BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
The Life of Matthew Flinders, by Miriam Estensen
, January 11, 2003
The Life of Matthew Flinders
by Miriam Estensen
Allen & Unwin, Rec. price: $59.95In 1814, Matthew Flinders died in London. By the time of his comparatively early death, he had been involved in a voyage of discovery which demonstrated that Tasmania was a separate island and as commander of the Investigator had circumnavigated and charted the coast of Australia. Miriam Estensen's well-researched and highly readable account traces the career of this extraordinary explorer.
The son of a surgeon, Flinders was born in Donington, Lincolnshire, in 1774. Inspired by sea stories, he joined the Navy as a young teenager, a common practice. By the time he was 21, he had served under William Bligh in his second and successful voyage to Tahiti to collect breadfruit - a voyage in which Flinders developed his excellent cartographical skills - and had seen action in the naval battle of the Glorious First of June 1794 against the French.
Flinders then sailed to NSW on the Reliance
in 1795 under Governor Hunter. In the next few years he took part in a number of exploration expeditions, many of which were in small craft. The most significant of these was the voyage with Bass in the Norfolk
in 1798/99 that established Tasmania was a separate island.
Flinders returned to England in 1800 and the following year was given command of the Investigator
. Just before he embarked, he married Ann Chappell with the intention of taking her with him to Sydney; however, just before departure, Ann was ordered off the ship by the Admiralty.
In the course of the voyage of discovery, Flinders completed the first true circumnavigation of Australia and scientists on board collected and catalogued numerous plant and animal specimens. Early on in the voyage, structural problems with the Investigator
became apparent and these eventually rendered her unserviceable.
Flinders set sail from Sydney to England in 1804 in the Cumberland
with orders to call at Mauritius en route if necessary, the rules of war allowing safe conduct for voyages of discovery, rules that had, for example, granted the French explorer Nicholas Baudin assistance.
Upon arrival, the French governor, General Decaen, was not satisfied with Flinders' claims that his voyage was purely scientific, believing him to be a spy, and remanded him. Despite numerous attempts to secure his release, including orders from the French Government to that effect, it was not until 1810 that he was repatriated and reunited with his wife after nine years of separation.
Flinders devoted the last years of his life to preparing an account of his exploration for publication, A Voyage to Terra Australis
- particularly in ensuring the accuracy of charts and other details. Although his charts contained some inaccuracies, he corrected earlier ones and his work formed the basis for future cartographers. Through his explorations in the Investigator
, Flinders demonstrated that New Holland and New South Wales was a single island not separated by an inland water course.
He also invented the Flinders Bar, a segment of a compass that minimised magnetic attraction from metals in a ship. He was survived by his wife Ann, who died in 1852 and his daughter Anne, whose son, William Flinders Petrie, was a pioneering Egyptologist.