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From Timor to Mauritius: Matthew Flinders’ Island Identity

By Gillian Dooley

British navigator Captain Matthew Flinders knew a thing or two about islands. One of his early claims to fame, in 1798-9, was proving that Tasmania is an island, and his major voyage was, as he explains in the first paragraph of Voyage to Terra Australis, designed to discover whether the bits of Australia that had so far been mapped, “instead of forming one great land, be no other than parts of different large islands.”[1] Establishing whether previously charted islands and peninsulas had been correctly identified was part of the routine as he circumnavigated the island continent. I see from the Project Gutenberg text of the voyage that the word ‘island’ is mentioned more than 1000 times in the first volume alone.

To a naval captain, an island provides an opportunity to rest the men, repair the ship, and replenish the stores during a long ocean voyage. But if not laid down accurately in existing charts, they represent peril as well as the possibility of rescue. On the voyage out in 1801, he explains that he spent some time looking (in vain) for the island of St Paul, whose position had not yet been satisfactorily mapped:

I was desirous of ascertaining the true position of this, and of some other small islands, laid down in the neighbourhood of the equator. They are placed so much in the tracks, both of outward and homeward bound ships, that it was not improbable some one of the vessels missed at different times, might have suffered shipwreck upon them; and the hope that we might be the happy means of restoring to their country and friends some unfortunate fellow creatures, perhaps countrymen, was an additional incitement to look after them.[2]

The trope of the island castaway was, of course, ubiquitous in the literature Flinders knew, most notably Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Here, in his official Voyage, he inserts himself imaginatively into the romance of shipwreck as the benevolent rescuer. Towards the end of his short life, he named reading Robinson Crusoe as the most important influence on his choice of a career.[3] The allure of travelling to distant and isolated places translated into a life of practical challenges and difficulties, many of which involved islands. Having returned from the triumphant circumnavigation of Tasmania with George Bass, he wrote to Ann Chappelle (later his wife) that he was having misgivings about his ‘profession’: “Sea: I am thy servant;” he wrote, “but thy wages must afford me more than a bare subsistence; I do not mean to be always insulated.”[4] From the context, by ‘insulation’ he means cut off from his friends – “cooped up in a wooden box; year after year”[5] – in effect, isolated (from the same Latin root) – made into an island.

However, islands never quite lost their aura of romance for him. In his Voyage to Terra Australis, he allowed himself a digression on islands and, implicitly, their potential for allegory. He writes about finding a flock of pelicans on two small islands in a lagoon on Kangaroo Island:

it appeared that the islands were their breeding places; not only so, but from the number of skeletons and bones there scattered, it should seem that they had for ages been selected for the closing scene of their existence. Certainly none more likely to be free from disturbance of every kind could have been chosen, than these islets in a hidden lagoon of an uninhabited island, situate upon an unknown coast near the antipodes of Europe; ….[6]

He apologised for inserting this digression into the official voyage, but it was not the only time he allowed himself personal reflections in his public writings. In the Investigator log book, there is a passage describing his visit to the estate of a planter in Timor which is startling in its emotional candour.

This visit to Timor occurred in April 1803, at a time when the voyage had taken a turn for the worse. There had been a violent clash with the Aborigines in Blue Mud Bay, on Morgan’s Island, which led to injuries on the British side and fatalities among the Aborigines. Although he doesn’t talk about his feelings in the official accounts, an anonymous memoir written shortly after his death relates “the agony of mind he is stated to have suffered” when this happened.[7] Meanwhile, the ship had been taking more and more water, and on the carpenter’s examination it was found to be rotten, and scarcely able to weather a storm. With the monsoon coming, Flinders had made the unhappy but inevitable decision to interrupt the voyage of exploration and return to Port Jackson. Before setting out on the safer but more circuitous route around the west coast of Australia, they put into Timor to replenish their supplies of food and water. So Flinders was not in the happiest frame of mind, when they arrived on the island of Timor.

After dinner one evening he took a walk “up a stony parched-up road to the house of a Mrs Van Este’, ‘black, but very rich’.” He dwells in appreciative detail on various adjustments to the environment – tree plantings, buildings and engineering works – which provide relief from the island’s dry and fatiguing heat:

I thought this to be a little paradise, and infinitely superior to anything I expected in Timor; and I could not prevent my ideas from dwelling upon the happiness that a man whose desires were moderate might enjoy in this delightful retreat with the beloved of his heart; … I thought such a life as well fitted for philosophical and religious contemplation, as it was for love and all its train of domestic enjoyments …

Pursuing my reverie further … I considered well, how shall I employ and amuse myself when books weary and my plantation does not require my care? I saw no employment, of amusement, or society; … Conversation upon books is a stimulus to read, but here could be no collision of mind upon mind; I feared that reading would under such circumstances pall with me, and that in the end I should fall a sacrifice to surrounding circumstances and become that mere inactive animal, or rather vegetable – a native of Timor. I energetically exclaimed No – I was not meant for this:[8]

This is Flinders at his most candid and revealing. He is snobbish about the inhabitants of Timor – he considers them not worth his friendship. He doesn’t even seem to regard “the beloved of his heart”, his wife Ann, who in this reverie would be joining him in Timor, as a potential intellectual equal, despite indications to the contrary in his letters to her.

