Edwin Hodder, A history of South Australian Vol I

Matthew Flinders


A History of South Australia, Vol I, by Edwin Hodder, 1893.

In 1800 Flinders returned to England in the Reliance, and so successfully urged upon the Government the importance of prosecuting the survey of the Unknown Coast, that an expedition was at once fitted out, a war-vessel, the Xenophon, renamed the Investigator on account of the service in which she was to be employed, being set apart for the purpose, and Flinders was promoted to the rank of Commander.

Every care was taken in the outfit, and besides the provision made by Government, the Honourable East India Company gave the sum of £600 for any additional necessities. The crew was composed of picked men; amongst the midshipmen was Mr (afterwards Sir) John Franklin, the great Arctic navigator, and attached to the scientific staff was Robert Brown, the able botanist, and William Westall, a celebrated landscape painter. [Westall's original sketches are now in the library of the Royal Colonial Institute, London.]

Owing to the war between France and England then in progress, a passport was obtained from the French Government ensuring the expedition from molestation by any of the armed ships of the enemy. The Investigator arrived off Cape Leeuwin (or Lioness, so named after a Dutch vessel that had made the headland in 1622) on the 6th of December, 1801, and after proceeding to King George's Sound to refit, Captain Flinders set forth on his voyage of discovery.

The map of South Australia still marks the course of his route. Fowler's Bay was named after his first lieutenant; Streaky Bay on account of the colour of the water; Smoky Bay from the smoke of bush fires; Denial Bay because of its proximity to St. Peter's Island; Investigator's Group, one of which was called Flinders' Island, after the second lieutenant (the captain's brother), and Coffin Bay named after Vice-Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin.

On the 20th of February, 1802, Flinders arrived at an inlet since known as Sleaford Bay. He was a Lincolnshire man, and this was one of a series of places he named after spots in his well-loved native county. At Sleaford Bay he found that the coast took a sudden turn, trending to the north, but that no land was visible to the north-east, from which quarter a strong tide was setting in. This gave rise to many wild conjectures. "Large rivers, deep inlets, inland seas, and passages into the Gulf of Carpentaria," says Flinders, "were terms frequently used in our conversations of this evening, and the prospect of making an interesting discovery inspired new life into every man in the ship." Next morning Flinders went on shore, accompanied by Mr. Thistle, the mate, and satisfied himself of the insularity of the land. Soon after this a cutter was sent on shore in charge of Mr. Thistle with a midshipman named Taylor and others, to search for an anchorage and water.

It was a fatal voyage. For a long time the little boat had been watched sailing hither and thither in her search, and towards dusk she was seen returning from the land. Then suddenly she was lost to sight, and Lieutenant Fowler went in a boat with a lantern to ascertain the cause. Two hours passed without any tidings. A gun was then fired, and Lieutenant Fowler returned soon afterwards, but alone. Near the situation where the cutter had been last seen he met with so strong a rippling of tide that he himself narrowly escaped being capsized, and there was reason to fear that this was what had actually happened to Mr. Thistle and his companions. Had there been daylight, some or all of the crew might have been saved, although only two out of the eight were good swimmers. But the tide was running strong, the night was pitchy dark, and hope was abandoned.

Next morning the missing cutter was found bottom upwards, and although most careful and diligent search was made in every direction, not a trace was ever discovered of any of the crew. The sight of a large number of sharks in the immediate neighbourhood furnished a horrible suggestion of their fate.

Flinders called the island on which he had landed Thistle Island, and caused an inscription to be engraved on a sheet of copper, and set up on a post at the head of the little inlet, which in commemoration of the sad event he named Memory Cove; the adjacent headland he called Cape Catastrophe, and the surrounding islands Grindal, Hopkins, Williams, Taylor, after men lost in the cutter. When all attempts to find any survivor of the missing boat's crew had proved ineffectual, Flinders entered a magnificent harbour, Port Lincoln, where he determined to refit and take in water.

Almost every place in this neighbourhood he named after localities familiar to him in Lincolnshire. Thus the bay, an island, and a point of land bore the name Boston; Cape Donnington commemorated his native village; Louth Bay, Spalding Cove, Kirton Point, Stamford Hill, Reevesby, Sibsey, Grantham and Spilsby Islands, Sleaford Bay and Mere—all memorialize more or less the county of the fens.

On the 6th of March he left Port Lincoln and proceeded northwards. A cluster of islands was named after Sir Joseph Banks, whose good offices with the Admiralty had procured the equipment of the expedition; Barn Hill, Mount Young, Middle Mount, Point Lowly, Mount Brown, Mount Arden, and other places further marked the course of his explorations, while the whole range, of which these mountains formed a part, was honoured with the name of Flinders himself.

