Flinders mapped maritime Australia from sailboats

FLINDERS: The Man who Mapped Australia,
by Rob Mundle,
Hachette, 386pp.

One could niggle that Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) did not “map Australia”, but he was the first known European to circumnavigate the coasts of both the mainland and Tasmania, completing and correcting the maritime charts that outlined what would become, in the next century, a federated Australia. Mapping the interior was left to others. Rob Mundle, author and sailor, acknowledges his publisher for devising the subtitle.

Flinders was a dedicated maritime explorer. From his father, a Lincolnshire doctor, he learned a love of science and respect for close observation. But inspired by a childhood reading of Robinson Crusoe, he defied family expectations and joined the Royal Navy, bent on exploring the South Seas.

He was the youngest of an illustrious trio whose explorations were sponsored by the grand patron of science and of the New South Wales colony, Sir Joseph Banks, for forty years President of the Royal Society. A young Banks had sponsored and sailed with James Cook on his first Pacific voyage to the coast of New South Wales. William Bligh had sailed as a junior officer under Cook, and Midshipman Flinders then sailed with Bligh on voyages of Pacific exploration.

Flinders got his own chance at exploration when, still a lowly midshipman, he arrived at Sydney Cove in the crew of Captain Hunter, who was to assume command of the fragile colony. The New South Wales “Rum” Corps officers were then running the colony for their own profit. Hunter had few men he could trust, and the government in London was pre-occupied by war, and threat of war, with a turbulent post-revolutionary France. Young Flinders had demonstrated aptitude for navigation and leadership, so Hunter entrusted him with missions of coastal exploration north and south of Port Jackson in sailing vessels, the smallest a mere ten feet in length. Among other observations, Flinders noted useful coal deposits in the regions we now know as the Illawarra and the Hunter.

He made meticulous charts but also recorded detailed observations of all natural phenomena he could observe, with comments on economic potential and encounters with the native peoples – commonly recorded as “Indians” in those days. When possible, he took aboriginal volunteers from Port Jackson with him to facilitate communication, but nonetheless the encounters could be fatal, for both sides.

As the young explorer proved himself to Hunter (and ultimately to authorities in London), the size of the boats and the missions increased. It is hard these days to understand that several decades after the discovery of Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land), no European knew whether or not it was joined to the mainland (then called New Holland). In the days of sail, the safest sea routes from Europe led south of Tasmania, and nobody had risked a sea-going ship in uncharted, possibly shallow waters to answer the question.

With his friend George Bass, an adventurous naval surgeon, Flinders persuaded Hunter to make available a single-masted cutter and small crew with which they followed the coast south, then west, as far as Westernport Bay. They then turned back, headed south across choppy and squally waters, and found the northwest coast of Tasmania, which they circumnavigated anticlockwise, proving it was an island.

The dividing strait bears the name of George Bass, who was slightly senior to Flinders at that time. A few years later, Bass came to grief when he and the entire merchant crew he had employed were arrested trying to smuggle British goods, via Sydney, into the Spanish colonies of South America. Bass probably died in servitude in the Spanish mines of Peru, while a more cautious Flinders continued his explorations.

A modern reader may wonder at the level of risk routinely undertaken by Flinders and his contemporariesWooden ships were often frail if not rotting, and ultimately at the mercy of the weather. For much of Flinders’ circumnavigation of Australia, the planks of his ship Investigator were leaking up to fifty tons of seawater per hour, all of which had to be pumped out by hand to keep Investigator afloat. When he returned to Sydney, parts of the hull were so rotten that “a cane could be thrust through them”. . Disease was common and often fatal, though possibly no more so at sea than on land. Crew died or deserted. It’s no surprise that prayer and superstition were so popular.

Flinders also experienced what we now call “political risk”. In the uneasy relations with France, a kind of truce was negotiated for scientific travelers. Grand figures like Sir Joseph Banks could persuade French colleagues to provide Flinders with official documents to grant him safe passage through French territories and ports, regardless of the bilateral circumstances.

Off South Australia during the circumnavigation, Flinders had encountered the two ships commanded by the French explorer Baudin. Subsequently, Governor King in Port Jackson extended generous hospitality to Baudin and restored the health of his severely scurvied crew. But whilst these gentlemanly relations were maintained, it was later apparent that a new class of French nationalists was rising within the Napoleonic regime, and they were implacably hostile to the British Empire – a kind of French neo-cons. Flinders encountered one of these in the French Governor Decaen of Mauritius, when Flinders’ ship limped into Ile de France seeking repairs en route to London.

Baudin’s ship, the Geographe, had left Mauritius only the day before Flinders arrived, but Governor Decaen had been impressed by the ideas of two of Baudin’s officers. After gathering intelligence while guests at Port Jackson, these two were seeking to persuade the French government of the urgent necessity to extinguish the New South Wales colony and British claims to the continent of New Holland. Napoleon’s government was preoccupied elsewhere, but Governor Decaen contrived to detain Flinders for a full six and a half years of house arrest, for possible use as a trophy of anti-British nationalism.

When finally released, Flinders returned home with just enough strength to complete the massive 350,000 word accountof his major expedition, dying within days of the publication of A Voyage to Terra Australis in 1814, aged forty.

Rob Mundle is a prolific sailing writer, and manages to weave three threads of narrative together. Sources range from Flinders’ own logs and journals, to previous scholarly works, to visiting remote coastal features described by Flinders, courtesy of Google Earth satellite images. Some fine illustrations from contemporary documents add life to the text. Seafaring readers will get their fill of bobstays, taffrails, topgallants, larboard and windage as Mundle analyses expertly how Flinders brought his various vessels through peril after maritime peril. Secondly, one must be impressed by the bare facts of what Flinders contributed to the foundation of modern Australia (including advocacy of the name Australia), taking into account that he had completed his explorations by the age of thirty.

The third narrative is how Flinders’ ambitions were at times given crucial support by well-placed sponsors, and at other times frustrated by political chicanery, negligence, or sheer bureaucratic inertia. It reminds that history is so often personal, and that in the competition of empires, Australia has never been the main game.

Richard Thwaites is a Canberra landlubber with an interest in history.