The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 23

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 23. The captivity prolonged

Chapter XXIII.

THE CAPTIVITY PROLONGED

We shall now see how a detention which had been designed as a sharp punishment of an officer who had not comported himself with perfect respect, and which Decaen never intended to be prolonged beyond about twelve months, dragged itself into years, and came to bear an aspect of obstinate malignity.

Decaen's despatch arrived in France during the first half of the year 1804. Its terms were not calculated to induce the French Government to regard Flinders as a man entitled to their consideration, even if events had been conducive to a speedy determination. But the Departments, especially those of Marine and War, were being worked to their full capacity upon affairs of the most pressing moment. Napoleon became Emperor of the French in that year (May), and his immense energy was flogging official activities incessantly. War with England mainly absorbed attention. At Boulogne a great flotilla had been organized for the invasion of the obdurate country across the Channel. A large fleet was being fitted out at Brest and at Toulon, the fleet which Nelson was to smash at Trafalgar in the following year. Matters relating to the isolated colony in the Indian Ocean did not at the moment command much interest in France.

There were several other pieces of business, apart from the Flinders affair, to which Decaen wished to direct attention. He sent one of his aides-de-camp, Colonel Barois, to Paris to see Napoleon in person, if possible, and in any case to interview the Minister of Marine and the Colonies, Decres. Decaen especially directed Barois to see that the Flinders case was brought under Napoleon's notice, and he did his best.[1] He saw Decres and asked him whether Decaen's despatches had been well received. "Ah," said the Minister pleasantly, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the circle of courtiers, "everything that comes from General Decaen is well received." But there was no spirit of despatch. Finally Barois did obtain an interview with Napoleon, through the aid of the Empress Josephine. He referred to "l'affaire Flinders," of which Napoleon knew little; but "he appeared to approve the reasons invoked to justify the conduct of Decaen." The Emperor had no time just then for examining the facts, and his approval simply reflected his trust in Decaen. As he said to the General's brother Réné, at a later interview, "I have the utmost confidence in Decaen." But meanwhile no direction was given as to what was to be done. It will be seen later how it was that pressure of business delayed the despatch of an intimation to Ile-de-France of a step that was actually taken.

That at this time Decaen was simply waiting for an order from Paris to release Flinders is clear from observations which he made, and from news which came to the ears of the occupant of the Garden Prison. In March, 1804, he told Captain Bergeret of the French navy, who showed Flinders friendly attentions, to tell him to "have a little patience, as he should soon come to some determination on the affair." In August of the same year Flinders wrote to King that Decaen had stated that "I must wait until orders were received concerning me from the French Government."[2] A year later (November, 1805) he wrote: "I firmly believe that, if he had not said to the French Government, during the time of his unjust suspicion of me, that he should detain me here until he received their orders, he would have gladly suffered me to depart long since."[3] Again, in July, 1806,[4] he wrote: "General Decaen, if I am rightly informed, is himself heartily sorry for having made me a prisoner," but "he remitted the judgment of my case to the French Government, and cannot permit me to depart or even send me to France, until he shall receive orders."

The situation was, then, that Decaen, having referred the case to Paris in order that the Government might deal with it, could not now, consistently with his duty, send Flinders away from the island until instructions were received; and the Department concerned had too much pressing business on hand at the moment to give attention to it. Flinders had to wait.

His health improved amidst the healthier surroundings of his new abode, and he made good progress with his work. His way of life is described in a letter of May 18th, 1804:[5] "My time is now employed as follows: Before breakfast my time is devoted to the Latin language, to bring up what I formerly learnt. After breakfast I am employed in making out a fair copy of the Investigator's log in lieu of my own, which was spoiled at the shipwreck. When tired of writing I apply to music, and when my fingers are tired with the flute, I write again till dinner. After dinner we amuse ourselves with billiards until tea, and afterwards walk in the garden till dusk. From thence till supper I make one at Pleyel's quartettes; afterwards walking half an hour, and then sleep soundly till daylight, when I get up and bathe."

A letter to his stepmother, dated August 25th, of the same year, comments on his situation in a mood of courageous resignation:[5] "I have gone through some hardships and misfortunes within the last year, but the greatest is that of having been kept here eight months from returning to my dear friends and family. My health is, however, good at this time, nor are my spirits cast down, although the tyranny of the Governor of this island in treating me as a spy has been grievous. I believe my situation is known by this time in England, and will probably make some noise, for indeed it is almost without example. The French inhabitants even of this island begin to make complaints of the injustice of their Governor, and they are disposed to be very kind to me. Four or five different people have offered me any money I may want, or any service that they can do for me, but as they cannot get me my liberty their services are of little avail. I have a companion here in one of my officers, and a good and faithful servant in my steward, and for these last four months have been allowed to walk in a garden. The Governor pretends to say that he cannot let me go until he receives orders from France, and it is likely that these will not arrive these four months. I am obliged to call up all the patience that I can to bear this injustice; my great consolation is that I have done nothing to forfeit my passport, or that can justify them for keeping me a prisoner, so I must be set at liberty with honour when the time comes, and my country will, I trust, reward me for my sufferings in having supported her cause with the spirit becoming an Englishman."

