The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 5

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 5. Australian geography before Flinders

Chapter V.


In order that the importance of the work done by Flinders may be adequately appreciated, it is necessary to understand the state of information concerning Australian geography before the time of his discoveries. Not only did he complete the main outlines of the map of the continent, but he filled in many details in parts that had been traversed by his predecessors. This is a convenient point whereat to interrupt the narrative of his life with a brief sketch of what those predecessors had done, and of the curiously haphazard mode in which a partial knowledge of this fifth division of the globe had been pieced together.

There never was, until Flinders applied himself to the task, any deliberately-planned, systematic, persistent exploration of any portion of the Australian coast. The continent grew on the map of the world gradually, slowly, almost accidentally. It emerged out of the unknown, like some vast mythical monster heaving its large shoulders dank and dripping from the unfathomed sea, and metamorphosed by a kiss from the lips of knowledge into a being fair to look upon and rich in kindly favours. It took two centuries and a half for civilised mankind to know Australia, even in form, from the time when it was clearly understood that there was such a country, until at length it was mapped, measured and circumnavigated. Before this process began, there was a dialectical stage, when it was hotly contested whether there could possibly be upon the globe lands antipodean to Europe; and both earlier and later
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FRANKLIN AT PORT LINCOLN, S.A.[illustration 1]

there were conjectural stages when makers of maps, having no certain data, but feeling sure that the blank southern hemisphere ought to be filled up somehow, exercised a vagrant fancy and satisfied a long-felt want by decorating their drawings with representations of a Terra Incognita having not even a casual resemblance to the reality.

The process presents few points of resemblance to that by which the discovery of America was accomplished. Almost as soon as Europe came into touch with the western hemisphere, discovery was pursued with unflagging energy, until its whole extent and contour were substantially known. Within fifty years after Columbus led the way across the Atlantic (1492), North and South America were laid down with something approaching precision; and Gerard Mercator's map of 1541 presented the greater part of the continent with the name fairly inscribed upon it. There were, it is true, some errors and some gaps, especially on the west coast, which left work for navigators to do. But the essential point is that in less than half a century Europe had practically comprehended America as an addition to the known world. There was but a brief twilight interval between nescience and knowledge. How different was the case with Australia! Three hundred years after the date of Columbus' first voyage, the mere outline of this continent had not been wholly mapped.

During the middle ages, when ingenious men exercised infinite subtlety in speculation, and wrote large Latin folios to prove each other wrong in matters about which neither party knew anything at all, there was much dissertation about the possibility of antipodes. Bishops and saints waxed eloquent upon the theme. The difficulty of conceiving of lands where people walked about with their heads hanging downwards, and their feet exactly opposite to those of Europeans, was too much for some of the scribes who debated "about it and about." The Greek, Cosmas Indicopleustes, denounced the "old wives' fable of Antipodes," and asked how rain could be said to "fall," as in the Scriptures, in regions where it would have to "come up"[1] Some would have it that a belief in Antipodes was heretical. But Isidore of Seville, in his Liber de Natura Rerum, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose of Milan, and Vergil Bishop of Salzburg, an Irish saint, declined to regard the question as a closed one. "Nam partes eius (i.e. of the earth) quatuor sunt," argued Isidore. Curiously enough, the copy of the works of the Saint of Seville used by the author (published at Rome in 1803), was salvaged from a wreck which occurred on the Australian coast many years ago. It is stained with seawater, and emits the musty smell which tells of immersion. An inscription inside the cover relates the circumstance of the wreck. Who possessed the book one does not know; some travelling scholar may have perused it during the long voyage from Europe; and one fancies him, as the ship bumped upon the rocks, exclaiming "Yes, Isidore was right, there are antipodes!"

From about the fourth quarter of the sixteenth century until the date of Abel Tasman's voyages, 1642 to 1644, there was a period of vague speculation about a supposed great southern continent. The maps of the time indicate the total lack of accurate information at the disposal of their compilers. There was no general agreement as to what this region was like in its outlines, proportions, or situation. Some cartographers, as Peter Plancius (1594) and Hondius (1595), trailed a wavy line across the foot of their representations of the globe, inscribed Terra Australis upon it, and by a fine stroke of invention gave an admirable aspect of finish and symmetry to the form of the world. The London map of 1578, issued with George Best's Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discoverie, barricaded the south pole with a Terra Australis not unlike the design of a switch-back railway. Molyneux' remarkable map, circa 1590, dropped the vast imaginary continent, and displayed a small tongue of land in about the region where the real Australia is; suggesting that some voyager had been blown out of his course, had come upon a part of the western division of the continent, and had jotted down a memorandum of its appearance upon his chart. It looks like a sincere attempt to tell a bit of the truth. But speaking generally, the Terra Australis of the old cartographers was a gigantic antipodean imposture, a mere piece of map-makers' furniture, put in to fill up the gaping space at the south end of the globe.

A few minutes devoted to the study of a map of the Indian Ocean, including the Cape of Good Hope and the west coast of Australia—especially one indicating the course of currents—will show how natural it was that Portuguese and Dutch ships engaged in the spice trade should occasionally have found themselves in proximity to the real Terra Australis. It will also explain more clearly than a page of type could do, why the western and north-western coasts were known so early, whilst the eastern and southern shores remained undelineated until James Cook and Matthew Flinders sailed along them.

A change of the route pursued by the Dutch on their voyages to the East Indies had already conduced to an acquaintance with the Australian coast. Originally, after rounding the Cape, their ships had sailed north-east to Madagascar, and had thence struck across the Indian Ocean to Java, or to Ceylon. As long as this course was followed, there was little prospect of sighting the great continent which lay about three thousand miles east of their habitual track. But this route, though from the map it appeared to be the most direct, was the longest in duration that they could take. It brought them into the region of light winds and tedious tropical calms; so that very often a vessel would lie for weeks "as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean," and would occupy over a year upon the outward voyage. In 1611, however, one of their commanders discovered that if, after leaving the Cape, a ship ran not north-east, but due east for about three thousand miles, she would be assisted by the winds, not baffled by calms. Henrick Brouwer, who made the experiment, arrived in Java seven months after leaving Holland, whereas some ships had been known to be as long as eighteen months at sea. The directors of the Dutch East India Company, recognising the importance of the discovery, ordered their commanders to follow the easterly route from the Cape in future, and offered prizes to those who completed the voyage in less than nine months. The result was that the Dutch skippers became exceedingly anxious to make the very utmost of the favourable winds, which carried them eastward in the direction of the western coasts of Australia.

Thus it happened that in 1616 the Eendragt stumbled on Australia opposite Shark's Bay. Her captain, Dirk Hartog, landed on the long island which lies as a natural breakwater between the bay and the ocean, and erected a metal plate to record his visit; and Dirk Hartog Island is the name it bears to this day. The plate remained till 1697, when another Dutchman, Vlaming, substituted a new one for it; and Vlaming's plate, in turn, remained till 1817, when the French navigator, Freycinet, took it and sent it to Paris.

After Hartog reported his discovery, the Dutch directors ordered their ships' captains to run east from the Cape till they sighted the land. This would enable them to verify their whereabouts; for in those days the means of reckoning positions at sea were so imperfect that navigators groped about the oceans of the globe almost as if they were sailing in darkness. But here was a means of verifying a ship's position after her long run across from the Cape, and if she found Dirk Hartog Island, she could safely thence make her way north to Java.

But ships did not always sight the Australian coast at the same point. Hence it came about that in 1619 J. de Edel "accidentally fell in with" the coast at the back of the Abrolhos. Pieter Nuyts, in 1627, "accidentally discovered" a long reach of the south coast. Similarly, in 1628, the Vianen was "accidentally," as the narrative says, driven on to the north-west coast, and her commander, De Wit, gave his name to about 200 miles of it. In 1629 the Dutch ship Batavia was separated in a storm from a merchant fleet of eleven sail, and ran upon the Abrolhos Reef. The captain, Francis Pelsart, who was lying sick in his cabin at the time of the misadventure, "called up the master and charged him with the loss of the ship, who excused himself by saying he had taken all the care he could; and that having discerned the froth at a distance he asked the steersman what he thought of it, who told him that the sea appeared white by its reflecting the rays of the moon. The captain then asked him what was to be done, and in what part of the world he thought they were. The master replied that God only knew that; and that the ship was on a bank hitherto undiscovered." The story of Pelsart's adventure was recorded, and the part of the coast which he saw was embodied on a globe published in 1700.

To the accidental discoveries must be added those made by the Dutch prompted by curiosity as to the possibility of drawing profit from the lands to the south of their great East India possessions. Thus the Dutch yacht Duyfhen, sent in 1605 to examine the Papuan islands, sailed along the southern side of Torres Strait, found Cape York, and believed it to be part of New Guinea. The great discovery voyages of Tasman, 1643 and 1644, were planned in pursuit of the same policy. He was directed to find out what the southern portion of the world was like, "whether it be land or sea, or icebergs, whatever God has ordained to be there."

In 1606 the Spaniard, Torres, also probably saw Cape York, and sailed through the strait which bears his name. He had accompanied Quiros across the Pacific, but had separated from his commander at the New Hebrides, and continued his voyage westward, whilst Quiros sailed to South America.

It is needless for present purposes to catalogue the various voyages made by the Dutch, or to examine claims which have been preferred on account of other discoveries. It may, however, be observed that there are three well defined periods of Australian maritime discovery, and that they relate to three separate zones of operation.

First, there was the period with which the Dutch were chiefly concerned. The west and north-west coasts received the greater part of their attention, though the voyage of Tasman to the island now bearing his name was a variation from their habitual sphere. The visits of the Englishman, Dampier, to Western Australia are comprehended within this period.

The second period belongs to the eighteenth century, and its hero was James Cook. He sailed up the whole of the east coast in 1770, from Point Hicks, near the Victorian border, to Cape York at the northern tip of the continent, and accomplished a larger harvest of discovery than has ever fallen to the fortune of any other navigator in a single voyage. To this period also belongs Captain George Vancouver, who in 1791, on his way to north-western America from the Cape of Good Hope, came upon the south-western corner of Australia and discovered King George's Sound. In the following year the French Admiral, Dentrecasteaux, despatched in search of the missing expedition of Laperouse, also made the south-west corner of the continent, and followed the coast of the Great Australian Bight for some hundreds of miles. His researches in southern Tasmania were likewise of much importance.

The third period is principally that of Flinders, commencing shortly before the dawn of the nineteenth century, and practically completing the maritime exploration of the continent.

A map contained in John Pinkerton's Modern Geography shows at a glance the state of knowledge about Australia at the date of publication, 1802. Flinders had by that time completed his explorations, but his work was not yet published. The map delineates the contour of the continent on the east, west, and north sides, with as much accuracy as was possible, and, though it is defective in details, presents generally a fair idea of the country's shape. But the line along the south coast represents a total lack of information as to the outline of the land. Pinkerton, indeed, though he was a leading English authority on geography when his book was published, had not embodied in his map some results that were then available.

The testimony of the map may be augmented by a reference to what geographical writers understood about Australia before the time of Flinders.

Though Cook had discovered the east coast, and named it New South Wales, it was not definitely known whether this extensive stretch of country was separate from the western "New Holland" which the Dutch had named, or whether the two were the extremities of one vast tract of land. Geographical opinion rather inclined to the view that ultimately a strait would be found dividing the region into islands. This idea is mentioned by Pinkerton. Under the heading "New Holland" he wrote:[2] "Some suppose that this extensive region, when more thoroughly investigated, will be found to consist of two or three vast islands intersected by narrow seas, an idea which probably arises from the discovery that New Zealand consists of two islands, and that other straits have been found to divide lands in this quarter formerly supposed to be continuous." The discovery that Bass Strait divided Australia from Tasmania was probably in Pinkerton's mind; he mentions it in his text (quoting Flinders), though his map does not indicate the Strait's existence. He also mentions "a vast bay with an isle," possibly Kangaroo Island.

Perhaps it was not unnatural that competent opinion should have favoured the idea that there were several large islands, rather than one immense continent stretching into thirty degrees of latitude and forty-five of longitude. The human mind is not generally disposed to grasp very big things all at once. Indeed, in the light of fuller knowledge, one is disposed to admire the caution of these geographers, whose beliefs were carefully reasoned but erroneous, in face of, for instance, such a wild ebullition of venturesome theory as that attributed to an aforetime Gottingen professor,[3] who considered that not only was Australia one country, but that it made its appearance upon this planet in a peculiarly sudden fashion. His opinion was that "the vast continent of Australia was originally a comet, which happening to fall within the limits of the earth's attraction, alighted at length upon its surface." "Alighted at length" is a mild term, suggestive of a nervous lady emerging from a tram-car in a crowded street. "Splashed," would probably convey a more vigorous impression.

The belief that a strait would be found completely dividing New Holland was a general one, as is shown by several contemporary writings. Thus James Grant in his Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery (1803), expressing his regret that his orders did not permit him to take his ship, the Lady Nelson, northward from Port Jackson in 1801, speculated that "we might also betimes have ascertained if the Gulf of Carpentaria had any inlet to Bass Straits, and if it be discovered secure more quickly to Great Britain the right of lands which some of our enterprising neighbours might probably dispute with us. And this I trust will not be thought chimerical when it was not known whether other Straits did not exist as well as that dividing New Holland from Van Diemen's Land." Again, the Institute of France in preparing instructions for the voyage of exploration commanded by Nicolas Baudin (1800) directed a search to be made for a strait which it was supposed divided Australia "into two great and nearly equal islands."

Another interesting geographical problem to be determined, was whether a great river system drained any part of the Australian continent. In the existing state of knowledge the country presented an aspect in regard to fluvial features wholly different from any other portion of the world. No river of considerable importance had been found. Students of geography could hardly conceive that there should be so large an area of land lacking outlets to the sea; and as none had been found in the parts investigated so far, it was believed that the exploration of the south coast would reveal large streams flowing from the interior. Some had speculated that within the country there was a great inland sea, and if so there would probably be rivers flowing from it to the ocean.

A third main subject for elucidation when Flinders entered upon this work, was whether the country known as Van Diemen's Land was part of the continent, or was divided from it by a strait not yet discovered. Captain Cook entertained the opinion that a strait existed. On his voyage in the Endeavour in 1770, he was "doubtful whether they are one land or no." But when near the north-eastern corner of Van Diemen's Land, he had been twenty months at sea, and his supplies had become depleted. He did not deem it advisable to sail west and settle the question forthwith, but, running up the eastern coast of New Holland, achieved discoveries certainly great enough for one voyage. He retained the point in his mind, however, and would have determined it on his second voyage in 1772 to 1774 had he not paid heed to information given by Tobias Furneaux. The Adventure, commanded by Furneaux, had been separated from the Resolution on the voyage to New Zealand, and had cruised for some days in the neighbourhood of the eastern entrance to Bass Strait. But Furneaux convinced himself that no strait existed, and reported to that effect when he rejoined Cook in Queen Charlotte's Sound. Cook was not quite convinced by the statement of his officer; but contrary winds made a return to the latitude of the supposed strait difficult, and Cook though "half inclined to go over to Van Diemen's Land and settle the question of its being part of New Holland" decided to proceed westward. As will be seen hereafter, Flinders helped to show that the passage existed.

There were also many smaller points requiring investigation. Cook in running along the east coast had passed several portions in the night, or at such a distance in the daytime as to render his representation of the coastline doubtful. Some groups of islands also required to be accurately charted. Indeed, it may be said that there was no portion of the world where, at this period, there was so much and such valuable work to be done by a competent and keen marine explorer, as in Australia.

A passage in a manuscript by Flinders may be quoted to supplement what has been written above, as it indicates the kind of speculations that were current in the conversation of students of geography.[4]

"The interior of this new region, in extent nearly equal to all Europe, strongly excited the curiosity of geographers and naturalists; and the more so as, ten years after the establishment of a British Colony at Port Jackson on the east coast, and the repeated effort of some enterprising individuals, no part of it beyond 30 leagues from the coast had been seen by an European. Various conjectures were entertained upon the probable consistence of this extensive space. Was it a vast desert? Was it occupied by an immense lake—a second Caspian Sea, or by a Mediterranean to which existed a navigable entrance in some part of the coasts hitherto unexplored? or was not this new continent rather divided into two or more islands by straits communicating from the unknown parts of the south to the imperfectly examined north-west coast or to the Gulf of Carpentaria, or to both? Such were the questions that excited the interest and divided the opinion of geographers."

Apart from particular directions in which enquiry needed to be pursued, it was felt in England that the only nation which had founded a settlement on the Australian continent was under an obligation to complete the exploration of the country. The French had already sent out two scientific expeditions with instructions to examine the unknown southern coasts; and if shipwreck had not destroyed the first, and want of fresh water diverted the second, the credit of finishing the outline of the map of Australia would have been earned for France. "Many circumstances, indeed," wrote Flinders, "united to render the south coast of Terra Australis one of the most interesting parts of the globe to which discovery could be directed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Its investigation had formed a part of the instructions to the unfortunate French navigator, Lapérouse, and afterwards of those to his countryman Dentrecasteaux; and it was not without some reason attributed to England as a reproach that an imaginary line of more than two hundred and fifty leagues' extent in the vicinity of one of her colonies should have been so long suffered to remain traced upon the charts under the title of Unknown Coast. This comported ill with her reputation as the first of maritime powers."

We shall see how predominant was the share of Flinders in the settlement of these problems, the filling up of these gaps.
  1. The Christian Topography of Cosmas,translated by J. W. McCrindle, p. 17 (Hakluyt Society).
  2. Modern Geography II., 588.
  3. Professor Blumenbach according to Lang, Historical Account of New South Wales, (1837) II., 142.
  4. Called an "Abridged Narrative"—Flinders' Papers.

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