Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Man behind the Map – Matthew Flinders

It is the 200th anniversary of the death of Matthew Flinders and the publication of his famous map – the birth certificate of Australia.

It looks like Britain has again used money to throw its imperial weight around once more. Britain has a history of keeping Australian artefacts, from Tasmanian Aboriginal remains to the precious cricket Ashes to the map that is considered Australia’s ‘birth certificate’.

In late 2013 two eighteenth century paintings of a kangaroo and a large dog  (dingo) commissioned after James Cook’s historic Endeavour voyage of discovery to what would become Australia were on sale in London. These paintings are the first known depictions of the Australian animals in Western art and are regarded as the basis for our Coat of Arms. However, any opportunity to secure their return to Australian was thwarted by a move involving naturalist Sir David
Kongouro from New Holland by George Stubbs
Attenborough and Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Offer, who put up about $2 million to keep the works in British hands. Kongouro from New Holland and  Portrait of a Large Dog by George Stubbs were first exhibited in 1773 and were in private hands until 2012. An export ban was in place but this expired and, without the generous donation to the Tate Gallery, Australia could have claimed back this vital piece of our past. These paintings belong in Australia as part of our national estate and our enduring heritage.

Portrait of a Large Dog by George Stubbs
Another act of paternalistic arrogance that needs challenging is the refusal of the British government to return Matthew Flinders’ original 1804 map which contains what is thought to be the first reference to the name ‘Australia’. The document which records for the first time the name of a country is an important national record for any country to possess and treasure. Just as it is important for individuals to have access to their own birth certificates so it is also for countries. These are self-affirming documents that establish who we are and where our national history begins. Quite often these national ‘birth certificates’ are created by explorers and recorded on maps.

Since 2007 the US Library of Congress has housed the original and one of the surviving copies of the 1507 Universalis cosmographiae map by cartographer Martin Waldseemüller’s which was the first to portray the New World as a separate continent, and the first to name it America, in recognition of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci whom Waldseemüller erroneously
regarded as the discoverer of the continent.

When German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel officially handed over the famous map in 2007 she referred to it as

"a wonderful token of the particularly close ties of friendship between Germany and America."
And indeed, the gesture had great symbolic weight, for the chart - then exactly 500 years old - has frequently been referred to as "America's Birth Certificate". However the map has an interesting provenance which now includes the distinguished honor of being one of the most expensive items the US Library of Congress has ever purchased.

But what of Australia’s ‘birth certificate’? The explorer Matthew Flinders was the first person to circumnavigate the Great Southern Land in 1802 and 1803. Flinders’ original 1804 map contains what is thought to be the first reference to the name ‘Australia’. This is considered our ‘birth certificate’ because it was the first time there was a map of Australia drawn up, the first time that title was used. Until then, the continent was known as Terra Australis - on the eastern side it was New South Wales, while to the west it was New Holland.

This map is a priceless part of our national heritage but until recently it was stored at the UK Hydrographic Office in Taunton, Somerset where it was accessible only by appointment. In 2013 the British Government transferred the map to the National Archives in London where at least it is more readily accessible. Australia may claim Flinders’ 1804 map to be the nation's Birth Certificate but that does not mean British authorities are going to be handing it over easily. There is currently a petition for the British Government to have Flinders’ original map gifted to Australia so it can be displayed in time for the bicentenary of Flinders’ death on 19 July 2014, the day after he published A Voyage to Terra Australis.

In 1801, Matthew Flinders was commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks to map previously uncharted regions of the ‘great south land’. After many adventures and mishaps, Flinders completed his circumnavigation of Australia in the Investigator in June 1803. On his way back to England in 1803 to publish his maps, Flinders was taken prisoner of war by the French and held on the island of Mauritius until 1810. Flinders completed his map of the continent in 1804 while languishing in prison. He titled his map: ‘Australia or Terra Australia’. This is the first known use of the name ‘Australia’ by any navigator. The imprisonment of Flinders by the French in the Indian Ocean prevented him from publishing his detailed charts of Australia before the French, who issued Louis de Freycinet’s first complete map of Australia in 1811.

Matthew Flinders arrived back in London in October 1810 in failing health, was belatedly promoted to Captain and began preparing his account of the voyage for publication.  A Voyage to Terra Australis was published by G & W Nicol on 18 July 1814, the day before his death. Flinders’ charts of Australia were considered so accurate that they were used for over a century by the British Admiralty. In 1817, Governor Macquarie, learning of Flinders’ preference for the name ‘Australia’, adopted the name Australians have come to cherish.

Earlier in 2014 the National Library of Australia held the much-anticipated exhibition, Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia, which brought together over 100 spectacular maps, atlases, globes and scientific instruments from the National Library of Australia and Australian and international lenders, including the British Library, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, the Vatican Library, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This once-in-a-lifetime exhibition coincided with the bicentenary of Flinders’ chart in 2014.

A few years ago Australian campaigners launched a petition to the British Government to bring Flinders’ 1804 map to Australia in time for the bicentenary of his death in 2014. Federal Member for Flinders, Greg Hunt has stated:

“This is the true birth certificate of our nation and deserves to be placed on public display here in Australia. A document so vital to our national heritage should not remain in obscurity. We want to work co-operatively with the British Government to have Flinders’ original map gifted to the people of Australia.”

The map has been dubbed the Elgin Marbles of Australian history. The 2,500-year-old Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, were removed from the ancient Greek Parthenon in 1811 by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador at the time.  They have been in the British Museum in London since 1817. Greece hopes one day to display the collection in the Acropolis Museum.

But what of Flinders himself? It was announced in 2013 that the first person to name the continent as ‘Australia’ was to be honoured with a life-size bronze statue on the new
concourse at Euston Station, in north London - one of Britain’s busiest train stations. The sculpture, depicting a working Matthew Flinders in action over a stylised map of Australia surrounded by the tools of his trade and his pet cat Trim, would be publicly unveiled on the 200th anniversary of his death on 19 July 2014.

In July 1814, Captain Matthew Flinders was buried at St James, Hampstead Road but later alterations to the churchyard have obliterated his grave. No parish records exist but coincidentally it is suspected his grave remains somewhere underneath what is now platform 15 at Euston train station project. The HS2 (High Speed 2) rail link between Euston and Birmingham is planned for construction between platforms 15 and 18. On 18 July 2014, the Duke of Cambridge unveiled the statue in a ceremony at
Australia House in London. But what has happened to the remains of Australia’s great cartographer? Were they resumed or just bulldozed over? If there is such a lack of care and respect then they should be returned to Australia where he is appropriately honoured.

Good luck though getting anything returned from Britain!

To sign the petition to the British Parliament – ‘Bring Home the Birth Certificate of Our Nation‘ – go to