This Week In History: Matthew Flinders, Explorer of Australia, Was Born in 1774


State Library of South Australia (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Matthew Flinders was a British navigator who explored and charted large areas of the Australian coastline. With fellow explorer George Bass, Flinders sailed around what is now Tasmania, proving that it was an island. Flinders was also one of the first people to circumnavigate (sail entirely around) the continent of Australia, surveying much of the uncharted coastline.

Flinders was born on March 16, 1774, in Donington, Lincolnshire, England. He began his seafaring career when he joined the navy in 1789. In 1791, he sailed with Captain William Bligh on a voyage to Tahiti. In 1795, he sailed from England to New South Wales, the first British colony in Australia. During this voyage, he met Bass. After arriving in Sydney, the pair set out to explore in a small sailboat named the Tom Thumb. They sailed down the coast and explored Botany Bay and the George’s River. In 1796, Bass and Flinders set out in a larger boat, also called the Tom Thumb. On this voyage, they entered Port Hacking and sailed past the present site of Wollongong until they reached Lake Illawara.

In 1798, Bass and Flinders set out to test their theory that Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) was an island. They passed through the strait between Van Diemen’s Land and the mainland. This strait was later named Bass Strait in Bass’s honor. They sailed completely around Van Diemen’s Land, completing their voyage in 1799. They proved that Van Diemen’s Land was an island, and the discovery of Bass Strait helped shorten the voyage to and from England.

Flinders returned to Britain in 1800. There he met Lord Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Lord Spencer gave Flinders command of the brig Investigator to find out if a large strait separated eastern and western Australia. Flinders returned to Australia, beginning his exploration at Cape Leeuwin, at the southwestern tip of what is now Western Australia. He sailed along Australia’s southern coast, exploring Spencer Gulf, Gulf St. Vincent, and Kangaroo Island. Flinders landed in Sydney in May 1802. There, he restocked his supplies and refitted his ship. Flinders then sailed north to Cape York and through the Torres Strait. While he was surveying the Gulf of Carpentaria, he discovered that his ship was in a dangerously rotten condition. He decided to complete the journey around Australia’s coast as quickly as possible. He reached Sydney again in July 1803.

Flinders then set out to return to the United Kingdom. During the voyage, he landed at Ile de France, a French colony that is now the independent nation of Mauritius. At the time, France and the United Kingdom were at war. The governor of Ile de France suspected Flinders was a spy and had him imprisoned. Flinders was released from prison in 1810, but the years in confinement had left him in poor health. He spent the last years of his life writing his book, A Voyage to Terra Australis. Flinders died on July 19, 1814, the day the book was published.

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