Born in Chicago, IL; married to a retired sea captain.
Home—Australia. Agent—c/o Author Mail, St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.
(With Christine Parsons and Leanne Wilson) World History, Science Press (Marrickville, New South Wales, Australia), 1990.
Understanding Ancient Worlds, Science Press (Marrickville, New South Wales, Australia), 1995.
Discovery: The Quest for the Great South Land, Allen & Unwin (St. Leonards, New South Wales, Australia), 1998, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Ancient History, Science Press (Marrickville, New South Wales, Australia), 2002.
The Life of Matthew Flinders, Allen & Unwin (Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia), 2002.
Australian writer Miriam Estensen's histories include Discovery: The Quest for the Great South Land, a study of the search for the last "discovered" continent. The history spans more than 2,000 years, and Estensen reaches back to the supposition of Pythagoras that an enormous southern continent had to exist to balance the northern half. She begins with explanations of the geology (plate tectonics) and zoology (marsupials) of Australia, how the great continent was formed, and how its unique animal and plant life developed. She then notes the hundreds of voyages in search of Java La Grande, as Australia was then called, or a trade route around it, in a time before longitude had yet to be discovered, as adventurers sailed blindly toward a land whose existence was uncertain. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Discovery a "zestful account of this historic quest, a remarkable tale of derring-do, incredible blunders, persistence, greed, mutiny, and devotion to a mirage" and called the section concerning the trade, during medieval times, of maps and information "particularly exciting."
Seafarers who sought out the new land and whose voyages led to the discovery of Australia and Antarctica, were Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Arab, and English. Estensen notes the history of the Portuguese explorers who traveled around Africa to reach India, the subsequent building of a mercantile empire that extended to Indonesia, Magellan's voyage on behalf of Spain from 1519 to 1522, Dutch navigator Abel Tasman's circumnavigation in 1642, and James Cook's expedition to Tahiti from 1768-1770, during which he charted the eastern coast of Australia. Estensen's extensive research is reflected by her comprehensive notes and bibliography.
Elizabeth Russell noted in Utopian Studies that "this is a tale of near hits and misses, densely packed historical facts, and information which must fascinate any modern day cartographer and sailor." Russell concluded by saying that "Australia does become a myth, constructed through a blend of rumour, dreams, experience, and the imagination. When the tale reaches its end, as it does with an Epilogue, the veil of fancy and imagination are ultimately lifted on James Cook's second voyage. The protagonist of Estensen's tale is not him, however, but the continent itself, lying in wait through the centuries and engaged in a curious, seductive dance of seven veils until the myth itself becomes reality."
The Life of Matthew Flinders is Estensen's study of the first man to complete a true circumnavigation of Australia, and whose passengers included scientists who collected and catalogued various plant and animal specimens. Flinders was born in England in 1774, and inspired by stories of the sea, he joined the navy as a teenager. He sailed under William Bligh on his successful voyage to Tahiti and saw battle with the French in June 1794. Because of his well-developed skills as a cartographer, Flinders embarked on a number of voyages, including his 1795 trip to New South Wales on the Reliance and his 1798-1799 trip aboard the Norfolk, during which Tasmania was established as a separate island. He was also the inventor of the Flinders Bar, a portion of the compass that lessened the magnetic attraction of nearby metals. He was not, however, a particularly effective commander of men.
In 1800, Flinders was given command of the Investigator, a ship that later proved unseaworthy. He planned to take his new bride, Ann Chappell, with him to Sydney, but she was ordered off the ship by the Admiralty. Flinders left for Australia and left Sydney for the return trip to England in 1804, with a new vessel, the Cumberland. He had orders to stop at French-controlled Mauritius if necessary, as the rules of war allowed for safe conduct of voyages of discovery. But upon landing, French governor General Decaen disallowed Flinders's claim that the expedition was entirely for scientific purposes, and, thinking him to be a spy, detained him until 1810. This was, in part, the fault of Flinders, who had no comprehension of the French language or the French mindset.
Martin Terry wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that "abandoned wives are the collateral damage of exploration, but Ann Flinders seems to have been particularly hard done by. What occurred, however, is one of the great romances of the century, one played out the only way it could be, by correspondence. Flinders loved words and writing, and while much of it is self-promoting memoranda, in his letters home, we see a finer character."
Flinders was a broken man by the time of his release, and he died at the age of forty. Terry noted that "whereas in the past Flinders has been portrayed like his statue in Macquarie Street as the zealous explorer, graciously scattering like magic dust his English names upon the Australian coast, Estensen gives us the ups and downs of the man in the commander's jacket. She has taken an eighteenth-century mariner and made a twenty-first-century man of him."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 1999, Bryce Christensen, review of Discovery: The Quest for the Great South Land, p. 822.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1998, review of Discovery, p. 1643.
Library Journal, February 15, 1999, Harold N. Boyer, review of Discovery, p. 165.
Publishers Weekly, November 16, 1998, review of Discovery, p. 60.
Sydney Morning Herald, Martin Terry, review of The Life of Matthew Flinders.
Times Literary Supplement, November 5, 1999, Glyndwr Williams, review of Discovery, p. 29.
Utopian Studies, winter, 2001, Elizabeth Russell, review of Discovery, p. 174.*