Dr Gillian Dooley of Flinders University provides us with the second in a series of articles on Matthew Flinders.
The sixteenth of December was a bitter day for Matthew Flinders. This was the day in 1803 when he first encountered French revolutionary authority in the person of Etienne Bolger, the commandant of the District of Savanne at the south-east tip of the island of Mauritius or Île de France, as it was then. Flinders had set out from Port Jackson in the tiny twenty-nine-ton schooner Cumberland to sail back to England, still expecting despite the condemnation of Investigator as unseaworthy and the shipwreck of Porpoise that he would meet with no obstacles he could not overcome and that everything would yet turn out well.
Flinders had approached the island to make urgent repairs to the Cumberland which was taking water as fast as its defective pumps could expel it. Commandant Bolger insisted that he report to Captain-General Decaen at Port North-West (now Port Louis). He sailed under escort to the port, where Decaen, unimpressed by Flinders’ story and his passport, detained him for what turned out to be six and a half years. His luck had run out: this was to be the last time Flinders commanded a vessel in His Britannic Majesty’s Navy, or indeed at all.
Almost every year Flinders marked 16 December with a journal entry. In 1804 he spent the first anniversary writing a letter to Decaen, ‘praying to be released.’ This was one of a string of letters which infuriated the Governor, but Flinders apologised to his journal not for the letter’s arrogant tone but for the opposite:
His pride has often been criticised, but it is hard to say whether a more humble approach would have helped Flinders at this stage, although it might have prevented his clash with Decaen in the first place. Anyway, as this passage shows, it was of paramount importance to him to preserve his self-respect. This is a private journal after all. His only audience was himself.
In 1805 and 1806 he had other distractions on 16 December, but again in 1807, he noted ‘the miserable anniversary of my imprisonment in this island, completing the fourth year. I learn that the cartel [on which he had had hopes of leaving] is arming for India with all expedition.’ii In 1808, he is more offhand: ‘it is five years this evening since general De Caen made me prisoner.’iii And in 1809, ‘it is six years today since my unfortunate arrival in this island. God grant that it may be the last anniversary I shall see in this place.’iv And indeed on 16 December 1810 he was in the north of England, making a homecoming tour of his relatives in Lincolnshire. It seems that a prayer to the Almighty had more effect than his prayer to DeCaen five years earlier, as Flinders’ pious wife would no doubt have urged.v
Of the personal qualities Flinders developed during his stay on Mauritius, however, piety is not uppermost. He viewed religion, like many other subjects, with a scientific, detached and sometimes satirical eye. At the marriage of his friend Charles Desbassayns with the daughter of his hostess, Lise d’Arifat, he remarked:
Back in London, he attended church as often as not, while his wife went with great regularity. He liked a good sermon: he mentions one or two preachers he found impressive, but religion was not prominent among his concerns.
Nevertheless Flinders had a strong moral sense, and French ways were sometimes a puzzle to him. Commenting on a dance at a neighbour’s house, he noted wryly,
He made an uncharitably accurate observation when a young wife gave birth to her first child ‘thirteen days less than 9 months after her marriage,’viii and in 1807 he reported:
In young Frenchmen of his acquaintance, too, he found the differences in behaviour from the English worthy of remark:
Flinders was nothing if not socially conservative. He reports an episode in September 1806 which is extremely revealing of his approach to life:
Elder, Flinders’ servant, shows generous, liberal sentiments, itching to release the dog and prevent this cruelty. Flinders, more conservative and disinclined to interfere in this society where he still felt himself to be something of an outsider, prefers to find out first whether it is ‘the done thing’ to use dogs this way before acting rashly and offending his hostess’s neighbours. He was no radical.
The short period in late 1805 was probably one of the happiest times in Flinders’ life, certainly the happiest of his time on Mauritius. Having been kept confined within the grounds of the Maison Despaux in Port Louis for more than a year, he had been allowed on parole to stay on a plantation out in the countryside. His friend Thomi Pitot had found him a congenial hostess in Madame d’Arifat, with three daughters, in a hospitable neighbourhood. He was allowed to roam to the extent of two leagues (about ten kilometres) from Le Refuge. This would be his home for more than four years: he lived there for longer than anywhere else during his adult life.
