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Early Australia

Matthew Flinders: placing Australia on the map

Flinders traced the coasts of the Australian continent and produced the first complete map of Australia. He was the first person to use ‘Australian’ to describe the inhabitants of this land.

Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) proved that Tasmania was an island and produced its first map. He traced the coasts of the Australian continent, proving that the east, New South Wales, was the same land mass as the west, New Holland.  He produced the first complete map of Australia. He was the first person to use ‘Australian’ to describe the inhabitants of this land and the first to use the work in a place name (the Great Australian Bight). He also splattered the map with the names of those who had assisted him, those who could still be of service, those who sailed with him, as well as family and friends. He named nothing after himself.

His life was one of high professional achievement balanced by bitter personal tragedy. His detention by the French on Mauritius for six and a half years separated him from his wife, Ann, delayed the publication of his charts, and effectively finished his career at 29. He died a painful death at just 40.


A boy with ambition: 1774 - 1794

Matthew Flinders was born in Lincolnshire on 16 March 1774 at the market town of Donington. He was the eldest child of Matthew Flinders, surgeon-apothecary, and his wife, Susannah (née Ward).

Two abiding concerns ran through Flinders' life. He wanted to be independent and he wanted to make a difference to the world he lived in.

It was sensible for Flinders to look towards the Royal Navy as a career. The Navy promoted on merit and, on the promotional ladder, sailors acquired a regular income and a pension scheme. There was also the opportunity of prize money, other remuneration, and the chance of fame.

Flinders was taken on board Scipio in May 1790, aged 16, a little older than was usual for entry to the Navy. Patronage, of a sort, had eased his way. He had been introduced to Scipio's commander, Thomas Pasley, by his cousin. Henrietta Flinders worked in Pasley's household as a governess.

Thomas Pasley recommended Matthew Flinders to the famous William Bligh, now bathing in the glory of his heroic voyage of 1789 in Bounty's longboat. In August 1791, Bligh was setting out on a second expedition. He was again attempting what Fletcher Christian's mutiny had prevented: to transfer breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies as a cheap food for slaves working on plantations.

Flinders learnt practical navigation and chart making under Bligh, the master seaman, but thought the captain took credit for his work. He experienced life in some exotic locations and in Torres Strait first witnessed a hostile encounter with Indigenous peoples.

On 7 September 1793, after a two-year voyage, Flinders again joined Pasley, this time on Bellerophon. The next year he had his only experience of naval warfare when he saw action, against the French, in the English Channel at the Battle of the Glorious First of June.

Naval coat or sash badge, belonging to Matthew Flinders

New South Wales: February 1795 - January 1799

In 1795, Reliance was preparing to set sail from England for New South Wales, with the colony's second Governor, John Hunter. Matthew Flinders joined the crew, thinking of promotional opportunities, with his 12-year-old brother, Samuel. The Reliance reached Sydney on 7 September 1795.

There was a colonial population of only 3200 people, two thirds of whom were convicts, which was divided between Sydney Cove and Parramatta.

Very little of the surrounding coasts had been explored by the new settlers in detail.

On board Reliance, as she sailed from England to New South Wales, Matthew Flinders befriended the ship's surgeon, George Bass.

Bass was a physically imposing person; a man of action who had come to the Colony with exploration very much in mind. He was a multilingual intellectual who had brought with him a substantial library of books, reflecting wide interests.

Bass had brought his tiny boat with him on Reliance, it was 'about eight feet keel and five feet beam' (approximately 2.5 x 1.5 meters), named Tom Thumb.

Bass and Flinders, with William Martin (Bass' 14-year-old servant), sailed south to Botany Bay on 26 October 1795. They were away nine days and traced the Georges River about 32 kilometres further inland, extending the existing knowledge of the colonists.

Another Tom Thumb of similar size was constructed in the colony. It served Bass and Flinders on a voyage that saw a shipwreck  and a tense encounter with some Aboriginal people. They also reached present-day Port Kembla and Port Hacking in southern New South Wales.

Separate voyages led George Bass and Matthew Flinders to the shared view that a strait separated the mainland from Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). Bass left Sydney on 3 December 1797 in an open whaleboat, with a crew of six, sailing south and tracing the coast as far as present-day Westernport, Victoria. Reduced provisions forced a reluctant return but Bass was convinced by the tides and swells that they were in a strait.

