The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 27

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 27. Last years and death of Flinders
Locked

Chapter XXVII.

LAST YEARS AND DEATH OF FLINDERS

One of the first matters which occupied Flinders after his arrival in England was the use of his influence with the Admiralty to secure the release of a few French prisoners of war who were relatives of his friends in Mauritius. In a letter he pointed out that these men were connected with respectable families from whom he himself and several other English prisoners had received kindness.[1] His plea was successful. There was, surely, a peculiar beauty in this act of sympathy on the part of one who had so recently felt the pain and distress of captivity.

Flinders was anxious for news about his old Investigator shipmates. The faithful Elder, he found, had secured an appointment as servant to Admiral Hollowell, then on service in the Mediterranean, and was a great favourite. Franklin was able to enlighten him as to some of the others. Purdie, who had been assistant-surgeon, was surgeon on the Pompey. Inman, who had been sent out to act as astronomer during the latter part of the voyage, was a professor at the Naval College, Portsmouth. Lacy and Sinclair, midshipmen, were dead. Louth was a midshipman on the Warrior. Olive was purser on the Heir Apparent, and Matt, the carpenter, filled that post on the Bellerophon. Of Dr. Bell Franklin knew nothing. "The old ship," he said, "is lying at Portsmouth, cut down nearly to the water's edge."

In naval and scientific circles Flinders was the object of much honour and interest. He was received "with flattering attention" at the Admiralty. We find him visiting Lord Spencer, who, having authorised the Investigator voyage, was naturally concerned to hear of its eventful history. Banks took him to the Royal Society and gave a dinner in his honour. The Duke of Clarence, afterwards William IV, himself a sailor, wished to meet him and inspect his charts, and he was taken to see the Prince by Bligh. In 1812 he gave evidence before a Committee of the House of Commons on the penal transportation system.[2] What he had to say related principally to the nature of the country he had examined in the course of his explorations. "Were you acquainted with Port Dalrymple?" the chairman asked him. "I discovered Port Dalrymple." "Were you ever at the Derwent?" "I was, and from my report, I believe, it was that the first settlement was made there." He was one of the few early explorers of Australia whose vision was hopeful; and experience has in every instance justified his foreseeing optimism.

But save for a few social events, and for some valuable experiments with the magnetic needle, to be referred to in the final chapter, his time and energies were absorbed by work upon his charts. He laboured incessantly. "I am at my voyage," he said in a letter, "but it does by no means advance according to my wishes. Morning, noon and night I sit close at writing, and at my charts, and can hardly find time for anything else." He was a merciless critic when the proofs came from the engravers. One half-sheet contains 92 corrections and improving marks in his handwriting. Such directions as "make the dot distinct," "strengthen the coast-line," "make this track a fair equal line," "points wanting," are abundant. As we turn over the great folio which represents so much labour, so much endurance, so much suffering, it is good to remember that these superb drawings are the result of the ceaselessly patient toil of perhaps the most masterly cartographer who has ever adorned the British naval service.

He took similar pains with the text of A Voyage to Terra Australis. It was never meant to be a book for popular reading, though there is no lack of entertainment in it. It was a semi-official publication, in which the Admiralty claimed and retained copyright, and its author was perhaps a little hampered by that circumstance. Bligh asked that it should be dedicated to him, but "the honour was declined."[1] The book was produced under the direction of a committee appointed by the Admiralty, consisting of Banks, Barrow, and Flinders himself.