The great gulf he was exploring pursued a northerly direction, and Flinders entertained a strong hope that a channel would be found by which he could reach the Gulf of Carpentaria. Soon, however, the land began to lose its bold appearance, and eventually the gulf was found to terminate in desolate mud flats. On the return of the Investigator on the east side of the gulf two capes were named Points Riley and Pearce, after two gentlemen in the Admiralty, and on the 19th of February he entered a bay and named it after the Earl of Hardwicke.

On the following day he was again at the head of the gulf named Spencer's Gulf, after Earl Spencer who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time the expedition of the Investigator was determined upon. The eastern point of land he called Cape Spencer, and three islands near, the Althorpes.

Land was now seen from south to south-west, but whether it was an island or part of the continent was as uncertain as whether the wide opening seen at the same time was an inlet or a strait. Overtaken in a storm, Flinders stood across to the land, and, after rounding the headland (named Point Marsden, after the Second Secretary of the Admiralty), a bay was found beyond offering good shelter, and here they anchored, naming it Nepean Bay, after Sir E. Nepean, First Secretary of the Admiralty.

On the 22nd Flinders went ashore, and found a number of dark-brown kangaroos feeding beside a wood. "It would be difficult to guess how many kangaroos were seen," he wrote, "but I killed ten; the rest of the party made up the number to thirty-one taken on board in the course of the day, the least of them weighing 69 and the largest 125 pounds. . . . I scrambled with difficulty through the brushwood and over fallen trees to reach the higher land with the surveying instruments, but the thickness and height of the wood prevented anything else from being distinguished.

There was little doubt, however, that this extensive piece of land was separated from the continent, for the extraordinary tameness of the kangaroos, and the presence of seals upon the shore, concurred with the absence of all traces of men to show that it was not inhabited. . . . The whole ship's company," he adds, "was employed this afternoon in skinning and cleaning the kangaroos, and a delightful regale they afforded after four months' privation from almost any fresh provisions. Half a hundredweight of heads, forequarters, and tails were stewed down into soup for dinner on this and the succeeding days, and as much steaks given, moreover, to both officers and men as they could consume by day and by night. In gratitude for so seasonable a supply I named the southern land Kangaroo Island." And here, as we shall presently see, the first settlers in South Australia landed in 1836.

While off Kangaroo Island the captain named the nearest headland Cape Jervis, and the highest land seen to the north-east Mount Lofty. Leaving Kangaroo Island, he stood across for Cape Spencer, naming the straits between, Investigator's Straits, and on the 29th of February found himself in another gulf with land right ahead as well as on both sides. A rise at the head of the gulf he named Hummock Mount, and in honour of the admiral who presided at the Board of Admiralty when he left England, he called his new discovery the Gulf of St. Vincent; the peninsula separating the two gulfs he designated Yorke's Peninsula, after the Right Honourable Charles Philip Yorke, and a dangerous shoal at the entrance of Gulf St. Vincent, Troubridge Shoal.

Flinders pronounced the country round the Gulf of St. Vincent to be generally superior to that on the borders of Spencer's Gulf, but the only notice he gives of its eastern side, destined to become a few years afterwards an important British settlement, was as follows: "The nearest part of the coast was distant three leagues, mostly low, and composed of sand and rock, with a few small trees scattered over it; but a few miles inland, where the back mountains rise, the country was well clothed with forest timber, and had a fertile appearance."

The Investigator touched once more at Kangaroo Island, "where not less than thirty emus were seen on shore at one time," and then proceeded through what Flinders called Backstairs Passage and anchored in Antechamber Bay. The headland at its eastern end, where now a fine lighthouse stands, he named Cape Willoughby. Leaving here, he passed three small islands, The Pages, and soon after a report from aloft announced a white rock ahead. "On approaching nearer," says Flinders, "it proved to be a ship standing towards us, and we cleared for action in case of being attacked. The stranger was a heavy-looking ship without any topgallant masts up, and, on colours being hoisted, she showed a French ensign, and afterwards an English jack forward, as we did a white flag.

At half-past five, the land being then five miles distant to the north-east, I hove-to, and learned, as the stranger passed to leeward with a fair wind, that it was the French national ship Le Géographe, under the command of Captain Nicholas Baudin. We veered round as Le Géographe was passing, so as to keep our broadside to her, lest the flag of truce should be a deception, and having come to the wind on the other tack, a boat was hoisted out, and I went on board the French ship, which had also hove-to."

