The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 28

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Chapter XXVIII.


Matthew Flinders was a short, neatly-built, very lithe and active man. He stood five feet six inches in height.[1] His figure was slight and well proportioned. When he was in full health, his light, buoyant step was remarked upon by acquaintances. Neither of the two portraits of him conveys a good impression of his alert, commanding look. His nose was "rather aquiline," and his lips were customarily compressed. "He had a noble brow, hair almost black, eyes dark, bright, and with a commanding expression, amounting almost to sternness." So his friend records.

Mrs. Flinders was not satisfied with the engraved portrait published in the Naval Chronicle, 1814, nor with the miniature from which it was reproduced. In a letter to Captain Stuart she wrote: "In the portrait you will not be able to trace much of your departed friend. The miniature from which it was taken is but an indifferent likeness, and the engraver has not done justice to it. He has given the firmness of the countenance but not the intelligence or animation." It is quite certain that a rapid, piercing, commanding expression of eye and features was characteristic of him. During his captivity, the look in his eyes forbad all approach to familiarity. There is record of an occasion—in all probability connected with the sword incident—when he was addressed in terms that appeared to him to be wanting in respect; and the unlucky Frenchman who ventured thus far was so astonished at the sternness of countenance that immediately confronted him, that he started back some paces. He had been accustomed to command from an early age, and had exercised authority on service of a kind that compelled him to demand ceaseless vigilance and indefatigable vigour from himself and those under him. In a passage written in Mauritius[2] he makes allusion to the stern element in his character; and surely what he says here is worthy of being well pondered by all whose duty demands the exercise of power over other men:

"I shall learn patience in this island, which will perhaps counteract the insolence acquired by having had unlimited command over my fellow men. You know, my dearest, that I always dreaded the effect that the possession of great authority would have upon my temper and disposition. I hope they are neither of them naturally bad; but, when we see such a vast difference between men dependent and men in power, any man who has any share of impartiality must fear for himself. My brother will tell you that I am proud, unindulgent, and hasty to take offence, but I doubt whether John Franklin will confirm it, although there is more truth in the charge than I wish there were. In this land, those malignant qualities are ostentatiously displayed. I am made to feel their sting most poignantly. My mind has been taught a lesson in philosophy, and my judgment has gained an accession of experience that will not soon be forgotten."

That is a fairly rigorous piece of self-analysis; but there are abundant facts to show that he exercised authority with a kindly and friendly disposition, and did not surpass the limits of wisdom. Men like a commander who can command; the weak inspire no . confidence. Flinders had the art of attracting people to him. His servant, the faithful John Elder, willingly endured imprisonment with him, and would not leave him until his own health gave way. John Thistle, who had served under him before 1800, returned to England shortly before the Investigator sailed, and at once volunteered for service under him again. He ruled his crews by sheer force of mind and unsparing example, and though the good of the service in hand was ever his first thought, there is plenty of evidence to prove that the happiness of the men under him was constantly in his mind.

In hours of relaxation he was genial, a lively companion, a warm friend. An intimate friend records: "He possessed the social virtues and affections in an eminent degree, and in conversation he was particularly agreeable, from the extent of his general information and the lively acuteness of his observations. His integrity, uprightness of intention, and liberality of sentiment were not to be surpassed."

A scrap of dialogue written for insertion in the Voyage to Terra Australis, but cancelled with other matter, enables us to realise that he could recall an incident with some dramatic force. Bonnefoy, an interpreter in Ile-de-France, told him a story of an American skipper under examination by one of General Decaen's officers, and he wrote it down as follows:—

"I was amused with his account of a blunt American captain who, having left a part of his people to collect seal-skins upon the island Tristan d'Acuna, had come in for provisions, and to get his vessel repaired. This honest man did not wish to tell where he was collecting his cargo, nor did he understand all the ceremony he was required to go through. The dialogue that passed between the old seaman and the French officers of the port was nearly thus:

Page 511 letter (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg
Page 512 letter (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg

(Melbourne Public Library.)

[illustration 1] Off.: From whence do you come, Sir?

From whence do I come? Haugh! why, Monsieur, I come from the Atlantic Ocean.

Off.: But, pray, Sir, from what port?

Port? You will find that out from my papers, which I suppose you want to see?

Off.: It appears, Sir, that you have not above half your crew on board. Be so good as to inform me where are the rest?