It abounds in exact data concerning the latitude and longitude of coastal features. The English is everywhere clear and sound; but the book which Flinders could have written had he lived a few years longer, if it had been penned with the freedom which made his conversation so delightful to his friends, might have been one of the most entertaining pieces of travel literature in the language. At first he was somewhat apprehensive about authorship, and thought of calling in the aid of a friend; but the enforced leisure of Ile-de-France induced him to depend upon his own efforts. Before he left England in 1801, he had suggested that he might require assistance. In a letter to Willingham Franklin, John's brother, a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and afterwards a Judge in Madras, he wrote (November 27th, 1801):[1]

"You must understand that this voyage of ours is to be written and published on our return. I am now engaged in writing a rough account, but authorship sits awkwardly upon me. I am diffident of appearing before the public unburnished by an abler hand. What say you? Will you give me your assistance if on my return a narration of our voyage should be called for from me? If the voyage be well executed and well told afterwards I shall have some credit to spare to deserving friends. If the door now open suits your taste and you will enter, it should be yours for the undertaking. A little mathematical knowledge will strengthen your style and give it perspicuity. Arrangement is the material point in voyage-writing as well as in history. I feel great diffidence here. Sufficient matter I can easily furnish, and fear not to prevent anything unseamanlike from entering into the composition; but to round a period well and arrange sentences so as to place what is meant in the most perspicuous point of view is too much for me. Seamanship and authorship make too great an angle with each other; the further a man advances upon one line the further distant he becomes from any point on the other."

It did not prove so in Flinders' own case, for his later letters and the latter part of his book are written in an easier, more freely-flowing style than marks his earlier writings. He solicited no assistance in the final preparation of his work. He preferred to speak to his public in his own voice, and was unquestionably well advised in so doing. It is a plain, honest sailor's story; that of a cultivated man withal.

Intense application to the work in hand brought about a recurrence of the constitutional internal trouble which had occasioned some pain in Mauritius. The illness became acute at the end of 1813. He was only 39 years of age, but Mrs. Flinders wrote to a friend that he had aged so much that he looked 70, and was "worn to a skeleton." He mentioned in his journal that he was suffering much pain. Yet he was never heard to complain, and was never irritable or troublesome to those about him. He was full of kindness and concern for his friends. We find him attending sittings of the Admiralty Court, where his friend Pitot had a suit against the British Government, and he interested himself in the promotion of two of his old Investigator midshipmen. He urged upon the Admiralty with all his force that his own branch of the naval service was as honourable and as deserving of official recognition as war service. The only inducement for young officers to join a voyage of discovery, and forego the advantages arising from prizes and active service, was the reasonable certainty of promotion on their return. "This," he observed, "certainly has been relied upon and fulfilled in expeditions which returned in time of peace, when promotion is so difficult to be obtained; whereas I sailed and my officers returned during a war in which promotion was never before so liberally bestowed. Yet no one of my officers, so far as I have been able to ascertain, has received promotion for their services in that voyage, although it has been allowed the service was well executed."[1]

The illness increased during 1814, while the "Voyage" and its accompanying atlas were passing through the press. He never saw the finished book. The first copy of it came from the publishers, G. and W. Nicol, of Pall Mall, on July 18th, on the day before he died; but he was then unconscious. His wife took the volumes and laid them upon his bed, so that the hand that fashioned them could touch them. But he never understood. He was fast wrapped in the deep slumber that preceded the end. On the 19th he died. His devoted wife stood by his pillow, his infant daughter (born April 1st, 1812) was in an adjoining room, and there was one other friend present. Just before the brave life flickered out, he started up, and called in a hoarse voice for "my papers." Then he fell back and died.

Upon the manuscript of the friend who wrote an account of his death, there is pencilled a brief memorandum, which chronicles a few words muttered some time before death touched his lips. The pencil-writing is rubbed and only partly decipherable, but the letters "Dr." are distinct. I take the meaning to be that the doctor attending him heard him murmur the words. They are: "But it grows late, boys, let us dismiss!" One can easily realise the kind of picture that floated before the mind of the dying navigator. It was, surely, a happy vision of a night among friends and companions, who had listened with delight to the vivid talk of him who had seen and done so much in his wonderful forty years of life. In such a company his mates would not be the first to wish to break the spell, so he gave the word: "it grows late, boys, let us dismiss."

