Flinders Explores Australia

Parts of Australia were known to European explorers as early as the mid-seventeenth century, but the fact that the continent was a single, great landmass was not understood until Matthew Flinders circumnavigated the continent and charted its coastlines. His expedition also made major contributions to natural history, and his expedition’s naturalist, Robert Brown, became a prominent plant taxonomist who later influenced Charles Darwin.

Summary of Event

In 1800, the southern continent later known as Australia was almost unknown in Europe. When Dutch navigators had discovered the continent’s barren northwestern corner in the early seventeenth century, they dubbed the territory New Holland and supposed it to be merely a large island. The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman Tasman, Abel Janszoon circumnavigated Australia in 1642-1643, touching Tasmania Tasmania and New Zealand New Zealand;exploration of and demonstrating that the southern landmass was limited in extent. However, he did not realize that the lands that he circumnavigated actually constituted a single mass. In 1770, Captain James Cook Cook, James had conducted a survey of Australia’s southeastern coast, which he claimed for Great Britain and named New South Wales New South Wales;discovery of . Based upon this survey and the recommendations of Sir Joseph Banks Banks, Sir Joseph , Cook’s naturalist, Britain established a penal colony at Port Jackson (modern Sydney) Sydney, Australia in 1788. Australia;exploration of
Flinders, Matthew
British Empire;and Australia[Australia]
[kw]Flinders Explores Australia (Dec. 6, 1801-Aug., 1803)
[kw]Explores Australia, Flinders (Dec. 6, 1801-Aug., 1803)
[kw]Australia, Flinders Explores (Dec. 6, 1801-Aug., 1803)
Australia;exploration of
Flinders, Matthew
British Empire;and Australia[Australia]
[g]Australia;Dec. 6, 1801-Aug., 1803: Flinders Explores Australia[0100]
[g]British Empire;Dec. 6, 1801-Aug., 1803: Flinders Explores Australia[0100]
[c]Exploration and discovery;Dec. 6, 1801-Aug., 1803: Flinders Explores Australia[0100]
[c]Geography;Dec. 6, 1801-Aug., 1803: Flinders Explores Australia[0100]
Brown, Robert
Bass, George
Bauer, Ferdinand
Banks, Sir Joseph
Baudin, Nicolas

In 1795, Matthew Flinders arrived in the struggling penal colony as a midshipman on board a vessel that was bringing a new colonial governor. Over the next three years, Flinders commanded coasting vessels that supplied a remote penal colony on Norfolk Island, Norfolk Island and he twice made the long and difficult run to South Africa’s Cape Colony for provisions and livestock. Meanwhile, his friend and ship’s surgeon George Bass Bass, George explored Australia’s southern coast and deduced that a strait separated Tasmania from the mainland. That strait was later named after Bass. Bass Strait

In 1798, with the support of the governor, Bass and Flinders set sail in a twelve-foot open boat, the Tom Thumb
Tom Thumb (boat) , in which they passed through Bass Strait and circumnavigated Tasmania Tasmania in a counterclockwise direction, noting the positions of the island’s bays and promontories. Flinders also surveyed the Furneaux Islands, at the entrance to Bass Strait. At the end of this remarkable voyage, Flinders returned to England, where he published an account of his travels.

Hoping to return to Australia at the head of a more fully equipped expedition, Flinders found a valuable ally in Sir Joseph Banks Banks, Sir Joseph , the eminent naturalist who was president of the Royal Society Royal Society . Banks had influential connections in government and understood the political importance of maritime exploration.

At that time, France French Empire;and Australia[Australia]
Australia;and France[France] and Great Britain were at war. The French naturalist Nicolas Baudin Baudin, Nicolas had recently applied successfully to the British government for passports guaranteeing his proposed scientific expedition to Australia immunity from British naval attack. Banks himself had misgivings about the French expedition. He suspected that Baudin’s patron, Napoleon Bonaparte Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Nicolas Baudin[Baudin] , had designs on New South Wales New South Wales;and France[France] . Consequently he welcomed Flinders’s proposal for a rival British expedition and pressured the stingy British Admiralty into providing Flinders with a ship, an experienced crew, and a competent scientific team. The scientific team included the naturalist Robert Brown Brown, Robert , landscape artist William Westfall, botanical illustrator Ferdinand Bauer Bauer, Ferdinand , and a gardener skilled in keeping plant specimens healthy on long voyages.

The Investigator, a hundred-foot-long converted collier, left Spithead on March 27, 1801, carrying a crew of seventy-eight, plus six members of the scientific staff. The ship arrived at Cape Leeuwin on December 6, 1801, after an uneventful voyage via the Cape of Good Hope Cape of Good Hope , and immediately commenced a survey of Australia’s unknown southern coast. Flinders recorded the positions of physical features so precisely that his charts were used until World War II. Meanwhile, Brown Brown, Robert collected plant and animal specimens—many of which he preserved alive. Bauer Bauer, Ferdinand sketched the specimens as they were collected, using an elaborate color-coding system to reproduce hues accurately at a later date. In his expedition’s occasional encounters with Australia’s Aboriginal Aborigines peoples, Flinders respected their desire to remain unmolested. They, in turn, kept their distance, except during an episode of theft in the Gulf of Carpentaria Carpentaria, Gulf of on Australia’s northern coast.

Flinder’s Explorations

The expedition realized its hope of finding a good, well-watered bay that would be suitable as a stop for China-bound shipping when it entered Spencer Gulf, near the site of where modern Melbourne Melbourne, Australia now stands, immediately west of Bass Strait Bass Strait . Not long afterward, they met Baudin’s Baudin, Nicolas expedition on the Géographe, which was anchored in Encounter Bay. After four months on a barren coast, the sailors of the Investigator were exhausted and suffering from scurvy. Baudin’s crew, which had been ravaged by tropical diseases Diseases;tropical contracted in Timor, was in even worse shape. Both ships proceeded to Port Jackson for rest, recovery, and repairs.

