When peace briefly erupted between England and France in March 1802, Matthew Flinders was sailing east along the “Unknown Coast” of southern Australia in the sloop HMS Investigator, making maps. He was 28 years old, lithe in build, commanding in presence, bright-eyed, alert to the welfare of his crew and intensely competitive.
It was five months since the Investigator had sighted another ship and when, in the late afternoon of 8 April, the man aloft spotted a sail, a feeling of excitement swept the ship. A French discovery expedition was believed to be somewhere in southern waters, protected by a safe-conduct pass but until the identity and intentions of the approaching corvette were known, Flinders took no chances. He ran up the Union Jack and cleared for action.
La Geographie was sailing west, charting the Victorian coast and collecting scientific specimens. She’d become separated from her companion, Le Naturaliste, and her crew were piteous with scurvy. Her commander, Nicolas Baudin, showed a white flag and invited Captain “Flandaire” to come aboard.
Baudin was 20 years older than Flinders, a navigator of note who had won fame for his botanical expeditions in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Bagged by his social superiors as a mere butterfly chaser, he was sent by Napoleon to explore the coasts of New Holland – and collect interesting souvenirs for Josephine. He was affable, uninspiring and not a well man.
Flinders did not speak French and Baudin’s English was very bad. Even with the Investigator’s naturalist translating, misunderstandings flew thick and fast. Baudin was somewhat starstruck, enthusiastic to the point of excitement. Flinders was formal and reserved. Once in Baudin’s cabin, he immediately asked to see the Frenchman’s safe-conduct pass and offered his own for inspection. Baudin showed his but didn’t even glance at Flinders’. When the conversation turned to the two men’s voyages, Baudin criticised the English map of Bass Strait, a chart Flinders had drawn up. Flinders concluded that Baudin had got his name wrong and didn’t know who he was. He offered to provide a copy of a rectified chart if Baudin cared to remain in the vicinity overnight.
At six the next morning, Flinders rowed back to La Geographie with the promised map. He also recommended Kangaroo Island as a good spot for a feed. The two parted cordially, one sailing west, the other south, and never met again.
Although he named nothing after himself, Matthew Flinders has become an island, a mountain range, at least four statues, a university, a national park, several streets and a girls’ secondary college. Nicolas Baudin should not be confused with boudin, which is a species of sausage.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription