The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 24

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 24. The captivity modified

Chapter 24.

THE CAPTIVITY MODIFIED.

Flinders continued to reside at the Garden prison till August, 1805. In that month he was informed that the Governor was disposed to permit him to live in the interior of the island, if he so desired. This change would give him a large measure of personal freedom, he would no longer be under close surveillance, and he would be able to enjoy social life. He had formed a friendship with an urbane and cultivated French gentleman, Thomas Pitot, whom he consulted, and who found for him a residence in the house of Madame D'Arifat at Wilhelm's Plains.

Here commenced a period of five years and six months, of detention certainly, but no longer of imprisonment. In truth, it was the most restful period of Flinders' whole life; and, if he could have banished the longing for home and family, and the bitter feeling of wrong that gnawed at his heart, and could have quietened the desire that was ever uppermost in his mind to continue the exploratory work still remaining to be done, his term under Madame D'Arifat's roof would have been delightfully happy.

Those twenty months in Port Louis had made him a greatly changed man. Friends who had known him in the days of eager activity, when fatigues were lightly sustained, would scarcely have recognised the brisk explorer in the pale, emaciated, weak, limping semi-invalid who took his leave of the kind-hearted sergeant of the guard on August 19th, and stepped feebly outside the iron gate in company with his friend Pitot. A portrait of him, painted by an amateur some time later, crude in execution though it is, shows the hollow cheeks of a man who had suffered, and conveys an idea of the dimmed eyes whose brightness and commanding expression had once been remarked by many who came in contact with him.

But at all events over five years of fairly pleasant existence were now before him. The reason why the period was so protracted will be explained in the next chapter. This one can be devoted to the life at Wilhelm's Plains.

A parole was given, by which Flinders bound himself not to go more than two leagues from his habitation, and to conduct himself with that degree of reserve which was becoming in an officer residing in a colony with whose parent state his nation was at war.

The interior of Mauritius is perhaps as beautiful a piece of country as there is in the world. The vegetation is rich and varied, gemmed with flowers and plentifully watered by cool, pure, never-failing streams. To one who had been long in prison pent, the journey inland was a procession of delights. Monsieur Pitot, who was intimate with the country gentlemen, made the stages easy, and several visits were paid by the way. The cultivated French people of the island were all very glad to entertain Flinders, of whom they had heard much, and who won their sympathy by reason of his wrongs, and their affection by his own personality. Charming gardens shaded by mango and other fruit trees, cool fish-ponds, splashing cascades and tumbling waterfalls, coffee and clove plantations, breathing out a spicy fragrance, stretches of natural forest—a perpetual variety in beauty—gratified the traveller, as he ascended the thousand feet above which stretched the plateau whereon the home of Madame D'Arifat stood.

In the garden of the house were two comfortable pavilions. One of these was to be occupied by Flinders, the other by his servant, Elder, and the lame seaman who accompanied him. Madame D'Arifat hospitably proposed that he should take his meals with her family in the house, and his glad acceptance of the invitation commenced a pleasant and profitable friendship with people to whom he ever after referred with deep respect.

A note about the kindness of these gentle friends is contained in a letter to his wife:[1] "Madame and her amiable daughters said much to console me, and seemed to take it upon themselves to dissipate my chagrin by engaging me in innocent amusement and agreeable conversation. I cannot enough be grateful to them for such kindness to a stranger, to a foreigner, to an enemy of their country, for such they have a right to consider me if they will, though I am an enemy to no country in fact, but as it opposes the honour, interest, and happiness of my own. My employment and inclinations lead to the extension of happiness and of science, and not to the destruction of mankind."

The kindly consideration of the inhabitants was unfailing. Their houses were ever open to the English captain, and they were always glad to have him with them, and hear him talk about the wonders of his adventurous life. He enjoyed his walks, and restored health soon stimulated him to renewed mental activity.

He studied the French language, and learnt to speak and write it clearly. He continued to read Latin, and also studied Malay, thinking that a knowledge of this tongue would be useful to him in case of future work upon the northern coasts of Australia and the neighbouring archipelagoes. He never lost hope of pursuing his investigations in the field where he had already won so much distinction. To his brother Samuel, in a letter of October, 1807, he wrote:[1] "You know my intention of completing the examination of Australia as soon as the Admiralty will give me a ship. My intentions are still the same, and the great object of my present studies is to render myself more capable of performing the task with reputation." He cogitated a scheme for exploring the interior of Australia "from the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria to the head of the great gulf on the south coast," i.e., Spencer's Gulf. "In case of being again sent to Australia I should much wish that this was part of my instructions." Much as he longed to see his friends in England, work, always work, scope for more and more work, was his dominating passion. "Should a peace speedily arrive," he told Banks (March, 1806), "and their Lordships of the Admiralty wish to have the north-west coast of Australia examined immediately, I will be ready to embark in any ship provided for the service that they may choose to send out. My misfortunes have not abated my ardour in the service of science." If there was work to do, he would even give up the chance of going home before commencing it. "In the event of sending out another Investigator immediately after the peace, probably Lieutenant Fowler or my brother might be chosen as first lieutenant to bring her out to me." He spoke of directing researches to the Fiji Islands and the South Pacific. Rarely has there been a man so keen for the most strenuous service, so unsparing of himself, so eager to excel.