While Bass was away, Flinders carried out survey work while on the colonial schooner Francis. In February 1798, Francis was sent to the Furneaux Islands, south of the mainland coast, to salvage goods from a wrecked cargo ship at Preservation Island. Flinders also came to the view that a strait existed. This idea now only needed to be proven by sailing right around the island of Tasmania.

A chart of Bass Strait between New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land explored by Matt W. Flinders and Lieut. of his Majesty's ship Reliance

Flinders, Bass and a crew of eight set out on Norfolk on 7 October 1798 to settle the matter of the strait. Flinders concentrated on charting and Bass explored on land, describing the animals, plants, and geological formations encountered.

Flinders and Bass headed south on Norfolk, following the northern coast of Van Diemen's Land westward. On 3 November 1798, Norfolk entered what Governor Hunter would later name Port Dalrymple, the estuary of the Tamar River. This was a major discovery. It was a fine harbour with good soil, fresh water, and a plentiful supply of food such as kangaroos and swans. They spent 17 days there: Flinders surveying the port, Bass making excursions into the countryside.

They sailed west from Port Dalrymple along an uncharted coast. They then headed south around the north-west cape and sailed down the west coast in four days before sailing along the south coast, spending time in the south-east at Frederick Henry Bay and the Derwent estuary. On 3 January 1799 they sailed for Port Jackson, having proven Tasmania was an island. Governor Hunter named the strait after Bass, at Flinders' suggestion. Flinders' chart of Bass Strait and Tasmania were sent to London and published in June 1880. 

An important mission: July 1799- May 1802

The interior of New South Wales was a complete mystery to the colonists. In July 1799, Governor Hunter instructed Matthew Flinders to sail north as far as Hervey Bay, near Bundaberg in present-day Queensland, to locate any rivers which would allow entrance to the inland.

Flinders sailed again on Norfolk, with his brother, Samuel (now a 16-year-old), and a crew of eight. Bungaree, a member of the Sydney-district Eora people, accompanied him to assist with communicating with Aboriginal peoples.

Although the coast features many rivers, Flinders did not locate any of these and he told the Governor that none existed.

There was one other 'crew' member on Norfolk. Trim, Flinders' intrepid cat, who would (until his death in 1804) share all of his master's extraordinary exploits. 

Matthew Flinders' commission as Lieutenant-in-Command of  Investigator was signed on 19 January 1801. It is a tribute to Sir Joseph Banks' influence and persistence that, in the midst of war with France, significant funds and effort were diverted to planning and equipping the Investigator voyage. Flinders had written to Banks, seeking support to mount an expedition that would complete the European discovery, and charting of, Australia. Banks agreed and was a very active project sponsor; he oversaw all the details of preparation, supported Flinders when difficulties arose with the Admiralty, and chose the scientific staff.

Flinders chose an all-volunteer crew and was given the best of stores and navigational instruments. A total of 88 men set sail on Investigator.

Samuel Flinders (Matthew's younger brother) was second lieutenant, and his cousin, John Franklin (later to be lieutenant-governor of Tasmania and a famed Arctic explorer) was midshipman. Also on board was the faithful Trim – now aged four – the first cat to circumnavigate Australia. 

The Investigator left Portsmouth, England, on 18 July 1801 and the area now known as Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia, was sighted on 6 December. By 18 January 1802 they were at the sea edge of what would later be named the Nullarbor Plain. Immense cliffs, 90 metres in height, overshadowed the tiny Investigator, with its mainmast only 30 metres high. The land behind could not be seen. Matthew Flinders speculated about an inland sea, an idea that beguiled explores for the next 50 years.

On 20 February, they anchored at the entrance to what would later be named Spencer Gulf. Over a week was spent at Port Lincoln and Flinders' chart of it was not superseded until 1874.

Leaving Port Lincoln on 6 March, they proceeded north to see if the body of water might lead to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Hopes were dashed when the impressive gulf ended in a salty swamp. Kangaroo Island, named by Flinders, was sighted on 20 March and 31 kangaroos were shot, providing much needed fresh meat for steaks and soup. Their skins were made into caps for the sailors. The next significant landmark sighted was the St Vincent Gulf.

