Having made up his mind to complete the European discovery of Australia, and with backing from the enormously influential Sir Joseph Banks, Flinders’ commission as Lieutenant-in-Command of HM Sloop Investigator to chart the ‘unknown coast’ of the Great South Land, was signed on 19 January 1801.
It is a tribute to Banks’ influence and persistence that money and effort were diverted to planning and equipping the Investigator voyage in the midst of war with France. The Investigator voyage was Banks’ project. He oversaw all the details of its preparation, he supported Flinders when difficulties arose with the Admiralty, and he chose the scientific staff who would accompany it.
Flinders was able to choose an all-volunteer crew, mainly aged between twenty and twenty-five, and was given the best of stores and navigational instruments. Eighty-eight men sailed on Investigator. The ship herself was 30 metres in length and 8.5 metres in breadth.
Samuel Flinders was second lieutenant, and his cousin, John Franklin, aged 15 (later to be lieutenant-governor of Tasmania and a famed Arctic explorer), was a midshipman. Also on board was faithful Trim – now aged four years – the first cat to circumnavigate Australia.
Investigator left Portsmouth on 18 July 1801 and the Australian continent was sighted on 6 December at Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia.
By 18 January 1802 they were at the sea edge of what would later be named the Nullarbor Plain. Immense cliffs, 90 metres in height, overshadowed the tiny Investigator, with its mainmast only 30 metres high. The land behind could not be seen. Flinders speculated that perhaps an inland sea was behind them, and this idea would beguile explorers for the next half century.
On 20 February, they anchored at an island at the entrance to what would later be named Spencer Gulf. This could be the great discovery they had been seeking: perhaps a large river, an inland sea or even a passage through to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Nine days were spent at Port Lincoln and Flinders’ chart of it would not be superseded until 1874.
Leaving Port Lincoln on 6 March, they proceeded north to see whether this body of water might lead to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Their hopes were dashed when this impressive gulf ended in a salty swamp.
Kangaroo Island, named by Flinders, was discovered on 20 March. Thirty-one kangaroos were shot on the first day, providing much needed fresh meat for steaks and soup. Their skins were made into caps for the sailors. St Vincent Gulf was next discovered and surveyed in four days.
On 8 April, a ship was sighted coming from the east. This was Le Geographe, commanded by Nicolas Baudin.
When Baudin left Le Havre, France, in October 1800, he was in charge of one of the best equipped voyages of discovery ever mounted. The aim was similar to Flinders’ – to complete the charting of Australia, as well as to investigate the people, plants, animals and minerals of this largely unexplored land.
Flinders and Baudin met on successive days on Le Geographe outside Encounter Bay, South Australia (named by Flinders to commemorate the event). These meetings have loomed larger in later retellings than they did to Flinders and Baudin at the time.
The accounts of the meetings are in fact somewhat garbled, as Flinders spoke no French and Baudin, heavily accented English. Baudin’s own journal reveals that several facts communicated to him by Flinders became distorted. Owing to the language barrier, communication was neither easy nor particularly clear.
Following the encounter with Baudin, on 26 April, the Investigator entered Port Phillip where she would remain until 3 May 1802 before sailing for refreshment at Sydney for a 10 week period. Investigator was moored near the present-day Opera House with a camp established on shore nearby. The ship was repaired and painted while Flinders worked on his charts. He was pleased with his achievements and wrote to his wife, Ann, that he was now a person of consequence.
Phil Sawyer retraces the voyages of Flinders and Baudin along the unknown coast of South Australia, and tells, with wit and intelligence, the story of those who came
….in Flinders Wake.
Watch In Flinders Wake.