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Captain Matthew Flinders: the Freemason who gave Australia its name

Putting Australia on the map

Few men in history can claim to have named an entire country, but Freemason Matthew Flinders is one of them. With July 2014 marking two hundred years since Flinders’ passing, Kevin Gest explores how this navigator ended up down under

Philosophers who lived two thousand years ago knew the Earth was a sphere that rotated on its axis with a slow, gentle wobble. The limit of their geographical knowledge was centred in the northern hemisphere on the land masses and cultures they knew. They reasoned that, in the southern hemisphere, there had to be a land mass of equal size to balance the axial rotation, otherwise the wobble would be far more acute. The philosophers named this mythical land mass Terra Australis Incognita – the south land, as yet unknown.

Captain Matthew Flinders is little known in Britain, but in Australia he’s a giant in the history of British settlement. Flinders ranks with the achievements of other great seamen such as Captain Cook, who was killed in Hawaii; and Bligh, known for his misadventure on the Bounty. Cook learned his navigation skills the hard way, Bligh learned from Cook, and Flinders learned how to sail from serving with Bligh on HMS Providence on the second voyage to transfer breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies. But Flinders took his seafaring skills to a whole new level.

Calling to the sea

Born and raised in Lincolnshire, Flinders had a calling to the sea. Even as a junior officer, he demonstrated an ability to think for himself and act independently. In the closing years of the eighteenth century, Flinders sailed to Sydney Town in the fledgling colony of New South Wales. His seamanship and cartography skills quickly came to the attention of the Governor through a series of pivotal short expeditions. 

Backed by the Governor, Flinders was appointed to command HMS Norfolk to survey the coast of Van Diemen’s Land, which, at that time, was believed to have been part of the mainland. Flinders discovered that it was an island, later renamed Tasmania. He returned to England in 1800 where he presented his discovery to the Royal Society. This event brought him into contact with Freemason Sir Joseph Banks, who had sailed into Botany Bay with Captain James Cook to discover what’s now known as the east coast of Australia, and he later recommended that to populate the area, convicts were transferred by sea to settle there.

By the time of Flinders’ arrival in Sydney harbour, there were two coastal territories, 2,000 miles apart, noted on maps as New Holland and New South Wales, but there was uncertainty about what existed between them. Banks encouraged a new expedition to fully chart the territories and discover if this was the fabled land of Terra Australis Incognita, and Flinders was its commander aboard HMS Investigator. 

In the following years, Flinders produced astonishing charts of previously unknown coasts; he was the first to circumnavigate Australia, suffering great hardship at sea in the process. His mission fulfilled, and armed with his charts and logs, he began his journey back to England. He was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, almost losing all his records, and was later taken prisoner on Mauritius by the French and branded a spy while his charts were confiscated and copied. Some of his discoveries were also claimed by French explorers. 

‘Had I permitted myself any innovation of the original term, it would have been to convert it into Australia; as being more agreeable on the ear.’ Matthew Flinders 

Flinders returned to England in 1810, where he was celebrated by the Royal Society, and introduced by Banks to King George III, and the Prince Regent, who was to become a Grand Master. He was encouraged by Banks and the Admiralty to write down the details of his voyage, which he did in a volume entitled A Voyage to Terra Australis. In it, Flinders produced a map of the outline of the land he had been sent to explore. He wrote: ‘Had I permitted myself any innovation of the original term, it would have been to convert it into Australia; as being more agreeable on the ear and an assimilation to the other great portions of the earth.’

First to use the name

Australian documents indicate that Flinders was the first to use that name, having written it in a letter to his brother in 1804. After his map was printed and released in 1814 with this new designation emblazoned upon it, the name slowly became accepted to such a degree that, a few decades later, when the first Governor General was appointed, the name was attached to his rank. 

Researchers have noted that in Flinders’ diaries, detailed after his return to England, there are several entries, at regular monthly intervals, stating that he was attending a meeting – but nothing else to disclose their purpose. There’s little doubt that these were to attend a lodge. According to the archives of the Grand Lodge of New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory, Flinders was initiated into Friendly Cultivator Lodge while held on Mauritius. His journal entries for July 1807, 1808 and 1809 note that he celebrated ‘the fete of St John at the Freemasons Lodge established there’. 

Matthew Flinders died on 19 July 1814, aged forty years, from an illness he was believed to have contracted while imprisoned. He’s buried in what was once a large cemetery, but it has now been converted into a public park, close to London’s Euston Station. The headstone marking Flinders’ grave has also disappeared. He’s immortalised in England, along with other seamen, in a stained-glass window in Lincoln Cathedral, and in Australia by elegant statues in Sydney and Melbourne.