In this essay, the first of a series about Matthew Flinders to be hosted on BNH, Dr Gillian Dooley of Flinders University describes Flinders’ voyage of exploration around Terra Australis, which he named “Australia” on his great chart published in 1814. Using excerpts from Flinders’ journals and correspondence, Dr Dooley compares intentions for the voyage at its outset in July 1801 with his achievements during the nine years he was away from Britain, six and a half years’ of which were spent as a prisoner of the French.
On 24 October 1810, Matthew Flinders stepped onto English soil, ‘having been absent from England’, as he wrote in Voyage to Terra Australis, ‘nine years and three months, and nearly four years and a half without intelligence from any part of my connexions.’ While held captive on Isle de France (now Mauritius) since December 1803, he had been unable to maintain regular correspondence with his family because of the English blockade of the island. He had sent letters whenever an opportunity arose, but the last letter he received from his wife Ann before he arrived back in England was written in July 1806.
He arrived in London by the mail coach at 7 o’clock the next morning, as he relates in his Private Journal:
Went to Mr Bonner from whom I learned that Mrs Flinders was in town. Took a lodging at the Norfolk Hotel, and went thence to the Admiralty, where I saw Messrs Croker and Barrow, the two secretaries, and was treated with flattering attention. … At noon, my Mrs F. came to me with Mrs Procter. I was obliged to leave them in order to send up my card to Mr Yorke the first lord of the Admiralty.
The voyage of discovery, and Flinders’ devotion to duty, was still interfering with his married life, nine and a half years after he had written to Sir Joseph Banks: ‘whatever may be my disappointment, I shall give up the wife for the voyage of discovery.’ Ann’s feelings on being sidelined again like this already on the day of their reunion after a long and uncertain separation are not recorded. But she was surely used to this man, and resigned to his ambitions. He protested to her, in a letter of 7 July 1801, that:
‘discovery no doubt has its portion in me, but it is only the stepping stone by which I hope to enjoy thy love undisturbed; and believe me my best beloved, had I a moderate competence for thee, I should not grieve if the discovery of New Holland should be reserved to another.
However, James Stanier Clarke, in his memoir, wrote: ‘that to his friends he has frequently been heard to say, that, “if a plan of a Discovery-Voyage were read over his grave, he should rise up, awakened from death.”’ The following three and a half years, all the time Matthew and Ann had together before his death in July 1814, were, as can be seen from the Private Journal, busy with the absorbing and often frustrating work of getting his Voyage written and the charts completed, and ended in an agonizing illness, thought by Ann to have been: ‘brought on by unremitting attention to his work, an attention so close, that he neither allowed himself recreation, nor time for proper exercise.’
In that letter to Sir Joseph Banks in 1800 where he sacrificed poor Ann for the demands of his duty, he continued:
and I would beg of you … to be assured that even this circumstance will not damp the ardor I feel to accomplish the important purpose of the present voyage; and in a way that shall preclude the necessity of any one following after me to explore.
Unfortunately, however, other circumstances intervened and he was not able to complete the work he set out to do. In this essay, I propose to compare what Flinders intended to do when he left England in July 1801 with what he actually achieved during those nine years: what he was prevented from doing by his six and a half years’ detention, and the compensations (trivial though they might be) he managed to extract from his enforced idleness during that time.
In his Voyage, he records the instructions he received from the Lords of the Admiralty on 17 July 1801 (actually written by Alexander Dalrymple with input from Sir Joseph Banks, according to some research in progress by Anthony J Brown and Dany Breelle.) Here are some excerpts:
Whereas the sloop you command has been fitted and stored for a voyage to remote parts; And whereas it is our intention that you should proceed in her to the coast of New Holland for the purpose of making a complete examination and survey of the said coast, on the eastern side of which His Majesty’s colony of New South Wales is situated; You are hereby required and directed to put to sea the first favourable opportunity of wind and weather, and proceed with as little delay as possible in execution of the service above-mentioned … you are to make the best of your way to the coast of New Holland, running down the said coast from 130 degrees of east longitude to Bass’s Strait;… and on your arrival on the coast, use your best endeavours to discover such harbours as may be in those parts; and in case you should discover any creek or opening likely to lead to an inland sea or strait, you are at liberty either to examine it, or not, as you shall judge it most expedient, until a more favourable opportunity shall enable you so to do.
