Matthew Flinders

Matthew Flinders commanded HMS Investigator and charted the coast of the continent that was then known as New Holland from April 1801 to June 1803. His expedition produced the first complete chart of the continent and the first views of the southern coast. The results of his exploration were published in 1814 and paved the way for those who planned the colonization of South Australia and the mariners who sailed for Kangaroo Island in 1836.

Long before Flinders, from the seventeenth century, Dutch seafarers had charted the west and named the land New Holland. Britain’s James Cook had charted the east coast in 1770, named it New South Wales and claimed it for Britain. However, their work left the northern and southern coasts uncharted. There was serious speculation that a channel of water might divide the lands of New South Wales in the east from New Holland in the west.

Flinders proved that there was one large continent. As well as navigators Flinders carried scientists and artists who studied the botany, zoology, mineralogy and geography of the coast. Their work provided a picture of the fertility of the land, its climates, plants and animals.

It is highly likely that the captains of all the first nine ships carried copies of Flinders’ charts to lead them to Kangaroo Island. It is especially likely that the Surveyor General, Colonel William Light, studied those maps. Flinders’ work held an additional importance to the surveyors onboard the Rapid because they had been commissioned to build on his charts. They were to examine 2,400 kilometres of the southern coast to select the site of the first settlement and sites for secondary towns.

In 1839 or 1840, London printers Day and Haghe published a chart titled The maritime portion of South Australia: from the surveys of Captain Flinders and of Colonel Light, Surveyor General. Light extended Flinders’ chart with place names including Adelaide and Mount Barker as well as geographical features like the River Torrens.

There is a neat English chronology that can be relayed from Matthew Flinders to William Light. However, the history could not be complete without mentioning the French exploration led by Nicolas Baudin. In October 1800 Baudin was selected to lead an expedition to explore New Holland with two ships and nine scientists. Flinders’ British expedition was actually launched after Baudin and was partly motivated as a race to keep up with France. The two explorers met at what is now Encounter Bay, South Australia in April 1802.

The names the rival explorers gave to the coast tell us that history belongs to the winners. On the charts that came from Baudin’s expedition the southern coast was named Terre Napoleon. On Flinders’ charts, South Australia’s two gulfs were named after Earl Spencer and Earl St Vincent who were the Lords of the Admiralty and the patrons of Flinders’ expedition.

After proving that the coasts of New Holland and New South Wales formed one land, Flinders proposed that the continent be named Australia. His proposal was actually rejected by the British Admiralty but over time it came into common use and was formally accepted when the Commonwealth of Australia was created by an act of the British Parliament in 1900. However, that same Parliament had named the Province of South Australia by an act of 1834.

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