I have a confession to make. My interest in Australian history has never really extended to European male explorers. Yes, they performed amazing feats to understand the world in which we live but so did many others – Rose de Freycinet, for example – who are nowhere near as lorded. But I have always had an interest in Matthew Flinders. Why? I’ll explain in a moment.
It was 218 years ago this month – 16 February 1801 to be exact – that Matthew Flinders was promoted to Commander of HMS Investigator in England. It was on the Investigator that Flinders would be the first European to circumnavigate Australia, along with George Bass, and Indigenous man Bungaree. Fast forward to January 2019 and the discovery of Matthew Flinders’ grave in London resonated with Aussies and Brits everywhere. It was a major – and much hoped for – find by archaeologists excavating a site near London’s Euston Station, before the area is cemented and a new station built over it.
Inspired by the novel Robinson Crusoe, Flinders made three major journeys around the Southern Ocean. The first was in 1795 aboard the Reliance, a vessel that also carried John Hunter, who was to become the second governor of New South Wales. By this time at least two of my convict ancestors were also in the colony, and in my imagination, I like to think that both may have passed Flinders in the laneways of the tiny settlement of Sydney.
Flinders next major voyage was to prove that Tasmania was an island not attached to the mainland, and his third voyage is his most famous – sailing all the way around Australia.
So why is Flinders so interesting? Here are three reasons:
- He was an explorer of less ego than most others of the time. Many an imperial explorer has stumbled onto an ‘uninhabited’ land and named it after themselves, but Flinders never did. Although there are scores of sites around Australia named Flinders, none were bestowed by the man himself.
- He was determined. While he was imprisoned by the French in Mauritius he worked on his book detailing his journey, and his rationale for naming the continent he’d just explored Australia. He returned home to England in 1810 and in ill health. He continued to work on his maps and book – and died on 19 July 1814, the day after his book, A Voyage to Terra Australis, was published. He was 40 years old.
- He was a cat person. His constant companion was a black and white alley cat named Trim, who sailed with him on HMS Investigator and was by all accounts quite a character. Trim was always at Flinders’ side, except when swiping meat off the captain’s table, or helping to keep the population of mice on board under control. Therefore it’s safe to say that Trim was the first cat to circumnavigate Australia, and with Flinders as his worthy patron.
Cassie Mercer is an editor based in Sydney. She founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010, creating a following of 60,000+ readers and working with Australia’s key cultural institutions to bring the nation’s history to life across Inside History’s multi-channel platforms. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s, one was a highwayman in Dublin and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.