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Tomorrow it will be the 241st birthday of the English explorer Matthew Flinders, who was the first to circumnavigate Australia.
He’s a historical figure that Australia has taken to its heart, and it’s very difficult not to find him almost immediately endearing. As a schoolboy, he read Robinsoe Crusoe and became enamoured of a desire to go to sea; apparently against all advice, he joined the navy at the age of fifteen. He never lost his love for Defoe’s novel – one of the last letters he ever wrote was to order a copy of the new edition.
Matthew first came to New South Wales in 1795, as midshipman on the Reliance, where he made a good impression as navigator and cartographer, became excellent friends with the ship’s surgeon, George Bass, and gained a black and white cat. Born on the ship, the kitten fell overboard, but was able to swim back and climb a rope to safety. Matthew saw it was intelligent with a strong survival instinct, and named it Trim after the butler in Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, because of the cat’s faithful and affectionate nature.
Flinders and Bass made expeditions to Botany Bay and up the Georges River, from Port Jackson to Lake Illawarra, and to Moreton Bay, where their arrival on Coochiemudlo Island is still celebrated each year on Flinders Day.
The daring duo were sent to find a passage from the mainland to Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land). The passage they found is named Bass Strait, and its largest island is Flinders Island. Matthew charted all the islands, and he and George Bass were the first to circumnavigate Tasmania.
Matthew’s work gained the attention of the great scientists of the day, especially Sir Joseph Banks, who convinced the Admiralty to send Flinders to chart the entire coastline of New Holland. Matthew was promoted to commander, and given a slightly dilapidated ship called the Investigator (England was at war with France, and the navy was saving the really good ships for fighting).
Flinders wed his childhood friend Ann Chappell while in England (he named Mount Chappell Island in Bass Strait after her). Newly married, but with an expedition to command where women were strictly forbidden, he tried to smuggle Ann onto the Investigator. Sir Joseph Banks found out, and put an immediate stop to it. Ann was left at home: however, Matthew was allowed take Trim on the voyage.
The circumnavigation of Australia started on Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia, and continued eastward across the Great Australian Bight. Flinders ran into French explorer Nicolas Baudin in South Australia; although hostilities had temporarily ceased between England and France, both men thought their countries were still at war, but peacefully exchanged discoveries with each other. Matthew named the place where they met Encounter Bay.
Although circumnavigation was completed, it was not possible for Matthew to chart the entire coast, due to problems with the ship. Once back in Sydney in 1803, the Investigator was judged unseaworthy, and as he was unable to continue his work, Matthew set sail again on a ship called the Porpoise, which only made it as far as the Great Barrier Reef: the place was named Wreck Reef as a result. Flinders made it across open seas back to Sydney in the ship’s cutter, and (still accompanied by Trim), took command of the Cumberland to get home.
The Cumberland was also in poor condition, and Flinders was forced to put in at the Isle de France (now called Mauritius), just three months after Nicolas Baudin had died there. War had broken out with France again a few months previously, but Matthew Flinders thought that being on an important scientific mission, having a French passport, and knowing Nicolas Baudin would afford him diplomatic immunity.
The French governor disagreed, and detained Matthew there for years, even after Napoleon told him to release Flinders. Trim, who proved such a comfort to him, disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and the heartbroken Matthew believed he had been killed and eaten by the island’s slaves (not the first brave explorer to have met this fate, if true).
Finally, Matthew returned to England in 1810, his wife having waited more than nine years to see him again. Now in very poor health after his harsh imprisonment on Mauritius, he worked on completing his atlas.
It was during his voyages that Matthew Flinders began to use the name Australia to refer to the continent he was exploring. He wasn’t the first to use the name, but previously geographers used it for the whole South Pacific region.
Sir Joseph Banks, who had been such an interfering nuisance by not letting Ann accompany her husband Matthew on the Investigator, now turned out to disapprove of the name Australia. Despite Matthew’s objections, his book came out under the title A Voyage to Terra Australis. The final proofs came to him on his death bed, but by then he was unconscious; he died the day after his book was published, having never regained consciousness.
A Voyage to Terra Australis was the first book to use the name Australia for our continent, as Matthew Flinders was sure that there was no other great landmass in the area it could apply to. With his gift for nomenclature, he noted that the name Australia was “more agreeable to the ear” than any other. His chosen name stuck, and it was Governor Lachlan Macquarie who recommended that it be officially adopted, which took place in 1824.
