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Matthew Flinders

leader of the first circumnavigation of Australia

Matthew Flinders was born at Donington, Lincolnshire, England, on March 16, 1774. Because both his father and grandfather were doctors, it was expected that Matthew would also become a doctor. Matthew, however, developed a longing to go to sea, partly as a result of reading Robinson Crusoe, and joined the Royal Navy in 1789.

Matthew Flinders

After training under Captain Sir Thomas Pasley aboard HMS Scipio at Chatham, Flinders was made a midshipman. Upon Pasley's recommendation, he was assigned to Captain William Bligh's second "breadfruit expedition" to Tahiti, which set sail in 1791 and returned to England in 1793. He subsequently served under Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Pasley aboard HMS Bellerophon, and saw action at the naval battle of the Glorious First of June 1794.

Explorations of Australia

In 1795, Flinders sailed from England for Port Jackson (now Sydney) aboard HMS Reliance, whcih was carrying the newly appointed Governor of New South Wales Captain John Hunter. On this voyage he established himself as a very skilled navigator and cartographer, and also became friends with the ship's surgeon, George Bass. Soon after arriving at Port Jackson, Flinders and Bass made two expeditions in small open boats, both dubbed Tom Thumb, exploring Botany Bay and George's River on the first, and then, after a brief visit to Norfolk Island (over 900 miles off the east coast of Australia), going farther south to Lake Illawarra. Flinders then rejoined the Reliance for a voyage to the Cape of Good Hope to bring back livestock.

In 1798, now Lieutenant Flinders joined the schooner Francis on a visit to the Furneaux Islands and carried out useful hydrographic work. After a second visit to Norfolk Island, he and Bass circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) in the sloop Norfolk, from October 7, 1798 to January 12, 1799, proving it to be an island. He subsequently explored the coast north from Port Jackson, reaching Glass House Bay (area of present-day Brisbane) before returning to Port Jackson.

In March 1800, Flinders rejoined the Reliance, this time bound for England. Upon his return there, Flinders learned that reports of his accomplishments had preceded him. While making preparations for his next expedition, he published Observations on the Coasts of Van Diemen's Land, on Bass's Strait and its Islands, and on Part of the Coasts of New South Wales (1801).

Promoted to Commander in February 1801, Flinders was selected to command HMS Investigator, with instructions from the Admiralty to explore in detail the south Australian coastline. He set sail on July 18, and sighted Cape Leeuwin (the southwesternmost point of Australia) on December 6. Sailing around the southwestern tip of Australia, he proceeded along the coast, affecting landings where desirable "in order that the naturalists may have time to range about and collect the produce of the earth," until reaching Fowler Bay (on January 28, 1902), which he named after the Investigator's First Lieutenant. In February, the Investigator entered the mouth of a large inlet stretching northwards (Spencer Gulf); it was hoped that it might be the entrance to a strait then believed to stretch upwards to the Gulf of Carpentaria but that hope was quickly dashed. On March 22, Kangaroo Island was discovered, a landing made, and many kangaroos killed for food. Gulf St Vincent was next explored and charted and, after a second brief visit to Kangaroo Island, the Investigator continued east. On April 8, the corvette Le Géographe, under Captain Nicolas Baudin, was sighted, and Flinders told Baudin of the provisions and water to be obtained on Kangaroo Island. Flinders named the place of meeting Encounter Bay. The Investigator dropped anchor in Port Jackson on May 9.

After overhauling the Investigator, Flinders set sail again on July 22, this time heading north along the Queensland coast and then west through the Torres Strait. Soon after entering the Gulf of Carpenteria it was discovered that the Investigator was so rotten that she would founder immediately if caught in a gale and, even if patched up and handled carefully in fine weather, would barely remain afloat for a further six months. Although Flinders could not make the necessary repairs he was determined to circumnavigate the continent and return to Port Jackson by way of its western coast. After examining and charting the south and west shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, he reluctantly abandoned his survey, but continued the voyage. The Investigator made it safely back to Port Jackson on June 9, 1803, having completed the first circumnavigation of Australia.

locations of places charted by Matthew Flinders
locations of places charted by Matthew Flinders


Anxious to complete the surveys as outlined by the Admiralty, Flinders sailed for England from Port Jackson as a passenger aboard HMS Porpoise to secure a suitable ship. Soon after leaving she struck a reef and was lost, but Flinders was able to navigate her cutter more than 700 miles back to Port Jackson. After arranging for the relief and rescue of his wrecked shipmates, he sailed in the schooner Cumberland, planning to proceed to England by way of Torres Strait. The schooner soon proved totally unfit for service, however, needing almost constant pumping to keep her afloat. Flinders therefore decided to seek assistance at the French colony of Mauritius, in conformity with his French passport, and arrived there on December 17, 1803.

Although England and France were at war, Flinders hoped that his French passport and the scientific nature of his journey would allow him safe passage, but General Charles Mathieu Isidore De Caen, Governor of Mauritius, was suspicious and had him detained instead. A subsequent search of Flinders' vessel uncovered a trunk full of papers from the Governor of New South Wales that were not permitted under his scientific passport, and Flinders was held as a spy while De Caen awaited instructions from the French government. Those instructions were delayed not only by the long voyage but also by the general confusion of war. Originally held under strict guard, Flinders gradually enjoyed greater freedom of movement on the island, and even made many close friendships; unfortunately, that increased freedom may have resulted in his detention being extended even longer. On March 11, 1806, De Caen was informed that Napoleon Bonaparte had approved Flinders' release. This instruction was acknowledged by De Caen, but on August 30, 1807 he reported to the Minister of Marine and Colonies that he did not intend to follow the Emperor's order, claiming that Flinders was very dangerous because he knew too much about the island's defenses. In June 1809, the Royal Navy began a blockade of Mauritius, and De Caen finally capitulated in June 1810.

On June 14, 1810, Flinders sailed for England. He arrived on October 23, and received a belated promotion to Post Captain. By now in failing health, he spent the rest of his life preparing his monumental work A Voyage to Terra Australis, which was published on July 18, 1814, the day before he died. He was buried at St James's, Hampstead Road, but later alterations to the churchyard have obliterated his grave.


On April 17, 1801, Flinders married longtime friend Ann Chappelle. He hoped to take her with him to Port Jackson, but the Admiralty had strict rules against wives accompanying captains. As a result, Ann was obliged to stay in England and would not see her husband for nine years, following his imprisonment in France on his return journey. When they finally reunited, Matthew and Ann had one daughter, Anne, born April 1, 1812.

Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Bligh
George Bass
Napoleon Bonaparte

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This page was last updated on July 19, 2018.