On 8 April, a ship was sighted coming from the east: Le Geographe, commanded by Nicholas Baudin. When Baudin left Le Havre, France, in October 1800, he was in charge of one of the best equipped voyages of discovery ever mounted. His aim was similar to Flinders' – to complete the charting of Australia, as well as investigate people, plants, animals and minerals of the largely unexplored land. Flinders and Baudin met on successive days on Le Geographe outside Encounter Bay, South Australia (named by Flinders to mark the event).

The east coast: May 1802- March 1803

Matthew Flinders spent ten weeks in Sydney from May 1802. The Investigator was moored near the present-day Sydney Opera House, with a camp established on shore nearby. The ship was repaired and painted. Flinders worked on his charts and the scientists went exploring.

Flinders was pleased with his achievements and wrote to his wife that he was now a person of some consequence.

In late June, Nicolas Baudin on Le Geographe entered the port. He was shown hospitality by the Governor, Philip Gidley King. Many of his men were ill and they were given medical attention. Flinders would later contrast this reception with how he was received at Mauritius, then a French colony.

Matthew Flinders - Journal on HMS 'Investigator', vol. 1, 1801-1802

Flinders consulted Governor King on how he should proceed and he was instructed to concentrate on Torres Strait, the Gulf of Carpentaria and the north and north-west coasts.

Bungaree was again recruited to act as an intermediary between the crew and Aboriginal peoples.

Matthew Flinders made his way up the Queensland coast. In August he sighted Port Curtis, where the city of Gladstone was later established. When the local Aboriginal people resisted their intrusion, they fired muskets over their heads to disperse them.

At Broad Sound, on the east coast north of modern-day Brisbane, in September, Robert Brown (a Scottish-born naturalist) came across the tree which he later named after Flinders – Flindersia Australis – and Ferdinand Bauer (an Austrian-born natural history painter) made a detailed sketch of it.

Three hundred and twenty kilometres of the Barrier Reef were surveyed and named in October and not until the era of aerial photography would this survey be superseded. South of present-day Townsville, Flinders passed through the reefs and into the open sea to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria speedily. He navigated through the Torres Strait in three days.

Matthew Flinders' charting of the Gulf, commenced on 4 November 1802, was used for the next 150 years. The weather was oppressive, humid, and wet. The landscape was monotonous and they were running low on provisions. In addition, bush flies bothered them by day, and mosquitoes attacked them at night.

They saw indications that Asian peoples had been in the area. They also saw an Aboriginal burial site and some magnificent cave paintings. There was a tragic skirmish at Morgan's Island in January 1803 which resulted in the death of an Aboriginal man.

On 17 February 1803, off Cape Wilberforce, north-eastern Arnhem Land, they sighted six vessels. These were from Macassar and were on a regular visit for béche-de-mer or trepang. Communication was possible because, fortuitously, the cook on Investigator, Abraham Williams, was Malay. Flinders' encounter with these fishermen, which he wrote up in his journal, is the first documentary record of some of the earliest non-Aboriginal visitors to Australia.

In early March, after sailing through the Wessel Islands, Flinders was forced to head back to Sydney owing to the condition of  Investigator. He was utterly dejected and reproved himself for abandoning the survey but there was no alternative.

A visit to Timor to obtain supplies added dysentery to their problems and as they sailed along the south coast of Australia the body count began. Five men died before they reached Sydney on 9 June 1803 and another four after their arrival. 

A voyage to Terra Australis : undertaken for the purpose of completing the discovery of that vast country

The seafarer becomes a prisoner: August 1803- June 1810

Matthew Flinders described himself in a letter to Joseph Banks in June 1803 as 'a young man just commencing his career'. Flinders did not know that, tragically, his career, aged just 29, was over.

There was no suitable ship available at Sydney. Flinders boarded Porpoise on 10 August 1803 as a passenger en route to England where he could obtain another vessel.

On 17 August, Porpoise was wrecked on a reef in the Coral Sea (a name bestowed by Flinders). They reached the safety of a sandbank which would be home for seven weeks while Flinders, with 12 others, returned to Sydney in the cutter to secure relief.

