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Matthew Flinders in the Recherche Archipelago

Pip McNaught, National Museum of Australia, 14 April 2010

SHARON CASEY: Hello and welcome everyone to the Friends lounge. Today we welcome Pip McNaught who is a curator at the National Museum of Australia. Her recent work has been developing a module on exploration for the new gallery Landmarks: People and Places across Australia. For this project she completed research trips to some exciting places, including the Recherche Archipelago, and the country around Innamincka following Burke and Wills.

Pip completed a masters last year on the history of health and medicine in rural New South Wales, with particular reference to a medicine chest in the National Historical Collection at the Museum. She has also worked at Townsville Museum and is still passionate about small museums and keeping in touch through various chapters of Museums Australia. Pip is currently the secretary of the Community Museums National Network. We welcome Pip and her talk and hope you will enjoy it. Thanks.

PIP McNAUGHT: You have seen the Recherche Archipelago pictures [images shown]. It was a wonderful place to visit. It was a fantastic place. It’s still quite dangerous and perilous, as many ships’ captains have attested. There is the Recherche on the south coast of Western Australia [image shown]. I think you can just see that this is where Investigator arrived at Cape Leeuwin and then circumnavigated [Australia] and returned [to the Recherche] [image shown].

As Sharon said, this talk is based on some of my research for the Colonial Gaze module for Landmarks: People and Places across Australia. The place, the Recherche Archipelago off the south coast of Western Australia, is where Matthew Flinders cut the cables of two anchors when there was real danger of his ship being blown onto the rocks and wrecked.

There has been an immense amount written about Matthew Flinders, and I have just picked a few episodes in his life to talk about today. Matthew Flinders arrived in the Recherche in 1802 and returned in 1803 after his circumnavigation of Australia. Before we get to the Recherche, I will just touch on the cast of this adventure, some of the main characters around Matthew Flinders.

This is Matthew Flinders [image shown] before he left about 1800. He was born at Donington in Lincolnshire in the north of England in 1774. He joined the navy in 1789, inspired, he said, by the novel Robinson Crusoe. Two years later he served under William Bligh as a midshipman on a voyage to Tahiti and then on HMS Bellerophon he took part against the French in the naval battle of The Glorious First of June, 1794.

A year later he sailed from England for Port Jackson in HMS Reliance, and that’s where he met George Bass, the surgeon on board. He then voyaged to Norfolk Island and the Furneaux Islands where he did good hydrographic work. He also made two remarkable journeys with Bass in very small open boats about two metres long, both called Tom Thumb, exploring Botany Bay and Georges River on the first, and then going further south to Lake Illawarra. The pair then sailed the sloop Norfolk to Van Diemen’s Land which they circumnavigated in 1798-99, proving it to be an island.

He rejoined the Reliance for a voyage to the Cape of Good Hope to bring back livestock, and in March 1800 he sailed for England. Matthew Flinders was already well known for his seamanship, hydrographic charting and exploration skills. In 1801 he published his observations on the coast of Van Diemen’s Land, on Bass’s Strait and its islands and on part of the coasts of New South Wales.

His next bid was for command of a voyage of exploration. He was successful and left Sheerness in July 1801. His mentor was Joseph Banks. Banks was a wealthy nationalist and had sailed with Captain Cook on the Endeavour accompanied by a personal staff of eight. Banks had first-hand knowledge of collecting and transporting specimens. He amassed an immense collection which was looked after and catalogued at different times by Daniel Solander, Jonas Dryander and Robert Brown. Banks offered Brown a post on the Investigator voyage, and this is what Brown recorded in his diary in December 1800:

On the morning of seventeenth, I received a letter from Sir Joseph Banks offering to recommend me to the situation of naturalist in an expedition fitting out to explore the unknown parts of New Holland. I answered by return of post and accept his offer.

December 18th packed up my clothes, books etc, etc, sold everything regimental that I could dispose of.

An eager response from the botanist, one of Flinders’ scientific gentlemen. Banks was considered an authority on New South Wales and corresponded with many naturalists, visitors and the colonists in the early years of settlement. Many sent him botanical specimens.

