The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 15

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 15. Flinders and Baudin in Encounter Bay

Chapter XV.

FLINDERS AND BAUDIN IN ENCOUNTER BAY.

Flinders did not complete the examination of Kangaroo island. The approach of the winter season, and an apprehension that shortness of provisions might compel him to make for Port Jackson before concluding the discovery of the south coast, induced him to leave the south and west parts of the island, with the intention of making a second visit at a later time. Therefore, in the afternoon of Tuesday, April 6th, the anchor was weighed and he resumed the exploration of the mainland eastward from Cape Jervis, at the extremity of St. Vincent's Gulf. Wind and tide made against a rapid passage, and the east end of Kangaroo Island had not been cleared by eight o'clock on the following evening.

At four o'clock on the afternoon of April 8th the sloop was making slow progress eastward, when the man aloft reported that a white rock was to be seen ahead. The attention of everybody on board was at once turned in the direction of the object. Very soon it became apparent that it was not a rock but a ship, which had sighted the Investigator, and was making towards her. As no sail had been seen for five months, and it seemed beyond all likelihood that another ship should be spoken in these uncharted seas, where there was no settlement, no port at which refreshment could be obtained, no possibility of trade, no customary maritime route, it may be imagined that there was a feeling of excitement among the ship's company. Flinders of course knew that the French had a discovery expedition somewhere in Australasian waters, and the fact that it
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TABLET AT ENCOUNTER BAY, SOUTH AUSTRALIA, COMMEMORATING THE MEETING OF
FLINDERS AND BAUDIN.

had secured some months' start of him had occasioned a certain amount of anxiety before he left England. He was aware that it was protected by a passport from the British Government. The approaching vessel might be one of Baudin's; but she might by some strange chance be an enemy's ship of war. In any case, he prepared for emergencies: "we cleared for action in case of being attacked."

Glasses were turned on the stranger, which proved on closer scrutiny to be "a heavy-looking ship, without any top-gallant masts up." The Investigator hoisted her colours—the Union Jack, it may be remarked, since that flag was adopted by Great Britain at the beginning of 1801, before the expedition sailed. The stranger put up the tricolour, "and afterwards an English Jack forward, as we did a white flag."[1]

It has already been explained (Chapter 11) that Le Géographe, commanded by the commodore of the French expedition, separated from Le Naturaliste at the eastern entrance to Bass Strait on March 7th and 8th, and that Baudin sailed through the Strait westward. We take up the thread again at that point, and will follow Baudin until he met Flinders. He was between Wilson's Promontory and Cape Otway from March 28th to 31st, in very good weather. The most important fact relating to this part of his voyage is that he missed the entrance to Port Phillip. In his letter to the Minister of Marine, he described the Promontory and the situation of Westernport, and then proceeded to relate that "from the 9th to the 11th (of the month Germinal in the French Revolutionary calendar, by which of course Baudin dated events; equivalent to March 30 to April 1st) the winds having been very favourable to us, we visited an extensive portion of the coast, where the land is high, well-wooded, and of an agreeable appearance, but does not present any place favourable to debarkation. All the points were exactly determined, and the appearance of the shores depicted." That describes the Cape Otway country; and the part of the letter which follows refers to the land on the west of the Otway. There is no word of any port being sighted. The letter agrees with what Baudin told Flinders, that "he had found no ports, harbours or inlets, or anything to interest"; and Flinders was subsequently surprised to find that so large a harbour as Port Phillip had been missed by Baudin, "more especially as he had fine winds and weather."[2] Nevertheless, when Peron and Freycinet came to write the history of the French voyage—knowing then of the existence of Port Phillip, and having a chart of it before them—they very boldly claimed that they had seen it, and had distinguished its contours from the masthead,[3] a thing impossible to do from the situation in which they were.

The company on board Le Géographe were as excited about the ship sailing eastward, as were the Investigator's men when the reported white rock ahead proved to be the sails of another vessel. The French crew were in a distressingly sick condition. Scurvy had played havoc among them, much of the ship's meat was worm-eaten and stinking, and a large number of the crew were incapacitated. On the morning of April 8th some of Baudin's people had been engaged in harpooning dolphins. They were desperately in need of fresh food, and a shoal of these rapid fish, appearing and playing around the prow, appeared to them "like a gift from heaven." Nine large dolphins had been caught, giving a happy promise of enough meat to last a day or two, when the man at the masthead reported that there was a sail in sight. At first Baudin was of opinion that the ship ahead was Le Naturaliste, rejoining company after a month's separation. But as the distance between the two ships diminished, and the Investigator ran up her ensign, her nationality was perceived, and Baudin hoisted the tricolour.

