I was rather moved to read yesterday that the grave of the explorer Matthew Flinders has been discovered during the railway construction work in London. He was related to Sir John Franklin, another explorer and one whose biography Deadly Winter was my first foray into adult non-fiction. As soon as I had finished that book I was very eager to launch myself into a book about Flinders – only to discover that a brand new biography had just been released. As a consolation, I wrote a book about his father instead. During the course of my Franklin research I had made use of the accounts ledgers of Matthew Flinders senior, the explorer’s father and a ‘surgeon-apothecary and man-midwife’, no less. These proved useful because they doubled as a diary, and it was such an interesting glimpse into late eighteenth century rural life and medical practices that I decided to transcribe it. It was eventually published in two volumes as Gratefull to Providence, the title coming from a phrase he used from time to time in the diary.
Matthew Flinders may well have inspired fellow Lincolnshire man Franklin to go to sea, and certainly gave him his first opportunity as an explorer when he took him as a youth on board the Investigator on a voyage to circumnavigate and chart the coast of Australia and finally prove that it was a continent. Flinders, though, didn’t have nearly as much luck as he did talent. On the way home, he was shipwrecked and stranded on a tiny island. He made the risky journey of over 700 miles in the ship’s open boat back to Sydney to get help for his stranded crew (which included Franklin).
Setting off again, his ship had to put in at French-held Mauritius. Since Flinders had set off, war had broken out between Britain and France but he had a ‘passport’, a document recognised by European countries allowing him, as an explorer, to travel unhindered. However, the French governor decided that since his passport was made out in the name of one ship and he was now on board another, it was invalid. He was imprisoned, and spent seven years there until a British naval assault re-took the island and freed him. But by now he was not a well man. He had been suffering from an illness – probably kidney problems – for some time, and now his health began to fail. Still, he threw himself into writing a full account of his voyage, and it was because of his suggestion that the land which had been known as New Holland became Terra Australis, or Australia. It is said that the book was published virtually on the day he died, at the age of 40, and that a copy was laid beneath his hand on his death-bed.
Even in death his troubles have continued. That the grave of a great explorer should be lost from sight and its location forgotten is bad enough – now his remains are being disturbed for the building of a railway line that may prove to be an obscenely expensive white elephant. May he finally rest in peace.