A Short Life of Matthew Flinders (1774-1814)

In August the Hakluyt Society published the long-awaited annotated edition of Matthew Flinders’s journal of the first circumnavigation of Australia (1801-1803). As the editor of Australia Circumnavigated: The Voyage of Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator, 1801-1803Professor Kenneth Morgan (Brunel University, London) has kindly agreed to write a double-post on the fascinating material he worked on over the past several years. To start he will introduce the protagonist of this history: Captain Matthew Flinders (1774-1814).


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Born into a medical family, with no seafaring connections, Matthew Flinders decided while still a teenager that he wanted to pursue a naval career that focused on maritime exploration. He had read Robinson Crusoe as a child, and his imagination was stimulated by a tale of adventure in a far-distant island. As a young naval recruit, he had a varied time sailing with Bligh in the Providence on his second breadfruit voyage to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans (1791-3) and serving in HMS Bellerophon (1793-4) in the naval war against revolutionary France, culminating in the naval battle of the Glorious 1st June. Flinders made his name as a navigator through his work in Australian waters. Between 1795 and 1800 he was based in Port Jackson (modern Sydney), then a fledgling British outpost in the southern hemisphere. Liaising closely with the governor of New South Wales, John Hunter, Flinders and his friend George Bass, a naval surgeon, discovered Bass Strait and completed the first circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land in 1798/9.

Flinders publicised his findings through written accounts and charts. The discovery of the strait and the proof that Van Diemen’s Land was an island were the most important geographical discoveries about Australia since the days of Captain Cook. By the age of twenty-five, Flinders had acquired many skills necessary for a career as a maritime explorer: highly competent graphical ability in charting, a thorough acquaintance with navigational instruments, the ability to cooperate cordially with associates on voyages, great precision in hydrographical surveying, along with initiative and confidence. These last two attributes emboldened him to approach the great patron of British maritime exploration, Sir Joseph Banks, about the possibility of a major circumnavigatory voyage of Australia, something that no other navigator had ever undertaken. With Banks’s support, Flinders was appointed the commander of HMS Investigator on such an ambitious expedition, which lasted from mid-1801 until mid-1803.

During those two years, Flinders led a ship’s company and a group of scientific gentlemen in a comprehensive voyage of exploration around Australia. Bays, capes, rivers, islands and other geographical features were discovered, surveyed and named; there were encounters with Aborigines, Macassan trepangers and Torres Strait Islanders; and specimens from many plants, trees and animals were gathered. The voyage had its fair share of mishaps, partly because of the leaky condition of the Investigator. While sailing home to England in 1803 Flinders was detained as a suspected spy when he put in to Mauritius, then under French control, in wartime.

He eventually returned to London after over six years’ detainment in Mauritius, and was able, through support from Banks and the Admiralty, to publish a detailed two volume account of his circumnavigation in A Voyage to Terra Australis and an accompanying atlas of his charts of coastal Australia. These were published shortly before his death from a severe bladder complaint in the summer of 1814. They represent important and lasting contributions towards geographical and navigational knowledge of Australia.


Professor Kenneth Morgan (Brunel University, London) is an economic and social historian of the British Atlantic world in the ‘long’ eighteenth century (1688-1840). His research focuses on the history of merchants, ships, foreign trade and ports, as well as on Australian history, slavery and the slave trade. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Professor Morgan has published extensively on the Atlantic slave trade and maritime exploration. He is the editor of Australia Circumnavigated: The Voyage of Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator, 1801-1803 (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society, Third Series, 28-29. London: 2015).

Australia Circumnavigated: The Voyage of Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator, 1801-1803. Ed. Kenneth Morgan
Australia Circumnavigated: The Voyage of Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator, 1801-1803. Ed. Kenneth Morgan

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