Select Page

Matthew Flinders

Baron von Mueller
Captain Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) – painted c. 1806-1807
Artist Toussaint Antoine De Chamerel (1770 – 1822)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Matthew Flinders’s navigation work was completed at a time when the French and English were competing to be the first to produce a completed map of the continent’s coastline, a race that was eventually won by the French.

At Banks’s insistence, and in keeping with his policy of having naturalists on charting and exploration expeditions, botanist Robert Brown was selected as naturalist to head a team of scientists on the expedition. He was to make the first substantial inroad into the description of the native flora.

Flinders had left England 9 months after the Baudin expedition with a brief to survey the south coast and complete the circumnavigation of New Holland. It seems highly likely that he was also encouraged to forestall any French claims to sovereignty of any part of the continent.

Matthew Flinders

Matthew Flinders was the eldest son of a surgeon from Donington in Lincolnshire, England. At school he had studied Latin and Greek and set out on a path of medicine but, after reading Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, could not resist the lure of the sea. When just 17 he had sailed in HMS Providence with Captain William Blight on two-year expedition to the South Pacific: it was Bligh’s second attempt, two years previously, to transfer Breadfruit from the East Indies to the West Indies (the economic potential of breadfruit had been noted by both Dampier and Banks) and it had resulted in a mutiny on his ship HMS Bounty. From the two Kew-trained gardener-botanists on this trip, James Wiles and Christopher Smith, Flinders learned the basics of plant transport at sea and was also distinctly unimpressed by Bligh.[21] Returning to England Flinders met with Joseph Banks at Revesby Abbey, Banks’s country estate, which was just 30 km from Flinders’s home in Donington: he was delivering a letter from James Wiles and it may have been an opportunity for the two to discuss Australia and its plants.[22]

Flinders is perhaps best known for suggesting the name ‘Australia’ (officially adopted in 1824) as a replacement for the former ‘New Holland’ and ‘Colony of New South Wales’[1] although his best known as the first man to circumnavigate both Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) and New Holland (Australia) – albeit with the assistance of the meticulously executed charts of the talented engineer, hydrographer and cartographer on the D’Entrecasteaux expedition, Charles-François Beautemps-Beaupré. Beaupré’s charts had been captured from a French vessel returning to France after the abandonment of the D’Entrecasteaux expedition in Indonesia, and subsequently copied by the British.

Flinders stepped ashore in Sydney in 1795 as a 21-year-old midshipman aboard HMS Reliance which was delivering John Hunter as second Governor to the Colony of New South Wales. On HMS Reliance he had befriended the 24-year-old George Bass who was also from Lincolnshire and a surgeon like Flinders’s father. Both were fascinated by the history of maritime exploration and almost immediately rigged up a 3 m long rowing boat, Tom Thumb brought by Bass, sailing to Botany Bay and exploring the Georges River, a foray that resulted in a new settlement called Bankstown, this being followed by a brief visit to Norfolk Island before another near-disastrous expedition south with Bass, this time as far south as Shellharbour (Lake Illawarra).

Food shortages were a severe problem in the new colony at this time and in 1797 the pair were sent to Cape Town in the Reliance to get supplies, returning in June 1797.

In December Flinders was off again for three months in a 9 m whaleboat, the Norfolk, with six sailors, this time going round the south-east of the continent as far as Western Port almost convinced they had proved Van Diemen’s Land was a separate land mass.

Circumnavigation of Van Dieman’s Land with George Bass in 1798

While Bass attempted, unsuccessfully, to cross the Blue Mountains, Flinders had established a reputation as a first class navigator and marine surveyor, exploring and sailing the Reliance with supplies to the settlement on Norfolk Island where he became acquainted with a later colleague Philip King who was Governor of the settlement.

