This is the third in Dr Gillian Dooley’s series of articles on Matthew Flinders. This article is subtitled “A Personal Account of Editing Flinders’ Private Journal” and was first presented to the Encounter 2003 Conference: Baudin-Flinders: Travels, Discoveries, Encounter, University of Mauritius, 20-23 October, 2003.
At 5 P.M. the health boat came on board and I accompanied the officers on shore, with the commander of the American ship. The captain-general was at dinner and I was kept waiting until eight o’clock and then saw him. He asked in an impetuous manner why I came here in a small schooner with a passport for the Investigator, and after many other questions put with much acumen, he expressed himself unsatisfied with my answers or the business I was upon, saying that I was imposing upon him, for it was not probable that I should be here in so small a vessel.
So ended Matthew Flinders active career. He was not yet thirty on the fateful day when he called in to Ile de France to repair his ship, but he would never again command a ship or chart a coastline.
Flinders’ Private Journal, from which this quote is taken, covers the whole period from his captivity in 1803 until a few weeks before his death in July 1814, with only a couple of short intervals. In it, he records the many disappointments and frustrations, and the fewer achievements and joys, of the remainder of his life.
A lot can be learned from the Private Journal, always bearing in mind that it does not tell the whole story. It is tempting to believe that, knowing the Journal, one knows the man. Indeed, he reveals a great deal. Reading through, day by day, one can chart his course of mind without the benefit of hindsight. He continues, of course, to be bitter about his captivity and incredulous about the justice of it. He copied a letter of 21st December 1803 to the Captain General into his journal, explaining in proud and high-flown prose his appointment to and prosecution of his voyage of discovery, the history of its progress and setbacks. He goes on:
Your Excellencys obedient servant
From my confinement – Dec 21st 1803
The word ‘arrogance’ appears often in biographies of Flinders. Geoffrey Ingleton, for example, writes that during his interview with General Decaen, ‘Flinders had arrogantly and deliberately kept his hat on,’ Paul Brunton calls him ‘a man with more than a hint of arrogance and self-will,’ and even Miriam Estensen in her excellent biography claims that ‘there was in Flinders a vein of self-importance amounting at times to arrogance.’ [i] [ii] [iii]
I would prefer not to use the word ‘arrogance’. Matthew Flinders was a man of his time, a naval officer, and the code of honour for such men was of paramount importance. Whatever justification there may have been for Decaen’s treatment of Flinders, it would have been irreconcilable with his honour to behave any differently, as he reported in his journal of Tuesday December 27th, 1803:
Later, on Wednesday 8th February, he had further proof of the Governor’s displeasure:
His attitude might be called arrogance, but Flinders would never see it as anything more than his proper pride as an English gentleman.
Michael Duffy has recently published a book on pioneer Australian pastoralist John Macarthur. In it he discusses questions of honour and what it meant for men of the time to be considered gentlemen:
Macarthur [born in 1766, eight years before Flinders] was born at a time of enormous opportunity. Britain had made more progress towards democracy than almost any other nation. Its creative spirit and economy were booming thanks to the scientific and industrial revolutions and the expansion of the empire. The material and social prospects for an ambitious man of Macarthur’s background were better than they had ever been. …
The army of Georgian Britain … was one of the few means of social and sometimes financial advancement for men of middling birth. Becoming an officer automatically made such a man a gentleman and therefore, at least in theory, an equal in some ways to every man above him on the social scale. [iv]
Like Macarthur, Flinders was born in this period to a ‘middling’ family, and although he chose to become an officer in the navy rather than the army, the same considerations applied: he automatically became a ‘gentleman’. Macarthur’s code of honour took him to the lengths of fighting three duels during his lifetime. Flinders never went to these lengths, though he commented in his Journal upon a duel which was fought in Ile de France
Wednesday October 31st, 1804
Two gentlemen have been just killed here in duelling, a circumstance that rarely occurs amongst the French. They usually fight with small swords and a scratch or prick usually settles the business; but those confounded English weapons, pistols, are getting into vogue, and were used on the above occasions.
He clearly did not disapprove of duels. On the contrary, he is slightly scathing about the preference of the French to avoid killing each other. On the first anniversary of his captivity, he wrote a letter to General Decaen, and his remarks upon it in his Journal are extremely revealing:
It can be seen here that he feels he has to justify himself for failing to show proper spirit ‘as an Englishman’ – what other biographers have called ‘arrogance’. Flinders never reproached himself for his behaviour any further than this. As he had written in November 1804,
Liberty without honour would be an unbearable state. Perhaps he did not prize honour over life, but he certainly prized it over liberty. He was constantly assessing how far his parole – his word of honour – would allow him to go. Although he contemplated escape many times, he would not consider it while he considered that his parole was in force.