At first, it was like a new love affair. On 27 October 1805 he describes his usual day at home with the d’Arifats, busy and happy, concluding: ‘At nine we sup, and at ten retire to bed; where the agreeable employments of the day often occupy so much of my thoughts as to prevent me from sleeping.’xii I hasten to add that, although he may have been half in love with the d’Arifat family and especially with the eldest daughter Delphine, it is my implacable belief that there was no actual affair between them. Delphine was the eldest daughter of his respectable hostess. Flinders was a morally conventional man to whom honour was paramount. It is difficult to see how his comfortable existence in the household could have continued for four years had any kind of improper behaviour taken place.
The ‘honeymoon’ did not last. The journal entry for 1 to 3February 1806 laments: ‘These days passed over sadly. I did little.’xiii 1806 was Flinders’ worst year. He descended into a deep depression, which he documented carefully in the Journal, faithfully reporting as if to some higher authority. On 22June 1806, he writes: ‘It is some time since I have expressed the state of my sentiments and feelings, except by the letters which I have occasionally written.’ He goes on to describe the plans he had made to attempt an escape, after the failure of which, he says, he ‘remained some time in a state of sullen tranquillity.’xiv By September, however, he had lost even this dubious peace of mind: ‘For many days, nay weeks past, I find myself declining into a state of melancholy and weakness of mind which destroys my happiness and renders me unfit for and miserable in society.’xv He even decided to leave the d’Arifats and retire from society altogether. Madame d’Arifat, naturally, asked ‘what reason she was to give to the world for my abrupt departure. The uneasiness she seemed to have, tainted with displeasure, added to my chagrin and I retired to my couch in a fever, whose increase, even to the causing my death I ardently desired.’xvi The timely arrival of letters from home and ‘the soothing consolations and reasonings of Madam D.’ determined Flinders to endeavour ‘by forcing myself into society to re-establish my spirits and the little portion of assurance I possess from nature.’ He persisted but found that the ‘small portion of gaiety’ he obtained ‘does not penetrate very deep; indeed I fear the state of my mind is too much deranged for any thing but a liberation from this imprisonment to produce a radical cure: my reason is become more and more weak and the imagination more and more strong, what may be the end I fear to think.’xvii
How poignant this is. This man who had thought nothing of sailing halfway round the world in a 29-ton schooner; who had travelled more than 700 miles from Wreck Reef in an open boat to get help for his shipwrecked companions, has become afraid to face dinner with his well-disposed hostess. General Decaen had certainly exacted a heavy penalty from his prisoner. Flinders’ active career had been characterised by self-confidence, impetuousness and above all optimism. Many times he had staked his life on the fact that everything would turn out well, and even if things went wrong, he could make them right again. On Mauritius he learned patience, as he promised Ann he would.xviii He also learned to be despondent, cynical, cautious and pessimistic.
In December, he was a little better, though still he reports,
Social enjoyments could only go so far in restoring Flinders amore propre. Determined ‘to escape the gulph which I cannot contemplate without horror,’xx he threw himself into work. He had already completed what he could of his charts and sent them back to England in late 1804. Now he wrote a Memoir on his imprisonment, and made several copies to send wherever he judged useful to eminent people in England and France. It was in early 1807 that he wrote his Biographical Tribute to the Memory of Trim. This hardly seems the work of a depressive, although its playfulness is tinged with melancholy. He thought little of it himself, and he would no doubt be astonished with the literary success he has achieved two centuries later. As far as he was concerned, he had written the essay purely to give himself French translation practice.xxi (Incidentally, this is the only time Trim appears in the Private Journal, though we do know he existed. He was mentioned in Flinders’ letters to Ann during the voyage of the Investigator.)
He had been studying French with Delphine and her sister Sophie since the end of 1805, in return coaching them in English. In early 1807 he began to teach the elements of navigation to the young d’Arifat boys, Marc and Aristide. As a naval captain, it was his duty to instruct his junior officers on board any ship he commanded, and it was no doubt very natural for him to see potential midshipmen in these lads. With an eye always to the advancement of science and commerce, he made notes about the way maize and indigo were prepared on Mauritius. He could not see a mountain, river or lake without speculating on its origin, height or depth. The weather was of constant interest: he had the sailor’s habit of recording meteorological observations every day, but his scientific mind was interested in the causes of climatic conditions as well: ‘It has lately been forbidden to cut down any of the wood in the upper parts of the mountains, the rains having been found to decrease of late years, owing, as it is thought, to the hills having been nearly stripped of their covering,’xxii he reported on 22 August 1805.