In 1798 Hunter determined to establish once and for all whether there was a strait separating Van Diemens Land from the mainland. After Flinders completed a second quick visit to Norfolk Island he was joined by Bass and with eight other sailors they set off on a three-month excursion in the small sloop Norfolk, built on Norfolk Island from local Norfolk Island Pine Araucaria heterophylla). Sailing with them for a while was the sealing ship Nautilus which set up a sealing base camp on Cape Barren Island where they planted a garden that ‘produced some tolerable vegetables[25] while Flinders and Bass continued west, then anticlockwise around Van Diemen’s Land, on the north coast rowing up the Tamar River almost as far as today’s Launceston, then in the south-east putting into the same bays that had provided respite for Tasman, Cook, Furneaux, Bligh, D’Entrecasteaux and others. On Christmas day they sailed along the Derwent and climbed to the top of Mount Wellington above present-day Hobart, the exploration then continuing up the east coast to arrive in Sydney on 11 January 1799, finally confirming that Van Diemens land was indeed an island – and in the process reducing by about a fortnight the time taken to sail from the New Holland coast to Port Jackson. We are reminded of their sailing feat in the names Bass Strait and Flinders Island. Sadly Bass, who then decided to try his hand as a merchantman, sailed out of Port Jackson on 5 February 1803 to pick up a cargo of goods in Chile and was never seen again.

Flinders returned to England in March 1800 aged 26 after serving in the navy for a decade, publishing an account of his experiences (with a dedication to Sir Joseph Banks) Observation of the Coast of New South Wales.

Circumnavigation of New Holland 1801-03

In July 1801 Flinders again set out from England, this time as Commander of the large three-masted HMS Investigator (a converted and leaky collier formerly named Xenophon with detailed instructions from the Admiralty to make observations of the new continent by means of a circumnavigation which would include charting the southern coast and stretches of this coast not completed by Cook, to determine whether there was a strait separating the east and west sides of the land mass, then replenish supplies at Sydney before sailing back clockwise around the north coast surveying the Gulf of Carpentaria and Torres Strait, then from Cape Flattery to the Bay of Inlets (which had been missed by Cook). After that the crew could be rested in the Pacific islands. Plants and animals were to be collected, the plants stored in the specially constructed plant cabin.

Flinders would have known that a French expedition under Baudin was engaged in the same enterprise as both commanders had obtained ‘passports’ of diplomatic immunity while the sole object of their work was to advance ‘human knowledge and promote the progress of nautical science’.[24]

By now there was a standard navy diet consisting of oatmeal, rice, salted meat and the staple hardtack or sea biscuit (wheat or barley baked into a hard a biscuit).

Robert Brown and Peter Good

For an article on Robert Brown and his life see here.
In the crew of 75 men was a natural history team and their latest scientific equipment including copies of all previous maps, the latest sextants, chronometers, barometers and charting tools. Banks’s had provided his usual support for the survey and assisted in the selection of scientists and in giving advice on modifications needed the ship for its scientific duties. The scientific team included an astronomer, geologist. Landscape painter William Westall was from the Royal Academy, he had learned to paint from his brother Richard who was painting teacher to the future Queen Victoria.[23]Botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer (see page) was an Austrian natural history painter who had made his name through his botanical work in 1776 while travelling through Greece and the Balkan Peninsula with botanists John Sibthorpe and John Hawkins, contributing more than 1,000 drawings and paintings to what would later become Sibthorpe’s renowned 10-volume Flora Graeca (1806-1840). As naturalist under the patronage of Joseph Banks there was the talented 27 year-old botanist, Scotsman Robert Brown who was in charge of the expedition’s gardener Peter Good. Good had been a Foreman gardener at Kew, and would become well known through his collections of Australian native plants and seed returned to Banks at Kew. Flinders had suggested to Banks that seed of European fruit and vegetables could be sown at the ships anchorages for the benefit of future expeditions, which had become a tradition on such voyages. Most of the scientists had personal servants, with the exception of the ‘lower’ class members of the team like Peter Good.

