Matthew Flinders

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Matthew Flinders

Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) was an English naval captain and hydrographer who prepared detailed charts of much of the Australian coastline.

Matthew Flinders was born on March 16, 1774, at Donnington, Lincolnshire, and educated in a local grammar school. Instead of becoming a surgeon like his father, he entered the Royal Navy at 15 and accompanied William Bligh on his second voyage to Tahiti in 1791. In 1794 Flinders saw action against the French in the English Channel and the following year went to New South Wales.

Accompanied in 1796 by George Bass, a naval surgeon, Flinders first explored Botany Bay and the coastline south of Sydney in an 8-foot open boat, the Tom Thumb. Between October 1798 and January 1799 Flinders and Bass, who had recently discovered the Bass Strait separating Tasmania from the mainland, sailed around Tasmania in the sloop Norfolk. In the summer of 1799 Flinders surveyed the coastline north of Sydney as far as Moreton Bay (Queensland).

After returning to England in 1800, Flinders published an account of his work, and the Admiralty decided that he should chart the whole Australian coastline. With the rank of commander, he was put in charge of H. M. S. Investigator and in July 1801, 3 months after his marriage, Flinders set out on a voyage which places him among the world's foremost navigators. From December 1801 Flinders made charts and collected botanical specimens along the unknown coast of the Great Australian Bight, and in April 1802 he met the French explorer Nicolas Baudin in Encounter Bay. After a refit, Flinders's expedition proceeded up the Queensland coast, passed through Torres Strait, and reached the Gulf of Carpentaria in November 1802. The Investigator became unseaworthy and, unable to complete the survey, Flinders sailed down the west coast and rounded the continent before returning to Sydney in June 1803.

In order to enlist support for a further expedition, Flinders embarked for England late in 1803. Forced to call at Mauritius, he was held captive for 6 years by the French governor because England and France were again at war. While Flinders worked on his journals, Baudin foreshadowed his discoveries by publishing maps of the "Terre Napoleon." Flinders returned to England in 1810 in poor health and published Voyage to Terra Australis the day before his death on July 19, 1814.

Flinders ranks second only to James Cook among the explorers of the period. His life was dedicated to discovery, and his careful scientific observations have stood the test of time. Seafarers were indebted to him for observations on the action of tides and on compass error produced by iron in ships. Flinders wanted to name the new continent Australia, but the Admiralty preferred New Holland.

Further Reading

Several books have modified the picture of Flinders presented in Ernest Scott's pioneer biography, The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders (1914). A straightforward account of Flinders's career which deals at length with the 1801-1803 survey is K. A. Austin, The Voyage of the Investigator (1964). James D. Mack, Matthew Flinders, 1774-1814 (1966), praises Flinders's scientific work. Sidney John Baker, My Own Destroyer (1962), explores a similar theme, attributing deficiencies in Flinders's character to the relationship between father and son. In Ernestine Hill, My Love Must Wait (1942), Flinders's career forms the basis of a charming novel.

Additional Sources

Ingleton, Geoffrey C.(Geoffrey Chapman), Matthew Flinders: navigator and chartmaker, Guildford, Surrey, England: Genesis Publications in association with Hedley Australia, 1986. □

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Matthew Flinders


English Sea Captain, Explorer and Cartographer

Matthew Flinders explored the coast of Australia, charted it more carefully than any explorer had before, and gave it the name Australia. He sailed around both Australia and Tasmania, proving they were islands, and accurately located many coastal features as well as nearby islands, reefs, bays, and rocks on British maps.

Born in England in 1774, Matthew Flinders studied navigation and cartography so he could go to sea. In 1789 his uncle got him on a ship as a servant. He was fifteen, five feet six inches tall, wiry with black hair and dark eyes. A year later he was a midshipman with a berth on Bellerophon, a British, 74-gun man of war, where he learned important sailing skills and navy operations.

