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F(l)inders keepers

Title page of Matthew Flinders' 'A Voyage to Terra Australis'

One of the larger items in our Special Collections, the “super-oversize” atlas accompanying Matthew Flinders’ epic Voyage to Terra Australis, is not taken out regularly for exhibitions. For one thing, it is rather too large to fit in any of the display cases, and for another, the acidic ink used to print the large scale charts prepared by Flinders from measurements made by himself and others is starting to degrade the paper.

However, it played an important part in the history of Australia, as Flinders in this work consolidated all recorded  discoveries along the Australian coast line and produced charts which went on to be used by the Admiralty for much of the nineteenth century. In fact, it could be argued that Voyage is one of the most important works on early colonial Australia prepared, as it not only gives us the first accurate shape of the Australian mainland and surrounding islands, but also provides important historical and social details about life in Australia for both settlers and indigenous people at a period when the colony of New South Wales was beginning to expand.

The Johnian connection to this important document comes from the passages referring to Captain William Bligh. Flinders served with Bligh on the Providence on a voyage to Tahiti, two years after the infamous mutiny on the Bounty which left Bligh alone in the Pacific Ocean in a 7 metre long boat. Despite this situation, Bligh was able to navigate to Timor and along the way made observations of the coast of Australia. Flinders relates these observations in his introduction covering prior discoveries along the coast, which can be seen below. Bligh’s cousin, Reginald Bligh, a clergyman, was admitted to St John’s in 1797 and was a Fellow from 1802 to 1833, having more success in holding office than Captain Bligh did with his ill-fated governorship of New South Wales for a year and a half between 1806 and 1808.

Account of Captain Bligh's journey in the Bounty's launch

As previously mentioned, Flinders’ charts were drawn up using some of these earlier measurements of the coastline, all recalculated by Flinders to conform to his own compass and latitude and longitude. This results in some accurate, highly useful, as well as really quite attractive charts, which contain not only measurements but also occasional notes on the maritime history of Australia.

This chart of part of the coast of Queensland is an excellent example of this. On first inspection, it appears to be a relatively ordinary chart displaying the latitude and longitude of the different points on the coast including sandbanks and reefs.

Chart of the coast of Queensland

However, a closer look reveals that these are not just any reefs, but part of the Great Barrier Reef on which the HMS Endeavour under Captain Cook struck in 1770, requiring extensive repairs. Flinders’ understated commentary does not quite do justice to the drama of the situation, which required all members of the crew to man the pumps and ensure that the ship was not sunk.

Detail of chart showing the place where HMS Endeavour struck a reef

The same chart also records Bligh’s path in his seven metre boat towards Timor, a remarkable piece of maritime and naval history.

Detail of chart showing Bligh's route in the Bounty's launch

Flinders’ expeditions made him one of the first people to circumnavigate Australia, and he and his friend George Bass, with the discovery of the Bass Strait, proved that Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land, was not connected to the Australian mainland. Flinders himself was not only an accomplished commander, but also took all the measurements for his personal charts himself, and attempted to popularise the use of the term Australia over the more clunky Terra Australis. He was also a noted lover of animals, having a particular fondness for a ship’s cat named Trim who accompanied him on his expeditions in the Investigator, Porpoise and Cumberland, as well as for the first part of his six-year imprisonment by the French at Mauritius, also detailed in this account. His importance to the history of Australia is commemorated with several towns, capes and other important landmarks named after him. Despite this, he is often less well known than other explorers such as Cook and Tasman, and deserves to be recognised for his incredible achievements.


This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 5 April 2016 by Felicity French, Library Graduate Trainee 2015-2016.