A letter to Mrs. Flinders (August 24th, 1804) voices the yearning of the captive for the solace of home:[5] "I yesterday enjoyed a delicious piece of misery in reading over thy dear letters, my beloved Ann. Shall I tell thee that I have never before done it since I have been shut up in this prison? I have many friends, who are kind and much interested for me, and I certainly love them. But yet before thee they disappear as stars before the rays of the morning sun. I cannot connect the idea of happiness with anything without thee. Without thee, the world would be a blank. I might indeed receive some gratification from distinction and the applause of society; but where could be the faithful friend who would enjoy and share this with me, into whose bosom my full heart could unburthen itself of excess of joy? Where would be that sweet intercourse of soul, the fine seasoning of happiness, without which a degree of insipidity attends all our enjoyments? … I am not without friends even among the French. On the contrary. I have several, and but one enemy, who unfortunately, alas, is all-powerful here; nor will he on any persuasion permit me to pass the walls of the prison, although some others who are thought less dangerous have had that indulgence occasionally."

"When my family are the subject of my meditation," he said in a letter to his step-mother, "my bonds enter deep into my soul."

His private opinion of Decaen is expressed in a letter written at this period:[5] "The truth I believe is that the violence of his passion outstrips his judgment and reason, and does not allow them to operate; for he is instantaneous in his directions, and should he do an injustice he must persist in it because it would lower his dignity to retract. His antipathy, moreover, is so great to Englishmen, who are the only nation that could prevent the ambitious designs of France from being put into execution, that immediately the name of one is mentioned he is directly in a rage, and his pretence and wish to be polite scarcely prevent him from breaking out in the presence even of strangers. With all this he has the credit of having a good heart at the bottom."

The captain of a French ship, M. Coutance, whom Flinders had known at Port Jackson, saw Decaen on his behalf, and reported the result of the interview. "The General accused me of nothing more than of being trop vive; I had shown too much independence in refusing to dine with a man who had accused me of being an impostor, and who had unjustly made me a prisoner."

Meanwhile two playful sallies penned at this time show that his health and appetite had mended during his residence at the Maison Despeaux: [5]"My appetite is so good that I believe it has the intention of revenging me on the Governor by occasioning a famine in the land. Falstaff says, 'Confound this grief, it makes a man go thirsty; give me a cup of sack.' Instead of thirsty read hungry, and for a cup of sack read mutton chop, and the words would fit me very well." The second passage is from his private journal, and may have been the consequence of too much mutton chop: "Dreamt that General Decaen was sitting and lying upon me, to devour me; was surprised to find devouring so easy to be borne, and that after death I had the consciousness of existence. Got up soon after six much agitated, with a more violent headache than usual."

Flinders lost no opportunity of appealing to influential Frenchmen, relating the circumstances of his detention. He offered to submit himself to an examination by the officers of Admiral Linois' squadron, and that commander promised to speak to Decaen on the subject, adding that he should be "flattered in contributing to your being set at liberty." Captain Halgan, of Le Berceau, who had been in England during the short peace, and had heard much of Flinders' discoveries, visited him several times and offered pecuniary assistance if it were required. Flinders wrote to the French Minister of the Treasury, Barbé-Marbois, urging him to intercede, and to the Comte de Fleurieu, one of the most influential men in French scientific circles, who was particularly well informed concerning Australian exploration.

The flat roof of the Maison Despeaux commanded a view of Port Louis harbour; and, as Flinders was in the habit of sitting upon the roof in the cool evenings, enjoying the sight of the blue waters, and meditating upon his work and upon what he hoped still to do, Decaen thought he was getting to know too much. In June, 1804, therefore, the door to the roof was ordered to be nailed up, and telescopes were taken away from the imprisoned officers. At this time also occurred an incident which shows that Flinders' proud spirit was by no means broken by captivity. The sergeant of the guard demanded the swords of all the prisoners, that of Flinders among the rest. It was an affront to him as an officer that his sword should be demanded by a sergeant, and he promptly refused. He despatched the following letter to the Governor:—[6]

"To His Excellency Captain-General Decaen, 
"Governor-in-Chief, etc., etc., etc.

"Sir,—The sergeant of the guard over the prisoners in this house has demanded of me, by the order of Captain Neuville, my sword, and all other arms in my possession.

"Upon this subject I beg leave to represent to Your Excellency that it is highly inconsistent with my situation in His Britannic Majesty's service to deliver up my arms in this manner. I am ready to deliver up to an officer bearing your Excellency's order, but I request that that officer will be of equal rank to myself.