Southern coast (1801)

The first landing in southern Australia was at King George Sound (today’s Albany) (which had been named by George Vancouver 9 years before) in December 1801 and over a period of about a month some 500 plant specimens were collected, the ship then sailing east to Lucky Bay (near Esperance) where another 100 specimens were gathered, then on to Middle Island and Goose Island in the Recherche Archipelago, then on to the most easterly point known to Europeans (off Ceduna) which he named Nuyts Archipelago (after the visit by Dutchman Peter Nuyts in 1627) doing some collecting then continuing to Port Lincoln area of Spencer Gulf for a week (700 specimens) also the naming and charting of Spencer Gulf to its head to confirm the absence of a northern passage through the centre of the continent.

Together Brown, Good and Bauer collected 633 taxa in the southwest although 15 were not given collection localities (470 King George Sound, 152 Lucky Bay, 42 from the two islands): all were attributed to Brown. Bauer painted at least 53 taxa from the southwest, the discovery of the Albany Pitcher Plant Cephalotus follicularis was a great success.[2]

Kangaroo Island (Mar.-Apr. 1802)

In March 1802 the ship put in to an island that had been sighted from the mouth of Spencer Gulf, named/ing it Kangaroo Island. Here, Good on 2-4 April, made several seed plantings of food plants, fruit and vegetables, although 9 months later on visiting the island Baudin did not record observing any of these plantings.[3] Then back to the mainland, spending six days surveying the bay he named Gulf St Vincent before returning to the island again, then heading straight for Sydney.

Meeting Baudin

On 8 April there was a chance meeting with the French Géographe under the command of Nicolas Baudin who was also charting the Australian coast but from the opposite direction, the meeting of the two expeditions now commemorated in the name Encounter Bay.

Flinders had two circumspect meetings with Baudin aboard the Géographe with Brown as interpreter. French intentions were not known and the two countries had just been at war, Flinders had in fact served in the British navy seeing action against the French in the Glorious First of June Atlantic Battle of 1794. However, Flinders gave Baudin details of Kangaroo Island and acknowledged the quality of the Beautemps-Beaupré charts, giving Baudin some English-published charts based on Beautemps-Beaupré work.[4] The English pair were met by Baudin alone and the conversation was mostly in English.[26]

Continuing to the east a week was spent in Port Phillip from 26 April to 3 May[5] before putting in to Port Jackson on 9 May.

The trip from England had taken 5 months and the exploration of the southern coast about 6 months?. Both Baudin and Flinders were unaware of the costal survey and botanising done by John Grant and his crew in the Lady Nelson from 1800-1801, or of John Murray’s discovery of Port Phillip Bay, also in Lady Nelson, in March 1802 (see page ).

Port Jackson

Two visits to Port Jackson – check detail] The Investigator remained in Port Jackson for 12 weeks Brown making use of the time by collecting, on occasions with George Caley, along the rivers and in the immediate vicinity of Port Jackson. Brown and Bauer sometimes worked together, one excursion extending to the Blue Mountains. During the stay Peter Good managed to return 253 seed collections on a whaler, HMS Speedy bound for England. These were gratefully acknowledged by Banks in a letter to Brown in April 1803: the seed had arrived and been planted at Kew.[6] [not known for sure ? 2 batches see Zuridis 2001]. [Admiralty orders were to take over the Lady Nelson].

Eastern & northern coast

Setting off from Sydney in July 1802 the Investigator was accompanied on the first leg of its 14,000 km circumnavigation by the Lady Nelson captained by John Murray. On board were the Aboriginal interpreters Nanbaree (who soon left the expedition) and Bongaree who had been with Flinders on his northern NSW explorations in the Norfolk in 1797. In early October the Lady Nelson lost its anchor, returning to Sydney. A few collections were made along the east coast before the Investigator turned west to pass through Torres Strait and across the Gulf of Carpentaria and putting in to nearby islands where Brown and Bauer collected about 500 specimens. On Chasm Island (near Groote Eylandt) in January 1803 Brown was delighted to find a Syzygium (Eugenia), possibly S. eucalyptoides, with a palatable fruit the size of an apple.[29] Flinders had been through Torres Strait 10 years before on Bligh’s second breadfruit expedition. On 16 Feb. 1803 he encountered a fleet of trepang fishermen then on 5 Mar. 1803 the 29 year old Flinders completed his last surveying.[27]

