Monday, January 21, 2013

Those sailor-explorers were tough - like Matthew Flinders

FLINDERS: The Man who Mapped Australia,
by Rob Mundle, Hachette, 386pp. 

Reviewed: 19 January 2013

When I was reading this book, I was appalled to find that a couple of GenX liberal arts graduates from Australian universities had never heard of Matthew Flinders.

OK, it's timely to revise the history earlier generations were taught, in which everything was cast in terms of glorious expansion of the British Empire.  But it is sad that intelligent, humane, socially-responsible Australians have no idea how this country came to be what it is today. If you don't know history, you are easily led into delusion.  That is why history needs to be written, and written again, and written again, so we know where we came from to inform choices on where we might go next and how to get there.  End rant.

Matthew Flinders was one of a generation who harnessed the curiosity of the Enlightenment to the mercantile competition of European colonial empires.  The British seizure of Australia was a pre-emptive strike against their traditional enemy, the French, who were newly invigorated by the Napoleonic regime that followed their revolution.  It was an extraordinary period, in which French and British scientists helped each other in the cause of discovery, at the same time as their political and military masters were fighting for global dominance.

Flinders was inspired by a childhood reading of Robinson Crusoe.  He sailed with Captain Cook and also with Captain William Bligh, performing a series of intrepid exploratory voyages in small sailing boats around the uncharted coasts of Australia.

It is hard these days to understand that several decades after the discovery of Tasmania (Van Diemen's Land), no European knew whether or not it was joined to the mainland (then called New Holland).  Sea routes were all hazardous, navigation always risky, so it was not unusual for sea captains to avoid uncharted waters.

The risks of coastal exploration were extraordinary. Wooden ships were often frail if not rotting, and always at the mercy of the weather. For much of Flinders' voyage around Australia, the planks of his ship Investigator were leaking up to fifty tons of seawater per hour, all of which had to be pumped out by hand.

Flinders also experienced what we now call “political risk”. With the assistance of  grand figures like Sir Joseph Banks, Flinders had obtained  official documents to grant him safe passage through French territories and ports, regardless of the bilateral circumstances. Unfortunately, by the time he was heading home to report his explorations, the French regime had been infested by a cohort of hyper-nationalists vying for the attention of Napoleon.

When Flinders' ship limped into Mauritius, he fell into the hands of  Governor Decaen, one of these 19th century neo-cons, who had been persuaded that France had a mission to extinguish the British colonisation of Australia.  Flinders was kept on Mauritius for six priceless years as a kind of hostage to Decaen's political ambitions.

When finally released, Flinders returned home with just enough strength to complete the massive 350,000 word account of his major expedition, dying within days of the publication of A Voyage to Terra Australis in 1814, aged forty.  His explorations had been completed before he reached the age of thirty.

Lessons for today include how Flinders' ambitions were at times given crucial support by well-placed sponsors, and at other times frustrated by political chicanery, negligence, or sheer bureaucratic inertia. It reminds that history is so often personal, and that in the competition of empires, Australia has never been the main game.

Read the full review here

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