This is the third in Dr Gillian Dooley’s series of articles on Matthew Flinders. This article is subtitled “A Personal Account of Editing Flinders’ Private Journal” and was first presented to the Encounter 2003 Conference: Baudin-Flinders: Travels, Discoveries, Encounter, University of Mauritius, 20-23 October, 2003.
So ended Matthew Flinders active career. He was not yet thirty on the fateful day when he called in to Ile de France to repair his ship, but he would never again command a ship or chart a coastline.
Flinders’ Private Journal, from which this quote is taken, covers the whole period from his captivity in 1803 until a few weeks before his death in July 1814, with only a couple of short intervals. In it, he records the many disappointments and frustrations, and the fewer achievements and joys, of the remainder of his life.
A lot can be learned from the Private Journal, always bearing in mind that it does not tell the whole story. It is tempting to believe that, knowing the Journal, one knows the man. Indeed, he reveals a great deal. Reading through, day by day, one can chart his course of mind without the benefit of hindsight. He continues, of course, to be bitter about his captivity and incredulous about the justice of it. He copied a letter of 21st December 1803 to the Captain General into his journal, explaining in proud and high-flown prose his appointment to and prosecution of his voyage of discovery, the history of its progress and setbacks. He goes on:
The word ‘arrogance’ appears often in biographies of Flinders. Geoffrey Ingleton, for example, writes that during his interview with General Decaen, ‘Flinders had arrogantly and deliberately kept his hat on,’ Paul Brunton calls him ‘a man with more than a hint of arrogance and self-will,’ and even Miriam Estensen in her excellent biography claims that ‘there was in Flinders a vein of self-importance amounting at times to arrogance.’ [i] [ii] [iii]
I would prefer not to use the word ‘arrogance’. Matthew Flinders was a man of his time, a naval officer, and the code of honour for such men was of paramount importance. Whatever justification there may have been for Decaen’s treatment of Flinders, it would have been irreconcilable with his honour to behave any differently, as he reported in his journal of Tuesday December 27th, 1803:
Later, on Wednesday 8th February, he had further proof of the Governor’s displeasure:
His attitude might be called arrogance, but Flinders would never see it as anything more than his proper pride as an English gentleman.
Michael Duffy has recently published a book on pioneer Australian pastoralist John Macarthur. In it he discusses questions of honour and what it meant for men of the time to be considered gentlemen:
Macarthur [born in 1766, eight years before Flinders] was born at a time of enormous opportunity. Britain had made more progress towards democracy than almost any other nation. Its creative spirit and economy were booming thanks to the scientific and industrial revolutions and the expansion of the empire. The material and social prospects for an ambitious man of Macarthur’s background were better than they had ever been. …
The army of Georgian Britain … was one of the few means of social and sometimes financial advancement for men of middling birth. Becoming an officer automatically made such a man a gentleman and therefore, at least in theory, an equal in some ways to every man above him on the social scale. [iv]
Like Macarthur, Flinders was born in this period to a ‘middling’ family, and although he chose to become an officer in the navy rather than the army, the same considerations applied: he automatically became a ‘gentleman’. Macarthur’s code of honour took him to the lengths of fighting three duels during his lifetime. Flinders never went to these lengths, though he commented in his Journal upon a duel which was fought in Ile de France
He clearly did not disapprove of duels. On the contrary, he is slightly scathing about the preference of the French to avoid killing each other. On the first anniversary of his captivity, he wrote a letter to General Decaen, and his remarks upon it in his Journal are extremely revealing:
It can be seen here that he feels he has to justify himself for failing to show proper spirit ‘as an Englishman’ – what other biographers have called ‘arrogance’. Flinders never reproached himself for his behaviour any further than this. As he had written in November 1804,
Liberty without honour would be an unbearable state. Perhaps he did not prize honour over life, but he certainly prized it over liberty. He was constantly assessing how far his parole – his word of honour – would allow him to go. Although he contemplated escape many times, he would not consider it while he considered that his parole was in force.
But he made sure he used his time as usefully as he could, in spite of his unenviable situation:
A few days later, on 17 February he says,
18th May, and he is a little calmer. He was moved from the Café Marengo, a virtual prison, to the Garden Prison, the Maison Despaux, where he is allowed at least to walk in the garden on 31st March 1804.
One of the most interesting aspects of Flinders’ time on Ile de France was the number of close friendships he developed. Thomy Pitot became a very close friend,
Other close friends were Charles Baudin, an officer on Nicolas Baudin’s expedition, but no relation to the Captain, Charles Desbassyns, who married the youngest daughter of his hostess Madame D’Arifat, Labauve D’Arifat, adult son of his hostess, the neighbouring Chazal family, and many others. But it was not always easy being the only foreigner amongst these young French men. He remarked, soon after being released on parole to live in the country in August 1805, upon the conversation of three men he accompanied on a hunting party:
So far this is merely an observation on national differences, but after a few years and more familiarity, he begins to find that even his good friends can be tiresome:
On 28 May 1808 he passed the evening with Mr. Chazal, where I was handsomely treated and handsomely beaten at chess. The Chazals were close neighbours to the D’Arifats. Mrs Chazal was a gifted harpsichord player and, Flinders said, “One of the most agreeable women I have ever met with,” and she often accompanied him on his flute. But a year later, the friendship of Toussaint Chazal is wearing extremely thin:
They made up soon afterwards, but although he stayed in touch with many of his Mauritius friends after his return to England, Chazal was not one of them.
