Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Flinders, Matthew
FLINDERS, MATTHEW (1774–1814), captain in the navy, hydrographer and discoverer, was born on 16 March 1774 at Donington, near Boston in Lincolnshire, where his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had practised as surgeons. He was intended for the same profession, but being, in his own phrase, 'induced to go to sea, against the wish of friends, from reading "Robinson Crusoe,"' he applied himself to the study of geometry and navigation with such assiduity that he obtained a competent knowledge of them without a master or other assistance. In May 1790, acting, it would seem, on the advice of a cousin who was governess in the family of Captain (afterwards Sir Thomas) Pasley, he offered himself on board Captain Pasley's ship, the Scipio, at Chatham. Pasley received him kindly, placed him on the quarter-deck, took him with him to the Bellerophon during the Spanish armament, and in the end of the year, when the Bellerophon was paid off, sent him to the Providence with Captain William Bligh [q. v.], on the point of sailing to the South Sea on his second and successful attempt to transplant the bread-fruit tree to the West Indies. His preliminary study of navigation now proved serviceable, and he was entrusted by Bligh with a greater share of the navigation and chart-drawing than was due to his few months' service at sea. On his return to England in 1793 Commodore Pasley was again commissioning the Bellerophon, and again took Flinders with him. On returning to Portsmouth after the battle of 1 June, Flinders was taken by Captain Waterhouse, formerly a lieutenant of the Bellerophon, on board the Reliance, which he was then fitting out for a voyage to New South Wales, in order to carry out Captain John Hunter [q. v.], the newly appointed governor of the colony. The Reliance arrived at Port Jackson in September 1795, and for the next five years Flinders devoted the whole of the time that he could be spared from the duties of the ship to exploring or surveying the adjacent parts of Australia. In this work he was associated with the surgeon of the Reliancc, George Bass [q. v.], who, while Flinders was detained on board, made an extended coasting voyage by himself in a whaleboat. Bass's observations were, however, so imperfect that it was not till they were plotted, after his return, that the meaning of what he had done became apparent. It was then seen that he must have passed between New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, till then believed to be connected with it, a discovery which the governor considered so important that, in September 1798, he appointed Flinders to command the Norfolk, a sloop of twenty-five tons, and despatched him to examine behind the Furneaux Islands, with instructions, if he found a strait, to pass through it, sail round Van Diemen's Land, and return by the south and east sides. This was happily done in a voyage extending from 7 Oct. to 11 Jan. 1799, and the existence of the strait being thus demonstrated the governor, acting on Flinder's suggestion, gave it the name of Bass's Strait. It is unnecessary to speak in detail of the many other coasting voyages which Flinders made at this period, in boats varying in size from an 8-foot dingey to the sloop of twenty-five tons. During the commission of the Reliance he had, by his own exertions, allowed indeed and sanctioned by the governor, explored and in a rough way surveyed the coast from Hervey Bay in the north to the circuit of Van Diemen's Land in the south.