In 1791 Flinders was on the ship Providence with Captain William Bligh (1754-1817). Providence reached Tahiti in April of 1792 and sailed west with 600 bread fruit trees for the West Indies. Landing for water and food on New Guinea and Timor, Flinders saw new lands, people, and animals. The breadfruit was planted in the West Indies to augment food for British colonial workers.

Returning to Australia, Flinders and a friend named George Bass, in a small ship called Norfolk, charted the coast south of Sydney for the governor. Then they explored the Furneaux Islands and proved Tasmania was not attached to Australia. Needing a new ship by then, Flinders went home. In April of 1801 he and Ann Chappell, daughter of a sea captain, were married. Flinders by then was a lieutenant and a respected explorer.

A small English penal colony had been established in Australia a few years before, but the British had done nothing to secure the land. Now the government authorized an expedition to Australia and chose Flinders as Commander. The 334-ton sloop Investigator was old and not very sound, but it was all the navy could spare for exploration, since it was embroiled in a war with French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte.

Flinders reached the south coast of Australia in August of 1801 and began at once to make a complete and accurate survey of the south shore. He saw wombats, kangaroos, and aborigines—native inhabitants of Australia. He and his crew carefully described the birds, animals, plants, and insects they saw. Flinders observed tides, made soundings of bays and capes, and noted topographic features. After a rest in Sydney the expedition left again to chart the eastern and then the northern coasts of the island. By December Investigator was in such poor shape that Flinders left her and took a smaller ship home. When he stopped for supplies at Mauritius, a French controlled island east of Africa, Matthew was imprisoned and his papers, charts, journals, and letters were confiscated by the governor. After six years of captivity, an order from Napoleon set Flinders free. His maps and other papers were returned.

Back home, he was honored in scientific and naval circles, but his health had been damaged by the years in a tropical prison, and he never went to sea again. He spent years readying charts and notes for publication in his book, A Voyage to Terra Australis. It was a semi-official publication and he was not paid. He did not finish the personal account of his voyages. He was promoted to post-captain in 1814, but was not given full pay. When he died that same year, there was no pension for his wife. New South Wales and Victoria in Australia, however, both gave her a pension in honor of her husband's work. Flinders had shown that Australia was a continent, and by the time of his death its possibilities were drawing the British to its shores.


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Flinders, Matthew (1774–1814). Flinders accurately delineated the coasts of Australia and began the practice of using that name for it. After joining the Royal Navy in 1789, Flinders served with Bligh before surveying the New South Wales coast in detail in 1795. In 1798–9 he and Bass circumnavigated Tasmania, proving its separation from the mainland and impressing naval and scientific opinion in Britain with his qualities as an explorer. A new scientific expedition led by him 1801–3 mapped the coasts of nearly all Australia with great accuracy, completing the basic exploration of the Pacific Ocean section of the world. Flinders became a prisoner of war of the French on his way home but was released from Mauritius in 1809.

Roy C. Bridges

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Matthew Flinders


British naval officer and explorer who was the first to circumnavigate Australia, publishing an illustrated account of his expedition, A Voyage to Terra Australis (1814) on the eve of his death. Flinders began his naval career in 1789, served from 1791 to 1793 under the famed Captain William Bligh (1754-1817), explored portions of Australia's coast from 1795-99, then commanded the expedition of the Investigator from 1801-03. The Investigator and its crew of sailors and scientists (who collected thousands of specimens during the expedition) completed the first circumnavigation of the continent, putting to rest several false notions about the geography of the island.

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Matthew Flinders, 1774–1814, English naval captain and hydrographer, noted for his charting and coast surveys of Australia and Tasmania. From 1795 to 1799 and again from 1801 to 1803 he made valuable maps and charts of the water and coasts, circumnavigating both Australia and Tasmania. He is said to have been the first to perceive and correct compass errors caused by iron ships. He wrote A Voyage to Terra Australis (1814). Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was his grandson.

See biography by J. D. Mack (1966); study by M. Colwell (1970).