Born in Lincolnshire, England, the young Matthew Flinders had his hunger for exploration and knowledge whetted by the tale of Robinson Crusoe, and at the age of fifteen he joined the navy. Later, he sailed with Captain Bligh on The Providence, transporting breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica.
Later, Flinders sailed to Australia on The Reliance, establishing himself as a fine navigator and cartographer, and in 1796 explored the coastline around Sydney in a tiny open boat called Tom Thumb. In 1798 he circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) aboard The Norfolk, therefore proving it to be an island. The passage between Australia and Tasmania became known as the Bass Strait after the ships' doctor, George Bass, and a large island was named Flinders Island.
On 17 April 1801 Flinders married Ann Chappell, but was soon forced to leave his new wife when the British Government sent him back to Australia. He set out that July, in command of The Investigator, to produce a detailed survey of the coastline of Australia, the southern coast of which was still unknown.
Between December 1801 and June 1803, Flinders charted the entire coastline of Australia. He sighted Cape Leeuwin on 6 December and worked his way eastwards until he reached Fowlers Bay on the 28 January. From that point on, the coastline was uncharted.
Nicolas Baudin and the Meeting At Encounter Bay
On 8 April, Flinders, while sailing east, met up with the French explorer Nicolas Baudin, who was sailing west aboard Le Géographe. Both men had been sent by their respective governments on separate expeditions to map the unknown southern coastline of Australia. Both men of science, Flinders and Baudin met and exchanged details of their discoveries, and sailed together to Sydney to resupply. Flinders would later name the site of their meeting
The meeting at Encounter Bay by the two expeditions marked the point at which the entire coastline of continental Australia became mapped.
By June 1803, the hull of The Investigator had deteriorated to such a degree that Flinders was forced to abandon his survey of the northern coastline of Australia. He returned to Sydney by the west coast, thus completing his circumnavigation of Australia.
Flinders set sail for England aboard The Porpoise to secure another vessel from the British Government with which to complete his survey, but was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. Remarkably, Flinders navigated the ship's cutter across open sea back to Sydney, a distance of some 700 miles, and arranged for the rescue of the marooned crew on Wreck Reef.
Flinders next attempted to return to England aboard The Cumberland, but the poor condition of the schooner forced it to put in at Mauritius for repairs on 17 December. Unbeknowst to Flinders, England was now at war with France again, and the French governor, General De Caen, had Flinders detained as a spy. He would be imprisoned on Mauritus for almost seven years.
Flinders finally returned to England in October 1810, where he immediately began work on preparing A Voyage to Terra Australia for publication. On 18 July 1814, the book was published. The next day, Matthew Flinders died, aged only 40.
The noted archaelogist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie was his grandson.