He read works of science, philosophy and even the occasional novel, borrowed from his increasingly wide circle of friends. He had already sent a paper on the Marine Barometer to Sir Joseph Banks, and it was read before the Royal Society in 1806. In 1808 he began work on his observations on the effect of magnetism on a ship’s compass, which eventually led to the invention of the Flinders Bar, an innovation which would make him better known in international naval circles than his exploration of Australia.
Decaen could not break his spirit entirely, but in December 1807 Flinders commented, on hearing yet another hopeful rumour of his impending release, ‘I have been so often flattered with similar hopes and so often deceived, that I am almost become callous to prospects of being set at liberty.’xxiii And indeed, when the news finally came in 1810, he was understandably slow to believe it.
The introspective journal entries dry up once he returns to England. Naturally enough upon resumption of his married life, we learn nothing of his inner feelings about his wife, beyond a shy reference to ‘my Mrs F.’ on his first day back in London.xxiv The birth of his daughter on 1 April 1812 is recorded only briefly, among his own occupations: ‘Occupied in correcting the bearing book, by a just proportionate variation. This afternoon Mrs. Flinders was happily delivered of a daughter; to her great joy and to mine.’xxv It must indeed have been a joy and relief, since Ann had miscarried more than once. She was 42 when little Anne was born. Worries about the child’s health find their way into the journal, but we must go to the letters to find out what he thought of fatherhood: ‘This child has the most varied and expressive physiognomy, I have ever seen in one so young. … I begin to love the child myself, now that it shows signs of intelligence,’ he wrote to Madame d’Arifat on 25 November 1812, when Anne was nearly eight months old.xxvi
Flinders confided to his journal more freely his frustration with Sir Joseph Banks, who had not helped him in his dealings with the Admiralty as much as he had hoped: on 8 August 1811, he spent the day working at his Voyage and ‘meditating upon the general conduct of Sir J. B. towards me; in which I find many things not easy to be explained.’xxvii And at the end of the same year, his brother Samuel, also unhappy with the Admiralty’s attitude, decided to withdraw the work he had done on the Investigator’s astronomical observations, causing Flinders much consternation. ‘This strange conduct in a brother, affected me much,’xxviii Flinders wrote on 27 December 1811. The brothers managed to smooth things over, the work proceeded, and Samuel is thereafter mentioned mainly as a visitor.
Towards the end of 1813 the journal entries become a catalogue of work done on the Voyage and irritable references to interruptions. A regular visitor, Captain Stuart, who seems to have been a French émigré, was so assiduous in his weekly evening calls that Flinders finally wrote to him asking him ‘to do away his regular Monday visits’xxix until the work was finished. Only long habit would have kept him writing his daily journal, which must have become something of a chore.
Abruptly, in February 1814, the work just about finished, Flinders reports having consulted a doctor about his illness, ‘which appears to be either stone or gravel in the bladder. It is troubled me more within some months and become painful.’xxx From then on, the journal entries are concerned more and more with the painful course of his condition, and the series of unpleasant and ineffective remedies he tried at the suggestion of his medical advisers. Ever the empirical observer, he describes his symptoms meticulously. On 20 March he went for a walk as suggested by his doctor, but he reports being ‘obliged to move very snail-like.’xxxi He reports without comment that Ann’s half-sister Isabella arrives to help her with the nursing, but remarks on 16 June that the naturalist from Investigator, Robert Brown, ‘called upon me today, and he has been very kind in doing so several times lately.’xxxii Like-minded in their scientific attitude, they would have discussed the illness, and Brown, as Sir Joseph Banks’ librarian, helped Flinders find some scientific papers which they thought might assist in his treatment.
The last entry in the Journal is from Sunday 10 July 1814: ‘Did not rise before two being I think, weaker than before.’xxxiii Nine days later he died.