On arrival at Timor the crew were sick with scurvy, fever and dysentery and the Investigator was in poor condition. The circumnavigation was hastily completed, returning to Port Jackson on 9 June 1803 and here Good died of dysentery,[7]his diaries of the voyage were published in 1981.[18]

Brown and Bauer decided to stay on in Australia, but after two months, in Aug. 1803 Flinders set off for England as a passenger on HMS Porpoise whose quarterdeck had been converted into a greenhouse containing the rare living plants collected on the south-east and north coasts, including King Island, the collection consisting of 48 species including a betelnut palm and a sandalwood tree.[13] With Flinder was his brother Samuel and servant John Elder.

Wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef on 17 Aug. (today’s Wreck Reef), all the living and herbarium plant specimens were lost but some of the log books, charts and books were saved (check).[8] Most of the crew were able to set up camp with provisions from the ships on an associated bare sandspit. Flinders set off back to Port Jackson?From the wreckage a 6-oared open boat was built and the 700 mile journey back to Port Jackson was completed in less than a fortnight.[9]

Returning to the site of the shipwreck with two ships in October, he managed to pick up all the survivors (which included his brother) and resumed his journey back to England in HMS Cumberland together with his books, journals, and maps as well as the latest mail from Australia for England.

Flinders imprisoned on Mauritius

As the Cumberland was in poor condition and short of water he was forced to call in at Mauritius (Ile de France) for repairs. Innocent of the fact that Britain and France were now back at war he was arrested by the French authorities as a spy and imprisoned for six and a half years before his release and return to England in 1810 where he died young, but not before completing an account of his travels called A Voyage to Terra Australis (1814) which included an 80-page botanical appendix by Brown and also included ten of Bauer’s botanical plates.

After Flinders had set off for England Brown and Bauer continued their collecting in New South Wales before, in 1804, moving to the new colony in Tasmania which was under the charge of Governor Paterson, himself a keen botanist (?another Banks-influenced appointment). This stay lasted for 9 months, 700 specimens being returned to Kew. Meanwhile Bauer had decided to make the most of his time, travelling to Norfolk Island where he spent nearly eight months before the Investigator eventually picked him up. His drawings would be a fine contribution to Stephan Endlicher’s Prodromus Florae Norfolkicae in 1833

Meanwhile the Investigator had been cobbled-together and, thick with barnacles and seaweed, limped into Liverpool with Brown, Bauer and 38 cases of specimens on 13 Oct 1805, but there was little excitement as the event was overshadowed in London by celebrations for the victory of the British Navy over the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies at the Battle of Trafalgar on Oct. 21st. However, Brown was immediately appointed Secretary to the Linnaean Society, a post he held until 1822, dedicating time to work on the 3,200 specimens he had brought back from New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land. In 1810 he became Banks’s personal librarian and, in 1811, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society

Robert Brown’s work

Brown spent about three and a half years in Australia during which he collected about 3,400 to 3,900 species,[10] over 2,000 of these being new to science. There was a total of some 4,788 specimens altogether (729 from WA, 301 SA, 88 Vic, 734 Tas, 1,445 NSW, 869 Qld, 622 NT),[11] the numbers reflecting the greater time spent in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. In Western Australia, as at 2003, Brown’s name was associated with 1,461 taxa, 867 still recognised and 223 names transferred to other genera.

Brown has been accused by other botanists of not fairly acknowledging the work of others. Collections made by Bauer, and especially Good, were not attributed to them[12] and Salisbury, for example, attributed to Dryander 16 genus names usually given to Brown.[17] Brown used Solander’s manuscript of the collections made on the Endeavour voyage (written before scientific publications and requiring sponsorship for publication which was not forthcoming from Banks) and also sometimes his epithets, without attribution.(p.40) Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis credits Peter Good with over 100 Australian plant introductions.[19]

Sadly many specimens were lost when HMS Porpoise (without Brown on board) had foundered in 1803 on the Great Barrier Reef.

