Matthew Flinders (1774-1814)

We’ve had many ‘Getting to Know’ interviews with our club members, so we are also featuring some brief biographies of notable Australians and New Zealanders from history. – Ed.

Raised in Lincolnshire, where men usually turned to agriculture for a livelihood, Matthew Flinders showed originality by choosing the sea. Flinders was born on 16 March 1774 at Donington, Lincolnshire. From a family of doctors, Flinders was expected to take up the same profession, but inspired by reports of Cook’s discoveries, and the reading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, he decided to go to sea.

Flinders began his naval career at the age of fifteen, on the HMS Alert. The following year he sailed with Captain Bligh on the Providence to Tahiti and honed his navigation skills. In 1795 he sailed in the Reliance to the new convict settlement at Botany Bay. On board Flinders befriended George Bass, of similar intrepid nature. With Bass, Flinders made a number of small boat journeys and refined the charts of the New South Wales coast. In 1798 Flinders and Bass set out in the Norfolk to explore the extent of the strait between the mainland and Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania]. By circumnavigating Van Diemen’s Land, Flinders proved that it was a separate island.

Next Flinders sailed to Cape of Good Hope to obtain livestock for New South Wales. It was on this trip that Flinders acquired his cat Trim. After further exploration in the new colony, he returned home to England to put his proposal to explore the entire coast of Terra Australis to Sir Joseph Banks, who had great influence with the British Admiralty. By February 1801 the ambitious Flinders had been given command of the Investigator for this voyage of discovery, which was scheduled to take four years.

During the weeks that the Investigator was fitted out for the voyage, Flinders married Ann Chappell on 17 April 1801. They had hoped to travel together, but this was not allowed, and so Flinders set sail without Ann, little knowing that they would not meet again for almost nine years.

The Investigator reached Cape Leeuwin on 6 December 1801. Sailing eastwards, Flinders first charted the unknown southern coastline, unexpectedly encountering Baudin and the French expedition, and arriving in Port Jackson in May 1802. After refitting the ship, he continued his anticlockwise circumnavigation up the eastern coast and to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

In November, examination of the Investigator found that much of its timbers were rotting. Further repairs allowed the Investigator to keep sailing, but by March 1803 the ship was in such poor condition, and the crew in ill-health, the survey was halted.The Investigator visited Timor for supplies, and then returned to Port Jackson down the west coast and across the Great Australian Bight. In reaching Port Jackson, he had completed the journey around the southern continent.

Less than two years into the expedition, it was found that the vessel was rotten beyond repair. Flinders decided to return to England to obtain another ship in which he could continue the coastal survey. He sailed for home in the small sloop Porpoise, which ran aground on a reef off the coast of Queensland. After recovering the crew – no small feat of sailing and rowing the ship’s cutter back to Port Jackson to get help – Flinders again set sail for England, this time in the Cumberland.

The Cumberland was too small for the voyage and leaked extensively, so Flinders was forced to put in at Ile de France [Mauritius], hoping to find a vessel to take him back home. War had resumed between England and France, and Flinders was held prisoner on the island for 6½ years. During this time, Flinders worked on his papers and charts. Sadly, Flinders’ companion cat Trim disappeared.

In October 1810 Flinders finally returned home to England and Ann. Their daughter Anne was born in 1812. Flinders spent four years writing the three volumes of A voyage to Terra Australis. He died in 1814 at forty years of age, the day after his account was published.

Flinders has been described as one of the world’s most accomplished navigators and hydrographers. He also contributed to the science of navigation, including research on tide action, and compass deviation due to the presence of iron in ships. Ill health, homesickness and loneliness did not deter him from his focus on his goals. His essay about his much loved cat Trim gives us an insight into the very human side of the man who was the first to circumnavigate Australia, prove it was one continent, create a definitive chart of its coastline, and so pave the way for colonisation.

[for more detailed biographies, see: and]

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