… When you shall have completely examined the whole of the coast from Bass’s Strait to King George the third’s Harbour, you are … to proceed to and explore the north-west coast of New Holland, where, from the extreme height of the tides observed by Dampier, it is probable that valuable harbours may be discovered. Having performed this service, you are carefully to examine the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the parts to the westward thereof, between the 130th and 139th degrees of east longitude; taking care to seize the earliest opportunity to do so, when the seasons and prevalent winds may be favourable for visiting those seas. When you shall have explored the Gulf of Carpentaria and the parts to the westward thereof, you are to proceed to a careful investigation and accurate survey of Torres’ Strait, and when that shall have been completed, you are to examine and survey the whole of the remainder of the north, the west, and the north-west coasts of New Holland, and especially those parts of the coast most likely to be fallen in with by East-India ships in their outward-bound passages. And you are to examine as particularly as circumstances will allow, the bank which extends itself from the Trial Rocks towards Timor, in the hope that by ascertaining the depth and nature of the soundings thereon, great advantage may arise to the East-India Company’s ships, in case that passage should hereafter be frequented by them. So soon as you shall have completed the whole of these surveys and examinations as above directed, you are to proceed to, and examine very carefully the east coast of New Holland, seen by captain Cook, from Cape Flattery to the Bay of Inlets…
During the course of the survey, you are to use the tender under your command [the Lady Nelson] as much as possible; moving the Investigator onward from one harbour to another as they shall be discovered, in order that the naturalists may have time to range about and collect the produce of the earth, and the painters allowed time to finish as many of their works as they possibly can on the spot where they may have been begun: … And whereas you have been furnished with a plant cabin for the purpose of depositing therein such plants, trees, shrubs, etc., as may be collected during the survey above-mentioned; … you are … to cause to be planted therein during the survey, such plants, trees, shrubs, etc., as they may think suitable for the Royal Gardens at Kew;…
In this last mentioned cabin the naturalist and gardener are to place the plants, trees, shrubs, etc., which may have been collected during the survey, in order to their being brought home for His Majesty…
All went well, with minor variations, with this programme for the first year and a half. The first landfall was on 6 December 1801 at the south-westernmost tip of Western Australia, and they worked eastwards along the south coast until they met Nicolas Baudin, who had been exploring and charting in the other direction, in April 1802 at Encounter Bay, as Flinders later named it. As this made continuing to explore the south coast in detail redundant, they then made for Port Jackson, with only a couple of stops to explore Port Phillip and King Island in Bass Strait, to undertake the necessary maintenance on the ship and restock their supplies. They then headed north, up the east coast and through Torres Strait and on to the Gulf of Carpentaria until, on 23 November 1802, at anchor near Sweer’s Island at the southern end of the Gulf, the Master, John Aken, and the carpenter, Russel Mart, dropped a bombshell:
in a strong gale, with much sea running, the [Investigator] would hardly escape foundering; so that we think she is totally unfit to encounter much bad weather. … From the state to which the ship seems now to be advanced, it is our joint opinion, that in twelve months there will scarcely be a sound timber in her; but that if she remain in fine weather and happen no accident, she may run six months longer without much risk.
Flinders [expressed his feelings in] this passage:
I cannot express the surprise and sorrow which this statement gave me. According to it, a return to Port Jackson was almost immediately necessary; as well to secure the journals and charts of the examinations already made, as to preserve the lives of the ship’s company; and my hopes of ascertaining completely the exterior form of this immense, and in many points interesting country, if not destroyed, would at least be deferred to an uncertain period. My leading object had hitherto been, to make so accurate an investigation of the shores of Terra Australis that no future voyage to this country should be necessary; and with this always in view, I had ever endeavoured to follow the land so closely, that the washing of the surf upon it should be visible, and no opening, nor any thing of interest escape notice. Such a degree of proximity is what navigators have usually thought neither necessary nor safe to pursue, nor was it always persevered in by us; sometimes because the direction of the wind or shallowness of the water made it impracticable, and at other times because the loss of the ship would have been the probable consequence of approaching so near to a lee shore. But when circumstances were favourable, such was the plan I pursued; and with the blessing of GOD, nothing of importance should have been left for future discoverers, upon any part of these extensive coasts; but with a ship incapable of encountering bad weather–which could not be repaired if sustaining injury from any of the numerous shoals or rocks upon the coast–which, if constant fine weather could be ensured and all accidents avoided, could not run more than six months–with such a ship, I knew not how to accomplish the task.