He was extremely influential, and it was mainly due to his support that Investigator was made available and equipped for exploration with Matthew Flinders in command, though the fact that the French had sent a large expedition under Nicolas Baudin some months before no doubt helped. Banks also later lobbied for Flinders’ release from Mauritius Ile-de-France. Here we have Matthew Flinders and the Investigator [image shown].

The ship Investigator, a three-masted collier named Xenophon was built by Henry Rudd in 1795 and purchased by the navy in 1798. She was newly coppered and repaired, and the best vessel that could be spared in wartime for the voyage of exploration. She was renamed Investigator. At 334 tonnes, just over eight metres wide, 30 metres long and flat bottomed so she would remain upright if stranded on the sea floor. It was later found that the large gun ports that had been cut in her sides had weakened the structure, and she was armed. She had caronnades.

Matthew Flinders requested further improvements, which the navy board approved. The hull was to be coppered higher, an additional number of boats and a spare rudder to be carried. There was a plant cabin to be erected on the quarter deck. He also asked the victualling officer to order the best casks and the newest and best supplies. The admiralty set the ship’s complement at 83, including 15 marines.

Anne Chapelle was the woman Flinders left behind. He married Anne Chapelle a few months before he sailed. He thought she would be able to accompany him. But one day visiting the ship while preparations were being made she was discovered with her bonnet off, which members of the admiralty found shocking, as did Joseph Banks. Flinders was in danger of losing command of the expedition, so Anne stayed in England.

The French were possibly more determined, and Rose de Freycinet boarded her husband Louis’s ship dressed as a boy. The subterfuge was kept up until they were well away from France. Then she resumed her normal dress. There are paintings of Rose on the expedition, but in the official report there are many of the same views but there is no sign of Rose.

Flinders, however, could not defy the admiralty. He had no private means. They married in April 1801, and Flinders left in July. On his return he was imprisoned on Mauritius for six and a half years, and Anne did not see him again until 1810.

He wrote many letters to her and acknowledged that her life was much more difficult than his. He had his work and the excitement of exploration and not a few tragedies to contend with. She must have received large numbers of letters many months apart. In one he begged her to ‘write to me constantly, write to me pages and volumes, tell me what thou wearest, tell me thy dreams, anything. So do but talk to me and of thyself’. But he was also focused on his work writing, ‘The search for knowledge may, nay must, prevent me from casting one thought on England, on my home.’

We get to Flinders’ nemesis, Charles Mathieu Isidore De Caen, a courageous, clever and decorated career soldier in the French army. He was only a few years older than Flinders. He’d fought the English and did hate them. De Caen had been sent to India to take over French possessions that were to be returned by the British. He had reached the port when war broke out again and the British reneged. De Caen escaped to Mauritius where he remained governor of a small island rather than fighting and expanding French holdings in India.

Was he looking for an excuse to hold Flinders or was it Flinders’ arrogance in refusing a dinner invitation from Madam De Caen that changed his term from a possible few weeks to six and a half years? The French would say ‘cherchez la femme’, but De Caen himself was a very irascible man. He held Flinders even after the French government directed he should be freed. Flinders signed his letters to De Caen while he was on Mauritius as ‘Your prisoner’ or ‘Your Excellency’s prisoner’. [Image shown] This is a portrait of Matthew Flinders painted on Mauritius. You can see he looks rather older than the previous painting, rather more gaunt, I think.

Matthew Flinders’ cat

Trim was born in 1799 and he was on Investigator for the circumnavigation. Flinders wrote: ‘faithful intelligent Trim! The sporting affectionate and useful companion of my voyages during four years.’ This is Trim by John Cornwell [image shown]. You have probably seen him outside the State Library of New South Wales. He is on the window sill behind the statue of Matthew Flinders. He was Matthew Flinders’ well-loved friend and companion. He was also a favourite with the crew. He would play with a musket ball on the end of a piece of string and wait patiently for a small piece of meat from each diner at the table. But if the meat was not forthcoming or the diner talked too long, Flinders wrote:

Guests of this description were a dead mark for Trim. When a short pause left them time to take the prepared mouthful, they were often surprised to find their meat gone. They could not tell how.

