Matthew Flinders

Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) was an English naval captain and hydrographer who prepared detailed charts of much of the Australian coastline.

Matthew Flinders was born on March 16, 1774, at Donnington, Lincolnshire, and educated in a local grammar school. Instead of becoming a surgeon like his father, he entered the Royal Navy at 15 and accompanied William Bligh on his second voyage to Tahiti in 1791. In 1794 Flinders saw action against the French in the English Channel and the following year went to New South Wales.

Accompanied in 1796 by George Bass, a naval surgeon, Flinders first explored Botany Bay and the coastline south of Sydney in an 8-foot open boat, the Tom Thumb. Between October 1798 and January 1799 Flinders and Bass, who had recently discovered the Bass Strait separating Tasmania from the mainland, sailed around Tasmania in the sloop Norfolk. In the summer of 1799 Flinders surveyed the coastline north of Sydney as far as Moreton Bay (Queensland).

After returning to England in 1800, Flinders published an account of his work, and the Admiralty decided that he should chart the whole Australian coastline. With the rank of commander, he was put in charge of H. M. S. Investigator and in July 1801, 3 months after his marriage, Flinders set out on a voyage which places him among the world's foremost navigators. From December 1801 Flinders made charts and collected botanical specimens along the unknown coast of the Great Australian Bight, and in April 1802 he met the French explorer Nicolas Baudin in Encounter Bay. After a refit, Flinders's expedition proceeded up the Queensland coast, passed through Torres Strait, and reached the Gulf of Carpentaria in November 1802. The Investigator became unseaworthy and, unable to complete the survey, Flinders sailed down the west coast and rounded the continent before returning to Sydney in June 1803.

In order to enlist support for a further expedition, Flinders embarked for England late in 1803. Forced to call at Mauritius, he was held captive for 6 years by the French governor because England and France were again at war. While Flinders worked on his journals, Baudin foreshadowed his discoveries by publishing maps of the "Terre Napoleon." Flinders returned to England in 1810 in poor health and published Voyage to Terra Australis the day before his death on July 19, 1814.

Flinders ranks second only to James Cook among the explorers of the period. His life was dedicated to discovery, and his careful scientific observations have stood the test of time. Seafarers were indebted to him for observations on the action of tides and on compass error produced by iron in ships. Flinders wanted to name the new continent Australia, but the Admiralty preferred New Holland.

Further Reading on Matthew Flinders

Several books have modified the picture of Flinders presented in Ernest Scott's pioneer biography, The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders (1914). A straightforward account of Flinders's career which deals at length with the 1801-1803 survey is K. A. Austin, The Voyage of the Investigator (1964). James D. Mack, Matthew Flinders, 1774-1814 (1966), praises Flinders's scientific work. Sidney John Baker, My Own Destroyer (1962), explores a similar theme, attributing deficiencies in Flinders's character to the relationship between father and son. In Ernestine Hill, My Love Must Wait (1942), Flinders's career forms the basis of a charming novel.

Additional Biography Sources

Ingleton, Geoffrey C.(Geoffrey Chapman), Matthew Flinders: navigator and chartmaker, Guildford, Surrey, England: Genesis Publications in association with Hedley Australia, 1986.