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Matthew Flinders put “Australia” on the map

By Paul Brunton,
Manuscripts Curator,
State Library of New South Wales

On 18 July 1814, the day before Matthew Flinders died, his monumental work, A Voyage To Terra Australis, was published in London in two quarto volumes with a folio atlas.

It placed before the public his lifetime’s work of charting the coasts of Australia and included the great map of the continent on which for the first time the word “Australia” was provocatively inscribed.

Flinders was born in Lincolnshire on 16 March 1774 and gained his early experience in charting with William Bligh on Providence, 1791-1793. On this voyage he first visited Australia at Adventure Bay in Tasmania. Although all the resulting charts were signed by Bligh as commander, Flinders inserted in the margins of some a microscopic “MF”, a youthful act of defiance, staking his claim as the one who had actually done the work.

In 1795, he returned to Australia, this time on board Reliance. The ship’s surgeon was George Bass and together and separately over the following years they would explore the coasts of New South Wales and Tasmania, culminating in the circumnavigation of the latter in 1798-99 and the drawing of its first map, which was published in 1800.

Now, with a small hydrographic survey under his belt and fired with enthusiasm, Flinders wrote to Sir Joseph Banks requesting that he be commissioned to complete “the discovery of Australia”. He wished to investigate the possibility of a strait from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the south coast and further explore the waters between New South Wales and New Guinea. Stretches of the south coast, the Queensland coast and the north coast required detailed investigation.

Banks indulged this young man of promise and Investigator left England on 18 July 1801 with a crew of 80 men and at least two cats, one of which was the famous Trim, who accompanied his master to exile in Mauritius. Flinders was commander and his brother, Samuel was First Lieutenant. The crew included botanist Robert Brown, landscape painter William Westall and natural history painter Ferdinand Bauer.


Investigator sighted Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia, on 6 December 1801 and sailed east along the southern coast. In February 1802, they entered Spencer's Gulf, which Flinders named after the second Earl Spencer. Kangaroo Island was discovered; Gulf St Vincent, named after John Jervis, Earl St Vincent was charted and in March Flinders met the French explorer, Nicolas Baudin, at the appropriately named Encounter Bay.

In May, they reached Port Jackson. Sailing north, Flinders charted the Queensland coast and then made a detailed survey of the Gulf of Carpentaria. He then proceeded around the western coast and back to Sydney via the south coast, arriving in June 1803.

He had circumnavigated the continent - the first to do so. Investigator was so rotten she was abandoned and Flinders sailed as a passenger in Porpoise - only to strike a reef! He sailed the cutter back to Sydney and then sailed on Cumberland to England via Torres Strait.

He was forced to seek refuge at Mauritius owing to the poor state of the ship, arriving there in December 1803.

The French who then occupied the island were rightly suspicious of British intentions and Flinders was assumed to be on a spying mission. This, combined with a certain hauteur towards the Governor on Flinder’s behalf, consigned him to six years of detention.

He arrived back in England, and to Ann, the wife he had not seen for nine years, in October 1810. He had less than four years to live, during which time in increasing physical decay he worked on his charts and the text to accompany them.

The Investigator voyage would place him in the forefront of British navigators. Although some further detailed work was to be done on the Australian coastlines, notably by Phillip Parker King, Flinders at last gave a definite shape to the great south land which had been dreamed of for centuries and dimly first sighted by the Dutch in 1606.

For more information, see Flinders' Journeys.


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