A trio of vessels – Rolla, Francis and Cumberland – left Sydney on 20 September 1803 bound for Wreck Reef, arriving on 7 October. Some of those stranded on the sandbank would join Rolla which was bound for China; others would go back to Sydney on Francis. A group of ten volunteers would join Flinders on Cumberland (about 11 metres in length), to complete the survey of the Torres Strait on the way back to England.

Yet the Cumberland was not up to the task ahead. Flinders had recorded on 24 September 1803, having only just left Sydney, that she was 'exceedingly crank' and 'very leaky'.

By early December 1803, the condition of Cumberland was such that a decision was made to call at the island of Mauritius, then a French possession, 1800 kilometres east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Flinders hoped to obtain a replacement ship there.

Accused of being a spy, he spent over six years in detention on the island. It was the longest period he spent in one place in his adult life.

The man who imprisoned Flinders was the Governor of Mauritius, Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaen. He was a patriot, a strong supporter of Napoleon, and saw his role as helping expel the British from India.

In August 1805, Flinders received permission to live in the island's interior. He resided on the plantation of Louise d'Arifat, a widow, though he was not allowed to go more than ten kilometres from there without Decaen's permission.

Flinders delighted in exploring the scenic beauty of the area, examining it with a scientist's eye. He learnt French, read, visited neighbours, played tric-trac (backgammon), attended parties, and dances. He also learnt to play chess. In many ways it was not an unpleasant life.

His friends and activities helped ease his mind. But still he heard nothing of his release and his absence from Ann was taking its toll. In late 1806, he suffered a period of acute depression. Attempts to have Flinders released were made but Decaen did not agree to free Flinders until March 1810.

Trim the cat

A famous crew member: Trim the cat

'Notwithstanding my great partiality to my friend Trim, strict justice obliges me to cite in this place a trait in his character which by many will be thought a blemish: He was, I am sorry to say it, excessively vain of his person, particularly of his snow-white feet.'

Matthew Flinders, A Biographical Tribute to the Memory of Trim (c. 1803-1810)

Matthew Flinders, in his whimsical biography of the cat, noted that, 'Trim presented a request to be of the party [on Norfolk], promising to take upon himself the defence of our bread bags', and indeed Trim was to prove an accomplished ratter.

Flinders wrote of his four-footed friend that, he was: a 'good-natured purring animal', one 'endowed with an unusual degree of confidence and courage' who had been 'born on board His Majesty’s ship the Roundabout in 1799 during a passage from the Cape of Good Hope to Botany Bay.' Stephen Murray-Smith has noted the tribute to Trim, authored by Flinders, shows the great navigator and cartographer was 'an affectionate, tolerant and humorous man.'

Trim, being: 'a favourite with everybody on board, both officers and seamen, he was well fed, and grew fast both in size and comeliness.' Indeed, the cat was so loved that poor behaviour, particularly with regards to rations, was openly tolerated. For dinner, he 'was commonly seated a quarter of an hour before any other person, his modest reserve was such that his voice was not heard until everybody else was served. He then put in his request, not for a full allowance, he was too modest […] he petitioned for a little, little bit, a kind of tythe from the plate of each.'

The faithful feline was with his master on Mauritius. Unlike Flinders, Trim would never leave the island.


To the memory of


the best and most illustrious of his Race,

the most affectionate of friends,

faithful of servants

and best of creatures.

He made the Tour of the Globe, and a voyage to Australia,

which he circumnavigated and was ever the

delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers.

Matthew Flinders, A Biographical Tribute to the Memory of Trim (c. 1803-1810)


Etching of H.M. Snoop Investigator
Etching of H. M. Sloop Investigator by Geoffrey Chapman Ingleton
CSS Class
Sextant made by Watkins
Sextant made by Watkins, c. 1800

A Story of a Man: A Story of Australia

'[M]y greatest ambition is to make such a minute investigation of this extensive and very interesting country that no person shall have occasion to come after me to make further discoveries.'

Matthew Flinders, Letter to Joseph Banks (29 April 1801)

Establishing latitude and longitude involved carefully calculating the positions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. These calculations were then compared with those at known locations or times.

Instruments such as the quadrant and the sextant were used to measure the angles between celestial bodies or between a body and the horizon. Published tables gave information about these bodies at set places or times. Spherical trigonometry applied to this data gave the position of the ship.

