The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 20

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 20. To Ile-de-France in the Cumberland

Chapter XX.

TO ILE-DE-FRANCE IN THE CUMBERLAND.

Governor King received the news of the wreck of the Porpoise immediately after the arrival of the Hope in Port Jackson, on the evening of September 8th. King and his family were at dinner when to his great amazement Flinders was announced. "A razor had not passed over our faces from the time of the shipwreck," he records, "and the surprise of the Governor was not little at seeing two persons thus appear whom he supposed to be many hundred leagues on their way to England; but so soon as he was convinced of the truth of the vision before him, and learned the melancholy cause, an involuntary tear started from the eye of friendship and compassion, and we were received in the most affectionate manner."

King in an official letter confessed that he could not "sufficiently commend your voluntary services, and those who came with you, in undertaking a voyage of 700 miles in an open boat to procure relief for our friends now on the reef." It was, indeed, an achievement of no small quality in itself.

Plans for the relief of the wrecked people were immediately formed. Captain Cumming of the Rolla, a 438-ton merchant ship, China-bound, agreed to call at the reef, take some of them on board, and carry them to Canton, whilst the Francis, which was to sail in company, was to bring the remainder back to Sydney. Flinders himself was to take command of the Cumberland, a 29-ton schooner, and was to sail in her to England with his charts and papers as rapidly as possible.

The Cumberland was a wretchedly small vessel in which to traverse fifteen thousand miles of ocean. She was "something less than a Gravesend passage boat" and hardly better suited for the effort than a canal barge. But, given anything made of wood that would float and steer, inconvenience and difficulty never baffled Matthew Flinders when there was service to perform. She was the first vessel that had been built in Australia. Moore, the Government boat-builder, had put her together for colonial service, and she was reputed to be strong, tight, and well behaved in a sea; but of course she was never designed for long ocean voyages. However, she was the only boat available; and though Flinders regretted that the meagre accommodation she afforded would prevent him from working at his charts while making the passage, he was too eager to accomplish his purpose to hesitate about accepting the means. "Fortuna audaces juvat" might at any time have been his motto; fortune helpeth them that dare. An unavoidable delay of thirteen days caused some anxiety. "Every day seemed a week," until he could get on his way towards the reef. But, at length, on September 21st, the Cumberland in company with the Rolla and Francis sailed out of Port Jackson. The crew consisted of a boatswain and ten men.

On Friday, October 7th, exactly six weeks after the Hope had left Wreck Reef, the ensign on the flagstaff was sighted from the mast-head of the Rolla. At about the same time a seaman who was out with Lieutenant Fowler, in a new boat that had been constructed from the wreckage, saw a white object in the distance against the blue of the sky. At first he took it for a sea-bird; but, looking at it more steadfastly, he suddenly jumped up, exclaiming, "damn my blood, what's that?" It was, in truth, the top-gallant sail of the Rolla. Everybody looked at it; a sail indeed it was; Flinders had not failed them, and rescue was imminent. A shout of delight went up, and the boat scurried back to the reef to announce the news.

At about two o'clock in the afternoon, Flinders anchored under the lee of the bank. The shell of the Porpoise still lay on her beam side high up on the reef, but, her carronades having been landed, the happy people welcomed their deliverers with a salute of eleven guns. "Every heart was overjoyed at this unexpected delivery," as seaman Smith's narrative records; and when Flinders stepped ashore, he was long and loudly cheered. Men pressed around him to shake his hands and thank him, and tears of joy rolled down the hard, weather-worn faces of men not over-given to a display of feeling. For his own part "the pleasure of rejoining my companions so amply provided with the means of relieving their distress made this one of the happiest moments of my life."

In singular contrast with the pleasure of everyone else was the cool demeanour of Samuel Flinders. A letter previously cited contains a reference to him, which suggests that he was not always quite brotherly or generally satisfactory. On this occasion he was oddly stiff and uncordial. Flinders relates the incident: "Lieutenant Flinders, then commanding officer on the bank, was in his tent calculating some lunar distances, when one of the young gentlemen ran to him calling, 'Sir, sir, a ship and two schooners in sight.' After a little consideration, Mr. Flinders said he supposed it was his brother come back, and asked if the vessels were near. He was answered, not yet; upon which he desired to be informed when they should reach the anchorage, and very calmly resumed his calculations. Such are the varied effects produced by the same circumstances upon different minds. When the desired report was made, he ordered the salute to be fired, and took part in the general satisfaction."

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FLINDERS' TRACKS IN THE VICINITY OF WRECK REEF.

