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The Man who named Australia

Construction work on a new high-speed railway line at London’s Euston station has included the excavation of a former cemetery. One of the newly-opened graves provoked considerable media interest, both in the UK and Australia. The remains were those of a forty year-old Royal Navy officer, identified by a decorated lead plaque which is all that remains of his coffin. The man was Captain Mathew Flinders.

Flinders was born in rural Lincolnshire, the son of a surgeon, with little connection to the sea. He received a good education and it was hoped by his parents that young Mathew would follow his father into medicine. Unfortunately for them, the boy was given a copy of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and after reading it he became determined to go to sea. When Flinders was fifteen his parents finally relented, and he joined the Royal Navy. He served on several vessels as a midshipman, including the Bellerophon (74), whose captain was so impressed with the teenager that he recommended him to a friend. That friend was Captain Bligh, of mutiny on the Bounty fame, who was about to embark for a second attempt at taking breadfruit plants from Tahiti to Jamaica in 1791. Whatever his failings as a manager of men, Bligh was a highly skilled navigator who had apprenticed under Captain Cook. Thanks to his tuition, Flinders became a talented navigator and cartographer in his own right.

Flinders return to Britain with Bligh, joined the Channel Fleet and fought at the Glorious First of June in 1794, but his heart was in the Pacific, much of which was still unexplored. He returned there the following year on the Reliance, which was bound for Botany Bay in New South Wales. On board he befriended George Bass, the ship’s surgeon and another skilled navigator. Once in Australia the two men began to map the coastline of the new colony, much of which was unchartered. They initially did this in small boats. Flinders was then promoted to lieutenant, and given the command of a sloop called the Norfolk. He used his new ship to make the first chart of Tasmania, proving that it was a separate island, and exploring the channel between it and Australia, which he named Bass Strait, after his friend. On this expedition he was accompanied by an aboriginal Australian called Bungaree, who proved invaluable, and was described by Flinders as "a worthy and brave fellow."

In 1800 he returned to Britain on the Reliance, where he published his various findings. These so impressed the Admiralty that he was promoted to commander, and sent back to Australia in command of a ship called the Investigator, together with a party of scientists. Between 1801 and 1803 he became the first person to lead a circumnavigation of Australia, obtaining all the details needed to produce a complete map of the subcontinent. He was accompanied once more by Bungaree, who again proved his worth to the expedition, and so became the first native Australian to sail around his homeland. Flinders identified and mapped a number of promising sites for future settlement, including the locations of what would later become Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. He also made several important scientific discoveries in fields as diverse as unusual tides and how to prevent the iron onboard a ship interfering with the compass.

In 1803 he attempted to return to Britain as a passenger aboard a ship called the Porpoise, only for it to be wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. Flinders navigated the ship's cutter across 700 miles of open sea back to Sydney, where he arranged for the rescue of the marooned crew. He was then given command of a small schooner in order to return home. On route he put in to the French-controlled Isle de France (now Mauritius) for repairs on 17 December 1803. Although France and Britain were at war, he believed that the scientific nature of his mission would ensure his safety, but he was arrested as a spy by the governor, and in spite of Napoleon ordering his release in 1806, was held captive there until 1810.

Flinder’s health had been badly affected by scurvy during his circumnavigation of Australia, and deteriorated further during his captivity. When he finally arrived home he knew he was dying. He spent the time that remained to him assembling all his work into the first complete map and atlas of the subcontinent that was known as New Holland, but which Flinders argued should now be called Australia. His work was published on the 18 July 1814, and Mathew Flinders died the following day.

No account of Flinders’ life is complete without mentioning Trim, his black and white cat. Born in 1799 aboard the Reliance on the voyage out to Botany Bay, the kitten fell overboard, but swam back to the vessel and climb up on deck using a rope. After such an impressive display of survival instincts, he was adopted by Flinders, and the two became inseparable. Trim sailed with his master around Tasmania and on the Investigator for his voyage around Australia. He too survived the shipwreck of the Porpoise in 1803, and was imprisoned with Flinders on Mauritius. Here he mysteriously disappeared, which his owner attributed to his having been stolen and eaten by a hungry slave.

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