Matthew Flinders

(1774—1814) naval officer and hydrographer

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British navigator and explorer who entered the Royal Navy in 1789, served at the battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794, and in the following year sailed as a midshipman to Australia in the Reliance taking Captain John Hunter to govern New South Wales. He struck up a close friendship with the surgeon on board, George Bass (1771–c.1803?), with whom he shared an enthusiasm for exploration by sea. After they reached Sydney in September 1795 the two, individually and in company, made several surveys, some of them in a small boat called Tom Thumb which Bass had brought with him from England. At that time it was thought that Tasmania, then called Van Diemen's Land, was part of the Australian mainland, but Bass and Flinders came to the conclusion, independently, that this might not be the case. Governor Hunter was interested in their theory and gave them the chance of testing it, and on 7 October 1798 they sailed from Port Jackson in the sloop Norfolk. After discovering the existence of what was later named Bass Strait, they accomplished the first circumnavigation of Tasmania. This was the last exploration the two made together and both returned to England. In 1803 Bass disappeared on a trading voyage to Peru.

In England, Flinders, who had been promoted to lieutenant while in Australia, was appointed to command the sloop Investigator. With his cousin John Franklin aboard he sailed in July 1801 to Australia where, between December 1801 and May 1802, he surveyed much of the Great Bight, including St Vincent's Gulf (where Adelaide now stands), Bass Strait, and Port Phillip (site of Melbourne), before reaching Port Jackson (Sydney). In July 1802 he continued the circumnavigation of Australia in his ship, now worn out and leaky, surveying parts of the Great Barrier Reef and the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, before sailing anticlockwise around the continent, returning to Port Jackson on 9 June 1803. It was a voyage of great privation for all aboard and resulted in the loss of many of Flinders's crew through scurvy and other causes, and damaged his own health.

Besides his extensive surveys, Flinders made many scientific studies, particularly regarding the deviation of the magnetic compass caused by the iron components of his ship, which were to prove of the greatest importance; the compensating bars placed in the binnacle of a magnetic compass are still named after him. With the massive collection of material and papers arising out of his voyages, he set off for England as a passenger, but was first of all wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, and was then made a prisoner of war when the schooner he was travelling in stopped at the French island of Mauritius in December 1803. This misfortune was caused because his French passport, which should have protected him, was made out specifically for the Investigator and not for the ship he was on. His captivity lasted until 1811 and his health deteriorated further during his detention, but on his return to England he nevertheless managed to compile his splendid account of his accomplishments, A Voyage to Terra Australis, dying on the day that it was published.


Subjects: Maritime History — Literature.

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