The Investigator arrived in Sydney three months later after a harrowing voyage, with twelve men seriously ill and several dead. As the Investigator was unseaworthy, Governor King arranged for him to travel back to England on the Porpoise to find a replacement ship. 730 miles out from Sydney, the Porpoise was wrecked on an uncharted reef off the coast of Queensland. At last he was in the position of rescuer: “I got back to the port [Sydney] in a six-oared cutter, and being furnished with a ship and two schooners …, returned to the relief of the companions of my misfortune, who had remained six weeks upon a small sand bank.”[9] Two of the vessels took most of the castaways, while he sailed off for England in the tiny schooner Cumberland, with a handpicked volunteer crew of 12 men.

He was almost begging for trouble, taking such a huge risk. The imaginative tendencies we have already seen sprang into action again. The Cumberland was leaky and infested with vermin. He knew it was too small for the trip: as he later admitted, he had “some ambition of being the first to undertake so long a voyage in such a small vessel.”[10] The trouble he encountered this time was less exciting and more trying than surviving shipwrecks and rescuing castaways. On 15 December, 1803, when it became obvious that they wouldn’t make it to England, or even to the Cape of Good Hope, he put in to the island of Mauritius, then a French possession named Ile de France, assuming that the Peace of Amiens still held. It didn’t: war had resumed in May that year, but the news hadn’t reached Sydney by the time he left. He was held there for six and a half years as a prisoner of the French. As he fumed to the island’s hostile governor, “I sought protection and assistance in your port, and I have found a prison.[11]

Here he was, on an island considerably smaller than Timor (2,040 km2 to 30,777 km2), among his country’s enemies. How did he cope? We have an excellent source of information, because on 16 December, the day he set foot on the island, he began making daily entries into a journal which he kept up for most of the rest of his life.

For one thing, he refused to vegetate, as he expected he would have if he had decided to live on Timor. He often recorded the activities of a typical day – reading, studying, writing, playing his flute – and once he was given a little more freedom, conversing with friends, discussing books and ideas with them, learning French from them. When he had been there a year, he wrote to Ann, “I shall learn patience in this island.”[12] He did learn patience, along with the French language and, incidentally, the effect of deforestation on rainfall on the island:

Monday 15 April The cutting down of the wood upon the hills is supposed to be cause … of less rain having fallen in the latter years. No rain of any consequence fell this year until the month of March.[13]

He never stopped learning and thinking and testing ideas. Here he is at his most Romantic and scientific, sitting under a waterfall, contemplating the analogy between geophysics and politics:

The greater the inequalities are (the higher the mountains are above the valleys, or that kings are above other men), the more is a sudden fall or revolution to be apprehended. …

From reflexion of this sort, which I pursued much further, I passed to the vicissitudes of my own life. … After many incidents of fortune and adventure, I found myself a commander in the Royal Navy, …; and this moment a prisoner in a mountainous island in the Indian Ocean, lying under a cascade in a situation very romantic and interior, meditating upon the progress which nature is continually making towards a moderate degree of equality in the physical and moral worlds.[14]

By this time, he had moved to the estate of Madame D’Arifat, a place romantically named Le Refuge. His parole allowed him to travel up to two leagues from her property without permission. This island ‘prison’, or refuge, was to be his home for longer than any other place in his adult life. He cut a path through the woods to a lookout from where he could see the coast, and was able to keep himself informed of some of the shipping movements in that way. He had friends, he often describes passing time ‘agreeably’. But there were bouts of depression:

It is some time that I have not spoken of the state of my mind. … [T]here is a weight of sadness at the bottom of my heart, that presses down and enfeebles my mind. Every thing with respect to myself is viewed on the darkest side. The little knowledge I have is not reckoned or is unappreciated; that which I have not is exaggerated: the errors or faults I have committed are exaggerated, whilst those of my actions which might bear the name of good, are depreciated. …  Sometimes when I forget myself in my occupations, I cease to be miserable; but this is not often, for such a stupefaction has taken possession of my senses, that it is with some difficulty I can force myself to serious application. Sleep, that sweet calmer of human woes, is my great resource, and I accordingly sleep much. I may truly say, that I have no pleasure in life: the nearest approximation to it is to forget my pain. … (20 December 1806)

I find it fascinating that he wrote this in his Private Journal – for himself alone. It is so beautifully phrased that it surely must have done him good to put this into words. The journal seems to act as a confessor: he starts by almost apologising for not having ‘spoken of the state of [his] mind’. Much of it is in the passive voice, allowing him to distance himself from his feelings of dejection. On the subsequent days his journal entries show him to be more cheerful and sociable.