The passports of both captains were exchanged and read, and Flinders learned that his fellow-navigator had parted company from his consort-ship Le Naturaliste in a heavy gale in Bass's Straits, had lost his geographical engineer with the largest boat and its crew, and that he had examined part of Van Diemen's Land and part of the south coast of Australia. The navigators communicated their discoveries to each other, and Flinders presented Baudin with some charts. In honour of this friendly meeting Flinders named the locality Encounter Bay, and in passing along the southern coast adopted the nomenclature of Baudin, except in the case of two headlands discovered by Grant in December, 1800, and named respectively Capes Northumberland and Bridgewater.

Monsieur Peron, the naturalist to the French expedition, pursued a very different course with regard to the discoveries of Flinders, not only laying a claim to them on behalf of his nation, but renaming nearly all of them. Kangaroo Island he called L'Isle Décres, Spencer's Gulf Golfe Bonaparte, Gulf St. Vincent Golfe Joséphine, and so on. This attempt to rob Captain Flinders of the honour so justly due to him was, as we shall see, afterwards exposed and condemned.

The first lieutenant of Le Géographe was far more honourable than Monsieur Peron; on meeting Flinders sometime after at Port Jackson, he said to the English navigator. "Captain, if we had not been kept so long picking up shells and catching butterflies at Van Diemen's Land, you would not have discovered the South Coast before us." On the 9th of May, 1802, the Investigator anchored at Port Jackson, where Flinders was heartily welcomed by the Governor, to whom he communicated the important discoveries he had made, and also sent an account of them to England by the South Sea whaler Speedy.

On the 22nd of July, 1802, he sailed from Port Jackson with the Investigator and the Lady Nelson, for the purpose of visiting Torres Straits and the north coast of Australia. During this voyage—with the details of which we shall not concern ourselves here, although he explored some portions of the Northern Territory which in 1863 was added to the province of South Australia—he circumnavigated Australia and returned to Port Jackson on the 9th of June, 1803.

The Investigator was now found to be unfit for further service, and as there was no other vessel in the harbour ready for exploring purposes, Flinders determined to proceed to England and lay his charts and journals before the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, and if possible obtain another ship. A series of disasters now befell the heroic explorer. Soon after leaving Port Jackson in the Porpoise—accompanied by the Bridgewater and the Cato—he was wrecked on the Barrier Reef, the Cato sharing a similar fate. The Bridgewater escaped, and proceeded on her voyage to India. The crews of the two wrecked vessels contrived to get upon a sandbank, where they remained while Flinders returned to Sydney, a distance of seven hundred miles, in one of the ship's boats to procure assistance.

The Governor placed two small ships at his disposal, and with them he proceeded to the reef, and rescued all his companions. One of the two ships was a colonial cutter, the Cumberland, of twenty-nine tons, and on his return to Sydney Flinders conceived the idea of proceeding in this frail craft, only a little larger than a river-boat, to England. On making his plan known to the Governor, it was, strange to say, favourably entertained.

Flinders proposed to put into whatever port lay in his route for supplies of provisions and water, and seemed to entertain no doubt of a successful issue to his voyage; but in course of time his little vessel sprung a leak, and he steered to Mauritius for repairs. But here, being unprovided with any other passport than the one issued for the Investigator, he and his crew were taken prisoners.

By an unlucky chance, Le Géographe, with the members of the French expedition who could have established his identity, had sailed from Mauritius on the day before his arrival. Having come from Australia, he was asked if he had seen or heard of "Flindera" the navigator, and the Governor of the island refused to believe his reply that he was the man, or that any Australian Governor would have sanctioned a voyage to England in such a small and dangerous craft.

Flinders, therefore, was detained a prisoner, and his papers were taken from him. For six weary years he suffered incarceration, and was only set at liberty when, in 1810, the island was capitulated to the English. "While Flinders was a prisoner at Mauritius, Monsieur Peron, the naturalist of Baudin's expedition, issued one volume of voyages and discoveries in Australia, in which he made the audacious attempt to deprive Flinders of the honour of his discoveries by giving French names to most of the places the English navigator had already visited and named. This ungenerous attempt to appropriate the result of the labours of another was unsuccessful.

The account of his discoveries which, owing to his incarceration. Flinders was unable to publish until 1814, completely set at rest for ever the justness of his claims, and there is a fine ring in the generous words of the heroic sailor when, in his published work, "Account of a Voyage to Terra Australis", he says, "How, then, came Monsieur Peron to advance what was so contrary to truth? Was he a man destitute of all principle? My answer is, that I believe his candour to have been equal to his acknowledged abilities, and that what he wrote was from an overruling authority, and smote him to the heart, for he did not live to print his second volume." Flinders died on the 14th of July, 1814, the very day on which his book was published. A monument to his memory was erected at Port Lincoln by Sir John Franklin when he was Governor of Tasmania.


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