- Book reviewer
- Biographies and personal histories, Book reviews, History - pre-Federation, Royal Navy, Biographies
- RAN Ships
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- March 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Indomitable Captain Matthew Flinders, Royal Navy.
By Peter Ashley.
Published by Pierhead Press, England. rrp A$22.00.
Reviewed by Dave Rickard
The author, Peter Ashley, has spent nearly four decades working in the hi-tech world of weapon system engineering and complex combat system design for ships of the Royal Navy. It may, therefore, be quite in order to ponder why would this ex-RN officer have a burning interest in an early 19thcentury English navigator who made a name for himself way over on the far side of the world. The answer lies in Ashley’s deep-seated love of ships and the sea, which began as a boy with visits to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich then grew when he frequented the docks around the Port of London. The young Ashley’s curiosity was further enhanced at school, after being taught much about the lives and adventures of great sailors like Drake, Cook, Bligh and Dampier. Here he could often be found in class, guilty of day-dreaming of distant shores and brave seafarers who chanced upon them.
This enthusiasm ultimately took Peter Ashley to the Royal Navy Museum at Portsmouth, where he currently runs the bookshop. As well, he has also found time to delve into the life and times of Matthew Flinders. Oddly enough, explorers like Baudin, Bass and Flinders were generally little known figures in England and stories of their achievements were seldom taught at school. In fact, Ashley’s awareness of Matthew Flinders came only after a chance stumbling across his statue when on a visit to Melbourne. His interest well aroused, he was subsequently given a research fellowship to study Flinders, including the spending of four months in Australia and culminating in the award of a Master’s degree in Maritime Studies from the University of Portsmouth. It was from this research that his informative little book on this remarkable British naval officer from the Lincolnshire fens sprung.
Don’t expect a day-by-day description of Flinders’ voyages of exploration here. Such narratives have been put down often enough. Ashley has gone further and examined three periods in the short life of Matthew Flinders, which serve to demonstrate his achievements as well as his misfortunes. First, there was his time in the Providence under William Bligh. Then there was his circumnavigation of the Australian continent, and finally his period of incarceration in Mauritius.
Bligh was given command of the Providence and issued orders to undertake yet another voyage to Tahiti in search of the breadfruit tree, following his infamous and uncompleted initial venture in the Bounty. It is interesting that Ashley notes on this particular occasion, Bligh made certain of a successful outcome to the voyage by taking 20 Royal Marines with him, ensuring the security he had lacked in the Bounty.
Flinders served as a midshipman under Bligh. Contrary to his Captain’s clear warnings, Ashley’s research found that Flinders ‘succumbed to the languid and sultry charms of at least one Tahitian maid,’ a mistake that would dog him for the remainder of his life, and eventually bring about his premature death.
The second section looks at Flinders as commander of the Investigator, in which he surveyed much of the Australian coast. Ashley examines in detail how the unseaworthiness of his ship was to frustrate Flinders continually during the voyage and curtailed his attempt to chart the entire coast of Terra Australis. The author’s research allows him to assess the reasons for the ship’s poor condition, right from the time it emerged from pre-voyage refit. The Investigator’s eventual condemnation spelt the beginning of the sequence of events that led to Flinders’ eventual incarceration on the Ile de France.
This unfortunate chapter in Flinders’ life is the third period covered in Ashley’s book. It demonstrates how avoidable the confrontation with General Decaen, the island’s Governor, could have been, had Flinders exercised more diplomacy and less abrasiveness. Ashley reveals how just a slight degree of tact could have avoided his detention on the island for six and a half years, until he was finally allowed to return to London to write up his journals and charts for eventual publication.
Peter Ashley’s well researched little book also contains as appendices, a chronology of Matthew Flinders’ life, details of all his ships and thumbnail sketches of key figures in Flinders’ life, as well as an extensive bibliography.
It has already been mentioned that Flinders is a little-known figure back in his home country. Upon reading Ashley’s book, it may well become apparent that there is a good deal we still have to learn of this indomitable seaman and explorer in our country as well.
The book is recommended as a `pocket’ reference work on the man behind the naming of Australia.