"I have the honour to be, 
"Your Excellency's most obedient servant and prisoner,
"Mattw. Flinders. 

"Maison Despeaux, June 2, 1804."

In a few days Captain Neuville called to apologise. It was, he said, a mistake on the part of the sergeant to ask for the sword. Had the Governor required it, an officer of equal rank would have been sent, "but he had no intention to make me a prisoner until he should receive orders to that effect." Not a prisoner! What was he, then? Certainly not, said Captain Neuville; he was merely "put under surveillance for a short period." Inasmuch as Flinders was being treated with rather more strictness than those who were confessedly prisoners of war, the benefit of the distinction was hard to appreciate.

Flinders considered that he had been treated rather handsomely in the matter of the sword. But about three months later a junior officer, who behaved with much politeness, came under the orders of Colonel D'Arsonville, the town major, to demand it. D'Arsonville had been instructed by Decaen to take possession of it, but had been unable to come himself. Flinders considered that under the circumstances he had better give up the sword to save further trouble, and did so. The significance of the incident is that, having received no orders from France, Decaen from this time regarded Flinders as a prisoner of war in the technical sense. He felt bound to hold him until instructions arrived, and could only justifiably hold him as a prisoner.

December, 1804, arrived, and still no order of release came. On the anniversary of his arrest, Flinders wrote the following letter to Decaen:[7]

"Maison Despeaux, December 16, 1804. 

"General,

"Permit me to remind you that I am yet a prisoner in this place, and that it is now one year since my arrestation. This is the anniversary of that day on which you transferred me from liberty and my peaceful occupations to the misery of a close confinement.

"Be pleased, sir, to consider that the great occupations of the French Government may leave neither time nor inclination to attend to the situation of an Englishman in a distant colony, and that the chance of war may render abortive for a considerable time at least any attempts to send out despatches to this island. The lapse of one year shows that one or other of these circumstances has already taken place, and the consequence of my detainer until orders are received from France will most probably be, that a second year will be cut out of my life and devoted to the same listless inaction as the last, to the destruction of my health and happiness, and the probable ruin of all my further prospects. I cannot expect, however, that my private misfortunes should have any influence upon Your Excellency's public conduct. It is from being engaged in a service calculated for the benefit of all maritime nations; from my passport; the inoffensiveness of my conduct; and the probable delay of orders from France. Upon these considerations it is that my present hope of receiving liberty must be founded.

"But should a complete liberation be so far incompatible with Your Excellency's plan of conduct
Page 448 map (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg

MAP OF ILE-DE-FRANCE.
(From the Atlas of Milbert, 1812)

concerning me as that no arguments will induce you to grant it; I beg of you, General, to reflect whether every purpose of the most severe justice will not be answered by sending me to France; since it is to that Government, as I am informed, that my case is referred for decision.

"If neither of these requests be complied with, I must prepare to endure still longer this anxious tormenting state of suspense, this exclusion from my favourite and, I will add, useful employment, and from all that I have looked forward to attain by it. Perhaps also I ought to prepare my mind for a continuance of close imprisonment. If so, I will endeavour to bear it and its consequences with firmness, and may God support my heart through the trial. My hopes, however, tell me more agreeable things, that either this petition to be fully released with my people, books and papers will be accorded, or that we shall be sent to France, where, if the decision of the Government should be favourable, we can immediately return to our country, our families and friends, and my report of our investigations be made public if it shall be deemed worthy of that honour.

"My former application for one of these alternatives was unsuccessful, but after a year's imprisonment and a considerable alteration in the circumstances, I hope this will be more fortunate.

"With all due consideration I have the honour to be, Your Excellency's most obedient humble servant.

"Mattw. Flinders."

To this appeal the General vouchsafed no response.

The return of the hot weather aggravated a constitutional internal complaint from which Flinders suffered severely. The principal physician of the medical staff visited him and recommended a removal to the high lands in the interior of the island. John Aken, the companion of his captivity, also became very ill, and his life was despaired of. In May, 1805, having somewhat recovered, he applied to be allowed to depart with several other prisoners of war who were being liberated on parole. Very much to his surprise the permission was accorded. Aken left on May 20th in an American ship bound for New York, the captain of which gave him a free passage; taking with him all the charts which Flinders had finished up to date, as well as the large general chart of Australia, showing the extent of the new discoveries, and all papers relating to the Investigator voyage. There was at this time a general exchange of prisoners of war, and by the middle of August the only English prisoners remaining in Ile-de-France were Flinders, his servant, who steadfastly refused to avail himself of the opportunity to leave, and a lame seaman.

  1. Prentout p. 392.
  2. Historical Records VI., 411.
  3. Historical Records VI., 737.
  4. Ibid VI., 106.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Flinders' Papers.
  6. Decaen Papers Volume 84.
  7. Decaen Papers.