O, my crew? Poor fellows, yes, why, Sir, we met with an island of ice on the road, and I left them there a-basket-making.

Off.: Making baskets on an island of ice? This is a very strange answer, Sir; and give me leave to tell you such will not do here; but you will accompany me to the Captain-General, and we shall then see whether you will answer or not.

Ay, we shall see indeed. Why, look ye, Monsieur: as to what I have been about, that is nothing to anybody. I am an honest man, and that's enough for you; but if you want to know why I am come here, it is to buy provisions and to lie quiet a little bit. I am not come to beg or steal, but to buy, and I fancy good bills upon M——— of Salem will suit you very well, eh, Monsieur? Convenient enough?

Off.: Very well, Sir, you will come with us to the General.

To the General? I have nothing to do with Generals! They don't understand my business. Suppose I don't go?

Off.: You will do as you please, Sir; but if you do not, you will soon..."

The sheet on which the continuation of this vigorous bit of dialogue was written[3] is unfortunately missing, so that we are deprived of the joy of reading the conclusion of the comedy. But as the passage stands it presents a truly dramatic picture.

We get a glimpse of the way in which genial spirits regarded him in a jolly letter from Madras, from Lieutenant Fitzwilliam Owen, who had been a prisoner with him in Mauritius, and was on the cartel on which he sailed from that island. "You cannot doubt how much our society misses you. We toasted you, Sir, like Englishmen. We sent the heartiest good wishes of your countrymen, ay, and women too, to Heaven for your success, in three times three loud and manly cheers, dictated by that sincerity which forms the glorious characteristic of our rough-spun English. Nay, Waugh got drunk for you, and the ladies did each take an extra glass to you."[2]

A pleasant playful touch makes the following letter to his wife's half-sister worth quoting. He was hungry for home letters in Ile-de-France, and thus gently chid the girl: "There is indeed a report among the whales in the Indian Ocean that a scrap of a letter from you did pass by for Port Jackson, and a flying fish in the Pacific even says he saw it; but there is no believing these travellers. If you will take the trouble to give it under your own hand I will then believe that you have written to me. A certain philosopher being informed that his dear friend was dead, replied that he would not believe it without having it certified under his own hand; a very commendable prudence this, and worthy of imitation in all intricate cases. As I have a fund of justice at the bottom of my conscience, which will not permit me to exact from others more than I would perform myself, I do hereby certify that I have this day addressed a letter to my well-beloved sister Isabella Tyler, spinster, in which letter I do desire for her all manner of
Page 516 letter (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg

(Melbourne Public Library.)

[illustration 2]

blessings spiritual and temporal; that she may speedily obtain a husband six feet high, if it so pleases her, with the wishing cap of Fortunatus."

The strictness of the man's conduct, in his relations with superiors and subordinates alike, sprang from his integrity of heart. Everybody trusted him. A memoir published by a contemporary commented upon the fidelity of his friendships. "He was faithful to the utmost in the performance of a promise, whether important or trifling in its consequences."

Some of the best friends he ever made were among the French in Ile-de-France; and he became so much attached to them that, even when he secured his longed-for freedom, he could not part from them without a pang of regret. They saw in him not only a wronged man, but a singularly high-minded one. Pitot, writing to Bougainville to urge him to do his utmost to secure Flinders' release, repudiated, in these terms, the idea that he could be a spy:[4] "No, Monsieur Flinders is not capable of such conduct; his pure and noble character would never permit him to descend to the odious employment of a spy." One wonders whether by any chance Bougainville had occasion to show that letter to Messieurs Péron and Freycinet!

A touching and beautiful example of his gentleness occurred in connection with a wounded French officer whom he visited at Port Louis. Lieutenant Charles Baudin des Ardennes had sailed as a junior officer on Le Géographe under Baudin (to whom he was not related) and Flinders had known him at Port Jackson. In 1807 he was serving as a lieutenant on La Sémillante, in the Indian Ocean. He was badly wounded in a sharp engagement with the British ship Terpsichore in March, 1807, and was brought into Port Louis, where his shattered right arm was amputated. Flinders, full of compassion for the young man, visited him, and, as oranges were required for the sufferer, bought up the whole stock of a fruiterer, 53 of them. Upon his return to Wilhelm's Plains, he wrote Baudin a letter of sympathy and encouragement, bidding him reflect that there were other branches of useful service open to a sailor than that of warfare. He had commenced his naval career with discovery; he now knew what the horrors of war were. Which was the worthier branch of the two? Flinders continued: "No, my friend, I cannot contemplate this waste of human life to serve the cause of restless ambition without horror. Never shall my hands be voluntarily steeped in blood, but in the defence of my country. In such a cause every other sentiment vanishes. Also, my friend, if ever you have thought my actions worthy of being imitated, imitate me in this. You have, like me, had just sufficient experience to learn what the commander of a voyage of discovery ought to be, and what he ought to know. Adieu, my dear friend. May the goodness of God speedily restore you to perfect health, and turn your thoughts from war to peace." Young Baudin, it may be added, was not compelled by the loss of his arm to leave the service. He became an Admiral in 1839, and lived till 1854.

