BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Epic voyages of a national hero
, March 16, 2013
The Man Who Mapped Australia
by Rob Mundle
(Sydney: Hachette Australia)
Hardcover: 400 pages
Reviewed by Hal G.P. Colebatch
There is a fine line to be drawn between colourful, atmospheric writing that enlivens a genuine historical narrative, and the over-the-top purple prose mixed with nihilism of a Manning Clark and too many other imitators and contemporary Australian historians.
Rob Mundle’s Flinders: the Man Who Mapped Australia is in the first category. It shows that popular histories can be written in an attractive style and still be accurate. The author’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious.
Matthew Flinders, like Arthur Phillip, is one of the heroes of Australia’s first settlement who, while not ignored, has somehow received less recognition in popular culture than his great work warrants. His adventures would make for more exciting cinema than, for example, the films about Ned Kelly; and the tiny boats Flinders used would be easy enough to replicate.
Mundle’s book commences with a dramatic account of a ship on which Flinders was travelling as a passenger being wrecked on a desolate sand cay, and in this case the dramatic writing is justified.
A leading character in the whole story makes an early appearance here: Flinders’s beloved cat, Trim, was one of the most cool-headed of the survivors (Trim has a well-deserved statue in Sydney). Flinders sailed for help, only one of his epic small-boat voyages.
Shipwrecks are prominent in the story. The author, a much-experienced sailor, knows his boats, and a common factor of the ships that ended up in Australian waters in the first days of the colony was that they were expendable — too old and worn-out for the long voyages and high seas they had to face.
Often enough, the crews were pumping out ships literally sinking beneath them as seawater leaked into the hulls to a depth of a foot a day.
Flinders’s first voyage was as a young midshipman to Tahiti, on Captain William Bligh’s second and successful attempt to collect breadfruit.
Whether or not Bligh had learnt a lesson from the famous Bounty mutiny on the first voyage, or whether his reputation for sadism and brutality in that episode was a myth created by anti-British Hollywood film-makers, Bligh seems in his second voyage to Tahiti to have been a model captain, going to great lengths to ensure his men’s comfort and health. The voyage home included many nightmarish days and nights picking a course though the convoluted reefs of Torres Strait.
Before he was 20, Flinders was one of the world’s most experienced navigators, fortunate in being mentored by Bligh, who had in turn been the pupil of James Cook. The experiences of these three captains, giving the crew rations of lime-juice and sauerkraut, and insisting on cleanliness and dry clothes, showed how dread diseases like scurvy could be beaten. Before then, ships on distant voyages had been lucky to get home with half their men alive. Since then, provided the crews’ rations of vitamins were maintained, deaths from scurvy were negligible.
Flinders’s first voyage through Bass Strait, accompanied by naval surgeon George Bass and the faithful Trim, was in the Tom Thumb, an open boat only eight feet long. On this and other voyages Trim managed to fall overboard, but calmly pulled himself back on a rope. After one harrowing voyage his “fine black robe” turned white, though only temporarily.
As well as providing details of Flinders’s various voyages, Mundle’s book gives a good impression of life in Sydney in the earliest days and the slowly expanding settlement.
Flinders’s work as a cartographer was exceptional. The Royal Navy was using the charts he made until modern times.
He was the first man to circumnavigate Tasmania, proving it was an island, and exploring up some of its rivers, and the first to circumnavigate mainland Australia. He was also a gifted descriptive writer and recorder of his travels and discoveries.
His end was tragic. Sailing home to England in a small ship, he was captured by the French at Mauritius. Though Britain and France were at war, there was a treaty between the rival powers to help each other’s scientific and exploration ships. The settlement of Sydney had strained its slender resources to help and provision French ships only a short time before.
However, Flinders offended the French officer in charge over a petty matter of etiquette, particularly over a slight technical defect in an invitation to dinner that the officer carried from the island’s governor, Général Charles Decaen.
Flinders was thereupon arrested as a spy and held for more that six years until Napoleon Bonaparte, who regarded himself as a great patron of science, could be persuaded to intervene.
By the time of his eventual release and return to England in 1810, Flinders’s health declined and he died not long after in 1814. As he lay dying, his wife put on his chest the first copy of his great book recording his discoveries, which he had worked on throughout his captivity.
Bass’s fate was probably worse. He appears to have joined an operation to smuggle goods into Spanish-controlled South America, was captured, and probably worked to death in the Andean silver mines.
This book makes quite clear the case for acclaiming Flinders as a national hero. I am not familiar with today’s school curriculum, but it would be interesting to know if he gets the credit he deserves.
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer.