State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 13 March 1974



1 & 2 Letters to his Wife and Stepmother, 1805 and 1806.
These two letters clearly show Flinders’ changing thoughts about his detention in Mauritius. In 1805 he was sure that orders for his release would arrive from France and that whether he went to England or France he would soon be away from Mauritius. By 1806 he felt that release would not come soon, he was negotiating, with little hope, for his wife to be allowed to join him, and had sent off a series of letters to influential persons in France and England (See Note 7 below).
John Aken had joined Investigator as Master's Mate in July 1801 in Sydney, became Acting Master of Porpoise and Cumberland and immediately after arrival in Mauritius, as second-in-command, was imprisoned with Flinders not with the crew. Aken left Mauritius in May 1805 taking with him copies of Flinders’ charts and memoranda for the Admiralty as well as private letters.
John Elder had joined Investigator in March 1801 and would have been known to Ann, who had spent some time on board. He was Acting Master-At-Arms in Investigator, Porpoise and Cumberland. When Cumberland's crew were repatriated he chose to remain with Flinders as his servant and stayed with him until July 1807 when he returned to England via Baltimore arriving in February 1808 with letters and a chest containing copies of charts and some of Flinders’ personal possessions.
‘The family at Boston’ was that of Flinders’ uncle William Flinders (his father's half-brother) whose son William's bankruptcy is mentioned in the postscript to Ann's letter.
The Hursthouse family at Tydd St. Mary's was that of John Hursthouse (1745–1806) a second-cousin of Flinders’ paternal grandmother, Elizabeth (nee Hursthouse), a close friend, and executor, of Flinders’ father.
‘Cousin Henrietta’ was the daughter of John Flinders (his father's elder brother) and a favourite cousin who introduced Flinders to Captain Pasley under whose patronage he entered the navy.
Thomas Pitot, a gentleman and merchant did much to help Flinders in Mauritius and when Flinders was able to leave the Jardin Despeaux to live at Wilhem's Plains in the interior it was Pitot who accompanied him there. Flinders and Pitot remained firm friends corresponding regularly and in London Flinders was able to help Pitot and members of his family after Britain took possession of the island. One of Flinders’ last services for Pitot was to order a harp for him in London.
The Reverend William Tyler, rector of Braytoft, was Flinders’ wife's stepfather.
Hannah (1789–1847) was Matthew's second-youngest half-sister. His father died in May 1802, and as the letter states, the interest on Matthew's share of his estate was used to educate Hannah and the youngest half-sister, Henrietta (b.1791).
3. Letter to Farquharson Stuart, 1813
‘M. Stuart', ‘Mr. Stuart', and ‘Mons. le cap Stuart’ (as Flinders refers to him in his Diary) appears to have been a connection of some of Flinders’ friends in Mauritius. On at least two occasions Flinders called on him soon after receiving letters from Mauritius. Whether or not he was, like some of Flinders’ other French visitors, a prisoner-of-war on parole in London is not known, but he first called with members of Mauritian families who had befriended Flinders, in March 1811. Thereafter he became a regular visitor. His early visits were irregularly timed but by late in 1811 he was calling weekly and the notes in Flinders’ Diary changed from ‘M. Stuart called in the evening’ to ‘Mr. Stuart called as usual on Mondays’. As Flinders became more and more absorbed in the completion of his charts and the Voyage to Terra Australis, and increasingly troubled by ‘the stone’, Stuart's visits became irritating interruptions.
‘… in the evening Mr Stuart called and prevented me writing.’ ‘Mr Stuart called as usual on Mondays, and I could do nothing.’ Eventually Flinders wrote, so politely and so indirectly, ‘to Mons. Stuart to do away his regular Monday visits’. Afterwards Stuart appears to have called only once, in May 1814, but prior to this Flinders had twice called on Stuart.
[The quotations are from Flinders’ Diary in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.]
4. Narrative of an Expedition to Furneauxs Islands … 1798
The opportunity to go to the Furneaux Islands at the eastern end of Bass Strait in the Norfolk afforded Flinders his first solo opportunity to practise marine surveying — an art in which he was to become a master. He had learnt a good deal from Bligh and during the Providence's bread-fruit voyage had, under Bligh's supervision, produced several small charts. The voyages in the Tom Thumb with Bass were exploratory and offered no opportunity for careful survey work, but during the five days he voyaged about the islands in Norfolk's boat he was, despite the lack of instruments, able to make his first independent marine survey. Like a good surveyor he was critical (in the last paragraphs of the ‘Narrative') of the ‘sketch’ he produced. But the important consequence of the voyage was not so much the ‘sketch', but the certainty, when his obse-vations were coupled with those of Bass after his whaleboat voyage to Western Port, that New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land were separated by a strait. As Flinders put it in his Voyage to Terra Australis, ‘There seemed to want no other proof of the existence of a passage … than that of sailing positively through it’ (Vol I, p. cxxxvii). That a strait might exist was suspected by Governor Hunter
from his experiences sailing north after rounding Van Diemen's Land both with the First Fleet in 1788 and in Reliance in 1795, and it was no doubt these suspicions that led Hunter to send Flinders to make ‘such observations servicable to geography and navigation, as circumstances might afford’. A second consequence of the voyage was the revelation of the seal populations of the Furneaux Islands soon to be reduced by the growth of a Sydney-based sealing industry that produced the colony's first marketable exports.
The La Trobe Library copy of the ‘Narrative’ is a ‘fair copy’ written some time after the voyage, during which Flinders no doubt kept a log or journal with detailed observations and records of bearings inappropriate to the ‘Narrative’. From this the ‘Narrative’ was written possibly after the voyage of the Norfolk around Van Diemen's Land in 1798–9, since the final note concerning astronomical observations refers to a ‘future voyage’ and comments that ‘The observations of both voyages are combined in that table.’ The 1798–9 voyage gave an opportunity of checking positions established during the 1798 expedition and of more accurately relating the survey of the islands to the mainland and to Van Diemen's Land. The results of the two voyages were combined in A Chart of Bass's Strait between New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land Explored by Mattw Flinders 2nd Lieutenant of His Majesty's Ship Reliance by order of His Excellency Governor Hunter 1798–9 published in London by Aaron Arrowsmith in June 1800; (the Mitchell Library in Sydney holds a manuscript copy of this chart) and in Flinders’ Observations on the Coasts of Van Diemen's Land, on Bass's Strait and its islands, and on Part of the Coasts of New South Wales, Intended to Accompany the Charts of the Late Discoveries in Those Countries published in London in 1801.
5. ‘Appendix to the Abridged Narrative’
During the early part of 1806, when Flinders was sure that once the French government knew the circumstances of his detention in Mauritius it would order his release (as indeed it did), he prepared a narrative which he believed ‘placed in the hands of a skilful writer, with his corrections of style and arrangement’ might be published, or, if that was not possible, be placed in the Hydrographic Office as a source of information on Investigator's voyage and his imprisonment to August 1805. Its title summarises its contents:
A Narrative of the causes that prevented His Majesty's Ship Investigator from completing the examination and discovery of the Coasts of Australia: the embarkation of the commander and company on board His Majesty's armed vessel Porpoise: The loss of that ship, and of the Cato of London, upon a Coral Reef between New Caledonia and New South Wales; a voyage of 250 leagues to Port Jackson in an Open Boat; and the subsequent embarkation of the commander of the Investigator, with charts Eca. of his discoveries, for England, in the Cumberland — schooner, of 29 tons: Also, an account of his voyage as far as the Isle of France; his reception there by the French captain-general De Caen; and the treatment he received during an imprisonment of [blank] years; interspersed with notices upon the voyage of Monsieur N. Baudin, and various other observations and remarks; with an Appendix, containing various letters &c a referred to in the narrative. By Matthew Flinders Esquire, Prisoner in the Isle of France, and late commander of His Majesty's ship Investigator, July 1806.
The six chapters ran to 132 pages and the 27 letters and documents in the appendix a further 17 pages. It was sent with a covering letter dated 28 July 1806 to William Marsden, Secretary of the Admiralty, in charge of an officer being repatriated from Mauritius via America, and is marked ‘Rec. 30 Octr 1806” and with the stamp of the Hydrographic Office. It is now in the Public Record Office, London (Adm 7/708) which also holds another copy (Adm 7/707) which is Flinders own original of the ‘Narrative’. This contains an additional chapter describing events to the beginning of August 1806 and mentions the despatch of the other copy which, because of lack of time, could only be copied to the end of Chapter VI with the relevant parts of the Appendix. This copy runs to 332 pages of text with 74 pages of appendix quoting 37 documents.
Some time later Flinders produced the ‘Abridged Narrative … ‘, a shortened version now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (FLI/13a), whose appendix is in the La Trobe Library. Unlike the appendices to the ‘Narrative’ this appendix does not contain copies of documents but a discussion of the circumstances of his detention. Its twelve chapters discuss the applicability of the French government's passport for Investigator to the Cumberland and the reasons for him changing vessels; the reasons for him stopping at the Isle of France, and his conviction that these were not contrary to the provisions of the passport; his ignorance of the French language making it improbable that he could obtain information for any hostile purpose, and his ignorance that war had broken out; his belief that none of the provisions of the passport were violated in either act or intention; his assertions that the conduct of Decaen was not consistent with a belief that Flinders had called with hostile intentions, that Decaen had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the order for his release or to believe that the French government had changed its intentions after issuing the order, and that apprenhensions for the safety of the Isle of France were not the cause of his continued detention nor could his release prejudice its safety; and the ‘probable causes of my imprisonment, and of the marine minister's order for my liberation being superseded by the captain-general.’ Though the Appendix is not dated it was clearly written so long after the minister's order for his release had been received (in July 1807) that Flinders had lost all hope of its being acted upon, possibly in 1809 or early in 1810. Though it does convey a good deal of Flinders’ frustration at what he clearly believed to be an injustice and a dishonouring of the passport,
it is an extremely important document for it presents the most comprehensive and carefully reasoned statement by Flinders on the causes of both his imprisonment and of Decaen's refusal to set him free after receiving the order to do so.
6. ‘Public Letters and Orders 1807–1814
Most of the letters Flinders wrote were first composed in a book and, after revision, copied ‘fair’ to be sent to his correspondents. Three volumes of his private letter books covering the period 1801 to 1814 are in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and the National Maritime Museum has pages from an earlier book with letters written between 1795 and 1801. Two volumes of his Public Letterbooks are in Australia, one in the Mitchell Library covering the period 1805 to 1807 and one in the La Trobe Library from 1807 to shortly before his death.
The La Trobe volume contains 122 items, consisting of his correspondence to the Admiralty; to Decaen and other officials in Mauritius; to the French Minister of Marine and other Frenchmen to whom he appealed for help in obtaining his release; to the captains of British ships asking their aid for Mauritians who had helped him, and, later, to British officials seeking aid for French prisoners of war, and relatives in England of friends in Mauritius. Besides these letters the volume contains drafts of a number of important documents: his replies to questions about the Isle of France put to him by Vice-Admiral Bertie at the Cape in 1810 when the attack on the island was being planned; observations on the island written for the Rt. Hon. Charles Yorke, when Britain was preparing to administer the island in 1811; two drafts (1811) of a petition to the King in Council seeking the back dating of his post captain's commission (which was not presented because of the Admiralty's opposition to it); and the first draft of his memorandum on magnetism in ships, 1812.
7. ‘Letters sent to France and to England … 1808’
In April 1806 after Decaen had repeated his refusal to send Flinders to France for examination, Flinders wrote to the Minister of Marine outlining the events of his voyage and detention, and requesting that he either be set free or taken to France where his case might be investigated. At the same time duplicates of letters written in 1805 to influential people in France by his friend Thomas Pilot were despatched, Flinders wrote a second letter to the Compte de Fleurieu requesting his aid and the Société d'Emulation (a literary and philosophical group) in Mauritius wrote to the Institut des Sciences, Lettres, et Arts in his favour. (These letters are referred to in the letter to his stepmother, No. 2 above.) Decres, the Minister of Marine, had already signed an order for his release which did not reach Mauritius until July 1807, but by September 1808 it was clear that Decaen was not going to act on this order and Flinders sent off a second series of letters, of which these are copies, again bringing his situation to the attention of people who might be able to secure his release.
The chief items are a memorial to the French Minister of Marine and Colonies dated September 15, 1808 with copies of letters referred to in the memorial; and letters to the Minister (Nov. 2), to M. Fleurieu (Charles Pierre Claret, Compte de Fleurieu), a Counsellor of State (Sept. 15), to His Excellency Mons. Barbe de Marbois, Minister of the Public Treasury (Nov. 1), to Mons. de Bougainville (Nov. 2), to Captain Bergeret, a French naval officer who had befriended Flinders in Mauritius and was then in Paris (Aug 31), to Sir Joseph Banks as President of the Royal Society (Sept 15) and to Capt. P. G. King, (Nov. 5). Drafts of some of these letters are in the ‘Public Letters and Orders’ book (No. 6 above).