The Private Journal begun on 17 December 1803 is to a large extent a record of adversity faced with fortitude and intelligence, if occasionally tinged with impatience or complaint. But it has its lighter moments. After a visit to a Mauritius neighbour, he reports that he had been ‘handsomely treated and handsomely beaten at chess.’xxxiv In a cheerfully forgetful moment in 1809, he describes a series of losses at cards as ‘the strangest persecution of bad luck I ever experienced,’ discounting shipwrecks, rotting leaky ships and imprisonment.xxxv And you can see a sly smile on his face when he writes of Decaen’s reaction to a set-back in November 1808: ‘it is said His Excellency was obliged to make use of a warm bath to prevent his anger from having an effect upon his health.’xxxvi Back in London, he writes lightheartedly on Good Friday 1811 that he and Ann ‘breakfasted, as in duty bound, off hot-cross buns, one a penny.’xxxvii
A loyal subject of King George the third, Flinders usually marked the 4 of June with a tribute to ‘the birthday of my gracious sovereign,’ although by 1811 he had become ‘the poor king’. But his patriotism did not extend to chauvinistic prejudice against the French. His cordial dealings with Nicolas Baudin during the time of war are famous, and while on Mauritius, he became close friends with many of the French inhabitants. He could never approve of the proceedings of the French government, still less the Governor of Île de France, but at a personal level went out of his way to help anyone who claimed his loyalty, whatever their nationality, and despite the strains he occasionally felt at being the sole defender of England’s honour among even his closest friends:
Learning not to take offence, placing the value of friendship above the honour of himself and his country, was perhaps one of the more difficult lessons he had to learn during his detention, along with patience and the necessity of accepting that there were some things in life he could not change by feats of daring and endurance.
i 16 December 1804. All date references are to Matthew Flinders Private Journal 1803-1814 ed. Anthony J. Brown and Gillian Dooley (Adelaide: Friends of the State Library of South Australia, 2005).
ii 16 December 1807.
iii 16 December 1808.
iv 16 December 1809.
v In the only surviving letter from Ann Flinders to her husband, written before the birth of their daughter and intended to be given to him in the event of her death in childbirth she urges him to ‘read the Holy Scriptures and … try to pray.’ (Quoted in E. Gertsakis, ‘The Lost Letters of Ann Chappelle Flinders,’ in Alas, for the Pelicans ed. A. Chittleborough et al. (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2002) 97.
viMatthew Flinders, Private Journal 21 January 1808.
vii 3 November 1805.
viii 20 February 1809.
ix 9-10 February 1807.
x 9 December 1805.
xi 25 September 1805.
xii 27 October 1805.
xiii 1-3February 1806.
xiv 22 June 1806.
xv 23-25 September 1806.
xvi 26 September 1806.
xvii 12 October 1806.
xviii Letter to Ann Flinders, 31 December 1804, in Matthew Flinders: Personal Letters from an Extraordinary Life ed. Paul Brunton (Sydney: Hordern House, 2002) 122.
xix 20 December 1806.
xx 29 September 1806.
xxi 11 January 1807.
xxii 22 August 1805.
xxiii 27 December 1807.
xxiv 25 October 1810.
xxv 1 April 1812.
xxvi Letter to Louise d’Arifat, 25 November 1812, in Brunton, 228.
xxvii 8 August 1811.
xxviii 27 December 1811.
xxix 11 September 1813.
xxx 27 February 1814.
xxxi 20 March 1814.
xxxii 16 June 1814.
xxxiii 10 July 1814.
xxxiv 28 May 1808.
xxxv 2 February 1809.
xxxvi 23 November 1808.
xxxvii 12 April 1811.
xxxviii 7 November 1808.
Flinders, Matthew. Matthew Flinders: Personal Letters from an Extraordinary Life. Ed. Paul Brunton. Sydney: Hordern House, 2002.
Flinders, Matthew. Matthew Flinders Private Journal 1803-1814. Ed. Anthony J. Brown and Gillian Dooley. Adelaide: Friends of the State Library of South Australia, 2005.
Gertsakis, Elizabeth. ‘The Lost Letters of Ann Chappelle Flinders.’ Alas, for the Pelicans, Ed. A. Chittleborough et al. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2002.