Occasionally in the letters and journals appear lively descriptions of life at Wilhelm's Plains. The following is a tinted vignette of this kind: "In the evening
Page 457 letter (The Life of Matthew Flinders).png
Page 458 letter (The Life of Matthew Flinders).png

PAGE FROM FLINDERS' COPY OF HIS MEMORIAL TO THE FRENCH MINISTER OF
MARINE (WRITTEN IN ILE-DE-FRANCE).
(Melbourne Pubic Library.)

[illustration 1] I walked out to visit my neighbour, whom I had not seen for near a week. I met the whole family going out in the following order: First, Madame, with her youngest daughter, about six years old, in a palankin with M. Boistel walking by the side of it. Next, Mademoiselle Aimee, about 16, mounted astride upon an ass, with her younger sister, about 7, behind her, also astride. Third, Mademoiselle her sister, about 15, mounted upon M. Boistel's horse, also astride; and two or three black servants carrying an umbrella, lanthorn, etc., bringing up the rear. The two young ladies had stockings on to-day,[2] and for what I know drawers also; they seemed to have occasion for them. Madame stopped on seeing me, and I paid my compliments and made the usual enquiries. She said they were taking a promenade, going to visit a neighbour, and on they set. I could perceive that the two young ladies were a little ashamed of meeting me, and were cautious to keep their coats well down to their ankles, which was no easy thing. I stood looking after and admiring the procession some time; considering it a fair specimen of the manner in which the gentry of the island, who are not very well provided with conveyances, make visits in the country. I wished much to be able to make a sketch of the procession. It would have been as good, with the title of 'Going to See our Neighbour' under it, as the Vicar of Wakefield's family 'Going to Church.'"

He was much interested in an inspection of the Mesnil estate, where Laperouse had resided when as an officer of the French navy he had visited Ile-de-France, and which in conjunction with another French officer he purchased. It was here, though Flinders does not seem to have been aware of the romantic fact, that the illustrious navigator fell in love with Éléanore Broudou, whom, despite family opposition, he afterwards married.[3] "I surveyed the scene," wrote Flinders, "with mingled sensations of pleasure and melancholy: the ruins of his house, the garden he had laid out, the still blooming hedgerows of China roses, emblems of his reputation, everything was an object of interest and curiosity. This spot is nearly in the centre of the island, and upon the road from Port Louis to Port Bourbon. It was here that the man lamented by the good and well-informed of all nations, whom science illumined, and humanity, joined to an honest ambition, conducted to the haunts of remote savages, in this spot he once dwelt, perhaps little known to the world, but happy; when he became celebrated he had ceased to exist. Monsieur Airolles promised me to place three square blocks of stone, one upon the other, in the spot where the house of this lamented navigator had stood; and upon the uppermost stone facing the road to engrave 'Lapérouse.'"

Investigations made in later years by the Comite des Souvenirs Historiques of Mauritius, show that Airolles carried out his promise to Flinders, and erected a cairn in the midst of what had been the garden of Laperouse. But the stones were afterwards removed by persons who had little sentiment for the associations of the place. In the year 1897, the Comité des Souvenirs Historiques obtained from M. Dauban, then the proprietor of the estate, permission to erect a suitable memorial, such as Flinders had suggested. This was done. The inscription upon the face of the huge conical rock chosen for the purpose copies the words used by Flinders. It reads—


LAPÉROUSE

ILLUSTRE NAVIGATEUR

A scheté ce terrain en Avril 1775 et l'a habité.

Le Capitaine Flinders dit:

"In this spot he once dwelt, perhaps little known to the world, but happy."

(Comité des Souvenirs Historiques.—1897.)

Flinders' pen was very busy during these years. Access to his charts and papers, printed volumes and log-books (except the third log-book, containing details of the Cumberland's voyage), having been given to him, he wrote up the history of his voyages and adventures. By July, 1806, he had completed the manuscript as far as the point when he left the Garden prison. An opportunity of despatching it to the Admiralty occurred when the French privateer La Piémontaise captured the richly laden China merchantman Warren Hastings and brought her into Port Louis as a prize. Captain Larkins was released after a short detention, and offered to take a packet to the Admiralty. Finished charts were also sent; and Sir John Barrow, who wrote the powerful Quarterly Review article of 1810, wherein Flinders' cause was valiantly championed, had resort to this material. A valuable paper by Flinders, upon the use of the marine barometer for predicting changes of wind at sea, was also the fruit of his enforced leisure. It was conveyed to England, read before the Royal Society by Sir Joseph Banks, and published in the Transactions of that learned body in 1806.