But he made sure he used his time as usefully as he could, in spite of his unenviable situation:
The agitation of my mind, arising from the treatment I have received in this port and being totally ignorant of the causes or consequences, has sometimes prevented me, even for days, from applying seriously to work. I must endeavour to do better, for I have yet much to write and some charts to construct.
A few days later, on 17 February he says,
18th May, and he is a little calmer. He was moved from the Café Marengo, a virtual prison, to the Garden Prison, the Maison Despaux, where he is allowed at least to walk in the garden on 31st March 1804.
One of the most interesting aspects of Flinders’ time on Ile de France was the number of close friendships he developed. Thomy Pitot became a very close friend,
Friday 10 August 1803.
Messrs. Pitots, merchants in the town dined today with Mr. Robertson and our mess. They were very agreeable and seemed interested to do him and me service. They have lent us books and music and behaved more liberally than is customary to any strangers, but especially to prisoners and Englishmen. …
Monday 20 August.
Mr. Pitot dined with me today, and I shewed him the letters which I had written to general De Caën, but which he did not much approve. This gentleman is become one of my best friends. He speaks some English and is very conversant with English books, and celebrated men. From him I learn the general opinion which the principal inhabitants of this place entertain of my situation, and which is rather gratifying.
Other close friends were Charles Baudin, an officer on Nicolas Baudin’s expedition, but no relation to the Captain, Charles Desbassyns, who married the youngest daughter of his hostess Madame D’Arifat, Labauve D’Arifat, adult son of his hostess, the neighbouring Chazal family, and many others. But it was not always easy being the only foreigner amongst these young French men. He remarked, soon after being released on parole to live in the country in August 1805, upon the conversation of three men he accompanied on a hunting party:
So far this is merely an observation on national differences, but after a few years and more familiarity, he begins to find that even his good friends can be tiresome:
Monday 7th May 1808.
My two friends [Thomy Pitot and Charles Baudin] being persuaded to pass the day, I remained also. Persecuted a little upon the subject of politics and national character. These gentlemen and most other Frenchmen that I have seen, take a great pleasure in depreciating the English character; which is ungenerous in the presence of an Englishman and a prisoner. This is done by pleasantries generally, which it is best to answer by reprisals in the same way. Each nation has its manners. The populace in England throw mud at a Frenchman passing in the street, the gentlemen in France augment the misfortune of an Englishman by searching to turn his nation into ridicule; though I have always found at the bottom, that they respected it; and I attribute this to their desire of shewing their wit, joined to a little envy and perhaps hatred, rather than to any want of consideration. After dinner, my two friends returned to town, and I to Vacouas with mixed sensations of anxiety for my poor wounded friend [Charles Baudin, who had lost an arm in a naval battle against the English], regret at parting with him, and that I cannot go at the same time, and gratitude for the interest he takes to deliver me from my bondage mixed with some displeasure at his national animosity.
On 28 May 1808 he passed the evening with Mr. Chazal, where I was handsomely treated and handsomely beaten at chess. The Chazals were close neighbours to the D’Arifats. Mrs Chazal was a gifted harpsichord player and, Flinders said, “One of the most agreeable women I have ever met with,” and she often accompanied him on his flute. But a year later, the friendship of Toussaint Chazal is wearing extremely thin:
Had a violent dispute with Chazal, who reproached the English government with injustice and inhumanity in a most prejudiced manner, and even with crimes that I shewed him it was the French and not the English government that had committed them. This is not the first instance I have seen of this gentleman’s animosity and egoism; and I think, that if there is a second person in the island who would have treated me as general De Caën has done, notwithstanding the kindness and hospitality I have personally received from Chazal, it is he who would be capable of it.
They made up soon afterwards, but although he stayed in touch with many of his Mauritius friends after his return to England, Chazal was not one of them.
Flinders’ friendship with Madame D’Arifat’s eldest daughter Delphine has been the subject of much speculation. At first, he was clearly attracted to Delphine. The family arrived at their habitation in October 1805, six weeks or so after Flinders had moved there from the Maison Despaux. On 6th November, Flinders wrote:
Perhaps wishing she had been born a man is not a particularly lover-like attitude. However, there is a flirtatious letter Flinders wrote to Delphine on New Years Day 1806, but he decided not to send it. The letter is included in Paul Brunton’s book. [v]
But later there was a falling out.
A little quarrel with my friend D. which has now kept us at some distance for five or six weeks still continues and gives me uneasiness. I was the party that had a right to be offended at what was said to me, but wished to pass it over; for which I am punished by opposition and neglect as if the case was the reverse.
