Discovering Australia: The legend and the reality of the navigator-explorer Matthew Flinders
Matthew Flinders is remembered as one of Britain’s greatest navigator-explorers. But to what extent does the legend fit the reality?
In 1791 Mathew Flinders first sailed to the south-seas as a seventeen year old midshipman on a two year voyage with Captain William Bligh. Three years later he returned to Australia and in a tiny dingy named Tom Thumb explored much of Australia’s south east coast with his good friend lieutenant George Bass. Later, Flinders and Bass sailed in the Norfolk and discovered that Tasmania was a separate island from the mainland of Australia.
After returning to England Flinders was again sent in 1801 to complete the exploration of the entire Australian coast line in the Investigator. In April 1802 while charting the south coast where no ship had sailed before, he had a remarkable chance encounter with another explorer. Frenchman Nicholas Baudin had been sent by his government on exactly the same quest: to explore the remaining uncharted coast of the great southern land and find out if the west and east coasts, four thousand kilometres apart, were part of the same land.
And so began the race to complete the first complete map of Australia and to finish the exploration of the region started two hundred years before by the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish and later the French and the English.
Flinders three year voyage featured great hardship, sickness, the death of crew, shipwreck and finally imprisonment. Flinders beat his French rivals in discovering and charting the remaining unknown coast but they beat him to publishing the first complete map of Australia.