Flinders wrote that Trim could climb the rigging faster than a sailor. If he fell overboard, he would climb back up a rope. But he only went near the edge of the deck when he was in port. He was a great hunter of mice and rats, a necessary and useful occupation on board ship. Trim was more at home at sea than on land, but there were occasional land stays. If the cat wanted to gain entry to the house where he was staying and the window was closed, he’d just jump through, shattering the glass and frightening those inside. Flinders wrote a biographical tribute to the memory of Trim while imprisoned on Mauritius. It was found in his papers and published in 1973.

That’s the background. So now we can sail to the Recherche again. He did sail the Recherche but he called it ‘this extensive mass of dangers’. One of the reasons he went through was the fact that the French explorer Bruny D’Entrecasteaux had only named a few islands from the edge. He also wrote:

There was a risk of being caught with strong south or western winds [as he was on his second visit] in which case destruction would be almost inevitable for I know of no place where a ship might take refuge in a gale. The archipelago should not therefore be entered without the assurance of carrying fine weather to the proposed anchorage.

Echoing Flinders but even more strongly, the Australia Pilot published in 1920 advised:

The Archipelago of the Recherche … consists of a vast number of islands and reefs … extends 123 miles eastward, and to a distance of thirty to forty miles offshore in places. It should be avoided at all times.’

[Image shown] I hope you can make out a few islands. There is Middle Island and that is Esperance Bay and Lucky Bay. It’s completely dotted with small reefs and islands. ‘A hundred islands in a lonely sea’ is how expedition leader John Béchervaise described the Recherche Archipelago in his account of the Australian Geographical Society’s expedition to that place in 1950.

Howard Whelan used this as the title for his account of the Geographic’s scientific expedition to the same area in 1991. The second expedition discovered that not much had changed in the 40 years since the first. The surging seas and difficult landings, the lack of drinking water and an abundance of death adders on some islands did not make them hospitable places. ‘Many of the islands emerge from the water in broad surf polished ramps covered in goose barnacles and treacherous black slime.’ Today they appear much the same. They are still uninhabited, except by seals, birds and reptiles and the very few animals, though these are not very visible. It seems possible at first glance that not much has changed since Matthew Flinders in Investigator sailed through over 200 years ago.

[Image shown] That is Middle Island, the largest island. A biodiversity audit of the Recherche subregions stated, ‘The Recherche incorporates some 105 islands totalling 9,700 hectares.’ They didn’t mention the 1200 obstacles to shipping that are mostly barren. The islands contain distinct land flora of the nearby mainland plus other species restricted to the islands. Some of the numerous granitic islands are just rocky outcrops or hazardous barely submerged reefs. Larger islands have diverse vegetation types including heath, coastal dune scrub, heath, mallee heath and granite heath. The temperate Mediterranean climate has between 400 and 700 millimetres annual rainfall. The largest island is Middle Island.

The fauna of the islands includes New Zealand fur seals, Australian sea-lion, wallabies, bandicoots, death adders and pythons, skinks and geckos, Cape Barren geese, shearwaters and Little Penguins. There is one of the geese [Image shown].

Despite first appearance, the Recherche Archipelago has suffered from the impact of man in the last 200 years. Sealers, whalers and fishermen and hunters have taken their toll. The seeming abundance of nature has diminished on these islands, though water was always hard to find. Two hundred years ago it was believed that the supply from nature would never run out.

Joseph Banks wrote of the Flinders expedition:

[the adventurers] have been employed to gather the Harvest from the Boundless Fields of nature & have reaped plentifully.

He did, however, voice a little disappointment and thought that ‘the indefatigable Sons of Revolutionary France have now sent home more Tonnage in Collections than ours have done from the immense and untrodden Continent of New Holland.’

The same belief that nature was able to replenish supplies, no matter how many specimens were removed, is also apparent in the writing of TC Andrews. In 1889, Andrews and his brother caught 72 dozen Tammar wallabies in 240 days on Middle Island. In a letter to the 1950 scientific expedition he said he expected they would find the island overrun from wallabies as no-one had been there to take them. The expedition found no great numbers - perhaps they never recovered from the 864 taken over a few months in 1889.

Stretching from west of Esperance to the Great Australian Bight, the Recherche was for a long time avoided, at least by Europeans, as they did not venture so far south. It was, however, home to Indigenous Australians for thousands of years. They did not usually cross the water to the islands from the mainland but had inhabited the land before a previous dramatic climate change caused the waters to rise and inundate the low land, leaving only the higher ground as islands. There are still traces of those times and archaeologists have recorded material finds on Middle Island.

Chinese, Portuguese and Dutch traders exploring or blown off course from the trade routes to Malacca and beyond would have seen some of the coast of Australia. Later Dutch explorers, such as Willem Janzsoon in the Duyfken reached the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Peter Nuyts and François Thijssen sighted the land on the south coast as they sailed along the Great Australian Bight in 1627.

The British and the French were the navigators of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the introduction of navigational aids such as the chronometer and the ephemeris promoted rapid improvements in cartography and hydrographic surveying.

George Vancouver, who had sailed with Captain Cook on two voyages to the Pacific, visited the Recherche in 1791. A year later, Rear Admiral Bruny D’Entrecasteaux also sailed the Recherche. He was sent from France with two ships L’Espérance and La Recherche to search for the missing French explorer La Pérouse who had disappeared without trace after leaving Botany Bay in 1788.

D’Entrecasteaux named Esperance Bay after his first ship into the bay, and the archipelago after his second ship, the Recherche. He skirted the edge and named the island in the centre of the archipelago - no surprises for guessing - Ile du milieu, Middle Island.

It’s interesting to compare the French and British expeditions of Baudin and Flinders that left only a few months apart. In 1800, Nicholas Baudin had been given the command of a large and well-equipped expedition with two ships Géographe and Naturaliste, he left France in October that year. The Institut Nationale in Paris appointed astronomers, hydrographers, botanists, zoologists, mineralogists, artists and gardeners, 14 for Geographe and 10 for Naturaliste, including François Péron as zoologist and Louis de Freycinet as cartographer. The expedition had passports from Russia, England, Sweden and Spain. These would grant safe passage for this scientific voyage, even when the countries were at war. Sometimes ships had no news for many months and would not know which countries were at war or whether peace reigned, so it was good to have a passport just in case.

It was a long and frustrating voyage beset by problems of supplies, weather and personalities. Some crew members and nearly half the scientists left the ship before it reached Cape Leeuwin in May 1801. Baudin did, however, employ the talented [Charles-Alexandre] Lesueur and [Nicholas-Martin] Petit as replacement artists. Sailing north from Cape Leeuwin surveying and collecting, the expedition visited Timor, Tasmania and Sydney. In 1802 they were surprised to meet Investigator in a bay Flinders later named Encounter Bay in now South Australia.

The French had no idea there was a British expedition to the area as they had left many months before Flinders. Between them the two commanders had charted the south coast. They met again at Port Jackson. When Baudin arrived his crew was so debilitated that sailors from Investigator had to help bring the ship into the harbour.

Baudin died in September 1803 on Ile-de-France, and his ship had left the day before Flinders arrived there otherwise Flinders’ stay might have been different. Before leaving Port Jackson, Baudin offered Flinders a safe conduct in case he needed assistance from the French en route home, especially Ile-de-France where Baudin himself had found the place unfriendly. Flinders said he did have a passport and he had no intention of calling at Ile-de-France. He refused Baudin’s offer - a really bad move on his part.

As we know, he was forced to call at Ile-de-France and Governor De Caen imprisoned Flinders for six and a half years. One of the reasons given was that Flinders did not have the right passport. He had a passport for Investigator, not for the ship he was in.

Louis de Freycinet’s maps were published while Flinders was on Ile-de-France and are sometimes believed to have included information from Flinders charts, but Flinders journal records that, apart from initial viewing by De Caen - no photocopiers back then - his charts were always locked in his document chest.

With Flinders in prison, the account of Baudin’s voyage was published with French names assigned to features first named by Flinders. The record was set straight when Voyage to Terra Australis was finally published in 1814 shortly before Matthew Flinders’ death, and later French accounts featured the English names.

A Voyage to Terra Australis, Matthew Flinders’ major work, is a detailed and sensitive account of an exploration at a time when danger and tragedy were ever present. Flinders also appreciated a sense of place. In April 1802, Flinders visited Kangaroo Island and while there came across a pelicanry. He gives a moving description of isolation, distance and life and death. It could easily refer to a place he had not long left - the Recherche:

There could be no more undisturbed place than these islets in a hidden lagoon of an uninhabited island, situate upon an unknown coast near the antipodes of Europe; nor can anything be more consonant to the feelings, if pelicans have any, than quietly to resign their breath while surrounded by their progeny, and in the same spot where they first drew it.