At the end of July, the re-equipped Investigator sailed north, up the east coast of Australia, through the treacherous maze of islets and reefs east of the Great Barrier Reef, and entered the Gulf of Carpentaria Carpentaria, Gulf of through the Torres Strait Torres Strait , which separates Australia from New Guinea. Flinders sought and found the safest route through the shallow, reef-dotted strait, a valuable shortcut for China-bound shipping. At that point, an inspection of the Investigator revealed the ship to have become unseaworthy. Flinders decided to wait out the monsoon season in the gulf and used the time to survey its contours. He discovered that old Dutch charts showing a continuous coastline were fairly accurate and that there was definitely no sea connection between the northern Gulf of Carpentaria and the southern coast.

In March, 1803, with his crew again debilitated and the ship in danger of breaking up, Flinders sailed northward to Timor. There the Dutch governor afforded Flinders the hospitality due to his scientific passport but could provide almost nothing in the way of supplies. From Timor, Flinders sailed south, well out to sea, and arrived back at Port Jackson on June 9, after completing the first close circumnavigation of Australia in ten months and eighteen days.

After the Investigator was judged to be unfit for further service, Flinders transferred his crew, charts, and dried specimens to the Porpoise and embarked for England on August 10, accompanied by two merchant vessels. Brown Brown, Robert and Bauer Bauer, Ferdinand remained behind with the living plant and animal specimens they had collected. On August 17, the Porpoise and one of the merchant vessels struck a reef and were abandoned by the third ship. Flinders oversaw the successful transfer of most of the stricken vessels’ cargoes and provisions, and all but three of the crewmen, to a sand spit. He then made a hazardous 750-mile voyage back to Port Jackson in an open boat.

Flinders returned to his marooned shipmates in the Cumberland, a leaky and filthy thirty-nine-ton schooner, accompanied by the Rolla, a China-bound merchantman. His men salvaged the scientific collections and took them back to Port Jackson, from which the collections eventually found their way to England in 1805, along with Bauer and Brown Brown, Robert and their own collections from Norfolk Island and Tasmania. Most of the Investigator’s crew elected to sail on the Rolla and reached England a year later.

Flinders himself continued on in the Cumberland, hoping to secure another ship in England with which to continue his Australian explorations. However, the Cumberland proved so unseaworthy that he was forced to stop at the island of Mauritius Mauritius , then a French possession. At that moment, Britain and France were once again at war. Mauritius’s French governor, Charles Decaen, suspecting that Flinders was an intelligence agent, seized his ship and imprisoned him—a circumstance doubly galling in view of the consideration that the British had shown to Baudin Baudin, Nicolas in Port Jackson.

Despite determined efforts by Sir Joseph Banks Banks, Sir Joseph and his counterparts in the French Academy of Sciences, Flinders remained interned on Mauritius Mauritius until 1810. The long imprisonment delayed his promotion to post captain and so undermined his health that he never again resumed active duty. After returning to England, he devoted his remaining years to preparing an account of his travels and accompanying charts for publication. A Voyage to Terra Australis appeared on the day of his death, June 19, 1814.


Had the British not defeated the French in 1815, the political aspects of Flinders’s explorations would probably seem more important outside Australia, where he is viewed as a national hero on a par with his American contemporaries, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. After Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo (1815), there was no possibility of either the French or their Dutch allies pressing claims to western Australia, and Britain’s acquisition of Singapore in 1819 secured the most direct sea route between India and China.

From a scientific point of view, the voyage of the Investigator can be viewed as the first installment in a saga of exploration, the final installment of which is known to every Australian schoolchild. The landmarks of the south coast of Australia bear the names Investigator, Flinders, and Brown. The landmarks of Australia’s northwest coast bear the names Beagle, Fitzroy, and Darwin, testifying to the much more famous voyage of discovery that three decades later would complete the survey that Flinders had begun. In his subsequent long career as Britain’s most distinguished and innovative plant taxonomist, Robert Brown Brown, Robert drew extensively on the field experience he obtained in Australia in 1801-1804. A pioneer in microscopy, he is credited with discoveries of cellular streaming, nucleation of plant cells, and Brownian motion Brownian motion . His data and observations figure prominently in Charles Darwin’s Darwin, Charles
[p]Darwin, Charles;and Robert Brown[Brown]
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
On the Origin of Species (Darwin) (1859).

Further Reading

  • Brown, Anthony J. Ill-Starred Captains: Flinders and Baudin. London: Chatham, 2001. Stresses the rivalry and complementary activities of the two contemporary British and French explorers and provides a day-by-day description of Flinders’s activities.
  • Gascoigne, John. Science in the Service of Empire: Joseph Banks, the British State, and the Uses of Science in the Age of Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Particularly useful for the role of the East India Company in the exploration of Australasia.
  • Macintyre, Stuart. A Concise History of Australia. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Broad survey of Australia that includes a lengthy discussion of the continent’s exploration.
  • Rice, Tony. Three Centuries of Natural History Exploration. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1999. The chapter on the Flinders expedition focuses on Robert Brown and Ferdinand Bauer and includes a number of Bauer’s spectacular illustrations.

Great Britain Begins Colonizing Tasmania

Melbourne, Australia, Is Founded

Gold Is Discovered in New South Wales

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Charles Darwin; Sir John Franklin; Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; John MacArthur; Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Australia;exploration of
Flinders, Matthew
British Empire;and Australia[Australia]