Flinders died at 14 London Street, Fitzroy Square, and was buried in the graveyard of St. James's, Hampstead Road, which was a burial ground for St. James's, Piccadilly. No man now knows exactly where his bones were laid.[3] A letter written years later by his daughter, Mrs. Petrie, says: "Many years afterwards my aunt Tyler went to look for his grave, but found the churchyard remodelled, and quantities of tombstones and graves with their contents had been carted away as rubbish, among them that of my unfortunate father, thus pursued by disaster after death as in life."

On the 25th of the same month died Charles Dibdin, who wrote the elegy of the perfect sailor:

"Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling.
   The darling of our crew,
 No more he'll hear the tempest howling
   For death has broached him to."

During his last years in London, Flinders lodged in six houses successively, and it may be as well to enumerate them. They were, 16 King Street, Soho, from November 5th, 1810; 7 Nassau Street, Soho, from January 19th, 1811; 7 Mary Street, Brook Street, from 30th September, 1811; 45 Upper John Street, Fitzroy Square, from March 30th, 1813; 7 Upper Fitzroy Street, from May 28th, 1813; and 14 London Street, Fitzroy Square, from February 28th, 1814.

A letter from the widow to her husband's French friend Pitot, evidently in answer to a message of sympathy, is poignant: "You who were in a measure acquainted with the many virtues and inestimable qualities he possessed, will best appreciate the worth of the treasure I have lost, and you will easily imagine that, were the whole universe at my command, it could offer no compensation; and even the tenderest sympathy of the truest friend avails but little in a case of such severe trial and affliction. You will not be surprised when I say that sorrow continually circles round my heart and tears are my daily companion. 'Tis true the company of my little girl soothes and cheers many an hour that would otherwise pass most wearily away, but life has lost its chief charm, and the world appears a dreary wilderness to me.

An unpleasant feature of the subject, which cannot be overlooked, relates to the Admiralty's ungenerous treatment of Flinders and his widow. When he returned from Mauritius, the First Lord was Mr. C.P. Yorke after whom Flinders named Yorke's Peninsula, who was inclined to recognise that the special circumstances of the case demanded special treatment. He at once promoted Flinders to the rank of Post-Captain. But in consequence of his long detention Flinders had lost the opportunity for earlier promotion. It was admitted that if he had returned to England in 1804 he would at once have been rewarded for his services by promotion to post-captain's rank. Indeed, Lord Spencer had definitely promised him a step in rank. It was therefore urged in his behalf that, as he had not been a prisoner of war in the ordinary sense, his commission should be ante-dated to 1804. Yorke appeared to think the claim reasonable. The Admiralty conceded that he had not been a prisoner of war, and he was not brought before a court-martial, although the Cumberland, left to rot in Port Louis, had been lost to the service. The First Lord directed that the commission should be ante-dated to the time of the release, but it was not considered that more could be done without an Order in Council. This could not be obtained at the moment, because King George III. was mentally incapacitated. When the Regency was established (1811) an application did not meet with a sympathetic response. "The hinge upon which my case depends," said Flinders in a letter, "is whether my having suffered so long and unjustly in the Isle of France is a sufficient reason that I should now suffer in England the loss of six years' rank." The response of the Admiralty
Page 502 letter (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg

REDUCED FACSIMILE OF ORIGINAL MS. DEDICATION
OF FLINDERS' JOURNAL.
(Mitchell Library.)

[illustration 1] officials was that the case was peculiar; there was "no precedent" for ante-dating a promotion.