The situation of the Investigator when she hove to was in 35° 40' south and 138° 58' east. The time was half-past five o'clock in the evening; the position about five miles south-west of the nearest bit of coast, in what Flinders called Encounter Bay, in commemoration of the event. Le Géographe passed the English ship with a free wind, and as she did so Flinders hailed her, enquiring "Are you Captain Baudin?" "It is he," was the response. Flinders thereupon called out that he was very glad to meet the French explorer, and Baudin responded in cordial terms, without, however, knowing whom he was addressing. Still the wariness of the English captain was not to be lulled; he records, "we veered round as Le Géographe was passing, so as to keep our broadside to her, lest the flag of truce should be a deception." But being now satisfied of her good faith, Flinders brought his ship to the wind on the opposite tack, had a boat hoisted out, and prepared to go on board the French vessel.

As Flinders did not speak French, he took with him Robert Brown, who was an accomplished French scholar. On board Le Géographe they were received by an officer, who indicated Baudin, and the three passed into the captain's cabin.

It is curious that Baudin, in his letter to the Minister of Marine, makes no reference to the presence of Brown at this interview, and at a second which occurred on the following morning. He speaks of inviting Flinders to enter his cabin, and proceeds to allude to the conversation which followed when they were "alone" ("nous trouvant seul"). But Flinders' statement, "as I did not understand French, Mr. Brown, the naturalist, went with me in the boat; we were received by an officer who pointed out the commander, and by him were conducted into the cabin," can have no other meaning than that Brown was present. He also says, further on in his narrative, "no person was present at our conversations except Mr. Brown, and they were mostly carried on in English, which the captain spoke so as to be understood." It may be that Baudin regarded Brown merely as an interpreter, but certainly his presence was a fact.

In the cabin Flinders produced his passport from the French Government, and asked to see Baudin's from the Admiralty. Baudin found the document and handed it to his visitor, but did not wish to see the passport carried by Flinders. He put it aside without inspection.

The conversation then turned upon the two voyages. Flinders explained that he had left England about eight months after the departure of the French ships, and that he was bound for Port Jackson. Baudin related the course of his voyage, mentioning his work in Van Diemen's Land, his passage through Bass Strait, and his run along the coast of what is now the State of Victoria, where he had not found "any river, inlet or other shelter which afforded anchorage." Flinders enquired about a large island said to lie in the western entrance to Bass Strait (that is, King Island), but Baudin said he had not seen it, and seemed to doubt whether it existed. Baudin observed in his letter that Flinders appeared to be pleased with this reply, "doubtless in the hope of being able to make the discovery himself."

Baudin was very critical about an English chart of Bass Strait, published in 1800. He found fault with the representation of the north side, but commended the drawing of the south side, and of the neighbouring islands. Flinders pointed to a note upon the chart, explaining that it was prepared from material furnished by George Bass, who had merely traversed the coast in a small open boat, and had had no good means of fixing the latitude and longitude; but he added that a rectified chart had since been published, and offered, if Baudin would remain in the neighbourhood during the night, to visit Le Géographe again in the morning, and bring with him a copy of this improved drawing, with a memorandum on the navigation of the strait. He was alluding to his own small quarto book of Observations, published before he left England, as related in Chapter 12. Baudin accepted the offer with pleasure, and the two ships lay near together during the night.

The story of the interviews, as related by the two captains, is not in agreement on several points, and the differences are not a little curious. Baudin states that he knew Flinders at the very beginning of the first interview, on April 8th: "Mr. Flinders, who commanded the ship, presented himself, and as soon as I learnt his name I had no doubt that he, like ourselves, was occupied with the exploration of the south coast of New Holland." But Flinders affirms that Baudin did not learn his name until the end of the second interview on April 9th: "At parting...on my asking the name of the captain of Le Naturaliste he bethought himself to ask mine; and finding it to be the same as the author of the chart which he had been criticising, expressed not a little surprise, but had the politeness to congratulate himself on meeting me." There may well have been some misunderstanding between the two captains, especially as Flinders did not speak French and Baudin only spoke English "so as to be understood," which, as experience teaches, usually means so as to be misunderstood. It is not very likely that Baudin was unaware of the name of the English captain until the end of the second meeting. While the interview of April 8th was taking place in the cabin, Flinders' boatmen were questioned by some of Le Géographe's company who could speak English, and Peron tells us that the men related the story of the Investigator's voyage.[4] It is difficult to believe that Flinders' name would not be ascertained in this manner; equally difficult to believe that Captain Baudin would sustain two interviews with the commander of another ship without knowing to whom he was talking. In fact, Baudin had the name of Flinders before him on the Bass Strait chart which he had been criticising. It was a chart copied in Paris from an English print, and was inscribed as "levee par Flinders." Baudin in his letter to the Minister observed that he pointed out to Flinders errors in the chart "that he had given us." Flinders was of opinion that Baudin criticised the chart without knowing that he was the author of it. Baudin may have been surprised at first to learn that the Captain Flinders with whom he was conversing was the same as he whose name appeared on the chart; but his own statement that he knew the name at the first interview appears credible.

