Guest Post: Matthew Flinders - a celebration

David Barrie, author of Sextant, published earlier this year by William Collins, has kindly written this post on Matthew Flinders, the distinguished English navigator and cartographer who died 200 years ago.

July 2014 marks the bicentenary of the death in 1814 of Captain Matthew Flinders RN, one of the great unsung heroes of British marine exploration. In researching and writing Sextant I found myself more and more impressed by him, and increasingly indignant that he has not yet been given the recognition he deserves in the country of his birth. Matthew-Flinders-PAF3511Everyone in Australia has heard of Flinders. There, his name is attached to countless features on land and sea - but for some reason he remains largely unknown back in England. Even his beloved feline companion, Trim, has a statue in Australia.

Statue of Trim

Happily, a statue of Flinders is at last going to be unveiled in London by Prince William. It will stand in Euston Station - close to the site of his grave, which has long since disappeared.

Flinders and his good friend George Bass were the first to demonstrate (in 1798) that Tasmania was an island - hence the name 'Bass Strait' for the stretch of water separating it from the mainland.  And Flinders later carried out the first thorough survey of roughly half the coast of 'New Holland' - the continent we now know as Australia (the name that he himself proposed for it). He was only 40 when he died and did not live to see the printed volumes of his Voyage to Terra Australis which stand as such a magnificent record of his great achievements.

Setting sail from England in the Investigator in 1801, Flinders - only 26 years old - left behind the young wife he had married just a few months earlier. He would not see her again for almost ten years and the often anguished letters he sent home to her make touching reading. They give a rare insight into the human drama of marine exploration, usually well concealed behind the dry language of the published official accounts.

Flinders was under orders from the Admiralty to explore the entire coast of 'New Holland' - most of which was imperfectly charted at best. And he would almost certainly have achieved this goal had his ship not literally been rotting beneath his feet. Forced to return from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Port Jackson (close to the modern Sydney) in 1802, Flinders then set sail for England in the hope of obtaining a new vessel in which to complete his great task. Shipwrecked, through no fault of his own, on a remote island off the Great Barrier Reef, he daringly sailed an open boat back to Port Jackson - a distance of more than 700 nautical miles - and organised the successful rescue of all the survivors. Flinders then tried to sail home to England in a small schooner that was little bigger than a yacht - the only vessel available to him. Faced with serious leaks while crossing the Indian Ocean, he sought help on the Isle de France (now Mauritius), where he was held by the French authorities under suspicion of being a spy for six and a half years!

What then did Flinders actually achieve on the Investigator voyage? That he and his crew happened to be the first people to circumnavigate Australia hardly matters. His real claim to fame rests on the outstanding quality of his hydrographic work.

Chart of Australia by FlindersThough lacking the support of an official astronomer, and not always very ably assisted by his younger brother (guilty on several occasions of that greatest of sins, allowing the chronometer to run down!),  Flinders produced exquisitely drawn charts based on meticulous observations, and on the closest possible examination of the coasts he was exploring - including the notoriously dangerous, reef-strewn Torres Straits that lie between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

On several occasions he was obliged - with some embarrassment - to amend the work of the great Cook himself. As commander of a ship and the lead surveyor, Flinders' routine was gruelling. The days were spent in making observations and conning the vessel (often from the mast-top) while the nights were taken up with calculations and chart-making.

The scientific rigour of Flinders' work is demonstrated by his determination to get things right and his reluctance to settle for second-best. As he himself said:

Longitude is one of the most essential, but at the same time least certain data in hydrography; the man of science therefore requires something more than the general result of observations before giving his final assent to their accuracy ...

Flinders, like all the other marine explorers of his time, relied heavily on lunar distance observations, made with a sextant, to regulate his chronometers. When he finally got home, with the charts 'nearly ready for the engraver', he prudently decided that all the lunar distance observations he had made should be recalculated on the basis of the precise observations made at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich on the relevant dates. It turned out that the actual Greenwich observations often differed significantly from the calculated predictions given in the Nautical Almanac for 1801-3. This required, as Flinders dryly observed, 'considerable alterations in the longitudes of the places settled during the voyage; and the reconstruction of all the charts ...'. Had George Vancouver taken the same precaution the longitudes given in his surveys of the Pacific North-West in the 1790s might well have been more reliable.

By the time Flinders reached home in 1810 the Napoleonic Wars were in progress and the golden age of marine exploration was drawing to a close. Major new discoveries - outside the Polar regions - would now be few and far between. Although Flinders had suffered much and done great work he was not greeted as a hero and, unluckily for his impoverished widow, his book sold poorly.

It's great news that Flinders is at last going to be given some public recognition in the country of his birth. But I hope the statue at Euston Station is only the first step on the way to establishing him in the pantheon of British naval history - where he belongs.

David Barrie will be reading from his new book Sextant at the National Maritime Museum, on Thursday 11 September.

Sextant: A Talk by David Barrie, National Maritime Museum, Thursday 11 September

You can read more of David's thoughts on celestial navigation and its history on his Sextant blog.