Books Australia

Terra nullius

11 May 2013

6:00 PM

11 May 2013

6:00 PM

For many people these days, exploration means peeking into some of the more unusual corners of the internet. This massive book goes some way to correcting that idea, reminding us that Australia was once a blank space on the world’s maps, and that the lines were filled in by courage and intelligence.

In many ways, Matthew Flinders typified the best characteristics of the Enlightenment, seeing the knowledge gained through exploration as an important end in itself. But Rob Mundle, who has written about this era before, acknowledges that Flinders was also keenly aware of the mercantile opportunities that the Empire presented. His spirit of adventure was sparked by an early reading of Robinson Crusoe, although as a junior officer sailing under first Cook and later Bligh he quickly realised that the exploration business required a set of skills ranging from stellar navigation to effective leadership.

And a solid knowledge of boats and ships. When Flinders (as a passenger) and a number of other men were wrecked on a sandy reef, their response was to build a new boat from the wreckage and sail for help. These were not people who sat around complaining about their plight. These were people who did something about it.

Mundle, himself a sailor, notes that many of the ships sent to Australia were in poor condition to start with (the newer, sturdier ships being put aside by London for various wars, especially with France). None of the ships that Flinders commanded were top of the line, and he soon found that the Investigator was barely seaworthy: amazing that it made it out of port, let alone around Australia. Flinders wrote in his logs about the constant need for running repairs and the continuing effort of pumping out the water that flooded in through rotten planks.

Mundle’s use of Flinders’ journals gives the book a sense of personal depth, turning his subject into an individual of blood and flesh rather than a historical character. He also adds material from other people, both the important and the humble. He has an eye for the human detail, noting that Flinders’ career was almost catastrophically upset when his new wife, the ever-patient Ann, was found to be ‘seated in the captain’s cabin without her bonnet’ by a puffed-up official.

And of course there is Trim, who must go down as the most intrepid and well-travelled cat in Australian history, going around the country (and around Tasmania) and around the world. There is a statue of him with Flinders outside the Mitchell Library in Sydney, and another in Flinders’ home town of Donington in England. Flinders penned an affectionate essay about Trim and his adventures, and the little moggy pops up repeatedly in Flinders’ accounts of his journeys. If the official portraits of Flinders make him look rather stiff, Trim reveals his softer side.

Flinders, perhaps following the example of Cook, appreciated competence: intelligence honed by diligence, education and experience. He was particularly careful in his making of maps, so much so that they were used until modern times. On his regular excursions inland, he also took note of features of possible economic value, such as the coal deposits in the Illawarra area. He missed a few points, such as the bay on which Melbourne now sits, but given the limitations of his equipment and resources, this is understandable.

He seems to have genuinely cared about the men under his command, doing his best to keep them fit and healthy. This was a stark contrast to the conditions of the French vessels of the time. When Baudin’s ship Le Géographe — which Flinders had previously encountered near Kangaroo Island — struggled into Port Jackson in 1802, virtually the entire crew was afflicted with scurvy or some other ailment. Despite the tensions between the British Empire and Napoleon’s France, the colony did everything possible to assist.

It is this that makes the penultimate chapter of Flinders’ life seems pointlessly sad. On his way back to London, he was captured by the French at Mauritius. Britain and France were at war at the time, although there was a treaty about helping each other’s scientific and exploration ships. Apparently, Flinders inadvertently offended the island’s governor, Général Charles Decaen, on a minor point of etiquette, although there is evidence that Decaen saw the incident as a way to further his own political ambitions. Flinders was charged as a spy and placed under a harsh form of house arrest, a period made even worse by the loss of the faithful Trim. He was released after nearly seven years, probably through the intervention of Napoleon.

But his health was shattered and he never fully recovered. In captivity, and later in Britain, he wrote a massive account of his major expedition, A Voyage to Terra Australis. It was published in 1814; Ann (in another touching detail that Mundle recounts) put on his chest the first copy of the book as he lay on his deathbed. He was just 40.

From Mundle’s account, Flinders did not see himself as a man of greatness, but there was a streak of it in him. He had a sense of can-do pragmatism and a healthy scepticism. Somehow or another, perhaps those virtues seeped into our national character. So it is appropriate that his story should be told in such an honest, authoritative way. It is a story which, in the end, should be remembered.

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