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Matthew Flinders

British, 1774 - 1814

Matthew Flinders was born on 16 March 1774 in the Lincolnshire village of Donington where he was expected to follow in his father's and grandfather's steps and become a surgeon. Instead, the lure of the sea and adventure took hold and he entered the Royal Navy in 1789 through the patronage of Captain (later Admiral Sir) Thomas Pasley.

In 1791-1793 Flinders sailed in HMS PROVIDENCE as midshipman with Captain William Bligh to Tahiti to get 300 breadfruit plants for the West Indies. He fought against the Napoleonic fleet taking part in the naval action 'Glorious First of June' in 1794 in the BELLEROPHON with Pasley. In 1795, he sailed as Master's Mate in the RELIANCE under Captain Henry Waterhouse to the colony of New South Wales.

With George Bass, surgeon of RELIANCE (and Bass's boy servant William Martin) in 1796 he explored Botany Bay in the first TOM THUMB, an 8-ft open boat. In 1798, in the FRANCIS Flinders explored the Kent Group off Van Diemens Land (Tasmania). In command of the NORFOLK in 1798 he and Bass proved conclusively that there was a strait between the mainland and Van Diemens Land - and named it Bass's Strait after his great friend. Still in command of the NORFOLK, he sailed northward in 1799 where he explored and charted areas around present-day Moreton and Hervey Bay in Queensland. Flinders returned to England in 1800 and was appointed Lieutenant in command of the INVESTIGATOR (formerly the XENOPHON) to lead a voyage of discovery around Terra Australis (Australia) during the period 1801-1803. He was promoted to Commander in February 1801 and married Ann Chappelle on 17 April 1801.

Flinders was appointed to command the expedition to 'New Holland for the purpose of making a complete examination and survey' of the southern and northern coasts. If time permitted he was to also examine 'the whole of the remainder of the west and the north-west'. For three years Flinders did his utmost to carry out the Admiralty's orders, successfully circumnavigating the continent of Australia and returning to Port Jackson in 1803.

With the INVESTIGATOR condemned as unseaworthy, Flinders set sail in the PORPOISE to England in 1803 and was wrecked on uncharted reefs (now called Wreck Reef) off the Queensland coast. HMS CATO and the East India Company ship BRIDGEWATER accompanied the PORPOISE; CATO was also wrecked but the BRIDGEWATER was lucky - however, the captain deemed it too dangerous to get close and search for survivors and continued his journey to Asia - where he reported the loss of both ships and all crew.

With 13 men Flinders sailed back to Sydney in the ship's cutter to get help - a remarkable 1,127 km (700 mile) journey. He set sail in another vessel - the CUMBERLAND - and rescued the survivors (ROLLA and FRANCIS accompanied him to Wreck Reef). The crews from both ships had survived.

Flinders continued his voyage to England but was forced to stop in December 1803 at Ile de France (Mauritius) for supplies and repairs. England was back at war with France and he was detained as a suspected spy for seven years. During this time he completed work on his charts and narrative and wrote a paper on a method of compensating for compass deviations caused by iron in a ship.

Released finally in 1810 (even though the Governor of Mauritius, General De Caen, had received papers ordering his release in 1807), he returned to his family and threw himself into the production of his three volumes of 'A Voyage to Terra Australis'. Appointed Post Captain on his return in October 1810, Flinders developed the first method of compensating for compass deviations which were caused by iron in a ship. The Admiralty instructed him to continue proving his theory when he returned to England. His device was called the Flinders' bar and is in use today on many ships. He also completed 'A Voyage to Terra Australis'. It was published in 1814 but Flinders never saw it - some say he died the very day it was released.

Matthew Flinders was survived by his wife Ann and daughter Anne (born 12 April 1812). He was only 40 when he died and his wife outlived him by 38 years.

He was the first to consistently use the term 'Australia' and to confirm that the west (New Holland) and the east (New South Wales) were part of the one landmass. His charts became the basis of the Australian hydrographic record.