Brown’s collections were all returned to Banks’s house in Soho Square, London, where Brown spent 10 years preparing descriptions for publication. Brown had replaced Dryander as Banks’s librarian in ?1810. Dryander had previously described about 370 species in ?1806.

Unfinished work

With the botanical work of Banks and Solander on the Endeavour still to be published it was anticipated that Brown’s publication of the Australian Flora would rival the magnificent and much-admired Flora Graeca of Sibthorpe (1806-1840) especially with Ferdinand Bauer as an illustrator. Unfortunately this was not to be as Brown was given no financial support, his pleas being met by ‘freezing indifference‘.[28]

Brown’s botanical account of the Australian flora was published as Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen which was published at his own expense. He had planned two volumes but only one was published in 1810 containing about 2,000 New Holland species, about half the number then known.[14] Unfortunately his book did not sell well, only 26 of the print run of 250 being sold.[15] Perhaps by 1817 the interest in natural history was on the wane, the romance of New Holland as a distant unknown land now being replaced in the popular imagination by its perception as a struggling penal colony. Certainly his new natural system of classification was a challenge to the reader; there was no index and the text was in Latin, added to which it was expensive, incomplete and without illustrations. In this sense Brown followed Banks and Solander by not producing completed published work. Bauer also published his illustrations at his own expense but these met with a similar lack of interest.

Curtailment of Flinders’s coastal survey due to the rotting wood in the Investigator and poor health of the crew also left unfinished charting to be done. Most of this was later completed by Phillip Parker King, son of Philip Gidley King the third governor of New South Wales.

P.P. King had acquired a cutter, the Mermaid, far superior to the former Lady Nelson and his crew included botanist Allan Cunningham and the Aboriginal Bungaree. Cunningham collected some 350 specimens on this trip,[16] notably on Goulburn Island where he named the adjacent island Sims Island after the ?editor of the British Botanical Magazine that had illustrated Australian flora and the tradition of naming physical features after colleagues and friends continued on the Coburg Peninsula with Cunningham naming Aiton Bay after his former teacher and Head Gardener at Kew, William Aiton. Further collections were made at the Endeavour River.

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

Joseph Hooker could not praise the voyage enough saying that it was ‘ … the most important in its results ever undertaken’ and stating in 1859 of Brown’s Prodromus … that it ‘… has for half a century maintained its reputation unimpugned, of being the greatest botanical work that has ever appeared’.[28]

Botanically, Brown’s Prodromus … of 1810, though imcomplete, was an outstanding work preceded in publication by Labillardiere‘s Novae Hollandiae Species Plantarum … of 1804-1807. Some 30 years after the collections of Banks and Solander, those of Robert Brown constitute the largest collection of plants from Australian shores during this period and the first recorded collections from the southern coast. His Prodromus was a true botanical exploration of relationships as well as a listing of taxa,[20] it remained the major source on Australian plants until the monumental six volume Flora Australiensis of Bentham and Mueller (1863-1878).

Flinders’s charts completed the continental coastline while also confirming that New Holland and New South Wales was a single landmass; they were used for many years after his death although, because of the time spent in detention in Mauritius, it was the French who, in 1807, were the first to produce a detailed map of the Australian continental coast. Flinders’s completed work was back in England by 1805 finally published as A Voyage to Terra Australis in Jan. 1814 the day before Flinders died: it contains 16 maps, landscape paintings and sketches by William Westall, and 10 botanical paintings by Ferdinand Bauer. In the Introduction Flinders notes his preference for the name Australia ‘… when speaking of New Holland and New South Wales, in a collective sense’.[30]
English names steadily replaced French names except for those parts that Baudin had surveyed and Flinders had not seen, as on the west coast.

With the voyage of the Investigator we see the end of European maritime exploration in Australia: further voyages, like that of Darwin in the Beagle were made essentially as visiting observers. Charting would continue following the release of men and ships after the Napoleonic wars, starting with Philip Parker King’s coastal survey in 1820 – but this was now essentially the work of Australian residents.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email