The invention of the chronometer greatly improved the calculation of longitude. The chronometer was set to Greenwich Time which, when compared to local time, gave the longitude.

Matthew Flinders had a chronometer on the Norfolk voyage to Hervey Bay and had several on Investigator. The chronometer was still in its infancy and Flinders verified its readings with the earlier methods for calculating longitude. It was not until 1803 that Thomas Earnshaw developed an affordable, accurate chronometer. 

Ann Flinders' memento box and contents

A Faithful Spouse

'Write to me constantly; write me pages and volumes. Tell me the dress thou wearest, tell me they dreams, anything, so do but talk to me and of thyself. When thou art sitting at thy needle and alone, then think of me, my love, and write me the upppermost of thy thoughts. Fill me half a dozen sheets, and send them when thou canst. Think only, my dearest girl upon the gratification which the perusal and reperusal fifty times repeated will afford me, and thou will write me something or other every day. Adieu, my dearest, best love.'

Matthew Flinders, Letter to Ann Flinders (December 1801)

Born on 21 November 1772, Ann Chappelle had been part of Matthew Flinders' circle of friends before he sailed for New South Wales on Reliance in 1795. He had not seen her for over five years, though he had written to her and named a mountain and an island after her in Bass Strait. He met with her, just once, in January 1801 before they married a few months later on 17 April.

Flinders had promised to take her on Investigator with him. He could not redeem this pledge. After three months of marriage, Matthew and Ann would not see each other again for over nine years. Ann's letters to him deplore his decision to undertake the voyage and desert her. He answers firmly that there was no alternative, as unless he could add to his finances, there simply was not the money available to live decently in England.

As Catharine Retter and Shirley Sinclair explained: 'Ann destroyed her own letters to her husband, considering them too personal for others to read after her death, his were too precious to dispose of, even at the risk of others reading them at some later date.'

After he was released from prison on Mauritius, Matthew Flinders sailed into Portsmouth on 24 October 1810. He went to London by coach and was reunited with Ann the next day. He had not seen her for over nine years. His remaining time was spent with Ann at several rented lodgings in London while he prepared his charts for publication and wrote the accompanying narrative. On 1 April 1812, the couple had a daughter, Anne.

Rough draft of fragments of 'A Voyage to Terra Australis'
Matthew Flinders - Rough draft of fragments of 'A Voyage to Terra Australis', ca. 1809-1814

Flinders' problem with 'gravel', stones in the bladder, returned. The general diet of the time – as well as the more limited, low-fibre diets associated with long periods at sea – is thought to have aggravated this. He had suffered intermittently from this for 20 years but the last months of his life were spent in great discomfort and the associated infection killed him. Yet, he continued to work, with Rob Mundle describing how he spent 'hours editing and proofreading his manuscripts, and checking his charts for accuracy. He applied the same dedication to this project that he had as an explorer – all was in the quest for perfection.'

His book A Voyage to Terra Australis, with accompanying atlas – the summary of his life's work – was published on 18 July 1814. Flinders died the next day (although he had seen a copy earlier). 


This story draws on the exhibition, 'Matthew Flinders: The Ultimate Voyage' (Paul Brunton, Curator), presented at the State Library of New South Wales from 1 October 2001 to 13 January 2002.

Brown, Anthony J. and Gillian Dooley (Eds) (2005), Matthew Flinders Private Journal: From 17 December 1803 at Isle of France to 10 July 1814 at London. Adelaide: The Friends of the State Library of South Australia.

Brunton, Paul with Arthur Easton (2001), Matthew Flinders: The Ultimate Voyage. Sydney: State Library of New South Wales.

Flinders, Matthew ([c. 1803-1810] 1977), Trim. Illustrations by Annette Macarthur-Onslow. Sydney: William Collins Publishers.

Mundle, Rob ([2012]2016), Flinders: The Man Who Mapped Australia. Sydney: Hachette.

Retter, Catharine and Shirley Sinclair (Eds) (1999), Letters to Ann: The Love Story of Matthew Flinders and Ann Chappelle. Sydney: HarperCollins.

Scott, Ernest (1914), The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, RN. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.

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