A long-deceased explorer, Captain Matthew Flinders, made headlines this week after his long-lost grave was found by archaeologists in London.
Who was Captain Flinders?
Lauded Down Under, but largely forgotten in his native England, Flinders was a prominent navigator and cartographer, famous for completing the first ever circumnavigation of Australia – a country he also helped name.
Born in Donington, Lincolnshire, in 1774, Flinders was “induced to go to sea against the wishes of my friends from reading Robinson Crusoe”. Clearly untroubled by Defoe’s tales of cannibals and pirates, he joined the Royal Navy – as many a young lad did then – at the tender age of 15.
The whippersnapper sailed on various expeditions in the Caribbean, where he caught the attention of his superiors. By 1795 the rising star was appointed midshipman aboard the HMS Reliance, which was transporting the newly-appointed governor of New South Wales, Captain John Hunter, to Australia.
He shone on this journey, too, and was subsequently entrusted to lead the first ever circumnavigation of Australia, a mission that he successfully completed, earning him a reputation as one of England’s most prominent seafarers.
“I would make the case [that Captain Flinders] is one of three great figures of the discovery of Australia by Europeans, along with Cook and Phillip,” says George Brandis, High Commissioner of Australia to the UK.
Why do some consider him controversial?
Critics claim men like Flinders were harbingers of the decimation of ancient Aboriginal societies and cultures that followed.
There’s also added controversy over the role of an aboriginal Australian aide to Flinders named Bungaree, who has been largely eclipsed by his British captain, but who historians believe played a crucial role in success of the voyages.
What is his legacy?
Flinders helped map Australia, declared it a continent and was also influential in assigning it a name (it had previously been known as New Holland).
Today many places take his name. There’s Flinders Island, off the north coast of Tasmania; Flinders Street, a busy thoroughfare in Melbourne that is home to one of the most eye-catching railway stations in the world; the Flinders Ranges, home to South Australia’s loftiest peaks; and Flinders Bay, a popular surfing spot in New South Wales.
There’s also Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island, Flinders University in Adelaide and Flinders Reef, one of Queensland’s leading dive sites. From the country’s badlands to its business districts, the Flinders name is everywhere.
What about his cat?
Flinders was accompanied on his circumnavigation of Australia by a feline called Trim, which, as a kitten, reportedly fell overboard, but survived after swimming through the swell and climbing back aboard the ship via a rope. The cat’s plucky determination apparently won the heart of Flinders.
The exact fate of Trim is unknown. Whilst sailing back to England from Australia, Flinders was arrested by the French, with whom Britain was at war, and incarcerated in Mauritius. It was here that Trim went missing with Flinders reportedly claiming he had been eaten by a hungry slave.
Various statues honour Trim, most notably on the window ledge of Mitchell Library in Sydney, where it is accompanied by a poem about the cat, written by Flinders while he was in jail. It reads:
The best and most illustrious of his race
The most affectionate of friends,
Faithful of servants,
And best of creatures
He made the tour of the globe, and a voyage to Australia,
Which he circumnavigated, and was ever the
Delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers
There are also statues commemorating Flinders, including one in Market Place, Donington, where Flinders was born; one outside St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne; and one in Port Lincoln, South Australia, a city named after Flinders’ hometown.