Flinders: Maritime Explorer of Australia

Matthew Flinders: Maritime Explorer of Australia by Kenneth Morgan. Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2016.
Reviewed by LCDR Peter Ashley, RN

PERHAPS I should not have been surprised when a copy of this book dropped through my mail box earlier this year but as a student and researcher of the life and times of Matthew Flinders for nearly 20 years I have to admit to being somewhat ‘caught-out’!

A new biography of Flinders has been overdue for sometime and would have been most timely two years ago at the occasion of the bi-centenary of his death and the unveiling of his statue in London, nonetheless it is most welcome. I can only think that the author is a very private person as all my efforts to contact him in recent years have failed and even an invitation to the unveiling of Flinders statue by HRH Prince William failed to entice him out of his academic ‘cave’.

Kenneth Morgan is professor of history at Brunel University in London and the author of many acclaimed works dealing with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the maritime exploration of Australia. In 2015 he completed editing ‘Australia Circumnavigated: the Voyage of Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator, 1801-1803’ in two volumes for the Hakluyt Society. I can only surmise that on publication of this excellent work he was prompted to write this new biography.

In this work the author describes the fluctuating fortunes of an ambitious young naval hydrographer, Matthew Flinders. Placed in command of HMS INVESTIGATOR, a ship whose purposeful name hid its rotting timbers, he surveyed long stretches of uncharted Australian coastline during his circumnavigation of the continent in the early nineteenth century. At the same time his scientific companions gathered a mass of detail about the land, its flora and fauna, and its Aboriginal inhabitants. Sadly, Flinders’ achievements were obscured by six years of wartime detention, at the Ile de France, (Mauritius) that allowed French navigators in Australian waters to claim priority. Only after his early death were Flinders’ accomplishments given belated recognition when his chosen name, Australia, was accepted for the continent whose outlines he had done much to reveal.

Morgan’s biography of Matthew Flinders brings to life the extraordinary destiny of the young man from Donington, Lincolnshire, whose name is forever etched in the history of Australia’s exploration and discovery. This is a meticulously documented account, which draws on an impressive array of archival sources and is informed by the latest scholarship. The singular ambition that drove Flinders to emulate the illustrious maritime explorers who preceded him, chief among whom was the immortal James Cook, is evident at every turn. There is also a welcome focus here on the scientific work undertaken by Flinders and the “scientific gentlemen” who accompanied him on his ground-breaking circumnavigation of Australia in the INVESTIGATOR. This is a story of triumph and tragedy, of remarkable achievements and maddening frustrations. It is a compelling tale in its own right, and a must-read for anyone interested in maritime history or in the early European exploration of the land which Flinders insisted should be named Australia, which Governor Macquarie implemented in 1816.

If I have any criticism it is that Professor Morgan missed the opportunity to make clear that Flinders never did join HMS ALERT in the West Indies in October 1789, an error of fact made by several other authors in earlier biographies. My own research led me to examine the muster book for the ALERT for 1789 held at the National Archives in which Flinders name has been entered as joining on 23rd Oct as a lieutenant’s servant, but in bold letters in the margin are written the words DID NOT JOIN. Further research led me to examine the diaries of Matthew Flinders senior held in the Lincolnshire Archives from which it is patently clear that young Matthew was at home in Donington until he left to join HMS SCIPIO, under Captain Pasley, on 17th May 1790.

The book includes fourteen chapters and nineteen charts, drawings or maps from the period during which Flinders circumnavigated Terra Australis between 1801 and 1803. Following the short preface there follows a single page of acknowledgements and a list of abbreviations. Following on from the final chapter there is an epilogue which summarizes the impact of Flinders work in opening up the exploration and colonisation of Australia and brings the reader up-to-date with events in recent years to commemorate the man. Extensive [End]Notes, a full bibliography section and a comprehensive index make up a further one hundred pages.

As it is in my area of particular interest, I would be happy to recommend it as a useful and interesting addition for those who study the period and Australia, but not at a reasonable price. I have spent nearly twenty years researching the life and times of Matthew Flinders in order to raise the profile of this most important English explorer so that he might stand alongside the likes of Cook, Bligh, Phillip, Franklin and others but very few are going to rush out to purchase a copy at £65.

It was Flinders’ skill, humanity and courage as a navigator that delivered those who would follow him from the dangers of unknown coastlines, cannibals ashore, shipboard sickness, leaky ships and intransigent officials he was as much a political pawn in the maritime world of two hundred years ago as a corporate executive, or naval officer, of today. He was a fascinating study of human tenacity and frailty. Both remain relevant in the Royal Navy, and by association the Royal Australian Navy, today.

(This review is based upon that published in the February 2017 issue of ‘The Naval Review’, UK)

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