After the welcoming was over, Flinders assembled all the people and informed them what his plans were. Those who chose might go to Sydney in the Francis; the others, with the exception of ten, would sail in the Rolla to Canton and others take ship for England. To accompany him in the Cumberland he chose John Aken, who had been master of the Investigator, Edward Charrington, the boatswain, his own servant, John Elder, and seven seamen. Their names are contained in the logbook which General Decaen detained at Ile-de-France. They were George Elder, who had been carpenter on the Porpoise, John Woods, Henry Lewis, Francis Smith, N. Smith, James Carter, and Jacob Tibbet, all picked men.

Young Franklin went in the Rolla. As he explained in a letter to his mother[1]: "The reason I did not accompany Captain Flinders was the smallness of the vessel and badness of accommodation, he having only taken the master with him." The young sailor's application had won the commendation of the commander, who was a hero to him throughout his adventurous life. We find Flinders writing to his wife[2] "John Franklin approves himself worthy of notice. He is capable of learning everything that we can show him, and but for a little carelessness I would not wish to have a son otherwise than he is."

At noon on October 11th, four days after the arrival of the relieving ships at the reef, they parted company, with cheers and expressions of good will. The Rolla accomplished her voyage to China safely, and in the following year Lieutenant Fowler, Samuel Flinders, John Franklin, and the remainder of the old Investigator's company who sailed in her returned to England. On their return voyage they participated in as remarkable a comedy as the history of naval warfare contains. Their ship was one of a company of thirty-one sail, all richly laden merchantmen, under the general command of the audacious Commodore Nathaniel Dance; and he, encountering a French squadron under Rear-Admiral Linois, succeeded by sheer, impudent "bluff" in making him believe that they were convoyed by British frigates, and deterred him from capturing or even seriously attacking them.[3]

From the very commencement of the voyage the little Cumberland caused trouble and anxiety. She leaked to a greater extent than had been reported, and the pumps were so defective that a fourth part of every day had to be spent at them to keep the water down. They became worse with constant use, and by the time Timor was reached, on November 10th, one of them was nearly useless. At Kupang no means of refitting the worn-out pump or of pitching the leaky seams in the upper works of the boat were obtainable; and Flinders had to face a run across the Indian Ocean with the prospect of having to keep down the water with an impaired equipment.

When discussing the route with Governor King before leaving Sydney, Flinders had pointed out that the size of the Cumberland, and the small quantity of stores and water she could carry, would oblige him to call at every convenient port; and he mentioned that the places which he contemplated visiting were Kupang in Timor, Ile-de-France (Mauritius), the Cape of Good Hope, St. Helena, and one of the Canaries. But King took exception to a call being made at Ile-de-France, partly because he did not wish to encourage communication between Port Jackson and the French colony, and partly because he understood that hurricane weather prevailed in the neighbourhood at about the time of the year when the Cumberland would be in the Indian Ocean. To respect King's wishes, Flinders on leaving Kupang set a course direct for the Cape of Good Hope. But when twenty-three days out from Timor, on the 4th of December, a heavy south-west ground swell combined with a strong eastern following sea caused the vessel to labour exceedingly, and to ship such quantities of water that the one effective pump had to be kept working day and night continually. If anything went wrong with this pump, a contingency to be feared from its incessant employment, there was a serious risk of foundering.

After enduring two days of severe shaking, Flinders came to the determination that considerations of safety compelled him to make for Ile-de-France. On December 6th, therefore, he altered the Cumberland's course for that island.

When he wrote his Voyage to Terra Australis, he had not his journal in his possession, and worked from notes of his recollections. In telling the story now, the author has before him not only what Flinders wrote in this way, but also a copy of the French translation of the journal which Decaen had prepared for his own use, and several letters written by Flinders, wherein he related what passed in his mind when he resolved to alter his course.

The first and most imperative reason was the necessity for repairing the ship and refitting the pumps. Secondly, rations had had to be shortened, and victuals and water were required. Thirdly, Flinders had come to the conclusion that the Cumberland was unfit to complete the voyage to England, and he hoped to be able to sell her, and procure a passage home in another ship. "I cannot write up my journal unless the weather is extremely fine," he wrote. Fourthly, he desired "to acquire a knowledge of the winds and weather at the island of the actual state of the French colony, of what utility it and its dependencies in Madagascar, might be to Port Jackson, and whether the colony could afford me resources in my future voyages."[4]

