Sidney J Baker, My Own Destroyer, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1962.
Biography, like History and Psychoanalysis is fraught with subjectivity. It is an interpretation of a meeting with people past where everything, the unconscious constraints and restraints that are part of thinking and being, differs. All that remain of these people are their letters, and photographs. Some, preserved by chance, perhaps as a result of being shoved into a drawer and forgotten turn up decades later Other remnants result from an active decision by someone to keep or destroy them. We do not know what was left out nor what was invented. Then there are myths, legends passed down generations. Small stories and events that seemed insignificant when they occurred come to be symbolic of nationhood, part of our membership of a culture. Heroes and anti-heros imbued with super-natural qualities are its totems. We make up history to suit our present proclivities and understanding. But we challenge the gods at our peril.
I think it is like that for the explorer Matthew Flinders. Australian kids learn about him in primary school. He is described as a brilliant navigator, a scientist, hydrographer, leader and respected ship’s captain. Kids learn that in 1798 together with his friend, the surgeon George Bass, Flinders established there was a strait between what was to become known as mainland Australia and the island state, Tasmania. Baker traces Flinders’s naval career after his return to England in 1793 and back to Australia in 1794 where he met George Bass and, together with him, began exploring and charting the New South Wales coastline in 1795. Between them they established that Tasmania was separated from the Australian mainland by a strait – effectively cutting sailing time for ships voyaging from England and Australia. In 1801 a year after again returning to England Flinders’s credentials were strong enough for him to be given the captaincy of the Investigator. He had recently married causing serious run in with authority when he risked his command to smuggle his wife on board – despite Admiralty policy – just before he set sail. Flinders, given the choice, sailed without his wife – a story recorded – perhaps oversensationally – in Australian author Ernestine Hill’s biographical novel, My Love Must Wait.
In 1802 at the age of 28 Flinders circumnavigated the Australian coastline in his ship the Investigator. Part of Flinders’s success was that he had beaten French survey ships also exploring the Terra Australis region. When he set out to return to England in 1803 his charts were ready for publication.His careful maps and charts were used well into the twentieth century. So great is his reputation that his imprisonment at Mauritius by the French from 1803 to 1809, delaying his return to England and his wife is difficult to explain.”A mere glitch” many biographers imply as they skate across this chapter from Flinders’s life. It was just unfortunate, they sigh, that he was a victim of the British-Franco war and an intractable French governor.
You have to be game to wonder whether this was really the case. One of his biographers, Sidney J Baker, thinks not. Perhaps this is why his 1962 biography of Flinders My Own Destroyer,mined for its facts rather than interpretation finds its way into later works and bibliographies. When Flinders landed at Mauritius in 1803 he was famed for his achievements. He was regarded as ‘brilliant, solid and trustworthy’, Baker notes. His name was known to governors and seafarers, so well known that the French Governor of Mauritius could not believe that such a personage would land on his remote shores in search of a port for urgent repairs to his ship, the Cumberland. Even if it took some time to verify Flinders’s credentials, even if the French were reluctant to release their prize, this does not explain why his imprisonment lasted as long as it did.
Sidney J Baker was a philologist and journalist. New Zealand born in 1912, Baker was well acquainted with the works of Freud, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in his younger years. Popularly renowned during the 1940s for his collections of Australian and New Zealand vernacular Baker’s interest was in the way language reflected cultural identity. For settler Australians whose migration story was but several generations long Baker showed how English had become Australianised, reflecting a developing identity based on common experience of the Australian environment. In the early 1950s he was a regular book review columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, an editor of the International Journal of Sexology and author of a number of scholarly articles on the relationship between language and psychology published in professional journals.
Baker drew on psychoanalytic theories to seek the person behind the myth. It marks a radical step in the genre. Baker’s understanding of psychoanalytic theory led him to the view that the perceptions and fantasies within one’s internal world find expression in relationships with others.It enabled him to ask a pertinent question: why was it that Flinders, who was very successful, who had ‘out-Crusoed Crusoe’ in his conviction that the ordinary middle-class life was not for him died largely forgotten at the age of forty, ill and in penury?
There is grim fascination in watching a man pull down a mountain of distress upon his head. Especially if he acts as though anguish is a fulfilment and he secretly does not wish to avoid it, unless it is too late. Especially when it seems that his whole life has moved relentlessly to a single moment when there is no longer a way out and that is what he chooses.
You will see this happen to Matthew Flinders. And you will feel that it was something that Flinders could have evaded with ease if he had wanted to. He had the skill, the knowledge, the sagacity. He had almost everything in his favour except the ability to distinguish generosity from weakness, and because of this blindness his life was destroyed.