Flinders endeavoured to exert a stimulating influence upon young officers. Writing to his brother (Dec. 6th, 1806) he said:[5] "Remember that youth is the time in which a store of knowledge, reputation and fortune must be laid in to make age respectable. Imitate, my dear Samuel, all that you have found commendable in my proceedings, manners, and principles, and avoid the
Page 521 memorial (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg


[illustration 3] rest. Study is necessary, as it gives theory. I need not speak to you now upon this, but active exertion is still more necessary to a good sea officer. From both united it is that perfection is attained. Neither would I have you neglect politeness, and the best society to which circumstances may permit your admission; though not the basis that constitutes a good officer or valuable member of society, the manners thereby acquired are yet of infinite service to those who possess them."

There could hardly be a sounder piece of advice to a young officer from an elder than is contained in a letter written by Flinders to John Franklin's father. It was intended for the youth's eye, beyond a doubt. It is dated May 10th, 1805:[6] "I hope John will have got into some active ship to get his time completed before I go out another voyage, and learn the discipline of the service. I have no doubt of being able to get him a lieutenant's commission if it should be agreeable to him to sail with me again. He may rest confident of my friendship, although I believe he had some fears on that head when we parted, on account of a difference between him and my brother. He has ability enough, but he must be diligent, studious, active in his duty, not over-ready to take offence at his superior officers, nor yet humbling too much to them; but in all things should make allowances for difference of disposition and ways of thinking and should judge principally from the intention. Above all things he should be strict in his honour and integrity, for a man who forfeits either cannot be independent or brave at all times; and he should not be afraid to be singular, for, if he is, the ridicule of the vicious would beat him out of his rectitude as well as out of his attention to his duty. I do not speak this from my fear of him, but from my anxiety to see him the shining charatcer which I am sure he is capable of being."

In a similar strain is a letter to John Franklin (January 14th, 1812) regarding a lad named Wiles, the son of a Jamaica friend, who had lately been put on the Bedford as a midshipman: "I will thank you to let me know from time to time how he goes on. Pray don't let him be idle. Employ him in learning to knot and splice under a quartermaster; in working under observation, in writing his journal, and in such studies as may be useful to him. Make it a point of honour with him to be quick in relieving the deck, and strict in keeping his watch; and when there are any courts martial endeavour either to take him with you or that he may attend when it can be done. In fine, my dear John, endeavour to make a good officer and a good man of him, and be sure I shall always entertain a grateful sense of your attention to him."

Active-minded himself, he encouraged study among those who came in contact with him. It gave him pleasure to teach mathematics to Madame D'Arifat's sons at Wilhelm's Plains. He mastered French so as to speak it with grace and write with ease. He worked at Malay because he thought it would be useful on future voyages. From the early days, when he taught himself navigation amidst the swamps of his native Lincolnshire, until his last illness laid him low, he was ever an eager student. Intelligent curiosity and a desire to know the best that the best minds could teach were a basic part of his character. We find him counselling Ann Chappell, at about the time when he became engaged to her:[2] "Learn music, learn the French language, enlarge the subjects of thy pencil, study geography and astronomy and even metaphysics, sooner than leave thy mind unoccupied. Soar, my Annette, aspire to the heights of science. Write a great deal, work with thy needle a great deal, and read every book that comes in thy way, save trifling novels."