It just seems to capture the isolation but also the peace of the area.

As a navigator, Matthew Flinders was the direct successor to his hero Captain James Cook through William Bligh. Admiral Richie in a lecture at Greenwich stated:

The importance of experience Matthew Flinders gained under Bligh on his voyage of 1791-93 cannot be overestimated for the latter had learnt his surveying from Captain Cook, having been master on the Resolution on that great explorer’s third voyage to the Pacific.

Matthew Flinders had sought the support of Joseph Banks for a new voyage of discovery to New Holland. Banks was in favour of Flinders and the expedition, and he was closely involved with the details and planning. He chose the scientific men for the expedition, and his influence and authority were such that the admiralty left the appointments to him. The men appointed by Banks were Ferdinand Bauer, William Westall, Robert Brown, John Allen, Peter Good and John Crosley.

A passport for Investigator was requested and granted by the French Republic. Lord Hawkesbury made the request to Citizen Otto, representative of the French revolutionary government in London. The object of the expedition, as stated on the passport, was to advance human knowledge and to extend the progress of nautical science and geography.

Investigator left Sheerness, as we have seen, in July 1801 and arrived off Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia on 6 December 1801. On 8 January 1802, Matthew Flinders and the Investigator sighted the archipelago. As D’Entrecasteaux had only reported from the edge, Flinders thought:

… that was sufficient reason for me to attempt passing through the middle … if the weather did not make it too dangerous.

A skilful sailor and brilliant mathematician, he successfully navigated the dangers with his ship intact. The loss of two anchors at Middle Island a year later told of the sudden perils of the weather and seas. The sea is fickle and only a few days after successfully navigating the Recherche’s treacherous path, they encountered tragedy in South Australian waters:

… ship master John Thistle, midshipman William Taylor and six seamen were drowned when their cutter capsized while searching for fresh water.

Flinders was deeply affected by this disaster and recorded place names including Thorny Passage, Memory Cove, Cape Catastrophe and Thistle Island to commemorate the lives lost. He also wrote that only two of the men in the boat were at all expert in swimming.

The tragedy of losing eight men in one incident, a tenth of the crew, told of the power and real danger of the sea, inflicting losses in the blink of an eye. Maritime exploration was dangerous. Flinders was a skilled and accomplished explorer but there was no guarantee of safety in rips or storms or sickness.

He had had an earlier lucky, or perhaps skilful, escape in the area when just past Esperance Bay a storm threatened and he raced for the shore. He found a haven in Lucky Bay, as he named his safe anchorage. It was also a lucky place to have landed for the naturalists. Robert Brown collected over 300 specimens from the area, including the Banksia Speciosa. Behind the white sand beach these banksias grow in profusion on the rising land. Brown would have almost been able to collect plants at every step. Ferdinand Bauer drew and painted them, while Peter Good transported and cared for the living plants aboard. The scientific gentlemen persuaded Flinders to extend his stay because of the abundance of specimens to be found. Ship master John Thistle explored and discovered a sheltered small cove along from Lucky Bay. He also found a freshwater lake behind the beach, and Flinders was so pleased with the find he named the small bay Thistle Cove.

Matthew Flinders is well known for his accurate and detailed charts, and until 1980 the charts of the south coast of Western Australia still had ‘and adjacent islands charted by Captain M Flinders in 1802.’ When checked with modern equipment they hardly needed changing and then only a smidgen - I believe that’s a nautical term!

From 15 to 17 January 1802, the Investigator spent three days at Middle Island where the scientific gentlemen collected, drew and painted the flora, and shot and collected and also depicted fauna specimens. At the pink lake, the pink colour of the water and supplies of salt excited attention. At Goose Island a large number of Cape Barren Geese were caught but these were for food not for science, a welcome change for the sailors from salt pork and biscuit.

From Middle Island Investigator sailed east and completed the circumnavigation of Australia. It was discovered that the ship had rotten timbers and was leaking badly. In May 1803, Flinders and his crew were also ailing, the long months of restricted diet, deprivation and disease had taken their toll.

