FLINDERS, MATTHEW (1774-1814), English navigator, explorer, and man of science, was born at Donington, near Boston, in Lincolnshire, on the 16th of March 1774. Matthew was at first designed to follow his father’s profession of surgeon, but his enthusiasm in favour of a life of adventure impelled him to enter the royal navy, which he did on the 23rd of October 1789. After a voyage to the Friendly Islands and West Indies, and after serving in the HMS Bellerophon during Lord Howe’s “glorious first of June” (1794) off Ushant, Flinders went out in 1795 as midshipman in the HMS Reliance to New South Wales. For the next few years he devoted himself to the task of accurately laying down the outline and bearings of the Australian coast, and he did his work so thoroughly that he left comparatively little for his successors to do. With his friend George Bass, the surgeon of the “Reliance,” in the year of his arrival he explored George’s river; and, after a voyage to Norfolk Island, again in March 1796 the two friends in the same boat, the “Tom Thumb,” only 8 ft. long, and with only a boy to help them, explored a stretch of coast to the south of Port Jackson. After a voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, when he was promoted to a lieutenancy, Flinders was engaged during February 1798 in a survey of the Furneaux Islands, lying to the north of Tasmania. His delight was great when, in September of the same year, he was commissioned along with Bass, who had already explored the sea between Tasmania and the south coast to some extent and inferred that it was a strait, to proceed in the sloop HMS Norfolk (25 tons) to prove conclusively that Van Diemen’s Land was an island by circumnavigating it. In the same sloop, in the summer of next year, Flinders made an exploration to the north of Port Jackson, the object being mainly to survey Glasshouse Bay (Moreton Bay) and Hervey’s Bay. Returning to England he was appointed to the command of an expedition for the thorough exploration of the coasts of Terra Australis, as the southern continent was still called, though Flinders is said to have been the first to suggest for it the name Australia. On the 18th of July 1801 the sloop HMS Investigator (334 tons), in which the expedition sailed, left Spithead, Flinders being furnished with instructions and with a passport from the French government to all their officials in the Eastern seas. Among the scientific staff was Robert Brown, one of the most eminent English botanists; and among the midshipmen was Flinders’s relative, John Franklin, of Arctic fame. Cape Leeuwin, on the south-west coast of Australia, was reached on November 6, and King George’s sound on the 9th of December. Flinders sailed round the Great Bight, examining the islands and indentations on the east side, noting the nature of the country, the people, products, &c., and paying special attention to the subject of the variation of the compass. Spenser and St Vincent Gulfs were discovered and explored. On the 8th of April 1802, shortly after leaving Kangaroo Islands, at the mouth of St Vincent Gulf, Flinders fell in with the French exploring ship, “Le Géographe,” under Captain Nicolas Baudin, in the bay now known as Encounter Bay. In the narrative of the French expedition published in 1807 (when Flinders was a prisoner in the Mauritius) by M. Peron, the naturalist to the expedition, much of the land west of the point of meeting was claimed as having been discovered by Baudin, and French names were extensively substituted for the English ones given by Flinders. It was only in 1814, when Flinders published his own narrative, that the real state of the case was fully exposed. Flinders continued his examination of the coast along Bass’s Strait, carefully surveying Port Phillip. Port Jackson was reached on the 9th of May 1802.
After staying at Port Jackson for about a couple of months, Flinders set out again on the 22nd of July to complete his circumnavigation of Australia. The Great Barrier Reef was examined with the greatest care in several places. The north-east entrance of the Gulf of Carpentaria was reached early in November; and the next three months were spent in an examination of the shores of the gulf, and of the islands that skirt them. An inspection of the “Investigator” showed that she was in so leaky a condition that only with the greatest precaution could the voyage be completed in her. Flinders completed the survey of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and after touching at the island of Timor, the “Investigator” sailed round the west and south of Australia, and Port Jackson was reached on the 9th of June 1803. Much suffering was endured by nearly all the members of the expedition: a considerable proportion of the men succumbed to disease, and their leader was so reduced by scurvy that his health was greatly impaired.
Flinders determined to proceed home in H.M.S. “Porpoise” as a passenger, submit the results of his work to the Admiralty, and obtain, if possible, another vessel to complete his exploration of the Australian coast. The “Porpoise” left Port Jackson on the 10th of August, accompanied by the H.E.I.C.’s ship “Bridgewater” (750 tons) and the “Cato” (450 tons) of London. On the night of the 17th the “Porpoise” and “Cato” suddenly struck on a coral reef and were rapidly reduced to wrecks. The officers and men encamped on a small sandbank near, 3 or 4 ft. above high-water, a considerable quantity of provisions, with many of the papers and charts, having been saved from the wrecks. The reef was in about 22° 11′ S. and 155° E., and about 800 m. from Port Jackson. Flinders returned to Port Jackson in a six-oared cutter in order to obtain a vessel to rescue the party. The reef was again reached on the 8th of October, and all the officers and men having been satisfactorily disposed of, Flinders on the 11th left for Jones Strait in an unsound schooner of 29 tons, the “Cumberland,” with ten companions, and a valuable collection of papers, charts, geological specimens, &c. On the 15th of December he put in at Mauritius, when he discovered that France and England were at war. The passport he possessed from the French government was for the “Investigator”; still, though he was now on board another ship, his mission was 521 essentially the same, and the work he was on was simply a continuation of that commenced in the unfortunate vessel. Nevertheless, on her arrival at Port Louis the “Cumberland” was seized by order of the governor-general de Caen. Flinders’s papers were taken possession of, and he found himself virtually a prisoner. We need not dwell on the sad details of this unjustifiable captivity, which lasted to June 1810. But there can be no doubt that the hardships and inactivity Flinders was compelled to endure for upwards of six years told seriously on his health, and brought his life to a premature end. He reached England in October 1810, after an absence of upwards of nine years. The official red-tapeism of the day barred all promotion to the unfortunate explorer, who set himself to prepare an account of his explorations, though unfortunately an important part of his record had been retained by de Caen. The results of his labours were published in two large quarto volumes, entitled A Voyage to Terra Australis, with a folio volume of maps. The very day (July 19, 1814) on which his work was published Flinders died, at the early age of forty. The great work is a model of its kind, containing as it does not only a narrative of his own and of previous voyages, but masterly statements of the scientific results, especially with regard to magnetism, meteorology, hydrography and navigation. Flinders paid great attention to the errors of the compass, especially to those caused by the presence of iron in ships. He is understood to have been the first to discover the source of such errors (which had scarcely been noticed before), and after investigating the laws of the variations, he suggested counter-attractions, an invention for which Professor Barlow got much credit many years afterwards. Numerous experiments on ships’ magnetism were conducted at Portsmouth by Flinders, by order of the admiralty, in 1812. Besides the Voyage, Flinders wrote Observations on the Coast of Van Diemen’s Land, Bass’s Strait, &c., and two papers in the Phil. Trans.—one on the “Magnetic Needle” (1805), and the other, “Observations on the Marine Barometer” (1806).
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