He continued surveying for a few months, but eventually, on 6 March 1803, at Wessel’s Islands, he decided to postpone the examination and return, regretfully, to Port Jackson, making best use of the prevailing winds by sailing around the longer anti-clockwise route which incidentally gave him one of his chief claims to fame, that of being the first circumnavigator of Australia. But this was not on his mind at the time:
We had continued the survey of the coast for more than one-half of the six months which the master and carpenter had judged the ship might run without much risk, provided she remained in fine weather and no accident happened; and the remainder of the time being not much more than necessary for us to reach Port Jackson, I judged it imprudent to continue the investigation longer. In addition to the rottenness of the ship, the state of my own health and that of the ship’s company were urgent to terminate the examination here; for nearly all had become debilitated from the heat and moisture of the climate–from being a good deal fatigued–and from the want of nourishing food. I was myself disabled by scorbutic sores from going to the mast head, or making any more expeditions in boats; and as the whole of the surveying department rested upon me, our further stay was without one of its principal objects. It was not, however, without much regret that I quitted the coast; both from its numerous harbours and better soil, and its greater proximity to our Indian possessions having made it become daily more interesting; and also, after struggling three months against foul winds, from their now being fair as could be wished for prosecuting the further examination. The accomplishment of the survey was, in fact, an object so near to my heart, that could I have foreseen the train of ills that were to follow the decay of the Investigator and prevent the survey being resumed–and had my existence depended upon the expression of a wish, I do not know that it would have received utterance; but Infinite Wisdom has, in infinite mercy, reserved the knowledge of futurity to itself. 
Ten days out from Port Jackson, on 30 May, he passed through Bass Strait which he had first explored with George Bass in 1798 in the colonial sloop Norfolk:
It was a great mortification to be thus obliged to pass Hunter’s Isles and the north coast of Van Diemen’s Land, without correcting their positions in longitude from the errors which the want of a time keeper in the Norfolk had made unavoidable; but when I contemplated eighteen of my men below, several of whom were stretched in their hammocks almost without hope, and reflected that the lives of the rest depended upon our speedy arrival in port, every other consideration vanished; and I carried all possible sail, day and night, making such observations only as could be done without causing delay. 
The ship’s doctor, Hugh Bell, had just three days earlier complained that he wasn’t ‘making all possible speed to port’ in consideration of the state of the sick on board, and Flinders had replied on the 29 May with an indignant letter, setting out the contrast between what he had done, given the constraints of his crew’s health, and what he would like to have done, as he remarked sarcastically:
Had the health of the people been the great object of my duty as it is of yours, and I had been permitted to follow my own plan for their preservation, I should certainly have kept them on shore in their native country, and not have exposed them to the danger of the seas and enemies, and to pernicious changes of climate; to all of which the execution of my orders makes it necessary to expose them. 
Of course, Flinders, despite all his efforts, was not able to complete the survey he abandoned on 6 March 1803. In consultation with Governor Philip Gidley King, it was decided that the best option for a speedy completion of the work would be for Flinders to take a passage back to England in the Porpoise to allow him to present his charts to the Admiralty and to request another ship.
The Porpoise sailed on 10 August 1803, under the command of Robert Fowler, former First Lieutenant in Investigator. The Porpoise was accompanied by two merchantmen, the Bridgewater and the Cato. During the night of 17 August, a week out from Port Jackson, the two leading vessels, Porpoise and Cato, struck hard upon an uncharted reef, some 240 kilometres off the east coast and nearly 1200 kilometres from Sydney. The Bridgewater narrowly escaped, but next morning her captain made only a perfunctory search for survivors before continuing his voyage to India, later claiming that he saw no sign of life. Thanks largely to Flinders and Fowler, all but three of the wrecked ships’ crews survived. Leaving Fowler in command at the sandbank, Flinders, with the Cato’s captain and 12 men, set off in one of the two six-oared cutters saved from the wreck to seek help at Port Jackson. They completed the journey in thirteen days. On their arrival, Governor King immediately contracted the Indiaman Rolla, in port and bound for China, to go to the castaways’ rescue. He also provided two colonial-built schooners, the Francis and the Cumberland, to accompany her. Sympathising with Flinders’ wish to return to England without further delay, King offered him the Cumberland, ‘a small vessel of 29 tons, a mere boat’, for the purpose: in her he could make a speedy passage through Torres Strait, rather than take the longer route via China.