There is no more than this tantalisingly general reference. There is no evidence that their friendship ever deepened into a love affair. And it is highly unlikely that this was the case. Flinders was, as I have said, a man whose notions of honour were extremely important to him. Having an affair with the daughter of his hostess would certainly not be consistent with his moral code. There have even been suggestions that Delphine bore Flinders’ child, but that he could then have continued to live as a respected member of the D’Arifat household, as he did, is unlikely in the extremely. It is perhaps too much to insist that Flinders remained faithful to his wife Ann during their whole nine years separation, but not to insist that there was no affair with Delphine.
There is a slight contradiction between his letters and his Journal at one stage. During his first weeks with the D’Arifat family, he reported:
At present I rise every morning with the sun, and go out to bathe in the river, which is tolerably cool work; afterwards I dress, and either accompany the ladies in a walk round the plantation to visit their poulaillers [hen-houses]; or read till half past seven, which is the usual breakfast time. – After breakfast, I retire to my pavilion to read and write for two or three hours; after which I take my dictionary and grammar, some paper and a book, and translate French into English, and English into French, and read French under the correction of Mesdemoiselles Delphine and Sophie; and they do the same in English to me: these last until or very near dinner time; which is at two o’clock. After dinner I read and write, or sometimes walk, and sometimes sleep until about 5 o’clock, when I join the ladies again, either in a walk, or in conversation before the house. After tea, which is usually served at half past six, we retire to the parlour for the evening, which is passed in reading French and English, in conversation, or sometimes in singing and flute playing, or sometimes at cards. At nine we sup, and at ten retire to bed; where the agreeable employments of the day often occupy so much of my thoughts as to prevent me from sleeping.
However, it is in precisely this period that he wrote to Ann,
Comparatively with my situation in this island for the first 20 months I am now very happy; and yet I often retire to the little pavilion which is my study and bed room, and with my flute in my hand and sometimes tears in my eyes I warble over the little evening song [vi] of which I sent thee a copy. Ah my beloved, then my heart overleaps the distance of half a world and wholly embraces thee. [vii]
The sincerity of his longing for Ann and home is not really ever in question. The novelty of his situation with the D’Arifat family soon wears off and at the beginning of February 1806, all he can write in his journal for three days is These days over passed sadly. I did little. By September that year, he was declining into a state of melancholy and weakness of mind, which lasted, on and off, until August 1807. In September 1806 he decided to retreat from society altogether and started to make arrangements:
At noon wrote a letter to Mad. D. informing her of the steps I had taken and entreating the continuance of her indulgence and friendship. The afternoon and evening passed in a depression of spirits inconceivable, and before supper I received an answer from Madam D. in which she requested to know what reasons she was to give to the world for my abrupt departure. The uneasiness she seemed to have, tainted with displeasure, added to my chagrin and I retired to my couch in a fever, whose increase, even to the causing my death I ardently desired: happily my servant waked me, from the town, with a packet of letters from England, which afforded me much consolation by the intelligence they contained. …
I mustered spirits enough to go to breakfast with our good family and communicated the happy intelligence I had received, and which with the soothing consolations and reasonings of Madam D. induced me to abandon my ill-omened project, demanding permission to retire to myself at such times as my spirits were too lone for society, and which she promised to me without offence. … I endeavoured by forcing myself into society to re-establish my spirits and the little portion of assurance I possess from nature, and in this and the following day Sunday 28. partly succeeded …
Weather rainy these two days. Find myself better this morning, and hope to escape the gulph which I cannot contemplate without horror…
13 October 1806.
This visit to Tamarins I had undertaken in order to enliven my spirits, and I have obtained a small portion of gaiety by it, but it does not penetrate very deep; indeed I fear the state of my mind is too much deranged for any thing but a liberation from this imprisonment to produce a radical cure: my reason is become more and more weak and the imagination more and more strong, what may be the end I fear to think.
He distracted himself as much as possible with work. He allowed himself a rather self-conscious meditation upon political philosophy, brought to mind by his observations of the geomorphology of Mauritius:
Whilst waiting for my friend, I made some reflexions upon the formation of these cascades. It appeared to me that originally there had been only one great cascade or declivity at the mouth of the valley, but that the water draining through the crevices of the rock above caused pieces to fall down, forming another cascade. The same thing happening further and further back in the course of time, has brought them to what we now find them; and it is still going on. A large mass will soon fall from the top of the grand cascade into the basin below and its height will be there by decreased. The regular progress then is, that the cascades should diminish in height and increase in number. The masses that fall, are carried to the low land or to the sea; the cut of the river, which is the valley, becomes deeper, the sides fall in and are also carried out to the sea, and thus nature proceeds in reducing all things to a level as well in the moral as the physical world. The greater the inequalities are, (the higher the mountains are above the valleys, or that kings are above other men) the more is a sudden fall or revolution to be apprehended. The steep mountains cannot retain vegetable earth on the sides, it is washed into the vallies to raise them; but those that have a more gentle slope will retain a part, and do not diminish near so fast; nor is any violent change to be apprehended from the breaking off of masses, as from the steep mountains.
