgewater managed to escape. After circling around for a while, for some unknown reason she sailed away. The incident remains a mystery because the Bridgewater never made it back to England, as she sank off the coast of India. Flinders and the other survivors (only three drowned)miraculously managed to retrieve food and possessions, including his invaluable papers, and sought refuge on a nearby sandbank. Flinders and a small crew then salvaged one of the ship’s boats, which they named Hope, and sailed for help south to Sydney about 750 miles away. Thirteen days later they arrived tattered and worn, and within two months Flinders was back to save the rest of the men.

Once more he embarked for England on the 15,000 mile journey in the Cumberland. But trouble struck again. The ship began to leak in heavy seas and was forced to seek haven in Mauritius. Here a military force intercepted them. The island was controlled by the French who were still at war with Britain, and the Governor had a hatred for the British. Flinders was obstinate and he made the mistake of refusing to dine with the Governor, who reciprocated by accusing him of being a spy. He was thrown in prison where his health deteriorated, and he remained there for six and a half years.

His plight eventually came to the attention of Napoleon who was impressed by his courage and skill as a navigator. He ordered his release, but it was only when a French ship was captured by the British that the order was found. The island was blockaded for more than three years before Flinders was finally liberated.

He had not remained idle in prison. He carried out experiments into navigation, and became the first to investigate the phenomenon of compass deviation caused by iron in ships. The result of his work was the invention of the Flinders Bar for ships’ compasses which was an important breakthrough in navigation.
Matthew Flinders eventually reached England in October 1810, after being away from home for almost ten years. Although his imprisonment had made him ill, he prepared his charts and notes ready for publication. His journal ‘A Voyage to Terra Australis’ described his adventure and discoveries. The day after his book was published, 19th July 1814, Captain Matthew Flinders died, aged only forty, at 56 Stanhope St, London. He was buried in St James Chapel, Hampstead Road, but his tombstone was removed. It is not known exactly where he is buried, but it is now believed his bones lie under Euston Station, London, or the adjoining St James Garden. After his death, his wife and daughter, Anne, were badly off for many years until the authorities of New South Wales and Victoria, hearing of their circumstances, paid them a pension. His daughter’s son, Sir William Matthew Flinders-Petrie, went on to become a distinguished Egyptologist.

When we assess Matthew Flinders’ achievements, he is not given the recognition afforded to other explorers. He is revered in Australia where only Queen Victoria has more statues dedicated to her. Places, streets, educational establishments and parks are named after him: Flinders Mountain Range, Flinders Chase National Park, Flinders Bay, Flinders Street, Flinders Highway, Matthew Flinders Girls Secondary College, Flinders University etc. He is, however, remembered in Donington where, on 16th March 2006, his statue was unveiled in the Market Place. There is now a Flinders Park in the village. There are memorials to him and his family in Donington Parish Church where his baptism is recorded. The house in which he once lived no longer exists, but on the site next to Dial House, a plaque records: ‘Capt. Matthew Flinders, R.N., the explorer, born on this site, March 16th, 1774.’ Thomas Cowley High School has houses named after both Flinders and Bass.

Flinders’ contribution to the history of exploration and Australia is undoubtedly important. He was the first man to circumnavigate Australia and to give it its name, and to map the whole of its coastline. When we consider his achievements and the way he is held in high esteem in Australia, it is time he was awarded a similar reputation at home. After all he is a legend and an inspiration. Surely, in the year which marks the bicentenary of his death, he deserves to be acclaimed as one of Britain’s greatest explorers.

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