Matthew Flinders

Celebrating the cartographer who circumnavigated Australia.

To mark the 250th birthday of Matthew Flinders, the Australian National Maritime Museum is publishing this short exclusive extract from Peter FitzSimons’ forthcoming book on the great navigator.  

Below, FitzSimons’ writes about Flinders and his attitude to Indigenous Australians. 


Hand coloured engraving of Captain Matthew Flinders

Hand coloured engraving of Captain Matthew Flinders RN


Joyce Gold, published 30 September 1814 by the Naval Chronicle Office

7 April, 1802, Kangaroo Head, the first Australians

On his own voyage up the East Coast of New Holland, as he called it, Captain Cook found the elusiveness of the “Indians” very puzzling. Rarely more than flitting figures in the distance, they seemed to have no interest in any interactions at all, no matter how much they try to entice them.

But perhaps, Captain Flinders wonders, his mighty forebear was trying too hard?

For as they proceed, the protégé of Cook’s protégé, his humble self, develops an entirely different tactic to engage them. Take this day, when calls are heard, native voices, from bodies unseen, yelling to them from dense scrubland:

“No attempt was made to follow them, for I had always found the natives of this country to avoid those who seemed anxious for communication; whereas, when left entirely alone, they would usually come down after having watched us for a few days.”[1]

Eminently sensible, this observation leads Flinders to further musing and empathy on the Indigenous caution that seems beyond his time. After all, Flinders reasons, from that perspective, the response of the natives is exactly what we white people would do.

“For what, in such case, would be the conduct of any people, ourselves for instance, were we living in a state of nature, frequently at war with our neighbours, and ignorant of the existence of any other nation? On the arrival of strangers so different in complexion and appearance to ourselves, having power to transplant themselves over, and even living upon, an element which to us was impossible, the first sensation would probably be terror, and the first movement flight.

“We should watch these extraordinary people from our retreats in the woods and rocks, and if we found ourselves sought and pursued by them, should conclude their designs to be inimical; but if, on the contrary, we saw them quietly employed in occupations which had no reference to us, curiosity would get the better of fear, and after observing them more closely, we should ourselves risk a communication. Such seemed to have been the conduct of these Australians.”[2]

“Australians?” It is the first time that the native population has been so called, and it has a certain ring to it. They are “Indians” no longer. Flinders is also sure to try and move beyond bartering and has simply left gifts for these unseen Australians: hatchets, ropes, cups and the like. Hopefully, goodwill might be purchased with these gifts, the better to benefit “succeeding visitors”[3].

[1] Matthew Flinders, Voyage To Terra Australis Vol.1, G. and W. Nichol, London, 1814, p. 146
[2] Matthew Flinders, Voyage To Terra Australis Vol.1, G. and W. Nichol, London, 1814, pp. 146-147
[3] Matthew Flinders, Voyage To Terra Australis Vol.1, G. and W. Nichol, London, 1814, pp. 146-147 

Charts of Matthew Flinders

Matthew Flinders was born on March 16 1774 in Donington, Lincolnshire, England. 

With George Bass, he confirmed Tasmania, then named Van Diemen’s land, as an island and in 1802-03, he led the first inshore circumnavigation of Australia.

Flinders is also credited as the first to use Australia as the continent’s name.  He died in London on July 19, 1814. He was 40 years old.

Peter FitzSimons’ forthcoming book on Flinders will be published by Hachette.

Find out more about Peter's books 

Footage by Craig Bender

More from the Museum

The Australian National Maritime Museum celebrates our nations's history and connection to the sea. We protect the National Maritime collection, a rich and diverse range of over 160,000 historic artefacts.

Among these objects are fascinating treasures, such as a copy of Flinders' A Voyage to Terra Australis and an array of charts based on these important surveys of Australia's coatline. 


Explore Matthew Flinders in the collection 

Map showing the island of Tasmania, printed in black ink on cream paper.

00004101 - Chart of Van Diemens Land, 1798 - 1799. Matthew Flinders, engraved by L Welsh.   


ANMM Collection

Heroes of Colonial Encounters, Helen S Tiernan, 2017

Explore this collection

ANMM Collection reproduced courtesy of Helen S Tiernan and licenced for use by the Museum. If you would like to use this image please contact the Museum at 


Paining showing Matthew Flinders, a white man with short, dark hair and a fancy blue and gold jacket
A painting showing Bungaree, and indigionus man with dark skin and hair wearing a red, european coat and holding a hat

While Matthew Flinders circumnavigated the Australian continent he was assisted by Bungaree, who acted as a type of diplomat with other First Nations people they encountered on the voyage. As a consequence Bungaree became the first known person born in the country to circumnavigate it. 

Although Bungaree became well versed in the ways of the new inhabitants and took to wearing elements of European dress, he remained very much a Kuringgai man and a respected elder amongst his people. The last years of Bungaree's life were spent in Sydney on the land now known as The Domain. He died on Wednesday 24 November 1830 and was buried at Rose Bay. 

Read more about Flinders and Bungaree

Map showing the Australian coastline, printed in black ink on cream paper.

00001899 - Chart from A voyage to Terra Australia, volume 2. Matthew Flinders, published by G and W Nicol, 1814.  


ANMM Collection