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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition.

Matthew Flinders was one of our greatest seafaring explorers, charting much of Australia’s coastline despite a series of trials and wild adventures. An outstanding sailor, surveyor, navigator and scientist, he was a considerate and self-sacrificing leader who looked after all under his command.

Born in England on 16 March 1774, Flinders developed a longing for adventures at sea, partly through reading Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. He entered the navy at 15 years of age, served under William Bligh on a voyage to Tahiti in 1791 and fought against the French in the naval battle of the Glorious First of June 1794.

In 1795 Flinders sailed to Australia, where he carried out vital coastal survey work. In 1798 he and George Bass circumnavigated Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land), proving it was separate from mainland Australia.

Matthew Flinders Portrait

Portrait of Captain Matthew Flinders, RN,1774-1814 Creator: Toussaint Antoine DE CHAZAL DE CHAMEREL Date created: 1806-07 Location: Mauritius Physical Dimensions: w50 x h64.5 cm Type: Painting Rights: Gift of David Roche in memory of his father, J.D.K. Roche, and the South Australian Government 2000, Medium: oil on canva

Image: Toussaint Antoine DE CHAZAL DE CHAMEREL
© Art Gallery of South Australia

Flinders returned to England briefly, where he was promoted to commander of the 334-tonne HMS Investigator, with instructions to explore the southern coastline of Australia. He reached Cape Leeuwin, southern Western Australia, late in 1801 and set about mapping Australia’s ‘Unknown Coast’. His precise, detailed maps are the result of his methodical practice of personally taking all bearings and returning each day to where the previous day’s work had ended.

The Investigator was resupplied and refitted in Sydney in May 1802, before Flinders began his circumnavigation of the continent, accompanied by an Aboriginal translator, Bungaree. But the vessel was leaking badly as it reached the Gulf of Carpentaria. Flinders abandoned the charting work, but continued the circumnavigation to Sydney, limping back into port in June 1803.

Flinders hoped to return to England on the HMS Porpoise to procure another vessel to finish his surveying work, but the Porpoise struck a reef and sank. Flinders expertly sailed her cutter 1130 kilometres back to Sydney, arranged for the rescue of his wrecked shipmates, then sailed for England in another leaky boat, the Cumberland. He pulled into Mauritius for repairs, where the French governor arrested him as a spy and detained him for six years.

Many memorials to Matthew Flinders are found throughout South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, and coastal features include Flinders Bay (SA) and the Flinders Group of islands in far north Queensland. A small iron rod placed near a ship’s compass is named Flinders bar, as he found it counteracted the vertical magnetism of a vessel.

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