Amongst all the places in Australia which Matthew charted, he never named one after himself, but that has been well and truly remedied, with more than a hundred places bearing the name Flinders – from the Flinders Ranges to Flinders Bay to the suburb of Flinders in Canberra, not to mention Melbourne’s Flinder’s Street, the Flinders Highway, and Adelaide’s Flinders University. There are more statues of Matthew Flinders in Australia than of any other man, and the only person to outdo him is Queen Victoria.
Even Trim the cat has not been forgotten, as he has a bronze statue at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, while the library has a cafe named after him, and sells a wide variety of Trim-related merchandise at their gift shop. Author Bryce Courtenay wrote a novel called Matthew Flinders’ Cat, in memory of the pet that Matthew Flinders called “the best and most illustrious of his race … and best of creatures … ever the delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers”.
Matthew is the English form of Matthaios, the Greek form of the Hebrew name Matityahu, meaning “gift of Yahweh”, and almost always translated as “gift of God”.
The name became common because of the Apostle Matthew. Matthew was one of the first to join Jesus’ ministry, and is described in the New Testament as a publican. In Roman times, this meant a public contractor, who was responsible for collecting duties and taxes. It’s possible that Matthew collected the taxes of the Hebrews on King Herod’s behalf.
Publicans were very unpopular – not only because nobody likes paying taxes, but because they were seen as traitors collaborating with the Roman Empire. It’s significant that Jesus chose a publican as one of his followers, because it suggests he was actively seeking out people on the fringes of Hebrew society, and those despised by others.
The New Testament mentions a tax collector named Levi who was called to join Jesus, and it is tempting to think that Levi and Matthew were the same person, but this is never made explicit. If so, he may have been born Levi, and taken (or been given) the name Matthew to symbolise his new life.
According to Christian tradition, Matthew was the author of The Gospel of Matthew; as a publican, he would probably have been literate enough to have written it. However, most modern scholars believe that the Gospel was written later, by someone who strove to emphasise that Jesus was part of Jewish tradition. This makes it seem as if it may have been written for a Jewish Christian community, to ensure that their Jewish laws were not lost in a church that was gradually losing touch with its Hebrew roots. It’s possible such a community would have venerated Matthew as a leader of a former generation, and kept records of his teachings and stories.
Tradition says that Matthew preached to Jewish communities in Judea, before travelling through other countries of the Middle East and eastern Europe: so many conflicting countries are mentioned that one wonders if he ever left Judea at all. He is regarded as a martyr, although no specific martyrdom is given for him, and many doubt this belief. Saint Matthew is the patron of accountants, bankers, tax collectors, and public servants (all important jobs which still don’t make you very popular).
Matthew has been in use as a name since the Middle Ages, and in Ireland has been used to Anglicise the Irish name Mathúin, meaning “bear”.
Never out of common use in the post-medieval era, Matthew is a classic which has remained on the charts since Federation, and never been out of the Top 200. It was #89 in the 1900s, and left the Top 100 in the 1910s, reaching its lowest point in the 1940s at #161. It climbed steeply to re-join the Top 100 by the 1960s, and peaked in the 1980s as the #1 name of the decade. It has fallen very gradually since then, and is still in the Top 50. Currently it is #48 nationally, #41 in New South Wales, #56 in Victoria, #55 in Queensland, #35 in Western Australia, #83 in Tasmania, and #55 in the Australian Capital Territory.
Matthew is a popular name in all English-speaking countries, but most popular in Northern Ireland, where it is in the Top 10. Its popularity in Australia is very similar to that in New Zealand and England/Wales.
Matthew is not only a strong, handsome, timeless classic, it honours a man who was daring enough to follow a childhood dream, and courageous enough to sail through seas unknown. He had the determination and tenacity to see through painstaking, detailed scientific work, and endured shipwreck, starvation and attack on his voyage, as well as cruel imprisonment which shortened his life.
Most importantly, he was the man who named us – we could not be Australia without him, making Matthew one of the most Australian names possible for a boy.
(Photo shows the Matthew Flinders memorial, including his cat Trim, which was unveiled at Australia House last year, and is at Euston Station in London, above where Matthew Flinders is rumoured to be buried. Flinders University helped pay for the statue.)