Captain Matthew Flinders (16 March 1774 – 19 July 1814) was one of the most successful navigators and cartographers of his age. In a career that spanned just over twenty years, he sailed with Captain William Bligh, circumnavigated Australia and encouraged the use of that name for the continent. He survived shipwreck and disaster only to be imprisoned for violating the terms of his scientific passport by changing ships and carrying prohibited papers. Matthew Flinders carried out several important and daring voyages of discovery along coastal portions of the land now known as Australia.
Additionally he was first to prove that the eastern and western sections of Australia were connected, and his work gave the map of Australia its present shape. Matthew Flinders, an officer of the Royal Navy, first explored parts of the NSW coast south of Sydney with his friend George Bass. The first two trips took place in small open boats (both called Tom Thumb. After a surveying trip south in the Francis, Flinders carried out important work in the Norfolk, including the circumnavigation of Tasmania, also with George Bass.
On return to England, assisted by Joseph Banks, he lobbied for, and gained command of the expedition of his life – the first close circumnavigation of Terra Australis. While supervising the provisioning of the Investigator (a converted collier), he found time to resume his friendship with Ann Chappelle, a relationship that blossomed. Matthew and Ann married, but suffered the pain of long separation as Ann was forbidden by the Admiralty to join the voyage. After the lengthy trip from England, Flinders explored the southern coast of New Holland, thus beginning the first close circumnavigation of the ‘island continent’, Australia.
At Cape Catastrophe the expedition suffered the loss of the ship’s boat and its eight sailors, including Flinders’ close associate, John Thistle. Dramatic moments occurred while passing through the Great Barrier Reef, in the Gulf of Carpentaria during hostilities with aborigines, and at the inspection of the ship’s deteriorating hull in the North. After reprovisioning at Timor, an increasing number of crew developed dysentry, and with a mounting death toll and a heavy heart, Flinders was forced to abandon the remainder of his survey, and head for Port Jackson with all haste.
On his way back to England as a passenger in the Porpoise, with charts and journals, to organize another vessel to replace the Investigator, Flinders was shipwrecked on a coral reef east of the Queensland coast. On his next attempt to get home, in the Cumberland, he was detained by the French on Mauritius. His long imprisonment, combined with harsh conditions during his years at sea, may have contributed to his declining health, although some writers disagree with this suggestion. Finally returning to England he gained an overdue promotion, but failed to gain fame, or even due recognition, for his accomplishments.
After years of absence, Matthew and his beloved Ann resumed married life, and a daughter, Anne, was born to the couple. Matthew Flinders died on 19 July, 1814, in London, after having lapsed into a coma as a result of his illness. His widow, Ann, and daughter, Anne, suffered financial difficulties over the following years. Several decades later the governments of the NSW and Victorian colonies offered financial assistance, and while Ann had died, Anne used this money to help bring up and educate Matthew and Ann Flinders’ grandson, William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who became prominent in his own right.
The geography of Australia’s coastline was of vital importance to Matthew Flinders; he placed the highest priority upon filling in the blanks on existing charts, and was the first to explore the vast length of the southern coast. Flinders first trip to Port Jackson was in 1795 as a midshipman aboard HMS Reliance, carrying the newly appointed Governor of New South Wales Captain John Hunter. In March 1800, Flinders rejoined the Reliance which set sail for England. Flinders reached Cape Leeuwin on 6 December 1801, and proceeded to make a survey along the southern coast of the Australian mainland.
On 8 April 1802 while sailing east Flinders sighted the Geographe, a French corvette commanded by the explorer Nicolas Baudin, who was on a similar expedition for his government. Both men of science, Flinders and Baudin met and exchanged details of their discoveries, at what would later be named Encounter Bay. Proceeding along the coast, Flinders explored Port Phillip, which unbeknownst to him had been discovered only 10 weeks earlier by John Murray aboard the Lady Nelson. With stores running low, Flinders proceeded to Sydney, arriving 9 May 1802.
Having hastily prepared the ship, Flinders set sail again on 22 July, heading north and surveying the coast of Queensland. From there he passed through the Torres Strait, and explored the Gulf of Carpentaria. During this time, the ship was discovered to be badly leaking, and despite careening, they were unable to affect the necessary repairs. Reluctantly, Flinders returned to Sydney, though via the western coast, completing the circumnavigation of the continent. Arriving in Sydney 9 June 1803, the Investigator was subsequently judged to be unseaworthy and condemned.