From reflexion of this sort, which I pursued much further, I passed to the vicissitudes of my own life. I was born in the fens of Lincolnshire where a hill is not to be seen for many miles, at a distance from the sea, and my family unconnected with sea affairs or any kind of enterprise or ambition. After many incidents of fortune and adventure, I found myself a commander in the Royal Navy, having been charged with an arduous expedition on discovery; have visited a great variety of countries, made three times the tour of the world; find my name known in more kingdoms than that where I was born, with some degree of credit; and this moment a prisoner in a mountainous island in the Indian Ocean, lying under a cascade in a situation very romantic and interior, meditating upon the progress which nature is continually making towards a moderate degree of equality in the physical and moral worlds; and in company with a foreigner, a Frenchman, whom I call, and believe to be, my friend.
However, he was not much given to such abstractions. He was certainly not especially religious, and his politics, such as they were, were conservative. He made no comment on the morality of the slave trade, seeming to accept the status quo quite readily. There was a revealing little incident which he relates in the Journal, in October 1806:
No revolutionary sentiments there: although Flinders does not particularly approve of the practice, he refuses to interfere with something that is consistent ‘with the received usages’. He preferred to see the world as it was: his was a scientific, empirical cast of mind. While on Mauritius, he learnt the French language, and read an amazing number of books in French. He made observations on the landforms of Ile de France, on the production of indigo and the processing of maize, and later, during his fatal illness, his meticulous charting of the progress of his symptoms is heart-breakingly precise and objective.
Of all the biographers, Miriam Estensen agrees best with the Matthew Flinders I have got to know during my work on his Private Journal. In spite of her use of that word ‘arrogance’, she immediately tempers her judgement by saying, ‘he was a naval officer of his time, a time when this was an attitude virtually intrinsic to naval or military rank. … Imperious when his rightful authority was challenged, he knew his place in his particular world.’ [viii] As she says, he had ‘strong affections and loyalties,’ for both men and women. In spite of his conservatism, he had a strong romantic streak, typical of his time. He read and enjoyed novels as well as historical and scientific works. And he loved his cat, Trim.
Sunday 11 January 1806.
When not otherwise occupied, I have lately employed myself, either in correcting my narrative, of which Elder is employed making a fresh copy, – in reading Grants history of the Isle of France and making notes upon it, – or in translating into French the history of my cat Trim, which I wrote out for the purpose.
One thing to be learnt from the Private Journal is that his Biographical Tribute to the Memory of Trim was written solely for the purpose of setting himself an exercise in French translation. Trim is not otherwise mentioned in the Journal, even during the initial weeks spent confined in the Café Marengo, when, according to the Biographical Tribute, Trim ‘by his gay humour contributed to soften our strait captivity.’ [ix]
So the Journal does not give the full picture of Flinders the man. It must be read in conjunction with his letters and other writings, like Trim, and with the more official documents intended for publication like his Voyage to Terra Australis. However, it is both fascinating and revealing and an essential source for the study of the last third of his life. It shows the qualities of determination and pride which enabled him to overcome the severe temptations of self-pity and melancholy, employ his time usefully and come through his detention, gaining a maturity intensified by misfortune and tempered by the kindness of many who were formally his enemies.
i. Geoffrey Ingleton, Matthew Flinders, Navigator and Chartmaker (Guildford, UK: Genesis, 1986): 267.
ii. Paul Brunton (ed.), Matthew Finders: Personal Letters from an Extraordinary Life (Sydney: Hordern House, 2002): 10.
iii. Miriam Estensen, The Life of Matthew Flinders (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2002): 477.
iv. Michael Duffy, Man of Honour: John Macarthur – Duellist, Rebel, Founding Father (Sydney: Macmillan, 2003): 12-13.
v. Brunton (ed.), Matthew Flinders (2002): 139-141.
vi. See Anne Chittleborough, Gillian Dooley, Brenda Glover and Rick Hosking (eds), Alas, for the Pelicans! Flinders, Baudin & Beyond: Essays and Poems (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2002): 125 for details of this song.
vii. Brunton (ed.), Matthew Flinders (2002): 135.
viii. Estensen, Matthew Flinders (2002): 477.
ix. Quoted in Chittleborough et al (eds), Alas, for the Pelicans! (2002): 91.