Flinders read widely, and always carried a good library with him on his voyages. His acquaintance with the literature of navigation was very extensive. Some of his books were lost in the Porpoise wreck; the remainder he took with him in the Cumberland, and, when he was imprisoned, his anxiety to secure his printed volumes manifested the true book-lover's hunger to have near him those companions of his intellectual life. He derived great pleasure from the French literature which he studied in Mauritius. A letter to his wife dated March, 1803, when he was upon the north coast of Australia in the Investigator, reveals him relieving his mind, amid anxieties about the condition of the ship, by reading Milton's Paradise Lost. "The elevation and, also, the fall of our first parents," he comments, "told with such majesty by him whose eyes lacked all of what he threw so masterly o'er the great subject, dark before and intricate—these with delight I perused, not knowing which to admire most, the poet's daring, the subject, or the success with which his bold attempt was crowned." He somewhat quaintly compares his wife with Eve: "But in thee I have more faith than Adam had when he, complying with Eve's request of separation in their labours, said 'Go, thou best, last gift of God, go in thy native innocence.' But how much dearer art thou here than our first mother! Our separation was not sought by thee, but thou borest it as a vine whose twining arms when turned from round the limb lie prostrate, broken, life scarcely left enough to keep the withered leaf from falling off." We should especially have welcomed notes from such a pen on a few passages in Milton which must have stirred his deepest interest, as for example the majestic comparison of Satan's flight:

      "As when far off at sea a fleet descried
       Hangs in the clouds, by equinoctial winds
       Close sailing from Bengala, or the isles
       Of Ternate or Tidore, whence merchants bring
       Their spicy drugs; they on the trading flood,
       Through the wide Ethiopian to the Cape,
       Ply stemming nightly towards the pole: so seemed
       Far off the flying Fiend."

To these characteristics may be added a passage illustrating the view of our navigator concerning the marriage state. It must be confessed that when he wrote it (June 30th, 1807) his experience was not extensive. He left England when he had been a husband only a few weeks; but the passage is interesting as conveying to his wife what his conception of the ideal relation was: "There is a medium between petticoat government and tyranny on the part of the husband, that with thee I think to be very attainable; and which I consider to be the summit of happiness in the marriage state. Thou wilt be to me not only a beloved wife, but my most dear and most intimate friend, as I hope to be to thee. If we find failings, we will look upon them with kindness and compassion, and in each other's merits we will take pride, and delight to dwell upon them; thus we will realise, as far as may be, the happiness of heaven upon the earth. I love not greatness nor desire great riches, being confident they do not contribute to happiness, but I desire to have enough for ourselves and something to assist our friends in need. I think, my love, this is also thy way of thinking."

In the few concluding months of her husband's life, Mrs. Flinders had him beside her under circumstances that were certainly far from easy. Their somewhat straitened means, consequent upon the Admiralty's niggard construction of regulations, the prolonged severity of his employment, and the last agonised weeks of illness, must have gone far to detract from perfect felicity in domestic conditions. The six changes of residence in four and a half years point to the same conclusion. Nevertheless we find Mrs. Flinders writing to a friend in these terms, wherein her own happiness is clearly mirrored: "I am well persuaded that very few men know how to value the regard and tender attentions of a wife who loves them. Men in general cannot appreciate properly the delicate affection of a woman, and therefore they do not know how to return it. To make the married life as happy as this world will allow it to be, there are a thousand little amenities to be rendered on both sides, and as many little shades of comfort to be attended to. Many things must be overlooked, for we are all such imperfect beings; and to bear and forbear is essential to domestic peace. You will say that I find it easy to talk on this subject, and that precept is harder than practice. I allow it, my dear friend, in the practical part I have only to return kind affection and attention for uniform tenderness and regard. I have nothing unpleasant to call forth my forbearance. Day after day, month after month passes, and I neither experience an angry look nor a dissatisfied word. Our domestic life is an unvaried line of peace and comfort; and O, may Heaven continue it such, so long as it shall permit us to dwell together on this earth."

  1. These particulars are from the manuscript sketch by a friend, previously cited; Flinders' Papers.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Flinders' Papers.
  3. MS. Mitchell Library.
  4. MSS., Mitchell Library; letter dated 19 Vendémiaire, an XIII. October 11, 1804.
  5. Mr. Charles Bertie, of the Municipal Library, Sydney, has kindly supplied me with this letter, which was obtained from Professor Flinders Petrie.
  6. MSS. Mitchell Library.
  1. text of illustration

