Australia Circumnavigated: The Story of the HMS Investigator

The Hakluyt Society recently published the annotated edition of Matthew Flinders’s journal of the first circumnavigation of Australia (1801-1803), which has been distributed to Hakluyt Society members free of charge in August 2015. Professor Kenneth Morgan, the editor of Australia Circumnavigated: The Voyage of Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator, 1801-1803, recently published a blog on this page about the life of Captain Matthew Flinders. In this follow-up post, Prof Morgan provides fascinating details about the construction, uses, and eventual unseaworthiness of the ship on which Flinders carried out his expedition: the HMS Investigator.


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HMS Investigator, the ship supplied to Flinders for his Australian circumnavigation, was built in 1795 by Henry Rudd as a collier at Monkwearmouth, near Sunderland (county Durham). Originally named the Fram, this vessel of 334 tons was 100 feet long, about 29 feet on the beam, with a draught of around 14 feet and 19 feet depth of hold. She was a three-masted, square-sterned ship built to ply the route from the north-eastern coalfields around East Anglia to London. The Navy Board purchased the ship at Deptford in April 1798 and renamed her the Xenophon. The vessel was then converted to an armed sloop. This mainly involved building a gun deck beneath her main deck and cutting large gun ports in her sides. The gun ports held twenty 32 pounder and two 18 pounder carronades. Over the next two years the Xenophon was deployed with the Channel Fleet on convoy escort duties in and out of the Nore. In late November 1800 the ship arrived at Sheerness with instructions for her defects to be repaired.

Sir Joseph Banks drew up a shortlist of possible new names for the Xenophon for the Australian circumnavigation. The Admiralty selected one of his suggestions, the Investigator, and ordered the Navy Board to prepare this vessel for an expedition to the southern hemisphere. Deploying a converted collier for a voyage of discovery had famous precedents in the ships used by James Cook for his voyages of Pacific exploration. To prepare the vessel for a long ocean voyage, copper sheathing took place, as was then becoming common in the navy, to protect the hull from destruction by the teredo navalis. As it was anticipated the load taken by the Investigator would weigh down the vessel in the water, an additional two planks were sheathed to cope with the weight of the extra stores. Flinders requested this should be done after taking advice from Isaac Coffin, the resident naval commissioner at Sheerness. Coffin oversaw the fitting out of the Investigator, dealing with her masts, spars, stores and guns.

Whether the ship’s timbers were properly caulked and checked for a long voyage is unknown, as there is little correspondence between the Sheerness dockyard and the Navy Board about the ship. The repairs were undertaken swiftly, but it is possible that not all of the iron bolts and fittings were replaced with copper ones and that the vessel may have been coppered over rotten timbers. After repairs were completed, the Investigator was described in Admiralty records as ‘fitting out for a voyage to remote parts’. The Investigator carried a launch, two cutters, a gig and a whaleboat for exploration of inlets, rivers and creeks along the shoreline of Terra Australis. Flinders had reservations about the suitability of the Investigator for a long, ambitious oceanic voyage. The leakiness of the Investigator was to prove a serious problem during Flinders’s expedition, and his circumnavigation of Australia ended in mid-1803 owing to the unseaworthiness of the Investigator.


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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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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Matthew Flinders and the Circumnavigation of Australia, 1801-1803

The Hakluyt Society has just published its annotated edition of Matthew Flinders’s fair journal of his circumnavigation of Australia in the Investigator, which by now will have reached most if not all Society members. Published as Australia Circumnavigated: The Voyage of Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator, 1801-1803, this two-volume work has been hotly anticipated. Yet, one might wonder, what is the excitement all about? A short sequence of blog posts in the weeks to come will provide some keys to this question. To kick this series off, let us take a brief look at the edition and its protagonist.


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Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) was the first navigator to sail all the way around the Australian coastline, proving it to be a separate continent. He also compiled detailed charts of substantial parts of its shores and islands, at a level of accuracy which meant that they remained useful well into the nineteenth century. The Hakluyt Society’s edition in two volumes includes some photographic extracts from these charts, together with specially-drawn maps detailing the route of the voyage.

The voyage had more than its fair share of both triumphs and tragedies, recounted in Flinders’s own words and carefully edited by Professor Kenneth Morgan of Brunel University, who explains unfamiliar nautical terms and identifies people and places. Naturalists and artists accompanied Flinders on this voyage, one of whose sponsors was the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks. Some of the resulting paintings of Australian flora and fauna have been reproduced in the Hakluyt Society edition.

