Matthew Flinders was born in Lincolnshire on 16 March 1774 at the market town of Donington. He was the eldest child of Matthew Flinders, surgeon-apothecary, and his wife, Susannah (née Ward).
Two abiding concerns ran through his life. He wanted to be rich — or at least comfortable — and he wanted to be famous. His family was not wealthy and his father complained of his own lack of money and of his children’s reluctance to earn their own livings.
It was sensible for Matthew to look towards the Royal Navy as a career. The Navy promoted on merit and once on the promotional ladder, a sailor acquired a regular income and a pension scheme. There was also the opportunity of prize money, other remuneration and the chance of fame.
Flinders was taken on board Scipio in May 1790, aged 16, a little older than was usual for entry to the Navy.
Patronage of a sort had eased his way — he had been introduced to Scipio’s commander, Thomas Pasley, by his cousin. Henrietta Flinders worked in Pasley’s household as governess.
Thomas Pasley recommended Flinders to the famous William Bligh, now bathing in the glory of his heroic voyage of 1789 in Bounty’s longboat. In August 1791, Bligh was setting out on a second expedition. He was again attempting what Fletcher Christian’s mutiny had prevented – to transfer breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies as a cheap food for plantation slaves.
Flinders learnt practical navigation and chart-making under Bligh, the master seaman, but thought the captain took credit for his work.
He experienced life in some exotic locations and in Torres Strait first witnessed a hostile encounter with Indigenous peoples.
On 7 September 1793, after a two-year voyage, Flinders again joined Pasley, this time on Bellerophon. The next year he saw action against the French in the English Channel at the Battle of the Glorious First of June. It was his only experience of naval warfare.