Matthew Flinders: The man behind the map
Wakefield Press, $39.95 pb, 261 pp
Few names are so ubiquitous in Australian culture or hold such a significant position in its history as that of Matthew Flinders. More than one hundred sites across Australia have been named in his honour, commemorating his accomplishments as a navigator, hydrographer, cartographer, and scientist. Among them are several statues featuring Flinders with Trim, his ever-faithful pet cat and companion, as well as numerous geographic landmarks, electoral districts, and a university.
Flinders’ short life was as remarkable as it was tragic. He was the first European to circumnavigate Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in 1798, proving it to be an island, and Australia three years later, after which he produced the first complete map of the country. Docking at Mauritius for repairs in 1803, Flinders was arrested by the French authorities and detained for more than six years, estranging him from his wife. Their eventual reunion in England was cruelly cut short by his untimely death at the age of forty.
Early biographers tended to present Flinders as a hero. In The Life of Matthew Flinders (1914), Ernest Scott hailed the captain as an ‘Englishman of exceptionally high character’. Later writers such as Sidney Baker and Geoffrey Ingleton painted a harsh portrait of an arrogant man whose stubbornness was his downfall. Miriam Estensen’s 2002 biography presents a more even appraisal. As its subtitle suggests, in Matthew Flinders: The man behind the map, librarian, literary scholar, and Flinders aficionado Gillian Dooley embarks on a journey to discover the person beneath the legend. Focusing on his personal life and characteristics, she seeks to counterbalance previous accounts that were overly concerned with his career and achievements.