The Navigators - Captains - Matthew Flinders - Print Friendly Version Page 1 of 2
Youthful Decisions and Paternal Disapproval
Matthew Flinders was born in a village in Lincolnshire on the east coast of England. His Grandfather and father both
busy doctors, it was expected that Matthew would follow family tradition.
However, at 15, Matthew preferred reading, secretly, Robinson Crusoe, than reading Medicine. So he wrote to his
cousin, John Flinders who was in naval service in the West Indies for advice.
On his cousins advice, Matthew studied Euclid, Robertson's Elements and Moore's Navigation, all excellent primers
for enthusiastic young, prospective sailors.
In 1789 he felt he had progressed enough to offer himself as a naval volunteer to Captain Sir Thomas Pasley aboard
the Scipio at Chatham. Another of Matthew's cousins, already serving aboard the ship, probably provided the
introduction. Matthew Flinders first spent six months training on a worm-ridden, permanently moored hulk. A junior
midshipman on Pasley's 'noble ship of the line'.
In 1791 Flinders set sail on the Providence for Tahiti with Captain Bligh ('Bully Blight' of Bounty fame). He became
part of one of the most successful expeditions of the time, round the world collecting breadfruit, unlike Bligh's first trip
to that region, and through 'diligence and obedience', made a lifelong friend.
They encountered part of the South-east coast of Tasmania, many small islands, mainly in the Fiji group and charted
them for the first time.
Bligh was impressed with Flinders and saw his potential. He entrusted the young man with chart-making and
astronomical observations and the care of the precious and incredibly important time keepers.
It was on the Providence that Flinders first saw Australia. By this time his main passion, the discovery of unknown
lands, was well developed.
In the next decade, came many and varied experiences.
First Blood and the Man
Bligh and his crew were feted as heroes when they returned in 1793. Flinders decided to rejoin Rear Admiral Sir
Thomas Pasley aboard the Bellerophon. The French revolutionary wars were raging and Flinders joined in time to
take part in running battles with the French. He played a considerable part in the British victory and eventually, on
leave, overawed the family - he was Aide to the Admiral now.
Tom Thumb and Reliance
With the peace came an offer to sail aboard the Reliance to the Penal Colony of New South Wales with its second
Governor, John Hunter.
Chief among the many familiar faces on board was childhood comrade, now Doctor, George Bass. Together, they
took every opportunity to explore, Flinders honing his mapping and navigational skills as they sailed the coast in a
Back at Deptford, Bass had begun to plan and equip himself for the venture. He bought a tiny 180 centimetre (six
foot) boat they dubbed the Tom Thumb, carried out from England inside the Reliance's cutter.
In this tiny boat the large Bass, Flinders and assistant William Martin, charted the coastal inlets and rivers around
Port Jackson. This was no Sunday picnic jaunt and roughs seas, contrary winds and nervous Aborigines were only
part of their difficulties in Bass' attempts to find a strait between the mainland and Tasmania. Though he failed to find
the strait in Tom Thumb the little boat remained a kind of holy relic after they returned, a piece of wood from it even
being presented to Baudin later on.
Nelson and the Strait
The crowning exploit of the intrepid adventurers, in the slightly larger 'Nelson' lent by Governor Hunter for three
months, enabled Bass and Flinders to circumvent Tasmania in 1798. Through the vitally important strait, (it was to
cut days off the voyage from England), with its discoverer at his side to map the rugged coasts and prove Van
Diemans Land an island.
This important trip allowed Flinders to chart the coastline in detail and Bass to make a detailed Natural History and
attempt a study of the Tasmanian Aborigines. This he failed to achieve, other than a brief and peaceful encounter
with an unnamed man, and it took Baudin's expedition some four years later to make a comprehensive study of this
quickly diminished race.
The Navigators - Captains - Matthew Flinders - Print Friendly Version Page 2 of 2
He made, amongst other zoological achievement, the first anatomical dissections of a wombat and described for the
first time the nesting habits of the white capped albatross.
Triming the Ships
The still young Lieutenant Finders sailed in the Reliance to the Cape of Good Hope to pick up livestock, amongst
them his constant companion of future trips, the intrepid Trim, a black and white cat of dubious pedigree who turned
out to be as much a character as Master Flinders himself.
Back to England, and a tentative approach to the powerful Sir Joseph Banks brought immediate support for Flinder's
great plan, and the ultimate reward. A Captain's Commission and a ship of his own to, at last, fulfil those dreams of
childhood. To map the last UNKNOWN, the south coast of Terra Australis; if he could race the huge French
expedition, already 9 months on the way.
He did it all - but - boats that rotted beneath him; shipwrecks not of his own doing that lost precious plant cargoes;
six and a half year of imprisonment on Isle de France, ('the greatest blot on French maritime history'); French maps
and journals claiming HIS work published long before he returned to an England, where he was almost forgotten. Six
years of unremitting toil, and ever increasing ill health - and, on the 19th July, the very date that his ship the
'Investigator' had sailed from England less than a decade ago, Matthew Flinders was dead.