When the Reliance arrived in England in the latter part of 1800, and some account of the new discoveries was made public, a desire was at once expressed for a more systematic examination of these coasts. Sir Joseph Banks was earnest in the cause, and, mainly at his instigation, an expedition for that purpose was resolved on. Flinders had already been promoted to the rank of lieutenant on 31 Jan. 1798, and was now, on Banks's recommendation, appointed to command the Xenophon, receiving the rank of commander a few weeks later, 16 Feb. 1801. The Xenophon, a north-country ship of 334 tons which had been bought into the navy some years before was now rechristened the Investigator, and was fitted out in a very liberal manner, the East India Company also allowing the officers 600l. for their outfit. The instructions, dated 22 June 1801, prescribed the survey of New Holland, beginning with King George's Sound and the south coast. Provided with these, with all existing charts and books of voyages, and with a passport from the French government, the Investigator sailed from Spithead on 18 July 1801. Touching in Simons Bay, from which she sailed on 9 Nov., on 6 Dec. she was off Cape Leeuwin, and on the 8th arrived in King George's Sound. This had already been examined by Vancouver in 1791, and was now more carefully surveyed by Flinders, after which he examined, in more or less detail, the whole coastline to the eastward as far as Port Phillip. The greater part of this was new ground, seen for the first time, and the names given by Flinders to the different bays, gulfs, headlands, and islands still call attention to the names of the officers of the Investigator, to some of the incidents of the voyage, and to the fact that the captain, his brother, the second lieutenant, and a midshipman named John Franklin [q. v.] were natives of Lincolnshire. Cape Catastrophe commemorates the loss of the cutter with her crew and two officers, whose names, Thistle and Taylor, live in two neighbouring islands. Hard by is Memory Cove, and a few miles further are Port Lincoln, Cape Donington, Boston Island, Spalding Cove, Grantham Island, and Spilsby Island, one of the Sir Joseph Banks group. On Kangaroo Island they found a countless number of kangaroos, of which they killed thirty-one, knocking them down with sticks. On 8 April, off Encounter Bay, they met the French exploring ship Géographe, under the command of Captain Nicolas Baudin, of his conversation with whom Flinders has left an amusing account. Whether from the excitement of meeting the French ship or from the state of the weather, which prevented the ship's entering the bay, the embouchure of the Darling escaped his notice, but with this exception he seems to have obtained a chart of the coast which, under the circumstances of a running survey—and, for the most part, it was nothing more—was wonderfully accurate, and is still the basis of our admiralty charts. From Port Phillip eastward the coast which had been first explored by Bass had been examined more closely by Lieutenant Grant of the Lady Nelson in 1800 (James Grant, A Voyage in the Lady Nelson to New South Wales, London, 4to, 1803)—a priority of discovery and survey which was contested by the French, who, in ignorance of Grant's work, also surveyed the coast in 1802, renaming the several noticeable points, not only in that part, but also in that further west, which had been examined by Flinders (MM.Peron et Freycinet, Voyageaux Terres Australes, 1800–4, Paris, 1807–16). On 9 May 1802 the Investigator arrived at Port Jackson, where she found the Lady Nelson, ordered to act as her tender during the further progress of the survey. While the ship was refitting, an observatory was established on shore under the charge of Lieutenant Flinders and Franklin. The ship's company was badly in want of fresh provisions, but the price was prohibitive; none could be purchased on the public account, and all that could be done was to pay the men what savings' allowance was due, so that they might buy some for themselves, when fortunately the Géographe came in in a very distressed state, owing to the ravages of scurvy, so that out of a complement of 170 not more than twelve were capable of doing their duty. All the resources of the colony were at once put at their disposal, and some few cattle which the governor had as breeding stock were slaughtered for the stranger. One quarter of beef—only one—Flinders managed to secure for his own men.
On 22 July the Investigator sailed from Port Jackson, with the Lady Nelson, as a tender, in company. The tender proved, however, of but little use; she was so bad a sailer that she retarded the work, and, after being aground and having lost part of her false keel, was worse than ever. She was accordingly sent back, and the Investigator, rounding Cape York on 31 Oct., proceeded with the survey of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The ship, however, was leaking badly; on examination it was found that many of her timbers were rotten, and the examining officers reported that if she had fine weather she might last six months without much risk. Flinders was naturally much disappointed. He had hoped ‘to make so accurate an investigation of the shores of Terra Australis that no future voyage to the country should be necessary.’ This was now impossible. He finished the survey of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and to the westward as far as Arnhem Bay; then finding his men sickly went to Timor for refreshments, and returned to Port Jackson on 9 June 1803. The ship was then officially surveyed and pronounced incapable of being repaired. Flinders therefore, in consultation with the governor, determined to go home as a passenger in the Porpoise, an old Spanish prize attached to the colony. Fowler, the first lieutenant of the Investigator, was appointed to command her, with twenty-two officers and men; the rest of the ship's company staying at Port Jackson to await Flinders's return with another vessel. She put to sea on 10 Aug. in company with the East India Company's ship Bridgewater and the Cato of London; and standing to the north on the 17th, the Porpoise and Cato both struck on Wreck Reef. The Porpoise stuck fast, but the Cato rolled over and sank in deep water, her men having barely time to scramble on shore. The Bridgewater sailed away, leaving them to their fate; and after earnest deliberation, it was determined that Flinders should attempt to fetch Port Jackson in one of the boats. This he succeeded in doing, and the governor at once engaged the Rolla, bound to China, to relieve the party and to carry them on to Canton; two schooners accompanying her; one to bring back to Port Jackson those who preferred it, and one, the Cumberland of twenty-nine tons, to go with Flinders to England. At the wreck the master, the boatswain, and eight men agreed to accompany him on this risky voyage; and the little craft parted from the Rolla on 11 Oct., passing through Torres Straits. In crossing the Indian Ocean the Cumberland proved to be very leaky; her pumps were worn out and the labour was excessive; so much so that Flinders determined to fetch Mauritius in hopes of finding some more convenient way of getting home. According to his last news from home France and England were at peace; and even if not, he believed that the passport given him by the French government before he left England would meet the case. Unfortunately, as the instructions given him by Governor King, on leaving Port Jackson, did not clearly warrant his touching at Mauritius, he considered it prudent to state his reasons in the log; in doing which he laid little stress on the necessities of his case, but dwelt, with the ardour of a surveyor, on the opportunities that would be afforded him of obtaining information on many points of interest. He anchored on 15 Dec. in Baie du Cap, from which he was directed to go round to Port Louis and see the governor, M. Decaen. Decaen at once objected that the passport was for the Investigator, and had no mention of the Cumberland. Flinders was therefore detained, his men were made prisoners, and his books and papers taken for examination. The last entry in his log was sufficient to excite suspicion; and Flinders, burning with anxiety to get to England and renew his survey, appears, even from his own account, to have acted with want of temper and tact. The governor was omnipotent; his personal ill-will put the worst construction on Flinders's unlucky explanations; he declared that the man was there as a spy, attempting to take a base advantage of the passport which had been granted to aid a scientific voyage. Flinders was accordingly kept in close confinement; and though, after nearly two years, he was allowed to reside in the country with leave to go about within two leagues of the house, his imprisonment was continued for nearly seven years. All exchanges were refused; instructions for his release were sent out from France, but Decaen chose to consider them optional, or not sufficiently explicit, and still detained him; nor did he release him till 7 June 1810, when he gave him permission to return to England, by Bombay, on parole not to serve against France during the course of the war. Accordingly, on 9 June, Flinders left Mauritius in a cartel for Bombay, but meeting with a man-of-war sloop bound to the Cape, he took passage in her to that place, where be found a ship going to England, he arrived at Portsmouth on 24 Oct. 1810. As soon as his release was known in England, he had been promoted to post rank, with seniority dated back as far as the patent of the existing board of admiralty would allow, 7 May 1810. It was admitted that had he come home in the Cumberland or at that time, he would have been then, in 1804, promoted; but it was impossible to date the commission back without an order from the king in council, which would involve more trouble than the admiralty were willing to undertake.
A few months after his return he was desired to prepare a narrative of his voyage, to which task he steadily devoted himself for the next three years. The sedentary employment aggravated the symptoms of a disease due probably, in its origin, to the hardships to which he had been exposed, and which had become more developed during the term of his long imprisonment. He lived to complete his work, and died, 19 July 1814, shortly before it was published. He had married in April 1801, while fitting out the Investigator, and at his death left one daughter, a child two years old.
Flinders appears to have had an extraordinary natural gift as a surveyor, so that with little or no instruction he became one of the best of the hydrographers who have graced our naval service. His survey of a large proportion of the Australian coast, though carried out under great disadvantages, has stood the test of time, and forms the basis of our modern charts. He was also one of the first, if not actually the first, to investigate the error of the compass due to the attraction of the iron in the ship, and contributed a paper on the subject to the Royal Society, written while detained in Mauritius (Phil. Trans. 1805, p. 187).