The friendship of able and keen-minded men was not lacking during these years. There existed in Ile-de-France a Société d'Émulation, formed to promote the study of literary and philosophical subjects, whose members, learning what manner of man Flinders was, addressed a memorial to the Institute of France relating what had happened to him, and eulogising his courage, his high character, his innocence, and the worth of his services. They protested that he was a man into whose heart there had never entered a single desire, a single thought, the execution of which could be harmful to any individual, of whatever class or to whatever nation he might belong. "Use then, we beg of you," they urged, "in favour of Captain Flinders the influence of the first scientific body in Europe, the National Institute, in order that the error which has led to the captivity of this learned navigator may become known; you will acquire, in rendering this noble service, a new title to the esteem and the honour of all nations, and of all friends of humanity."

The Governor-General of India, Lord Wellesley, took a keen interest in Flinders' situation, and in 1805 requested Decaen's "particular attention" to it, earnestly soliciting him to "release Captain Flinders immediately, and to allow him either to take his passage to India in the Thetis or to return to England in the first neutral ship." Rear-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, commander-in-chief of the British naval forces in the East Indies, tried to effect an exchange by the liberation of a French officer of equal rank. But in this direction nothing was concluded.

Under these circumstances, with agreeable society, amidst sympathetic friends, in a charming situation, well and profitably employed upon his own work, Flinders spent over five years of his captivity. He never ceased to chafe under the restraint, and to move every available influence to secure his liberty, but it cannot be said that the chains were oppressively heavy. Decaen troubled him very little. Once (in May, 1806) the General's anger flamed up, in consequence of a strong letter of protest received from Governor King of New South Wales. King's affection for Flinders was like that of a father for a son, and on receipt of the news about the Cumberland his indignation poured itself out in this letter to Decaen, with which he enclosed a copy of Flinders' letter to him. It happened that, at the time of the arrival of the letter in Ile-de-France, Flinders was on a visit to Port Louis, where he had been permitted to come for a few days. The result of King's intervention was that Decaen ordered him to return to Wilhelm's Plains, and refused the application he had made to be allowed to visit two friends who were living on the north-east side of the island.

John Elder, Flinders' servant, remained with him until June, 1806. He might have left when there was a general exchange of prisoners in August, 1805, and another opportunity of quitting the island was presented in April, 1806, when the lame seaman departed on an American ship bound for Boston. But Elder was deeply attached to his master, and would have remained till the end had not his mind become somewhat unhinged by frequent disappointments and by his despair of ever securing liberation. When his companion, the lame seaman, went away, Elder developed a form of melancholy, with hallucinations, and appeared to be wasting away from loss of sleep and appetite. Permission for him to depart was therefore obtained, and from July, 1806, Flinders was the only remaining member of the Cumberland's company.

Throughout the period of detention Flinders was placed on half-pay by the Admiralty. It cannot be said that he was treated with generosity by the Government of his own country at any time. He was not a prisoner of war in the strict sense, and the rigid application of the ordinary regulations of service in his peculiar case seems to have been a rather stiff measure. Besides, the Admiralty had evidence from time to time, in the receipt of new charts and manuscripts, that Flinders was industriously applying himself to the duties of the service on which he had been despatched. But there was the regulation, and someone in authority ruled that it had to apply in this most unusual instance. There is some pathos in a letter written by Mrs. Flinders to a friend in England (August, 1806) "The Navy Board have thought proper to curtail my husband's pay, so it behoves me to be as careful as I can; and I mean to be very economical, being determined to do with as little as possible, that he may not deem me an extravagant wife."
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FLINDERS IN 1808.
(From portrait drawn by Chacal at Ile-de-France.)

  1. 1.0 1.1 Flinders' Papers.
  2. On a previous day, mentioned in the journal, they had worn none.
  3. The charming love-story of Lapérouse has been related in the author's Lapérouse, Sydney 1912.
  1. text to illustration

    To his Excellency the
    Minister of the marine and colonies
    of France.

    The memorial of Matthew Flinders Esq.
    Prisoner in the Isle of France.

    May it please Your Excellency
    Your memorialist was commander of His Britannic Majesty's ship the Investigator, despatched by the Admiralty of England to complete the discovery of New Holland and New South Wales, which had been begun by the early Dutch navigators, and continued at different periods by Cook, D'Entrecasteaux, Vancouver, and your memorialist. He was furnished with a passport by order of His Imperial and Royal Majesty, then first Consul of France; and signed by the marine minister Forfait the 4th Prarial, year 9; which passport permitted the Investigator to touch at French ports in any part of the world, in cases of distress, and promised assistance and protection to the commander and company, provided they should not have unnecessarily deviated from their route, or have done, or announced the intention of doing any thing injurious to the French nation or its allies: Your memorialist sailed from England in July 1801, and in April 1802, whilst pursuing the discovery of the unknown part of the south coast of New South Wales, he met with the commandant Baudin, who being furnished with a passport by the Admiralty of Great Britain, had been sent by the French government with the ships Geographe and Naturaliste upon a nearly similar expedition some months before. From Port Jackson, where the commandant was again met with, your memorialist, accompanied by the brig Lady Nelson, continued his examinations and discoveries northward, through many difficulties and dangers, but with success, until December 1802, when, in the Gulf of Carpentaria (Wikisource contributor note)