    …from the general's conduct, that he has sought to impose upon him, and this for the purpose, perhaps for the pleasure, of prolonging to the utmost my unjust detention.
    But if apprehensions for the safety of this land are not the cause of the order of the French government remaining unexecuted, what reason can there be, sufficiently strong to have induced the captain-general to incur the risk of misobedience, first to the passport, and afterwards to the order for my liberation. This I shall endeavour to explain in the following and last chapter of this discussion; promising, however, that what I shall have to offer upon this part of the subject, can only be what a consideration of the captain-general's conduct has furnished me, as being the most probable. I am not conscious of having omitted any material circumstance, either here or in the narration, or of having misrepresented any; as if after an attentive perusal, the reader thinks my explanation not borne out by the facts, I submit it to his judgment to deduce a better; and should esteem myself obliged by his making it public, so that it may reach so far as even to me.
    Chapter XII. Probable causes of my imprisonment, and of the marine minister's order for my liberation being suspended by the captain-general
    Before explaining what I conceive to have been the true causes which led the captain-general to act so contrary to my passport, as to imprison me and seize my vessel, charts, and papers; it will be proper to give the reader a knowledge of some points in His Excellency's character, in addition to those he will have extracted from the abridged narrative. At the time of my arrival, he entertained, and does I believe still entertain, an indiscriminate animosity against Englishmen, whether this arose from his having been deprived of the advantage of fixing the seat of his government at Pondicherry, by the renewal of war in 1803, or from any antecedent circumstance, I cannot pretend to say; but that he did harbour such animosity, and that in an uncommon degree, is averred by his keeping in irons, contrary to the usages of war, the first English seamen that were brought to the island (Narrative page 58 and 70); by the surprise he testified at the proceeding of a French gentleman, who interceded with him for the liberty on parole of a sick English officer; on which occasion he said amongst other things, that had he his own will, he would send all the English prisoners to the Marquis Wellesley without their ears: this animosity is, besides, as well known at the Isle of France, as the existence of the island.
    It is probably owing to an original want of education, and to having passed the greater part of his life in the tumult of camps during the French revolution, that arises his indifference for the arts and sciences, other than those which have an immediate relation to war. His Excellency's ideas seem even to be so strictly military, that the profession of a seaman has very little share in his estimation; and his ignorance of nautical affairs has been shewn by various circumstances to be greater than would be supposed in a moderately well informed man, who had made a voyage from Europe to India. … (Wikisource contributor note)
  2. text to illustration

    To Captain Thos. Hurd, Hydrographer, Admiralty Office.
    London April 2, 1812.

    My dear Sir
    Understanding that Lieut. John Oxley of the Navy is going out surveyor-general of Lands in New South Wales, I wish to point out to you, that if he should be enabled, in intervals of his land duty, to accomplish the following nautical objects, in the vicinity of Port Jackson, and of the settlements in Van Diemen's Land, our knowledge of those coasts would be thereby improved, and some material advantages to the colonies probably obtained.
    1st. Jervis Bay, a large piece of water whose entrance is in 35.5 south, and not from than 75 miles from Port Jackson, has never yet, to my knowledge been surveyed. There have been two or three eye sketches made of it; but it would be desirable to have it surveyed, with the streams which are said to fall into its North and western sides; and also the corresponding line of the sea coast, in which there are thought to be strata of coal.
    The great semicircular range of mountains which has hitherto resisted all attempts to penetrate into the interior country behind Port Jackson, appears to terminate at Point Bass in latitude about 34.43; and the land behind Jervis Bay is represented to be low and flat. It is, therefore, probable, that a well conducted effort to obtain some knowledge of the interior of that vast country, would be attended with success if made by steering a West or N.N.W. course from the head of Jervis Bay. (Wikisource contributor note)
  3. text to illustration

    In memory of
    Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N.
    Who died July 19th 1814,
    Aged 40 years.

    After having twice circumnavigated the globe, he was
    sent by the admiralty in the year 1801, to make
    discoveries on the coast of terra australis.
    returning from this voyage he suffered shipwreck,
    and by the injustice of the french government
    was imprisoned six years in the
    island of Mauritius.

    In 1810, he was restored to his native land, and not
    long after was attacked by an excruciating disease,
    the anguish of which he bore until death
    with undeviating fortitude.

    His country will long regret the loss of one whose
    exertions in her cause were only equalled by
    his perseverance:
    but his family will most deeply feel the
    irreparable deprivation.

    They do not merely lament a man of superior intellect.
    they mourn an affectionate husband,
    a tender father, a kind brother,
    and a faithful friend.

    (Wikisource contributor note)