The reality of life on Mauritius was both better and worse than the Timorese fate he had so vividly imagined for himself – “in the end I should fall a sacrifice to surrounding circumstances and become [a] mere inactive animal, or rather vegetable.” There was intellectual stimulation – “the collision of mind on mind” – although sometimes his French friends made him uncomfortably aware of his foreignness. Even when alone with his thoughts and his books, though, he never became other than his thinking, feeling, imaginative self. He matured, he ‘learned patience’, and caution, and cynicism. One might imagine that the young man, who would dare to sail from Australia to England in a 29-ton schooner because nobody had done it before, would have few scruples about trying to escape from his detention when there was a sliver of a chance, but when he was contemplating this in October 1807 he let his friends dissuade him.

Finally allowed to leave in June 1810, after many false hopes, he wrote to one of his French friends, “Now that I am certain of going, the pleasure I had in contemplating this event in perspective, is vanished. My heart is oppressed at the idea of quitting my friends here, perhaps forever.”[15] He arrived back on the island of Britain in October 1810. The yearning romantic in him seems to have gone underground. He was reunited with Ann – they hadn’t been able to correspond for three years because of the British blockade of Mauritius. When away from home for a week or two in 1812, he wrote rather matter of fact letters, to Ann and signed them ‘thy affectionate husband’, without the heartfelt professions of undying love which had concluded the letters during his years of absence. He wrote to his friend James Wiles about his plans for the future: “I shall retire, and render my happiness independent of the will of others; for although I have neither acquired nor inherited a fortune, I have learned to be content upon a little, an advantage perhaps equal to the other.”[16]

He had not quite lost his spirit of adventure, however. On hearing that Wiles’ son had run away from the Naval Academy, he wrote to his friend that this act of folly had rather increased his admiration for the lad, as he had done it against his own interests, out of loyalty to a friend.

Flinders looked forward to a time when he could return to Mauritius, now a British possession. He wrote affectionate letters to his French friends there for the rest of his short life, imagining plans for bringing his wife with him to meet his island companions. But it was not to be. The chore of writing his Voyage ‘grew upon him’, as he phrased it, to such an extent that it used up all the time he had left. He died in London the day after his account of charting and circumnavigating the island continent was published, and a mere fortnight after placing an order for a copy of a new edition of Robinson Crusoe, the island narrative which sparked his obsession with the travelling across the sea and visiting all the islands that he could find, a fascination not cured by his enforced sojourn on the Isle of France.

[1] Matthew Flinders, Voyage to Terra Australis (London: Nicol, 1814) i.
[2] Flinders, Voyage 29.
[3] ‘Biographical Memoir of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N.,’ Naval Chronicle 32 (1814): 178n.
[4] Matthew Flinders, ‘To Ann Chappelle,’ 16 March 1799, Matthew Flinders: Personal Letters from an Extraordinary Life, ed. Paul Brunton (Sydney: Hordern House, 2002) 39.[5] Flinders, Letters 39.
[6] Matthew Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, Vol 1, p. 183-4
[7] ‘Historical Sketch of the Life of the late Captain Flinders, with an introduction by George Gordon McCrae,’ Victorian Geographical Journal 28 (1911), 29-30.
[8] Matthew Flinders, Australia Circumnavigated 337-8.
[9] Matthew Flinders, ‘The Memoir’, Australia Circumnavigated 403.
[10] Flinders, Voyage Vol. 2, 323.
[11] Flinders, Private Journal 14.
[12]Matthew Flinders, ‘To Ann Flinders,’ 31st December 1804, Matthew Flinders: Personal Letters from an Extraordinary Life, ed. Paul Brunton (Sydney: Hordern House, 2002) 122.
[13] MFPJ 62.
[14] Matthew Flinders, Private Journal 100-101.
[15] Letter to Charles Desbassayns, 16 April 1810, Brunton, 199.
[16] Letter to James Wiles, 2 July 1811, Brunton, 211.

Gillian Dooley is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Flinders University, South Australia. She is the co-editor of Matthew Flinders’ Private Journal (2005) and has published several articles on Flinders. In 2014, she was invited to give the Royal Society Matthew Flinders Memorial Lecture at the Royal Society of Victoria in Melbourne, and in September 2017 she gave a lecture on Flinders and Sir Joseph Banks at the Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Gillian is also the editor of two electronic journals, and the author of books and articles on literary subjects from Jane Austen to JM Coetzee.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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