These patterns were established early in Flinders’s life. Born in 1774 in Donington, Lincolnshire, England, he was named after his father, Matthew Flinders, a busy surgeon, a small man who had followed his own father into medicine. Flinders was expected to do likewise but his childhood reading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe directed otherwise. Like Robinson Crusoe the young Matthew Flinders clashed with his domineering father’s wishes. He aborred his father’s conservative, safe middle-classness and desire that his son follow him into medicine. Like Robinson Crusoe Flinders gained ‘a competent knowledge of the mathematics, and the rules of navigation [and] learned how to keep an account of the ship’s course, take an observation’. At fifteen he secured himself an introduction to a ship’s Captain, Captain Pasley, who found him a place on the HMS Alert when Flinders was fifteen. In 1790 Pasley took him under his own charge on the Scipio and thereafter arranged his transfer to the Bellerophon. In 1791 Flinders found another patron in Captain Bligh of Bounty fame. This voyage on HMS Providence, to the South Seas was for young Flinders, to ‘Robinson Crusoeland’. Bligh’s forceful personality provided Matthews with a father substitute, Baker says. Bligh took Flinders under his wing, providing his brilliant young protegé with opportunities to develop navigation and scientific observation skills.
And yet something went wrong. There is nothing in the records to suggest exactly what happened during his time with Bligh. In a letter written in 1806 while imprisoned at Mauritius Flinders refers to Bligh’s ‘prepossession against me…’ and so did not feel able to seek Bligh’s support for his release. At that time Bligh was governor of New South Wales, a post he held until January 1808. A second letter dated 1807 refers to Bligh’s ‘regard for me with an unfavourable eye’ (Baker,1962:7). Having antagonized his mentor, perhaps even evoked his envy, there was no return – at least in Flinders’s mind. Baker is not so sure. This seems to have been Flinders’s imagining, his fantasy. Flinders, he wrote,
had been drawn to Bligh by his commanding manner; now he felt anxiety because he had flouted it in some way. This was in essence identical with the factors that were to provide the almost intolerable burden of distress which clouded the last quarter of Flinders’s life. Knowing as we do the forthright clarity of Bligh’s opinions (even allowing plenty of leeway for his peppery disposition) we would hardly expect him to usurp credit due to Flinders for his explorations around the coast of Australia [as Flinders also suggested]. As Bligh’s biographers have pointed out he had many failings but jealousy was not one of them.
We cannot have a great deal of confidence in Flinders’s perception of Bligh’s ill will towards him. After Flinders finally returned to London Bligh took him to see the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV ‘presumably in an effort to aid him’(Baker, 1962:8).
Flinders had an uneasy, if not highly conflicted relationship with authority figures – a legacy of his relationship with his father, Baker says. During this voyage home in what turned out to be an unseaworthy ship, HMS Cumberland – the flaw in his character revealed itself. Again.
The flaw in Flinders’s character was a tendency to underestimate authority together with a rigidity of outlook that neither understood impulsive generosity nor deemed it worthy of personal pursuit. Some people who have authority exercise it with an arid inflexibility. Others are given to the luxury of warmth and second thoughts.
‘Tragedy begins by treading softly’.Baker recounts that after sailing from Port Jackson ( Sydney) to Timor one of the Cumberland’s pumps failed twenty three days out. Heading for the Cape of Good Hope Flinders realised that she would not make it unless the Cumberland was repaired. The most likely place was Mauritius, then known as the Ile de France. Flinders, not realising that there was a war between England and France put in, moored his ship and arranged to pay his respects to the French Captain General of Mauritius, Charles Decaen
Decaen, a minor official in Napoleon’s army, stationed in a rather out of the way place was conscientious in his duty to the French Empire.He hardly expected one of the stature of Flinders to land on HIS shores. He kept Flinders waiting for two hours. Flinders’s travelling documents were out of date naming the Investigator as his vessel – not the Cumberland.’ This man who called himself Matthew Flinders was an imposter, Decaen concluded. He was a spy and would not hear Flinders protestations to the contrary.
Flinders was arrested later that night, his papers confiscated and a guard placed in his room. Further questioning occurred… Decaen’s attitude, insulting of Flinders’s integrity and honesty continued. And yet, despite this, the Captain invited Flinders to dine, a gesture of impulsive generosity, Baker asserts but one which Flinders neither understood nor had a place in his character for. He interpreted it as a sign of weakness and as a man of honor refused the invitation. It was the beginning of his downfall. He rejected Decaen’s authority – as well as any possibility of finding common ground. He demanded his case be handled by the French government. The result was that Flinders remained on Mauritius for three years longer than other prisoners in Decaen’s charge. He returned to England in 1809. He was ill – and did not recover. He died in 1814.
So what happened? Psychoanalytic theory comes into its own here. Baker believed that Flinders’s early difficulties with his father provide the blueprint for interpretation.The resentment Flinders felt towards Decaen was out of proportion to the reality, Baker argues. It invoked his relationship with his father, was vexed, fraught with ambiguity and guilt. Flinders was never able to defeat his father nor find his own place in relation to him. Decaen, like Bligh, and like Flinders’s father, was small in stature. Both were in authority over Flinders. He could not find a way to negotiate. That was his downfall.