Again, Baudin was of opinion that at the first interview Flinders was "reserved"; whilst Flinders, on the other hand, was surprised that Baudin "made no enquiries concerning my business on this unknown coast, but as he seemed more desirous of communicating information I was happy to receive it." Reading the two narratives together, it is not apparent either that Flinders wished to be reserved or that Baudin lacked curiosity as to what the Investigator had been doing. The probable explanation is that the two men were not understanding each other perfectly.

At half-past six o'clock on the morning of April 9th Flinders again visited Le Géographe, where he breakfasted with Baudin.[5] On this occasion they talked freely about their respective voyages, and, said the French commodore, "he appeared to me to have been happier than we were in the discoveries he had made." Flinders pointed out Cape Jervis, which was in sight, related the discovery of Spencer's and St. Vincent's Gulfs, and described Kangaroo Island, with its abundance of fresh food and water. He handed to Baudin a copy of his little book on Bass Strait and its accompanying chart, related the story of the loss of John Thistle and his boat's crew, and listened to an account which his host gave of a supposed loss of one of his own boats with a number of men on the east coast of Van Diemen's Land. Baudin intimated that it was likely that Flinders, in sailing east, would fall in with the missing Naturaliste, and he requested that, should this occur, the captain of that ship might be informed that Baudin intended to sail to Port Jackson as soon as the bad winter weather set in. Flinders himself had invited Baudin to sail to Sydney to refresh, mentioning that he would be able to obtain whatever assistance he required there. The interview was thoroughly cordial, and the two captains parted with mutual expressions of goodwill. Flinders and Brown returned to the Investigator at half-past eight o'clock.

Seaman Smith has nothing new to tell us concerning the Encounter Bay incident, but his brief reference is of some interest as showing how it struck a member of the Investigator crew, and may be cited for that purpose. "In the morning (9th April) we unmoord and stood for sea between Van Diemen's Land and New Holland. In the afternoon we espied a sail which loomd large. Cleared forequarters, not knowing what might be the consequence. On the ship coming close, our captn spoke her. She proved to be the Le Geography (sic) French ship upon investigation. Our boats being lowerd down our captn went on board of her, and soon returnd. Both ships lay to untill the next morning, when our captn went on board of her and soon returnd. We found her poorly mannd, having lost a boat and crew and several that run away. Her acct. was that they had parted compy with the Naturalizer (sic) on investigation in a gale of wind. Have been from France 18 months. On the 20th we parted compy."

Baudin sailed for Kangaroo Island, where his men enjoyed a similar feast to that which had delighted the English sailors a little while before. But the scurvy-stricken condition of his crew made the pursuit of exploration painful, and he did not continue on these coasts beyond another month. On May 8th he abandoned the work for the time being, resolving to pay a second visit to the region of the gulfs after he had refreshed his people. Sailing for Sydney, he arrived there on June 20th, in circumstances that it will be convenient to relate after describing the remainder of the voyage of the Investigator up to her arrival in the same port.

  1. Flinders relates the story of his meeting with Baudin, in his Voyage to Terra Australis, I., 188, and in letters to the Admiralty; and to Sir Joseph Banks, printed in Historical Records of New South Wales, IV., 749 and 755. The official history of the French voyage was written by Francois Péron, and is printed in his Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes, I., 324. But Péron was not present at the interviews between Flinders and Baudin. Captain Baudin's own account of the incident is related in his manuscript diary, and in a long letter to the French Minister of Marine, dated "Port Jackson, 10th November, 1802," both of which are in the Archives Nationales, BB4, 995, Marine. These sources have been compared and used in the writing of this chapter. Baudin's narrative is translated in an appendix.
  2. Flinders to Banks, Hist. Rec. IV., 755.
  3. Voyage de Découvertes I., 316 and III., 115.
  4. Peron, Voyage de Decouvertes I., 323. Flinders also said that "some of his officers learnt from my boat's crew that our object was also discovery."
  5. Flinders does not mention this circumstance; but as he boarded Le Géographe at 6.30 in the morning and did not return to the Investigator till 8.30, Baudin's statement is not doubtful.