HM Sloop Investigator was a survey ship of the Royal Navy. In 1802, under the command of Matthew Flinders, she was the first ship to circumnavigate Australia.
The ship was built in Sunderland as a collier, and was named Fram when launched in 1795. She operated off the north-east coast of England before being purchased by the Royal Navy in 1798. She was then refitted with 22 guns to serve as an escort vessel, and renamed Xenophon.
At the urging of the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, the Admiralty decided to launch an expedition to map the Australian coastline, as well as further study the plant and animal life on the new colony. The Xenophon was chosen for the expedition: her former mercantile role meant that she had a small draught and ample space for supplies, making her particularly suitable for a long exploratory voyage. On the other hand, she was in relatively poor condition, and could therefore be spared from service in the war against France.
After a refit/conversion at Deptford dockyard, which included making additional cabins for scientists and space on the deck for plant specimens, she was renamed Investigator.
Deptford Royal Dockyard, 1789
On 19th January 1801, the Navy appointed Lieutenant Matthew Flinders the commander of the Investigator. He was 26 years of age when he arrived to take command on 25th January. He would later write:
The Investigator was a north-country-built ship, of three-hundred and thirty-four tons; and, in form, nearly resembled the description of a vessel recommended by Captain Cook as best calculated for voyages of discovery. She had been purchased some years before into His Majesty’s service; and having been newly coppered and repaired, was considered to be the best vessel which could, at that time, be spared for the projected voyage to Terra Australis.
Circumnavigation (6th Dec 1801 – 9th June 1803).
The Investigator set sail from Spithead for Australia on 18th July 1801, calling at the Cape of Good Hope before crossing the Indian Ocean and sighting Cape Leeuwin off South West Australia on 6th December 1801. The expedition put into King George Sound (Albany) for a month before beginning a running survey of The Great Australian Bight which stretched 2300 kilometres to Spencer Gulf. On 21st February 1802 a tragic accident occurred when a shore party which included Ships Master John Thistle, midshipman William Taylor and six seamen were lost when a boat capsized whilst attempting to return to the ship at dusk in choppy waters. No bodies were recovered. Flinders named the headland Cape Catastrophe. Proceeding into the gulf, Flinders surveyed Port Lincoln (which he named after his home county). Working eastwards Investigator next charted Kangaroo Island, Yorke Peninsula and St Vincent Gulf. On the 8th April, at Encounter Bay, a surprise meeting took place with the French corvette Géographe under Captain Nicolas Baudin, it was cordial, the Captains being unaware the Treaty of Amiens had only just been signed and both believed the two countries were still at war with one another. Sailing eastward through Bass Strait, “Investigator” visited King Island and Port Philip before arriving at Port Jackson on 9th May 1802.
Investigator spent the next ten weeks preparing and took aboard 12 new men including an aborigine named Bungaree with whom Flinders had previously sailed with on the sloop Norfolk. On 22nd July she left Port Jackson, sailing north in company with the brig Lady Nelson, (which soon proved to be crank and returned to Port Jackson). The Investigator hugged the east coast, passed through the Great Barrier Reef and transited the Torres Strait (which Flinders had previously sailed with Captain William Bligh on HMS Providence). While surveying the Gulf of Carpentaria the ship’s timbers were examined; the Deptford dockyard refit/conversion had failed to rectify and fix major faults with the ship, and as the voyage to Australia had revealed, she was in poor shape, the wood was rotting and there were serious extensive leaks. The ships carpenter reported that she would not last more than six months. Also with the forthcoming monsoon season it was doubtful she would survive the rigors of constant survey work.
Flinders sailed to the Dutch settlement in Timor hoping to find a replacement, but was unsuccessful. By now a number of the crew were unwell with numerous diseases such as dysentery and scurvy, so the survey was reluctantly cut short and the ship was forced to sail back to Port Jackson “with all possible sail, day and night”, abandoning his desire for a running survey on the north and west coasts of Australia, to undergo repairs. He did, however, complete the circumnavigation of Australia, not without lightening the ship by jettisoning two wrought-iron anchors.
The Investigator reached Port Jackson on 9th June 1803 and, on its return to Sydney, Governor Philip Gidley King requested that a survey of the vessel be carried out:
… being the state of the Investigator thus far, we think it altogether unnecessary to make any further examination; being unanimously of opinion that she is not worth repairing in any country, and that it is impossible in this country to put her in a state fit for going to sea.
Flinders left the now decommissioned Investigator as a hulk at Port Jackson and attempted to return to England as a passenger aboard HMS Porpoise.
Port Jackson, South Australia
Later years (1804 – 1872)
In 1804, Governor King of Sydney ordered a survey, which found that the Investigator could be repaired and returned to service. The work involved cutting down the front deck and re-rigging the ship, to prepare her for another voyage.
In 1805 Investigator sailed back to England, carrying Flinders’ botanist Robert Brown, and artist Ferdinand Bauer, and their collections. The ship endured several fierce storms en route but arrived safely. She continued in naval service for another few years, but was eventually sold to be broken up in November 1810, a “noble, hard-working ship which did not deserve this fate”.
Ferdinand Bauer’s drawings of the Australian Koala Phascolarctos cinereus
Robert Brown, 1855
In fact, the Investigator was not broken up, but rebuilt as a commercial sailing vessel, brig or snow rigged, and reverted to her former naval name Xenophon. As such she continued to sail extensively around the globe until putting into Geelong on 30 July 1853 during the Australian gold rushes with a cargo of timber and other goods from Liverpool. The vessel later continued on to Melbourne, where she was sold and was converted into a storage hulk. Reregistered in Melbourne in 1861 as a hulk of 367 tons, 101.5 x 28.2 x 18.9 ft. depth of hold, the last change of ownership was in 1868 and the register was closed with the comment ‘broken up’ in 1872.
A typical hulk – HMS Atlas, 1860
Crew of HMS Investigator
Astronomer, John Crosley.
Naturalist, Robert Brown.
Natural-history painter, Ferdinand Bauer.
Landscape painter, William Westall.
Their servants, 4 Gardener, Peter Good.
Miner, John Allen.
Commander, Matthew Flinders.
Lieutenants, Robert Fowler.
Samuel W. Flinders.
Master, John Thistle.
Surgeon, Hugh Bell.
Surgeon’s assistant, Robert Purdie.
Master’s mates and midshipmen Thomas Evans.William Taylor. John Franklin. Thomas Bell. Nathaniel Bell. Kennet Sinclair. Sherrard P. Lound. James Wolsey.
Boatswain, Charles Douglas. Gunner, Robert Colpits.
Carpenter, Russel Mart.
Clerk, John Olive.
All the rest un-named in A Voyage to Terra Australis, , but possibly there is a Admiralty record that names them.
Cook and mate, 2
Sailmaker and mate, 2
Master at arms, 1
Boatswain’s mates, 2
Gunner’s mate, 1
Carpenter’s mates, 2
D. crew, 2
Quarter masters, 4
Able and ordinary seamen and landsmen, 35
Marines. Serjeant, 1
Master at arms, 1
Quarter masters, 2
Cook’s mate, 1
Carpenter’s crew, 1
Deficient of complement 7
The deficiency of seven, and the two young gentlemen more than allowed, left the whole number of persons on board to be eighty eight, at the time of sailing.