On his way from Timor to Port Jackson, he remembered a haven from the previous year and stopped again at Middle Island for fresh food for his crew, for supplies of salt and to boil seals for oil for lamps. Water as always was required. Their dreams were not realised. There was no salt, which they thought was due to heavy recent rain. Flinders also noted:

There seems to be much more surf every where than when we were here last year, which may probably be occasioned by the stronger westerly winds prevailing at this season.

Neither were there many geese and only 12 were shot, not enough to give strength to the large number of invalids on board. On 17 May 1803, Charles Douglas, boatswain, died of dysentery and was buried on Middle Island. Flinders named Douglas Island after him.

There was another death and more bad luck. John Hillier, quartermaster, died as Investigator was leaving. Flinders also reported difficulty leaving Middle Island, and the loss of two anchors when their cables were cut to stop the ship being pulled towards the rocks. Anchors are the brakes and safety mechanisms for sailing ships, vital equipment for ships without motors.

There is the stream anchor [image shown]. Flinders recorded the loss of anchors from Investigator and the complicated process of setting sail that day - I will just say the bower stream and kedge are all types of anchor. He wrote:

On 21 May 1803, Leaving Middle Island.

Mod. breezes and cloudy. … At 9 weighed the best bo[wer] and sent the whale-boat ahead with a kedge, b[ut] this not holding after the small bower was weighed let go the stream [anchor], and before [the] ship brought up we were obliged to let go the bower again, the small bower being foul. By [this] time we were within a cable’s length of the rocks - that’s about 200 metres - but ne[ver]theless, from the wind having come more around, could hav[e] laid clear of the shore if an anchor would have held un[til] we got under sail. Sent the boat to bring the kedge on board. Finding the ship exposed to great danger with the least freshening of wind, got a spring upon the stream cable and began to heave on the best bower, intending to cut the stream cable so soon as the best bower was weighed; but in the mean time the ship drove again wit[h] both [anchor]s ahead, and I was under the necessity of cutting both cables at the instant in order to fetch clear with the jib and stay sails; which, at noon, we just accomplish[ed] and got the topsail set.

So that’s three hours they were battling to leave Middle Island. Flinders documented the location of the lost anchors and would no doubt have returned to retrieve such important items. His imprisonment for six and a half years ended all hopes of future voyages.

I haven’t forgotten Trim. Trim had also circumnavigated Australia. Presumably his diet was augmented by mice and he survived shipwreck with the rest of the crew. He was then imprisoned with Flinders, and it was here that Trim disappeared and Flinders believed him to have been a meal for a hungry slave.

A biographical tribute to the memory of Trim is a finely observed tongue in cheek portrait of his feline friend and their adventures together. He was greatly saddened by the death of his ‘faithful intelligent Trim’ and promised that if he ever should:

… have the happiness to enjoy a repose in his native country, under a thatched cottage surrounded by half an acre of land, to erect in the most retired corner a monument to perpetuate thy memory and to record thy uncommon merits.

Matthew Flinders left a major work recording places few Europeans had seen at the time. His observations are acute and his sensitivity revealed not only in his letters but also his musings, and his humour is revealed in a tribute to Trim.

Finally, I will just quote the last part of his memorial in Lincoln Cathedral in England:

Matthew Flinders died at the age of 40. His country will long regret the loss of one whose exertions in her cause were only equalled by his perseverance, but his family will most deeply feel irreparable deprivation. They do not merely lament a man of superior intelligence, they mourn an affectionate husband, a tender father, a kind brother and a faithful friend.

The anchors were recovered 170 years later. The anchors lay in the relatively undisturbed waters off Middle Island in the Recherche Archipelago. After years of research, maritime historian Robert Sexton was sure he had enough information to locate them. In 1969 Mr Sexton wrote:

… there is no reason to doubt that the anchors are still lying in the quiet bay where they were lost.

The recovery of the anchors on 19 January 1973 is another chapter which you can enjoy when the new gallery Landmarks: People and Places across Australia opens in 2011. That story and the stream anchor from HMS Investigator will be on display. Thank you very much.

Date published: 28 June 2010