When he sailed from Port Jackson there was, as far as he knew, peace between England and France. But there was a possibility that war had broken out again. In that event, the thought occurred to him that it would be safer to call at the French colony than at the Cape, since he had a passport from the French Government, but not from the Dutch, who would probably be involved in hostilities against England. He did not forget that the passport was made out for the Investigator, not for the Cumberland. "But I checked my suspicions by considering that the passport was certainly intended to protect the voyage and not the Investigator only. A description of the Investigator was indeed given in it, but the intention of it could be only to prevent imposition. The Cumberland was now prosecuting the voyage, and I had come in her for a lawful purpose, and upon such an occasion as the passport allowed me to put into a French port. The great desire also that the French nation has long shown to promote geographical researches, and the friendly treatment that the Géographe and the Naturaliste had received at Port Jackson, rose up before me as guarantees that I should not be impeded, but should receive the kindest welcome and every assistance."[5]

He had no chart of Ile-de-France, but a description in the third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed him that the principal harbour, Port Louis, was on the north-west side, and thither he intended to steer.

On December 15th the peaks of the island showed up against the morning sky. At noon the Cumberland was running along the shore, close enough to be observed, and made a signal for a pilot from the fore-topmast head. A small French schooner came out of a cove, and Flinders, wishing to speak with her to make enquiries, followed her. She ran on, and entered a port, which proved to be Baye du Cap (now Cape Bay) on the south-west coast. Flinders steered in her wake, thinking that she was piloting him to safety. The truth was that the French on board thought they were being pursued by an English fighting ship, which meant to attack them; and immediately they came to anchor, without even waiting to furl sails, they hurried ashore in a canoe and reported accordingly. Thus from the very beginning of his appearance at Ile-de-France, was suspicion cast on Flinders. So began his years of sore trouble.

It was evident from the commotion on shore that the arrival of the Cumberland had aroused excitement. Flinders saw the people from the schooner speaking to a soldier, who, from the plumes in his hat, appeared to be an officer. Presently some troops with muskets appeared in sight. Apparently orders had been given to call out the guard. Flinders concluded that a state of war existed, and hastened to inform the authorities by sending Aken ashore in a boat, that he had a passport, and was free from belligerent intentions.

Aken returned with an officer, Major Dunienville, to whom the passport was shown, and the necessities of the Cumberland explained. He politely invited Flinders to go on shore and dine with him. It was pointed out that the immediate requirements were fresh water and a pilot who would take the ship round to Port Louis, as repairs could not be effected at Baye du Cap. The pilot was promised for the next day, and Major Dunienville at once sent a boat for the Cumberland's empty casks.

As soon as he got ashore again, Dunienville wrote a report of what had occurred to the Captain-General, or Military Governor of the island, General Decaen, and sent it off by a special messenger. In this document[6] he related that a schooner flying the English flag had chased a coastal schooner into the bay; that the alarm had been given that she was a British privateer; that he had at once called out the troops; and that, expecting an attack, he had ordered the women and children to retire to the interior, and had given orders for cattle and sheep to be driven into the woods! "Happily," he proceeded, "all these precautions, dictated by circumstances, proved to be unnecessary." The English captain had explained to him that he had merely followed the coastal boat because he had no pilot, and wished to enter the bay to solicit succour; "adding that he did not know of the war, and consequently had no idea that he would spread alarm by following it.

Later in the afternoon Dunienville returned to the Cumberland with the district commandant, Etienne Bolger, and an interpreter. The passport was again examined, when Bolger pointed out that it was not granted to the Cumberland but to the Investigator, and that the matter must be dealt with by the Governor personally. At first he desired to send the passport to him, but Flinders objected to allowing it to leave his possession, as it constituted his only guarantee of protection from the French authorities. Then it was arranged that he should travel overland to Port Louis, while Aken took round the ship. But finally Bolger allowed Flinders to sail round in the Cumberland, under the guidance of a pilot. He was hospitably entertained at dinner by Major Dunienville, who invited a number of ladies and gentlemen to meet him; and on the morning of December 16th he sailed, with the major on board, for Port Louis, where he was to confront General Decaen.

The character and position of the Captain-General of Ile-de-France are so important in regard to the remainder of Flinders' life, that it will be desirable to devote a chapter to some account of him.

  1. MSS., Mitchell Library.
  2. Flinders' Papers
  3. Lieutenant Fowler was presented with a sword valued at 50 guineas for his part in this action, which took place on 14th February, 1804, off Polo Aor, Malacca Strait. See the author's Terre Napoléon, p. 16.
  4. Journal.
  5. Flinders to Fleurieu; copy in Record Office, London. An entry in his Journal shows that only when he was informed that the war had been renewed did it occur to Flinders that the French authorities would interpret literally the fact that the passport was granted to the Investigator.
  6. Decaen Papers, Vol. 84.