The Cumberland proved to be an unfortunate choice. Always leaking, and close to sinking in the Indian Ocean, the ship limped into port on 16 December 1803 at Ile de France. Flinders was unaware that the peace negotiated between Great Britain and France in March 1802 had ended in May 1803 and that he was therefore entering enemy territory. His passport for the Investigator was deemed invalid for the Cumberland by the short-tempered Governor Charles Decaen, and Flinders was detained as a spy. He was only allowed to leave the island in mid 1810 when it became clear that the British were about to invade.
He fulminated against his detention in futile and counterproductive letters to Decaen:
I was chosen by that great patron of the sciences Sir Joseph Banks President of the Royal Society of London, and one well known by all the literati throughout the world, to retrace part of the track of the immortal captain Cook, to complete what in New Holland and its neighbourhood he had left unfinished, and to perfect the discovery of that extensive country. … Now, Sir, I would beg to ask you whether it becomes the French nation, even independent of all passport, to stop the progress of such a voyage and of which the whole maritime world are to receive the benefit?
However, despite his frustration, Flinders eventually resigned himself to his indefinitely extended detention. After about eighteen months of real confinement, he was allowed to move to the countryside and live on the estate of Madame d’Arifat at Plaines Wilhems on the south-west of the island, and life was in many ways pleasant and social, as recorded in the Private Journal.
He did not waste the time he spent detained on Mauritius. He accomplished as much as he could, without consulting sources only available in England, which included the astronomical records at Greenwich, towards the task he knew awaited him on his return: completing his charts and the account of his voyage of discovery. He sent two papers to the Royal Society, one on the differences in the magnetic needle arising from an alteration in the direction of the ship’s head, and the other on the uses of the marine barometer. Both were read at the Society and published in their transactions. He read voraciously, in English and French, recording what he had been reading in his journal. He studied the geology and geophysics of the island, and wrote detailed observations in his journal on the local methods of processing products like indigo and maize. He instructed the younger sons of Madame d’Arifat in mathematics and navigation. He had become fluent in French. In early 1807 he wrote his Biographical Tribute to the Memory of Trim. 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. At his best, while on Mauritius he could say:
Time has soffened [sic] my disappointments, I have my books, am making acquisitions in knowledge, enjoy good health, and innocent amusements for which I have still a relish, and look forward to the hope of overcoming all objections and difficulties with honour to myself; and to this I add, with heart-felt pleasure, that the consciousness of being perfectly innocent of any thing, that ought to have caused the suspicions that have been or are entertained against me.
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. In a letter of 31 December 1804 he promised Ann he would learn patience on Ile de France, and he did. He also learned to be despondent, cynical, cautious and pessimistic.
Back in England, his task was to finish writing the Voyage and complete his charts. In his Preface, he notes that: ‘the publication in 1814 of a voyage commenced in 1801, and of which all the essential parts were concluded within three years, requires some explanation.’ Shipwreck and detention were, of course, a major reason for the delay, but he also found that:
‘the Greenwich observations [were] found to differ so much from the calculated places of the sun and moon, given in the Nautical Almanacks of 1801, 2 and 3, as to make considerable alterations in the longitudes of places settled during the voyage; and a reconstruction of all the charts [became] thence indispensable to accuracy.
This meticulous work he carried out with the help, not always gracefully rendered, of his brother Samuel, 2nd lieutenant on the Investigator. Matthew succumbed to his [final] illness almost as soon as the work was finished, and the Voyage was published just days before his death on 19 July 1814. Along the way, in 1812, he performed experiments on the effect on the compass of the magnetism of ships, which led to the invention of the Flinders Bar.
