Nav­i­ga­tor’s story needs an­other Trim

Flin­ders: The Man Who Mapped Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Lyn­don Me­gar­rity

By Rob Mun­dle Ha­chette Aus­tralia, 400pp, $49.99 (HB)

FLIN­DERS River, Flin­ders Ranges, Flin­ders High­way, Flin­ders Street — in many parts of Aus­tralia there are phys­i­cal re­minders of the life and times of Matthew Flin­ders, the English nav­i­ga­tor who charted much of the con­ti­nent more than 200 years ago. Stat­ues of the great man are a fea­ture of the cityscapes of Mel­bourne, Ade­laide and Syd­ney. In Syd­ney there is even a statue of Flin­ders’s pet cat, Trim, who ac­com­pa­nied his master at sea and on land.

Why all this com­mem­o­ra­tion? Rob Mun­dle’s Flin­ders: The Man Who Mapped Aus­tralia goes some way to­wards ex­plain­ing why Flin­ders is worth remembering, while ex­plor­ing the per­son­al­ity of this fas­ci­nat­ing and sen­si­tive soul.

The son of a sur­geon, the young Flin­ders was in­spired by Daniel De­foe’s 1719 novel Robin­son Cru­soe to live a sailor’s life and join the Royal Navy. Among his no­table early ex­pe­ri­ences, he served as a mid­ship­man on an ex­pe­di­tion to col­lect bread­fruit in Tahiti un­der Wil­liam Bligh’s lead­er­ship. As sur­viv­ing doc­u­ments in­di­cate, Flin­ders was ma­ture be­yond his years, at­tract­ing the at­ten­tion of pow­er­ful sup­port­ers such as Joseph Banks and the sec­ond gov­er­nor of NSW, John Hunter.

Dur­ing the 1790s and early 1800s, of­ten un­der dif­fi­cult con­di­tions, Flin­ders fleshed out the ge­o­graph­i­cal de­tail of large sec­tions of coastal Aus­tralia. He ul­ti­mately achieved his great­est fame by be­ing the first to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the con­ti­nent, sub­se­quently pub­lish­ing a map of Aus­tralia and an of­fi­cial ac­count of his jour­ney.

A com­pet­i­tive yachts­man and jour­nal­ist, Mun­dle has a long­stand­ing in­ter­est in sail­ing and mar­itime his­tory. Oc­ca­sion­ally, the nar­ra­tive be­comes too fo­cused on the daily re­al­i­ties of late 18th-cen­tury sail­ing ex­pe­di­tions, and the reader loses sight of Flin­ders the man.

How­ever, where Mun­dle’s twin pas­sions for sail­ing and writ­ing really come to the fore are in his ex­cit­ing de­scrip­tions of Flin­ders’s last sea voy­age. In skil­ful prose, Mun­dle vividly stresses the per­sonal costs of Flin­ders’s am­bi­tion: ship­wrecks, the loss of good friends and crew to a hos­tile sea, as well as his decade­long ab­sence from home. It makes the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of to­day’s gen­er­a­tion of nau­ti­cal ad­ven­tur­ers seem like child’s play.

We are for­tu­nate to have so many sur­viv­ing let­ters and doc­u­ments from Flin­ders, and Mun­dle makes thought­ful use of them. The over­whelm­ing im­pres­sion the reader re­ceives from Flin­ders’s cor­re­spon­dence is one of jus­ti­fied self-con­fi­dence in his abil­i­ties and judg­ments, as an in­di­vid­ual and as a leader of men. Only very oc­ca­sion­ally do we see him over­step the mark: his undiplo­matic haugh­ti­ness to­wards the French au­thor­i­ties at Mau­ri­tius on his way home from Aus­tralia al­most cer­tainly led to his de­tain­ment on the is­land for sev­eral years.

Much of this 400-page book reads well, but the au­thor clearly needed a more ruth­less ed­i­tor. Bi­o­graph­i­cal por­traits of Flin­ders’s con­tem­po­raries are some­times al­lowed to drag on too long.

Fur­ther, while the term ‘‘ na­tive’’ is used by

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.