Matthew Flinders memorial reception, speech by the Hon Mike Rann
Australian High Commissioner, Wednesday 24 July – Australia House
In April 2002 I was on a boat near Victor Harbor with South Australia’s then Governor, Marjorie Jackson-Nelson; with Alexander Downer and with the diplomatic representatives of Britain, France and Mauritius. On a glorious afternoon, we witnessed the arrival of four tall ships as well as the French Navy frigate Vendemiaire. Also with us that day were the descendants of two great explorers, navigators, cartographers, scientists and naturalists – Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin.
We were commemorating their extraordinary meeting, while France and Britain were at war, exactly 200 years before in those very waters which Flinders appropriately named Encounter Bay.
That ceremony helped raise awareness of the extraordinary role of Matthew Flinders in our history.
The impact of Flinders on the story of Australia is immense. Not only was he the first to circumnavigate the Great Southern Land (with an aboriginal man, Bungaree, as part of his crew) on HMS Investigator, but he also was the first to establish that Tasmania was an island.
He was the greatest force for naming our great continent ‘Australia’. If you look at the map behind me – Baudin’s map – you can see how things might have been different. South Australia is named ‘Terre Napoleon’. Kangaroo Island was named Iles Decres. Spencer Gulf was called Golfe Bonaparte and St Vincent Gulf, Golfe Josephine. Who knows South Australia might have become Australia’s Quebec!
Flinders has been honoured in Australia. Although he never used his own name to mark any of his discoveries, there are more than 100 landmarks named ‘Flinders’. From Flinders Island in the Bass Strait to Flinders Bay in Western Australia. From the Flinders Ranges in South Australia to Flinders Highway in Queensland. From Flinders Chase on Kangaroo Island to Flinders Street in Melbourne and, of course, to Flinders University in Adelaide (where I am a Professor).
Matthew Flinders died so young and painfully, aged only 40, but left his mark on our territory, our history, our science, our imagination, while playing a major role in navigating Australia’s future.
It’s time this great Englishman was properly honoured here in the country of his birth, where too few know his story.
A small but perhaps revealing example of this contrast in attitudes is the fact that following Flinders’ untimely death, the British Government did not grant his widow a pension. On hearing of this sometime later, the Colonies of New South Wales and Victoria granted Mrs Flinders a pension of £100.00 per annum. Although this was too late to benefit her, their daughter, Ann, expressed gratitude that her father’s long-neglected services were at last appreciated. The pension allowed her to educate her young son, who went on to become Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, the famed Egyptologist and archaeologist.
But it is terrific that we are here tonight to give support for a plan to erect the Matthew Flinders Memorial Statue in Euston Station. This location might sound odd but actually is most appropriate because Euston Station was partially built on the St James Chapel graveyard where Flinders’ remains were interred, apparently under what’s now platform 5!. We hope that this life size statue, which will include his beloved cat Trim, who circumnavigated Australia with him, will be unveiled in July 2014, the bicentenary of Flinders’ death.
At the Australian High Commission we are very excited about this memorial which will give Flinders a much higher visibility, being seen by tens of thousands of commuters every day. We hope this will generate a renewed curiosity about this remarkable Englishman. It will also highlight the strength of the historic and enduring links between Australia and the UK, whether its fierce rivalry in cricket to the staunchest allies when we fight side-by-side in common cause.
Matthew Flinders was one of the greatest navigators of all time. His story and his role in our story deserves much greater appreciation. I hope that people will learn something about his character as well as his achievements. An admirable man of high morals and ideals; unsparing of himself in the pursuit of his duty but with utmost concern for the welfare of his crews. He endured nine years of separation from his new bride, Ann, (who he unsuccessfully tried to smuggle on board the Investigator) many of those spent in prison in Mauritius. Importantly, he had unusual sympathy and understanding for Aboriginal people and made sincere attempts to befriend them.
Soon Arthur Phillip will be honoured with a plaque in Westminster Abbey. It is most appropriate that this other great founder of modern Australia, who helped give us the identity we cherish, should be honoured in this way.