In addition to the account of the voyage, the second volume also includes the ‘Memoir‘ which Flinders wrote to accompany his journal and charts and to explain his methods of surveying. Although Flinders published his own account of the voyage as A Voyage to Terra Australis (1814), the original journal included considerably more detail. This is the first time that a fully annotated edition of Flinders’s fair journal has been produced and the memoir has previously been available only as a manuscript.

The journals edited here comprise a daily log with full nautical information and ‘remarks’ on the coastal landscape, the achievements of previous navigators in Australian waters, encounters with Aborigines and Macassan trepangers, naval routines, scientific findings, and Flinders’s surveying and charting. The journals also include instructions for the voyage and some additional correspondence.This edition has a substantial introduction complemented with photographic excerpts from Flinders’s survey sheets, maps of the voyage and illustrations of the botanical and artistic work undertaken.

Anyone joining the Hakluyt Society now at www.hakluyt.com will receive these volumes, or they can be bought from Ashgate at: http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781908145116.


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. Works Issued by the Hakluyt Society, Third Series, Vols. 28-29 (2015).
Australia Circumnavigated: The Voyage of Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator, 1801-1803. Ed. Kenneth Morgan
Title page of: Australia Circumnavigated: The Voyage of Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator, 1801-1803. Ed. Kenneth Morgan. Works Issued by the Hakluyt Society, Third Series, Vols. 28-29 (2015).

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Saluting Captain Matthew Flinders

In 2014 Australia commemorated the bicentenary of the death of Captain Matthew Flinders, the Royal Navy Captain who charted much of the coastline of the continent. The Hakluyt Society is proud to have played a part in the festivities. It was particularly fitting that the current President of the Society, Captain Mike Barritt, a former Hydrographer of the Navy, was able to join in a programme of events planned by Dr Martin Woods and other fellow members. The focus was the Society’s forthcoming scholarly edition of Flinders’ journals from the circumnavigation in HMS Investigator, and Captain Barritt was accompanied by the editor, Professor Kenneth Morgan. In this post, the President relates his experiences.


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One aim of his travel was to draw together existing members of the Society. In Canberra, Dr Woods convened a happy gathering including Frank Wheatley and his wife Barbara who had travelled all the way from West Australia.

Flinders Australia meeting
The President meets with Australian members

After discussions with the President, the group viewed some of the library’s treasures, carefully chosen by Dr Woods for their relevance to the work of Matthew Flinders. Afterwards the members were joined by an enthusiastic audience for the lectures.

The success of this launch event was matched by the experience of Captain Barritt and Professor Morgan in a special session in the Fridays at the Library programme run jointly by Flinders University and the Friends of the State Library of South Australia in Adelaide, and finally an evening presentation in the State Library of New South Wales. Through these events Captain Barritt had the opportunity to meet many long-standing members, some others now returning to the fold, and some new recruits.

Saluting Flinders
Captain Mike Barritt salutes his hydrographic predecessor

The programme matched his desire to engage with the Hakluyt Society community that ‘compasses the Vaste Globe’ and to promote events further afield than London.

In his own presentation, Captain Barritt introduced Australia Circumnavigated: The Voyage of Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator, 1801-1803, placing it in the context of the Society’s history of publications of accounts of travel and exploration in the region. He noted, however, that the edition departed from precedent in the amount of navigational detail that had been retained and reproduced both in the journal itself and in the accompanying memoir explaining the construction of Flinders’ charts. Speaking as a practitioner, and quoting from the memoir, he argued that this evidence of meticulous practice was essential to bring out the under-tone running through Matthew Flinders’ writings. He was acutely aware that he was walking in big foot-prints, especially those of the already legendary James Cook.

Although the argument and supporting tables in this edition may only be examined in detail by specialists, they illustrate the concerns driving Flinders: ‘I hope to escape the censure of those who may think that our investigation has not been sufficiently minute’. Captain Barritt explained that as a consequence of the decision to include this level of detail, the edition has set challenges at every stage of editing, type-setting and proofreading. The interest in the proof copies made available for inspection at the events in Australia indicates that the volumes will be in demand by both academic and general readers*.

Flinders hydro 1
Chart from “Australia Circumnavigated”

*Distribution to members of the Society  took place during the Summer of 2015.


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