Flinders asked that he might be put on full pay, while he was writing the Voyage, which would make up the difference in the expense to which he would be put by living in town instead of in the country; but Barrow assured him that the Admiralty would object "for want of a precedent." He showed that he would be £500 or £600 out of pocket, to say nothing of the loss of chances of promotion by remaining ashore. It was to meet this position that the Admiralty granted him £200; but as a matter of fact he was still £300 out of pocket,[1] and was put out of health irrecoverably by intense application to the task. His friend, Captain Kent, then of the Agincourt, advised him to abandon the work. "I conjure you," he wrote "to give the subject your serious attention, and do not suffer yourself to be involved in debt to gratify persons who seem to have no feeling." But to have abandoned his beloved work at this stage would have appeared worse to him than loss of life itself. The consequence was that his expenses during this period, even with the strictly economical mode of living which he adopted, entrenched upon the small savings which he was able to leave to his widow. He was compelled to represent that, unless a concession were made, he would have to choose between abandoning his task or reducing his family to distress; and it was for this reason that the Admiralty granted a special allowance of £200, in supplement of his half-pay. This, with £500 "in lieu of compensation" on account of his detention in Ile-de-France was the entire consideration that he received.

When he died, application was made to the Admiralty to grant a special pension to Mrs. Flinders. The widow of Captain Cook had been granted a pension of £200 a year. (Mrs. Cook, by the way, was still living in England at this time; she did not die till 1835). Stout old Sir Joseph Banks declared that he would not die happy unless something were done for the widow and child of Matthew Flinders. But his influence with the Admiralty was not so great as it had been in Lord Spencer's time, and his efforts were ineffectual. The case was at a later date brought under the notice of William IV., who said that he saw no reason why the widow of Captain Flinders should not receive the same treatment as the widow of Captain Cook. The King mentioned the subject to Lord Melbourne; he, however, was unsympathetic, and nothing whatever was done. Mrs. Flinders was paid only the meagre pension of a post-captain's widow until she died in 1852. No official reward of any kind was granted by the British Government for the truly great services and discoveries of Flinders. The stinginess of a rich nation is a depressing subject to reflect upon in a case of this kind.

A gratifying contrast is afforded by the voluntary action of two Australian colonies. It was learnt, to the surprise of many, some time after 1850, that the widow of the discoverer and her married daughter were living in England, and were not too well provided for. The Colonies of New South Wales and Victoria thereupon (1853) voted a pension of £100 a year each to Mrs. Flinders, with reversion to Mrs. Petrie. The news of this decision did not reach England in time to please the aged widow, but the spirit of the grant gave unfeigned satisfaction to Flinders' daughter. "Could my beloved mother have lived to receive this announcement," she wrote,[4] "it would indeed have cheered her last days to know that my father's long-neglected services were at length appreciated. But my gratification arising from the grant is extreme, especially as it comes from a quarter in which I had not solicited consideration; and the handsome amount of the pension granted will enable me to educate my young son in a manner worthy of the name he bears, Matthew Flinders."[5])

The Voyage to Terra Australis, it may be mentioned, was originally sold for 8 or 12 guineas, according to whether or not the atlas was bought with the two quarto volumes. A copy to-day, with the folio Atlas, sells for about 10 guineas.

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Flinders' Papers.
  2. House of Commons Papers, 1812; the evidence was given on March 25th.
  3. The vicar of St. James's, Piccadilly, who examined the burial register in response to an enquiry by Mr. George Gordon McCrae, of Melbourne, in 1912, states that the entry was made, by a clerical error, in the name of Captain Matthew Flanders, aged 40.
  4. New South Wales Parliamentary Papers 1854, I., 785.
  5. "My young son" is the present Professor W. Matthew Flinders Petrie.
  1. text to illustration

    To
    the right hon. George John, Earl Spencer,
    the right hon. John, Earl of St. Vincent,
    the right hon. Charles Phillip Yorke,
    and
    the right hon. Robert Saunders, Viscount Melville,
    who,
    as first Lords Commissioners of the
    Admiralty,
    successively honoured the Investigator's voyage
    with their patronage,
    this account of it is respectfully dedicated,
    by Their Lordships
    most obliged, and
    most obedient
    humble servant
    Matthew Flinders

    (Wikisource contributor note)