In addition to the charting of the Australian coastline, Flinders’ sailing directions referred to the collection of natural history specimens. The naturalist on the voyage was Robert Brown (1773-1858). For three and a half years Brown did intensive botanic research in Australia, collecting about 3400 species, of which about 2000 were previously unknown. In the Voyage, Flinders relates:
Amongst other preparations for the voyage, a green house was set up on the quarter deck of that ship; and the plants collected in the Investigator from the south, the east, and north coasts of Terra Australis were deposited in it, to be conveyed to His Majesty’s botanical garden at Kew; and as we had had the misfortune to lose the gardener of the expedition, and Mr. Brown, the naturalist, remained behind, a man from Port Jackson was engaged to take care of the plants during the passage.
Brown remained in Australia until May 1805. He then returned to Britain where he spent the next five years working on the material he had gathered. He published numerous species descriptions; in Western Australia alone he is the author of nearly 1200 species. In 1810, he published the results of his collecting in Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen, the first systematic account of the Australian flora. In addition to Brown’s descriptions, landscapes and coastal views were painted by William Westall, and Ferdinand Bauer produced exquisite paintings of flora and fauna. Bauer, like Brown, stayed in Australia until 1805, when he returned to England with 11 cases of drawings containing 1,542 Australian plants, 180 Norfolk Island plants, and over 300 animals. So as far as that aspect of the voyage was concerned, a major contribution to the knowledge of Australian natural history was made, which would not have been possible without Flinders’ active collaboration, in allowing the ‘scientific gentlemen’ time ashore to collect and explore.
However, although Flinders’ 1814 published map of Australia (or Terra Australis as it was named, against his wishes) provided an almost complete outline of the Australian continent, it was left to Governor King’s son Phillip Parker King to complete the survey. In 1817 the British government decided that: ‘circumstances consequent upon the restoration of Peace … rendered it most important to explore, with as little delay as possible, that part of the coast of New Holland … not surveyed or examined by the late Captain Flinders’, and appointed Lieutenant King to do this.
King made four voyages between 1817 and 1822 to complete the work which Flinders could well have completed had he lived beyond the age of forty. As well as filling in the gap Flinders left westward of Wessel’s Islands, he surveyed a recently-discovered harbour in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). He was the first to give a report of Port Darwin, now the site of the capital of the Northern Territory.
Although Flinders achieved a spectacular amount of meticulous and important work during his active career (which had, of course, begun with smaller expeditions from Port Jackson in the 1790s in company with George Bass) a combination of imprudent decisions (which of course would have been vindicated had all gone well) and just plain bad luck prevented him from ‘perfecting the discovery’ of Terra Australis. The fact that his enforced stay on Ile de France had, as Miriam Estensen puts it, ‘a certain ameliorating effect on this ambitious, driven man,’ would probably not have been felt by him to be worth the pain and frustration he endured by being kept from his active career. But it seems unlikely that he would be quite the same figure of romance and adulation, had he not been cut off in his prime and prevented from achieving all he wished.
Gillian Dooley, Flinders University, South Australia
 Matthew Flinders, Voyage to Terra Australis Volume 2 (London, 1814) 493.
 Matthew Flinders, Private Journal 1803-1814 ed. Anthony J. Brown and Gillian Dooley (Adelaide: Friends of the State Library of SA, 2005) 326.
 Matthew Flinders, Personal Letters from an Extraordinary Life ed. Paul Brunton (Sydney: Hordern House/State Library of NSW, 2002) 69.
 Flinders, Personal Letters 75.
 Quoted in Geoffrey Ingleton, Matthew Flinders, Navigator and Chartmaker (Guildford: Genesis Publications, 1986) 423.
Matthew Flinders, Private Letters, vol. 3, 1810-1814, with letters from Ann Flinders, 1814-1821, 269, James Fairfax Matthew Flinders Electronic Archive (online) http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/item/itemDetailPaged.aspx?itemID=153830
 Flinders, Personal Letters 69.
 Flinders, Voyage Volume 1, Chapter 1.
 Flinders, Voyage, Volume 2 Chapter 6.
 Flinders, Voyage, Volume 2 Chapter 9.
 Flinders, Voyage, Volume 2 Chapter 10.
 Flinders, Personal Letters 92.
 Flinders, Private Journal 14.
 Flinders, Private Journal 14.
 Flinders, Private Journal 150.
 5 October 1805.
 Flinders, Personal Letters 122.
 Flinders, Voyage, Volume 1, Preface.
 Flinders, Voyage, Volume 2, Book 3, Chapter 1.
 Miriam Estensen, The Life of Matthew Flinders (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2002) 479.