Navigator’s story needs another Trim
Flinders: The Man Who Mapped Australia
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.
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