Flinders’ friendship with Madame D’Arifat’s eldest daughter Delphine has been the subject of much speculation. At first, he was clearly attracted to Delphine. The family arrived at their habitation in October 1805, six weeks or so after Flinders had moved there from the Maison Despaux. On 6th November, Flinders wrote:
Perhaps wishing she had been born a man is not a particularly lover-like attitude. However, there is a flirtatious letter Flinders wrote to Delphine on New Years Day 1806, but he decided not to send it. The letter is included in Paul Brunton’s book. [v]
But later there was a falling out.
There is no more than this tantalisingly general reference. There is no evidence that their friendship ever deepened into a love affair. And it is highly unlikely that this was the case. Flinders was, as I have said, a man whose notions of honour were extremely important to him. Having an affair with the daughter of his hostess would certainly not be consistent with his moral code. There have even been suggestions that Delphine bore Flinders’ child, but that he could then have continued to live as a respected member of the D’Arifat household, as he did, is unlikely in the extremely. It is perhaps too much to insist that Flinders remained faithful to his wife Ann during their whole nine years separation, but not to insist that there was no affair with Delphine.
There is a slight contradiction between his letters and his Journal at one stage. During his first weeks with the D’Arifat family, he reported:
However, it is in precisely this period that he wrote to Ann,
Comparatively with my situation in this island for the first 20 months I am now very happy; and yet I often retire to the little pavilion which is my study and bed room, and with my flute in my hand and sometimes tears in my eyes I warble over the little evening song [vi] of which I sent thee a copy. Ah my beloved, then my heart overleaps the distance of half a world and wholly embraces thee. [vii]
The sincerity of his longing for Ann and home is not really ever in question. The novelty of his situation with the D’Arifat family soon wears off and at the beginning of February 1806, all he can write in his journal for three days is These days over passed sadly. I did little. By September that year, he was declining into a state of melancholy and weakness of mind, which lasted, on and off, until August 1807. In September 1806 he decided to retreat from society altogether and started to make arrangements:
He distracted himself as much as possible with work. He allowed himself a rather self-conscious meditation upon political philosophy, brought to mind by his observations of the geomorphology of Mauritius:
However, he was not much given to such abstractions. He was certainly not especially religious, and his politics, such as they were, were conservative. He made no comment on the morality of the slave trade, seeming to accept the status quo quite readily. There was a revealing little incident which he relates in the Journal, in October 1806:
No revolutionary sentiments there: although Flinders does not particularly approve of the practice, he refuses to interfere with something that is consistent ‘with the received usages’. He preferred to see the world as it was: his was a scientific, empirical cast of mind. While on Mauritius, he learnt the French language, and read an amazing number of books in French. He made observations on the landforms of Ile de France, on the production of indigo and the processing of maize, and later, during his fatal illness, his meticulous charting of the progress of his symptoms is heart-breakingly precise and objective.
Of all the biographers, Miriam Estensen agrees best with the Matthew Flinders I have got to know during my work on his Private Journal. In spite of her use of that word ‘arrogance’, she immediately tempers her judgement by saying, ‘he was a naval officer of his time, a time when this was an attitude virtually intrinsic to naval or military rank. … Imperious when his rightful authority was challenged, he knew his place in his particular world.’ [viii] As she says, he had ‘strong affections and loyalties,’ for both men and women. In spite of his conservatism, he had a strong romantic streak, typical of his time. He read and enjoyed novels as well as historical and scientific works. And he loved his cat, Trim.
One thing to be learnt from the Private Journal is that his Biographical Tribute to the Memory of Trim was written solely for the purpose of setting himself an exercise in French translation. Trim is not otherwise mentioned in the Journal, even during the initial weeks spent confined in the Café Marengo, when, according to the Biographical Tribute, Trim ‘by his gay humour contributed to soften our strait captivity.’ [ix]
So the Journal does not give the full picture of Flinders the man. It must be read in conjunction with his letters and other writings, like Trim, and with the more official documents intended for publication like his Voyage to Terra Australis. However, it is both fascinating and revealing and an essential source for the study of the last third of his life. It shows the qualities of determination and pride which enabled him to overcome the severe temptations of self-pity and melancholy, employ his time usefully and come through his detention, gaining a maturity intensified by misfortune and tempered by the kindness of many who were formally his enemies.
i. Geoffrey Ingleton, Matthew Flinders, Navigator and Chartmaker (Guildford, UK: Genesis, 1986): 267.
ii. Paul Brunton (ed.), Matthew Finders: Personal Letters from an Extraordinary Life (Sydney: Hordern House, 2002): 10.
iii. Miriam Estensen, The Life of Matthew Flinders (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2002): 477.
iv. Michael Duffy, Man of Honour: John Macarthur – Duellist, Rebel, Founding Father (Sydney: Macmillan, 2003): 12-13.
v. Brunton (ed.), Matthew Flinders (2002): 139-141.
vi. See Anne Chittleborough, Gillian Dooley, Brenda Glover and Rick Hosking (eds), Alas, for the Pelicans! Flinders, Baudin & Beyond: Essays and Poems (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2002): 125 for details of this song.
vii. Brunton (ed.), Matthew Flinders (2002): 135.
viii. Estensen, Matthew Flinders (2002): 477.
ix. Quoted in Chittleborough et al (eds), Alas, for the Pelicans! (2002): 91.