Last updated on 17 December 2015
Matthew Flinders’ circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land and ‘Terra Australis Incognita’, his discovery of Bass Strait and his extraordinary cartography are well-known. My talk at the ‘Phillip Island & District Historical Society’ dinner in December was not about Flinders’ achievements as an explorer and navigator. The focus was Flinders’ outstanding seamanship reflected in his small boat adventures of which little has been written.
But first, some brief observations in respect of Matthew Flinders the man. He was seventeen when he joined the Navy, at a time when most ‘young gentlemen’ usually joined up at twelve or thirteen years of age. His Naval career was only fifteen years of active service. He was just 40 when he died; the same age of James Cook was when he set out on the first of the three voyages that made him famous. Flinders was a literary man, but with a scientist’s brain on matters mathematical. He had a perfectionist’s temperament that drove him to chart astounding distances in remarkable detail. He was also an exceptional sailor and the fabric of his stuff was truly tested by his small open boat adventures.
The first (1795) was in an overladen Tom Thumb, a nine foot rowing boat with a spritsail. Flinders, George Bass and a fourteen-year-old boy sailed in the confused sea from the Heads of Port Jackson. Great skill would have been needed to prevent the little dinghy from sliding under. Governor Hunter had asked Flinders and his friend George Bass to go to Botany Bay and explore any river inland. After they had wobbled down and back along the coastline, Flinders’ journal entry regarding this nine day adventure simply says: ‘[...] we proceeded round in this boat, to Botany Bay; and ascending George’s River, explored its winding course about twenty miles. The favourable report... induced His Excellency to establish there a new branch of the colony, under the name of Bank’s Town.’
Governor Hunter dictated another task and the second voyage was undertaken in the only slightly larger Tom Thumb II. She was 14 ft long and Flinders with the same two companions sailed south from Sydney to Lake Illawarra on an eight-day journey during which they were caught in the strong East Australian Current, they battled ferocious seas below a wall of cliffs which prevented landing, encountered unfriendly locals, escaped and put out to sea, then were hit by a southerly buster. They struggled for their lives and eventually found the only safe refuge on that long stretch of coastal cliffs at today’s Wattamolla Beach in the Royal National Park. Despite these trials, the lack of drinking water and the cramped conditions, they achieved what they had set out to do: to discover a large river, rumoured to be south of Botany Bay but not indicated on Captain Cook’s chart.
Two more open-boat adventures followed: in 1802 a voyage of discovery around Port Phillip in a 24ft utility ‘cutter’, a pulling boat rowed by pairs of oarsmen sitting side-by-side on each thwart and with a sailing rig. Flinders climbed the 1,000 ft Arthurs Seat and wrote in his journal: ‘[...] to my surprise found the port so extensive, that even at this elevation its boundary to the northward could not be distinguished. The western shore extended from the entrance ten or eleven miles in a northern direction, beyond it was a wide branch of the port leading to the westward, and I suspected might have a communication with the sea; for it was almost incredible, that such a vast piece of water should not have such an outlet than that through which we had come... ’
Next day they explored further north to Schnapper Point, Mornington, but the bay still extended northward to an invisible horizon and sky: lots and lots of sky. They crossed Port Phillip, explored Corio Bay and set up camp near Kirk Point. Flinders and three companions set off and climbed the 1,200 ft You Yangs. Matthew Flinders had only six days in Port Phillip, yet achieved much.
A year forward, in 1803, after circumnavigating Terra Australis Incognita, the badly leaking Investigator foundered back into Sydney and was condemned on the spot. Flinders had to return to England and request the Admiralty for another vessel. He departed as a passenger on the Porpoise and sailed in company with the Cato and Bridgewater. Seven days into the voyage, 230 nautical miles (NM) offshore, both Porpoise and Cato ran onto an uncharted atoll, known today as Wreck Reef. It was a catastrophe.
At dawn they miraculously found a sandbank just half a mile away and Flinders took command. He had 94 men stranded on an uncharted pinprick mid-ocean, plus the documentation of his life’s work. A Midshipman wrote in his journal regarding Flinders’ action plan: ‘Captain Flinders and his officers have determined that he and fourteen men should go to Port Jackson in a cutter and fetch a vessel for the remainder.’ The emergency dash back to Sydney would be made in a 29 ft open boat, the ‘larger’ of Porpoise’s boats, with three rowing benches & a sailing rig: but not designed for an extended sea voyage. Nonetheless, they eventually found the coast near today’s Morton Island and they coasted for a further seven days and nights and Flinders recorded: ‘[we] bore away to search for shelter along the shore, and finding a shallow cove sheltered by a reef of rocks, hauled the boat up there, and took up our quarters on the shore for the first night since leaving the wreck.’
The 14 exhausted men stretched and slept in a calm environment, having spent 12 acutely uncomfortable days and nights at sea crammed in the cutter. The amazing journey continued and eventually Flinders was able to write: ‘The north head was in sight... The reader has perhaps never gone 250 leagues [740 NM] at sea in an open boat, but if he recollect the 80 men upon Wreck-Reef Bank, and how important was our arrival to their safety, and to the saving of the charts, journals and papers of the Investigator’s voyage, he may have some idea of the pleasure we felt, but particularly myself, at entering our destined port.’
At last, a dishevelled salt caked Matthew Flinders, skin raw from sun and wind, arrived to seek help for 94 men left behind. Their unexpected arrival back in Sydney caused a sensation. Governor King was at dinner when in walked a dishevelled Matthew Flinders who’d just stepped ashore.
In brief: the ship Rolla and the schooners Francis and Cumberland sailed in company & Flinders arrived back at Wreck Reef and to his great relief all the men were present and accounted for. This 740 NM rescue dash was testament to not only Flinders’ seafaring skills, but also his mental toughness. Unfortunately, Flinders decided to sail directly back to England using the 40 ft schooner Cumberland with a crew of ten. This was a bad mistake. The little 40 ft Cumberland was fragile and in the Indian Ocean had to divert for repairs to the French colony Ile-de-France (Mauritius). But Britain and France were again at war and Flinders was detained for the next six and a half years.
From that moment on Flinders fixated on writing a scrupulously accurate narrative of his voyages. His perfectionist temperament produced two volumes of around 400,000 words, copious survey data and an atlas contained 16 remarkably detailed charts and 150 drawings. One, of course, was the first ever General Chart of Terra Australis or Australia. This epic work was published on 18 July 1814 and the very next day [19 July 1814] Matthew Flinders died. Forty years later a memorial plaque was placed in St Thomas Church, London, and in 1973, when the future of that church was uncertain, the plaque was transferred to St John’s Church, Flinders, Victoria, Australia, where it remains to this day.